EVERYTHING WILL BE up for grabs this year, or so it seems.
A vaccine might allow us to move on from the worst of the pandemic, or will it? The share of Americans who say they plan to get vaccinated against the coronavirus has increased as the public has grown more confident that the development process will deliver a safe and effective vaccine. Overall, 6 in 10 Americans say they would definitely or probably get a vaccine if one were available today, up from 51% who said this in September. Yet 21% of U.S. adults do not intend to get vaccinated and are “pretty certain” more information will not change their mind.
The Backstory: The stakes are high in 2021, but we still have a say in our future
The fact 4 in 10 still say they wouldn’t get a vaccine and 21% say they won’t change their mind is cause for concern. Meanwhile, before a remedy is widely available, we face another deadly wave of the novel coronavirus over the winter.
Knocking down the pestilence would open the possibility for economic recovery, as people feel safe traveling, shopping in stores and malls, eating at restaurants, taking cruises and returning to physical offices.
But will it? Amazon and Microsoft extended work-from-home orders for thousands of Seattle-area employees last year and might do so again. The region’s tech-heavy economy allowed about half of adults to work from home.
Nationally, the lockdown saw about 20% of entirely home-based workers in August 2020, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas (other estimates are higher).
Fear of COVID-19 might cause only a slow revival of tourism and conventions, with continued pain for the hotel, restaurant and cruise industries. Bill Gates predicted that 50% of business travel could disappear because of the efficiencies discovered during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the lockdown savaged brick-and-mortar retailers, many closing permanently. Some urban scholars wonder whether the pandemic has permanently hobbled cities. Newspapers are another casualty, closing more than 60 local newsrooms and counting.
Political polarization will make new President Joe Biden’s promise to heal and unite the country difficult to fulfill. Biden won more than 80 million votes, the most ever cast for a presidential candidate.
But Donald Trump landed nearly 74 million votes — this despite his disastrous handling of the pandemic, telling thousands of lies and breaking numerous democratic norms. Trump resisted conceding — another norm broken — and seeded a “stab in the back” myth that the election was stolen from him by voter fraud. Millions of his voters believe this, and will carry their resentments with them.
And November saw no Blue Wave. In fact, Democrats lost votes in the House and are unlikely to gain control of the Senate. That severely will hamper Biden’s agenda — no Green New Deal, expanded health care or student-loan forgiveness among it. It’s sure to anger progressives, a restive element in Biden’s fragile coalition.
The pandemic gave us no break from a truly existential danger: human-caused climate change. No progress was made, at least in the United States, aside from lower emissions from a shut-down/shut-in economy. But the coronavirus was a dress rehearsal of sorts. How would Americans and their institutions handle a large-scale emergency? The results were not encouraging.
ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, Warren G. Harding was inaugurated as president of the United States, promising a return to “normalcy” after the Great War, the 1918 influenza pandemic and the increasing overreach of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency.
The latter included the infamous “Palmer raids,” Red Scare arrests and deportations of alleged communists and anarchists led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Harding, although surrounded by grifters who would stain his time in office with scandal, helped put an end to them. He also freed socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs, imprisoned by Wilson for opposing American entry into World War I.
As for the pandemic, it killed 50 million people worldwide — the planet’s population then was about 1.5 billion — including 675,000 in the United States. It was a staggering toll, in a time before advanced drugs and ventilators. Researchers have spent decades trying to understand the unique killing power of the so-called Spanish Flu.
Importantly, the economy wasn’t shut down. The mild recession of 1918 hit, followed by the more severe downturn of 1920-21, sometimes called a depression. Yet these were caused more by the collapse of demand from the end of World War I than from the flu.
Harding’s return to normal didn’t turn out to be what the former small-town newspaper publisher probably had envisioned.
His prewar America was a country where most people lived in small towns or on farms. But the 1920s saw massive urbanization. Nor did Harding envision what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history” — the Roaring Twenties.
Pent-up demand from the war years coupled with a rising consumer culture propelled a historic spending boom by many Americans. Housing construction hit record levels.
The war also swept away many Victorian customs. The demure woman-on-a-pedestal was replaced by the liberated flapper. Women also entered the workplace in large numbers. In 1920, they gained the right to vote with the 19th Amendment.
For the first time, most Americans lived in cities. And what cities they were. Art Deco skyscrapers and other new architectural forms flowered across the country. The 27-story Northern Life Tower was Seattle’s first Art Deco jewel.
Many of these trends had been forming for years, but they roared into prominence in the 1920s. So did popular new technologies, especially radio. Henry Ford’s Model T cost only $260 in 1924 ($3,913 in today’s dollars). The Jazz Age gave flower to freedom and new forms of culture. Speakeasies were an easy workaround to Prohibition.
The time was different for Blacks. Jim Crow still ruled the South, including segregation, denial of voting rights and lynchings. An estimated 315 of these murders occurred during the ’20s, 281 of them of Blacks. In 1921 alone, 59 Blacks were lynched (and five whites).
At the same time, Blacks outside the South, with the Great Migration, enjoyed improving opportunities and living standards.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters — Americans traveled on what was the world’s finest passenger-train system — was founded in 1925. This unionized Black Pullman porter jobs, improving wages and working conditions. Founder A. Philip Randolph later was an important figure in the Civil Rights movement.
The Black Harlem Renaissance was a hallmark of the Roaring Twenties, a cultural effervescence of literature and the greatest American contribution to world music, jazz.
Harding died in 1923 and was succeeded by his vice president, Calvin Coolidge. “Silent Cal” won a term in his own right the next year. The laissez-faire economics of the decade led to the Great Depression after the stock-market crash of 1929.
But until then, a majority of Americans never had it so good. For most, the worst pandemic in modern history was a bump in the road.
Those generations were made of sterner stuff than ours. Deadly, timeless scourges such as polio, tuberculosis and smallpox were commonplace. Life expectancy was lower. The infant mortality rate has improved dramatically in the United States over the past century.
It is an inconceivable world of suffering compared with the modern risk-free world that many middle- and upper-class Americans expected — until the 2020 plague came knocking.
SEATTLE ENTERED THE new decade of 2020 as a Superstar City, thanks to the transformative years after the end of the Great Recession.
Not only did the region host two of the five Big Tech giants and high-end outposts of the others, but it enjoyed a remarkably diverse economy.
A homelessness emergency continued, although the causes were debated and social services funded by taxes generated from the roaring business boom. Politics shifted over the late 2010s from pragmatic liberalism to a more left-leaning city council. A tax on jobs for hundreds of large companies was proposed, and withdrawn, but the ambition never went away. A new tax was passed in 2020, affecting 800 big businesses in the city.
Still, Seattle ranked among the top 10 most prosperous cities in the Economic Innovation Group’s latest Distressed Communities Index. All the others were suburbs or one small city (Boise).
Importantly, Seattle benefited from the “back-to-the-city movement,” where talented, high-skilled young workers and empty-nest boomers flocked to high-quality cities. As a result, companies followed with the stimulation of the city, and serendipitous encounters among workers drove innovation. Nowhere was this more on display in South Lake Union and downtown Seattle, driven heavily, but hardly alone, by Amazon.
Then came the pandemic and the eruption of outrage from the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Peaceful protests here contained criminals who looted and vandalized downtown businesses. Nightly demonstrations and confrontations with police in Capitol Hill led to the temporary abandonment of the precinct there and establishment of the so-called CHOP (“Capitol Hill Organized Protest”).
Mayor Jenny Durkan’s hope for a “summer of love” was marked by 150 nights of protests, including some incidents of lawlessness, before police dismantled the CHOP.
With large numbers of college-educated young people and activists, Seattle was primed to be driven by concerns and anger over injustices, particularly against marginalized people. The city council’s plan to remake policing with massive cuts led to the departure of its Black police chief, Carmen Best.
All this while President Trump was endorsing violence on the right.
The pandemic, combined with looting and arson, plus rising low-level crime, inflicted permanent harm to Seattle small businesses. Also to blame: small capital cushions and failure of the federal Paycheck Protection Program and the Federal Reserve’s Main Street Lending Facility.
As of early December, 152 street-level businesses had closed downtown, many permanently. Citywide, the total was 214. The lockdown also represented heavy challenges to restaurants, hotels and cultural institutions.
During the debates of 2020, the loudest voices didn’t necessarily represent the views of all Seattleites or the city council. Twitterworld isn’t the real world.
EMC Research conducted a poll in October of 900 likely November 2021 voters in Seattle for the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association. It found 83% of respondents said business closings and job losses were a serious problem. A strong, vibrant downtown was critical to Seattle’s recovery, according to 88%. But 76% were worried about downtown’s future.
The region faces additional headwinds with Boeing’s decision to consolidate 787 production in South Carolina, leaving the huge Everett assembly plant mostly empty for the near term.
Many of these concerns aren’t limited to Seattle. Last fall, The New York Times’ Eduardo Porter asked, “What will happen to America’s urban centers when the restaurants are gone?” The question could extend to small businesses and cultural assets. And the answer isn’t pretty. It certainly wouldn’t leave the Seattle that so many of us love.
To be sure, Seattle retains its allure if housing prices are any indicator, clocking in as second-fastest rising in the country in September. Data on population change for the pandemic year are incomplete. But we’re not seeing any coronavirus-related fleeing to the hinterlands.
Meanwhile, many business leaders and economists expect superstar cities of before, including Seattle, to bounce back and continue their power in the U.S. economy. Amazon certainly thrived during the lockdown, providing essential and nonessential goods to people at home. Rebuilding the ecosystem of restaurants and small business will be difficult but not impossible.
“PREDICTION IS VERY difficult, especially if it’s about the future,” says physicist Niels Bohr.
If a vaccine is successfully deployed, our lives might begin to return to normal. A world without masks and social distancing. A return to eating out, actual shopping in stores and working in the office.
People are social creatures. It’s hard to believe we’ll permanently hide out, once it’s safe to get back to normal.
It’s possible that at least some of the injustices and lack of inclusivity highlighted by protests will be constructively addressed. And that a sane, decent president can help the nation understand that social justice isn’t a zero-sum game. It should benefit everyone.
But it’s also possible that I’m very, very wrong.
Congress could force President Biden into a ruinous austerity when large federal spending is required to overcome the damage of the shutdown.
The Supreme Court, with its Trump-picked far-right majority, might employ a new level of judicial activism to kneecap Biden initiatives on environmental protection and economic equality.
And on the left, impatient progressives might turn on the new president, filling the streets with demonstrations and putting centrist House Democrats in a bind come the 2022 elections.
And perhaps the biggest unknown is how much the internet and social media have rewired our minds. How many of us are locked into retweets, Facebook likes, Instagram posts? Combined with the trauma of the pandemic, does this have the power to change human nature?
Historian Peter Turchin has been suggesting an even bleaker future for years.
As an article in the Atlantic put it, “He [Turchin] has been warning for a decade that a few key social and political trends portend an ‘age of discord,’ civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced.”
The situation would grow worse around 2020, Turchin has said, leading to, “Havoc at the level of the late 1960s and early ’70s is the best-case scenario; all-out civil war is the worst.”
Me? I’m with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, an optimist who worries a lot. And I look forward to seeing you in happier days.
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