Scenario 4: A Smaller but Tastier Pie
Depressed Economy and Stock Markets, Yet Signs of Unity, New Social Norms and Healthier Communities
By 2023, a series of structural reforms spurred by the Covid crisis have transformed much in the country. While the economic crisis is pervasive and long-lasting, a better distribution of wealth and a stronger safety net make life easier and happier for many Americans.
During the fall, both the virus and social unrest are rampant. The Biden administration has to contend with the economic fallout of the crisis, the continuing isolation caused by Covid, and increased violence from far-right extremists.
The violence, however, is quelled, and by 2021, despite the ongoing pandemic, some signs of normalcy start to appear. There’s consensus that America suffered unnecessarily high rates of infection and death, and the majority of people recognize the need for a universal health care system.
“Healthcare for All” passes in early 2021, replacing the Affordable Care Act with a single-payer system in each of the 50 states. Central to the new system is the development of networked community health centers that transform how primary healthcare is delivered and ensure that all have access to immunizations, testing, and preventative care.
Revenue from new corporate, carbon, luxury, and estate taxes helps extend the payout of unemployment benefits beyond the original 26 weeks that were the norm before the coronavirus.
The Green New Deal drives new infrastructure investments in public transit, improvement/upgrades of the electrical grid, development of innovative technologies to reduce plastics waste and to create “Relocation Opportunity Zones” to reduce crowding in urban environments.
While initially opposed by many, by late 2021, the effects of these reforms are starting to be appreciated. A more collaborative approach between the federal government and the states determines that, when the virus hits again in early 2021, the two spheres coordinate on all facets of the response, including declaring emergency response acts. Testing is readily available, and governors take charge of allocating scarce resources.
Despite the optimism of the early fall of 2020, the vaccine is not ready to be fully deployed until late 2021. In the rush to produce a vaccine quickly, laboratories cut corners, and the vaccine is not deemed to be safe and effective until more testing is conducted.
Paradoxically, the success in containing the outbreaks means that vaccines can’t be tested as easily due to a lack of a critical mass of contagion. While 2021 is a tough year, people feel safer than before, and they trust the government response. Also, social tensions and unrest decrease, and a new sense of solidarity, of “we are all in this together” emerges.
By 2022, both parties are campaigning on “American values” of justice, compassion, and freedom for all. Surprisingly, the Better Together Society legislation passes with bipartisan support. It portends a new era of smaller, yet sustainable living for all, which recognizes the continued threat of pandemics and the need to re-envision American life.
Urban and suburban planning goes into hyper-drive to decrease population density and pollution, promote responsible and more local food consumption, and add more green space and gardens. The High Line in New York and the Salesforce Park in San Francisco become models of how to repurpose and reinvent green spaces in urban environments. Large office buildings are converted to open spaces, indoor environmentally friendly farms, or repurposed as affordable housing.
A vaccine becomes available and goes into full-scale production in mid-2022, but continued shortages due to manufacturing glitches mean that only individuals over age 60 or in certain high-risk professions (teachers, caregivers for the elderly, restaurant workers, etc.) have access to the vaccine. Corona outbreaks continue to occur around the world. International travel is constrained, and global trade, particularly manufacturing, remains limited. The economy continues to suffer, and recovery runs in a stop-and-go pattern. With international trade and real wages down, however, there is an unforeseen benefit: Traditional manufacturing jobs return to the United States.
The slow rollout of a vaccine has meant that social distancing and limited gatherings remain in effect. This creates a new focus on local communities, neighborhoods and reliance on extended family and traditional community institutions – both secular and religious.
Maintaining small gatherings requires that schools, houses of worship, summer camps, and events all be smaller. These limits also necessitate new organizational models of collaboration and cooperation. Similarly, arts and culture spaces repurpose themselves as venues for online as well as in-person content and talent. In many communities there is a marked increase in volunteerism – reflecting greater empathy and sense of communal purpose.
To lower the unemployment rate, many states offer financial incentives to encourage young adults to stay in college for an extra year or two, especially if they are willing to pursue degrees in areas where there remain significant shortages – computer and environmental sciences, teaching and mental health. The unmet demand for healthcare workers spurs new taxpayer-subsidized incentives to attract people to the field, such as hardship pay, tuition assistance, loan forgiveness and housing. Telemedicine for non-emergency care is now the norm.
Many people who are able to do so continue to work remotely. The digital divide that existed pre-Covid remain severe until philanthropists, industry and the government collaborate to make high-speed Internet connections accessible to low-income and other underserved communities.
Social distancing, remote work, educational disruptions and a new gig economy generate innovative digital solutions for knowledge gathering/sharing and actual experiences. Not surprisingly, ubiquitous digital and video technology and remote service delivery in turn generate complicated new legal discussions and decisions around privacy, fake news, and online speech. The Supreme Court is set to hear a landmark case about the publishing of Zoom transcripts where the record button was visibly on, but participants were not explicitly notified. This case starts a domino effect of regulation targeting the tech industry.
Many professionals who were furloughed during the initial quarantine are not rehired into their prior positions. Instead, they become contract workers, spurring the formation of a Gig Workers Union, which is now the country’s second largest union after the NEA.
By 2023 the pace of life has slowed down – patterns of consumption and limits on travel keep people close to home, and some are even growing their own food and making their own clothing. As people have more time to think, the quest for purpose and meaning takes on new levels of importance. The hope now is that the economy will heal, albeit at a lower level of GDP than before the coronavirus hit, but can begin to add new jobs and stability to individual and family life. Yet the GDP growth is not seen as the most important goal. Policies are now oriented towards a better, not a wealthier life, and people seem to be happy with the change, preferring a slower but more equitable recovery.
Local communities have strengthened during the travel restrictions, thanks to the “buy and live local” motto. There is a widespread search for spirituality, and every religion sees many seekers, people looking for community, belonging, and meaning. At the same time, there’s a growing sense of a common destiny for all Americans, helped, in part by the new “national service law” that obliges every young person to serve the country for a year, either in the military or in community work.
In all, by 2023 we are poorer, humbler, and happier.