An Inconvenient Truth (2020 Edition)

With apologies to Al Gore, a lot of inconvenient questions are being asked about the inconvenient manner in which our jobs and freedoms have been ripped from us over the past few months, a course of action that has caused a most inconvenient economic and societal train wreck.

We are just at the beginning of trying to figure out how—and why—we threw away an economy that was, only a few months ago, an unstoppable job machine in order to halt the spread of a virus that we knew over two months ago was nowhere near as deadly as first advertised.  We are left to wonder why we did not immediately make a 180 degree turn when the apocalyptic “expert” predictions did not pan out, whose agenda was served by continuing to cage us in our homes and destroy our economy, and what will be the long term consequences to our nation and our citizens due to this catastrophic governmental failure.  

Over the months and years ahead, we will continue to grope for an understanding of just what has happened.  However, an inconvenient and irrefutable truth that we cannot avoid is that a host of problems now lay before us—many of which will defy any but a grim resolution.

The financial problems now hitting the education sector are a harbinger of what is certain to be a paradigm shift of earth-shaking proportions that will affect elementary, secondary, post-secondary, graduate, and professional education for many years to come and will result in closures, cancellations, and consolidations aplenty.

K-12 education has been left to struggle to provide services to students online, and the broad consensus is that it has been a abysmal bust. Many households lack the computer technology and internet access needed to engage with the Zoom and gloom that is meant to substitute for classroom learning, and it seems many parents have simply given up trying to force their children to complete the busywork at home offered in place of the busywork at school.

It would be difficult to find a local district that is not facing the prospect of deep cuts in course offerings, extra-curricular activities, and staffing, which will leave many schools mere shadows of their former selves when they finally reopen.  Even when local K-12 schools finally reopen, they will need to deal with the possibility that many parents will, for a variety of personal and pedagogical reasons, choose to switch to homeschooling or private schools, which will be yet another fiscal stab wound for school districts already bleeding red ink.

Colleges and universities, particularly the pricey liberal arts schools selling leafy campuses and soaring columnar building at premium prices, are facing a simple and cruel choice: March or die.  Except for those few schools fortunate enough to sport multi-billion dollar endowments and wealthy, generous alumni, any difficulties with reopening for the fall semester could prove financially fatal.  Yale, Harvard, and Princeton can afford to keep their campuses closed; most other colleges and universities cannot.

Even if reopening occurs with a minimum of problems, many colleges and universities might still be sunk by students and parents who are understandably wary of the balance between price and value, which will result in a biblical plague of “gap years” tearing gaping holes in enrollments and the revenue they generate.  The haunting “dead mall” videos so popular on YouTube might soon have a new neighbor: dead college campuses.

Local and state governments, starved of tax revenues by their inane decisions to close most of their businesses in order to “protect” all Americans from a viral infection that typically affects (as viral infections typically do) the elderly and the sick, are now faced with their own simple, cruel choices: raise taxes, cut programs and services, or (even worse) do both simultaneously.  Cuts in programs and services will send state and local employees out to join huge numbers of unemployed private sector workers shafted by the misbegotten shutdowns of businesses and impact many private agencies that depend on the grants those discontinued programs provided.  The cascading effects will be a drag on already struggling local and state economies and certainly put a lot of public sector union employees on loud and angry picket lines.

Although the federal government has the ability to magic “money” into existence by either printing it or borrowing it, now that total federal debt in relation to Gross Domestic Product is at levels not seen since the Second World War, all those states and cities rattling their tin cups and begging for bailouts might be left wanting.  Having added trillions of dollars to the federal ledger in just a couple of months, the specter of monetary policy slipping the leash and unleashing some new economic horror upon Americans—whether it be inflation, deflation, stagflation, or a wave of defaults resulting in a credit freeze—is a real concern that must not be ignored.  Runaway trains are notoriously hard to control and prone to crash.

We must also reckon with the sad fact that the lockdowns, shutdowns, and free floating fears of the last few months have created their very own—and likely much worse—epidemic of mental health crises.  We are all now the abused and neglected children of a capricious, unstable, and deranged parent who has robbed us of any sense of both personal security and control over our own lives.  Every American will be dealing with some degree of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that will manifest in bouts of rage, helplessness, fear, panic, withdrawal, and depression.  

How bad can the PTSD caused by isolation, loss, and terror be?  If I had been told just a few months ago that Americans would be hanging a state’s governor in effigy, physically attacking one another in public, routinely entering government offices to threaten officials, or taking their own lives in numbers never before seen, I would have thought it to be either foolish or delusional, but this is the new “normal” of our grievously afflicted nation and its people.

Even if every aspect of our lives could be magically restored to a time before we had ever heard of Coronavirus, the aftereffects of the stupendous governmental overreaction and overreach that has scrambled all of our lives will be both long-lasting and unpredictable, and many will have both their joys and hopes sharply attenuated for a lifetime to come.  This will be the long term legacy of a crisis that could have—and should have—been avoided.

It’s all terribly inconvenient, isn’t it?

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