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The Worst Is Yet to Come

For as long as I can remember, I have identified as an optimist. Like a seedling reaching toward the golden sun, I’m innately tuned to seek out the bright side.


Of course, in recent years this confidence has grown tougher to maintain. The industry I’ve long covered, technology, has lost its rebel edge, and grown monopolistic and power hungry. The economy at large echoed these trends, leaving all but the wealthiest out in the cold. All the while the entire planet veered toward uninhabitability.


And yet, for much of the last year, I remained an optimist. A re-energized Democratic Party looked poised to push for grand solutions to big problems, from health care to education to climate change. There was finally some talk about reining in monopolies and creating a fairer economy. Things weren’t looking good, exactly, but if you squinted hard, you could just make out a sunnier future.



Now all that seems lost. The coronavirus and our disastrous national response to it has smashed optimists like me in the head. If there is a silver lining, we’ll have to work hard to find it.


To do that, we should spend more time considering the real possibility that every problem we face will get much worse than we ever imagined. The coronavirus is like a heat-seeking missile designed to frustrate progress in almost every corner of society, from politics to the economy to the environment.


The only way to avoid the worst fate might be to dwell on it. To forestall doom, it’s time to go full doomer.


Why so glum? It is not just that nearly 92,000 Americans are dead and tens of millions are unemployed. It’s not just that our federal government has been asleep, with Congress unable or unwilling to push a disaster-response bill on anything like the scale this crisis demands, and an inept president unable to muster much greater sympathy than, “It’s too bad.” It’s not only that global cooperation is in tatters when we need it most.


It is all these things and something more fundamental: a startling lack of leadership on identifying the worst consequences of this crisis and marshaling a united front against them. Indeed, division and chaos might now be the permanent order of the day.


In a book published more than a decade ago, I argued that the internet might lead to a choose-your-own-facts world in which different segments of society believe in different versions of reality. The Trump era, and now the coronavirus, has confirmed this grim prediction.


That’s because the pandemic actually has created different political realities. The coronavirus has hit dense, racially diverse Democratic urban strongholds like New York much harder than sparsely populated rural areas, which lean strongly to the G.O.P. That divergent impact — with help from the president and his acolytes — is feeding a dangerous partisan split about the nature of the virus itself.


Consider the emerging culture war about wearing masks or about whether to take certain unproven therapies. Look at the protests over whether it’s safe to reopen. Now play these divisions forward. As The Times’s Kevin Roose wrote last week, when a vaccine does emerge, what if many Americans, fed on anti-vax rumors, simply refuse to take it?

想想正在兴起的关于戴口罩,或者是否接受某些未经证实的疗法的文化战争吧。看看关于重新开放社会是否安全的抗议吧。现在,让这些分歧更进一步。正如《纽约时报》的凯文·鲁斯(Kevin Roose)上周所写的那样,当疫苗出现时,如果许多美国人受到反疫苗传言的影响,干脆拒绝接种会怎样?

The virus’s economic effects will only create further inequality and division. Google, Facebook, Amazon and other behemoths will not only survive, they look poised to emerge stronger than ever. Most of their competition — not just small businesses but many of America’s physical retailers and their millions of employees — could be decimated.


Worst of all, it’s possible that the pain of this crisis might not fully register in broad economic indicators , especially if, as happened after the 2008 recession, we see a long, slow recovery that benefits mainly the wealthy. There are already signs that this is happening: Thousands died, millions lost their jobs, but stock indexes are rebounding.


The economic impacts feed into the political ones: The virus-induced recession could further destroy the news industry and dramatically reduce the number of working journalists in the country, our last defense against misinformation.


Even worse, the virus is making a hash of emerging solutions to entrenched problems. As The Times’s Conor Dougherty chronicled in “Golden Gates,” his recent book on America’s housing crisis, activists have lately been finding success in pushing to build more housing in restrictive regions like the San Francisco Bay Area. The virus may put such reforms on ice. And consider the grim future of public transportation after the pandemic: Will people just get back in their cars, driving everywhere they go?

更糟糕的是,病毒扰乱了解决社会痼疾的新方法。正如《纽约时报》的康纳·多尔蒂(Conor Dougherty)在他最近出版的关于美国住房危机的书《金色大门》(Golden Gates)中所写,在推动旧金山湾区等限制严格的地区建造更多住房方面,活动人士最近取得了成功。新冠病毒可能会使这种改革搁浅。再想想大流行后公共交通的黯淡前景:人们会否干脆退回他们的私家车里,自己开车去任何地方?

I called a few economists, activists and historians to discuss my growing alarm about the future. Many were less pessimistic than I am; some suggested that the virus could prompt much-needed action. The most instructive example is the Great Depression. In the 1930s, after years of inaction, reformers who came into office with Franklin D. Roosevelt were able to push through laws that improved American life for good.

我给几位经济学家、活动人士和历史学家打了电话,讨论我对未来日益加深的担忧。许多人没有我这样悲观;一些人认为,这种病毒可能会促使人们采取目前亟需的行动。最有启发性的例子是大萧条。在上世纪30年代,经历多年无所作为之后,同富兰克林·D·罗斯福(Franklin D. Roosevelt)一起上台的改革人士终于能够推动通过一些法律,永久地改善美国人的生活。

Matt Stoller, an antimonopoly scholar at the American Economic Liberties Project, a think tank, agreed that this crisis could be the jolt we need to fix American institutions. But he also noted that the United States has failed to make the best of our most recent national calamities. The 9/11 attacks pushed us into needless quagmires in the Middle East. The 2008 recession deepened inequality.

智库美国经济自由项目(American Economic Liberties Project)的反垄断学者马特·斯托尔勒(Matt Stoller)也认为,这场危机可能是我们修复美国制度所需要的震荡。但他也指出,美国未能充分利用我们最近的全国性灾难。9·11袭击在中东把我们推入了不必要的困境。2008年的衰退加深了不平等。

Let us not squander another crisis. We need to take a long, hard look at all the ways the pandemic can push this little planet of ours to further ruin — and then work like crazy, together, to stave off the coming hell.

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