Toward Sustainable Self-Sufficiency
So this is how it happens: American global hegemony ending not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with shoppers in homemade facemasks wondering why grocery shelves are half-empty.
In the United States, shelves are always supposed to be chockful. People of Plenty is the title of a book that the noted historian David Potter published in 1954. And so we have always been in our own eyes and in the eyes of others around the world. Or so at least we and they have come to believe and expect.
Abundance, according to Potter, has “exercised a pervasive influence in the shaping of the American character.” (p. 208) It was abundance, he argued, that made freedom and democracy as practiced in the United States possible. Here was the nation’s “revolutionary message:” that in a world where scarcity had historically been the norm, abundance was achievable. "We supposed," Potter wrote, that our revelation was 'democracy revolutionizing the world,' but in reality, it was 'abundance revolutionizing the world'." (p. 134)
Now with the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, abundance has become a memory for tens of millions of Americans. The People of Plenty are sitting at home, fearful if not terrified, confused if not utterly baffled, and isolated if not altogether lonely. The wheels have seemingly come off the American Dream.
Sure, we've been here before. Before the Great Lockdown, there was the Great Recession, and several decades before that, the Great Depression, not to mention any number of prior busts and crashes. On each occasion, American capitalism proved sufficiently resilient to bounce back. If the experts are right, then in all likelihood, this will occur again. In a matter of months, stores will once more overflow with eggs, pork, canned soup, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper. With normalcy restored, we can then forget all about this whole dreadfully unhappy experience. We Americans are good at forgetting.
Yet, alternatively, we might choose to learn from what we are presently enduring.
My hope is that the Coronavirus pandemic will encourage Americans to rediscover two virtues that the onward rush toward globalized neoliberalism seemingly rendered obsolete. The first of those virtues is self-sufficiency, which implies standing on your own feet. The second is sustainability, which implies taking a long view. Together, they just might provide the basis for economic policies that will insulate the American people from further unpleasant surprises and foster their long-term wellbeing.
Proponents of globalized neoliberalism don’t care where things get made or who makes them. All they care about is price: The lowest wins.
The unwritten motto of contemporary America life is the slogan you see painted on the Wal-Mart eighteen-wheelers crowding interstate highways: “Save Money. Live Better.” Unpacked, it means: Buying lots of cheap stuff holds the key to the good life.
This describes the delusion to which the People of Plenty fell prey during the final decades of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first. Abundance became synonymous with novelty, convenience, and instant availability. Quality and lasting value became afterthoughts. With just-in-time logistics all the rage so too did stockpiles.
With the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, those chickens have come home to roost. Authorities at all levels of government discovered – whoops! -- that the United States did not have on hand and no longer possessed the ability to make critically needed items, even simple things like nasal swabs and surgical gowns. For the People of Plenty, “Quick, call China, to see if they can help” became the embarrassed response of agencies whose preference for shortsighted thrift ended up exposing Americans to great danger.
According to traditional notions of U.S. national security, items deemed essential ought to be made here at home. The Pentagon doesn’t outsource tanks, fighter planes, and submarines to foreign manufacturers – and with good reason. In the event of an emergency, we don’t want to trust this nation’s fate to others.
Rather than spending untold sums on tanks, fighter planes, and submarines to deal with prospective threats “out there,” it’s time to spend whatever it takes to keep Americans safe where they live. The threats that we face where we live – not only disease but also floods, wildfires fires, hurricanes -- pose a greater proximate danger than do Iran or Russia or even China, for that matter. Worried about terrorists? Try worrying about the cumulative effects of climate change, instead.
I am not suggesting that disarmament or autarky should henceforth form the basis of U.S. policy. I am suggesting that COVID-19 should prompt a radical revision of our understanding of what national security signifies and requires. Keeping Americans safe where they live, thereby enabling them to enjoy the freedoms promised by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is a fundamental duty of government. For a People of Plenty, further failure to fulfill that duty should be seen as intolerable.
Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.