Jeremi sits down with Adam Tooze to discuss the affects of Coronavirus on the global and U.S. economy.
Zachary sets the scene with his poem, “Fallen”.
Adam Tooze is the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of History at Columbia University. He is a leading economic historian and expert on the contemporary global economy. He is the author of numerous prize-winning book: Statistics and the German State 1900-1945: The Making of Modern Economic Knowledge (2001), Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (2006), The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 (2014), and Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (2018). Tooze frequently comments on current affairs for the Guardian, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among other publications. You can follow him on Twitter: @adam_tooze.
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Dr. Jeremi Suri: Welcome to our new episode of This is Democracy. Today, we are talking to one of the leading economic historians in the world today and an expert on contemporary economic pathologies if I might say an expert on economic crashes, my friend Adam Tooze. Adam is the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of History at Columbia University. He’s the author of a number of books that all of my students are familiar with. Wages of Destruction, which is one of my all-time favorites, The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, a book that actually highlights Nazi concerns about American economic competitiveness on the eve of World War II. He’s also written, The Deluge: The Great War, and the Remaking of the Global Order, Crashed his most recent book, How a Decade of Financial Crisis Changed the World, and then an older book, Statistics and the German State, 1900-1945. Most recently, Adam has been publishing prolifically, putting me to shame, publishing in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, on issues related to the current economic crisis. Adam, thanks for taking the time away from your writing to talk to us.
Adam Tooze: Thanks for having me on the show.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Before we turn to Adam, we have, of course, Zachary series, scene-setting poem. Zachary, what’s the title of your poem today?
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Fallen. Well, let’s hear it.
Zachary: Fallen. We’re all waiting on the edge of a ravine, we’re all staring into some vision of future doom. We’re all waiting on the edge of a ravine, six feet apart trying to cover our mouths when we cough. We’re all falling off some Everest-like peak in the timeline of history, all sleeping in the same dream-like state, and all that was true is wrong and everything that was false is now some cruel reproach for those who can even remember anything else. There was never a time like this before, never have we fallen so gloriously together down the dark ravine of economic forecasts like downhill headlights trying to eliminate the bends of a steep mountain road. As if some bitter recollection of the prosperity of strip malls and water slide America. We are sliding into the uncertain future of the fallen. The way the airplanes wait patiently on the tarmac fallen out of the sky, the way the restaurants are all locked and we all are in our sweatpants waiting for the hard rebuke of the ground. That is not to be a pessimist, for the grass now untrampled, the translucent leaves of the oak branches, unpolluted. It was also beautiful this afternoon walking with my neighbors along the empty streets.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Zachary, the last stanza reminds me a bit of T. S. Eliot. Do you have that in mind?
Zachary: Yeah, a little bit.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: What is your poem about?
Zachary: My poem is really about what it’s like as a nation to find yourself really on the edge and in the middle of a major economic crisis after so many years of economic boom and in many ways, how sudden but also how dangerous it feels.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Well, that’s a perfect spot to turn to Adam. Adam, we’re historians and this podcast is about the history of democracy and its relevance for today. How can history help us to understand this moment?
Adam Tooze: Well, I think there are several different ways in which historians might help and many colleagues have put their shoulders to the wheel over the last couple of weeks. The people I know are not the people best suited to really help, who are the historians of public health, the historians of the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. They obviously have knowledge and expertise, which is immediately relevant. But I think there’s another genre of history who’ve been called upon, notably those who work on war economies.
Recently there’s been a whole slew of excellent articles that I would recommend in Foreign Policy, by Nick Molden, a former student of mine, an excellent piece in Financial Times, if you’ve got access to that site to give up to British historians and then, I think there’s also a roundup on Bloomberg. Really a lot of people have gotten engaged and quite naturally, I think in this question of what the crisis means for the necessity of mobilization, clearly we need to change the structure of production.
All of those, also make the old-verse comment, which is the one that I take up really in the Washington Post which is that history can also help us to understand the uniqueness of these crisis. I think that’s what history provides is that it helps us both to think of parallels and analogies and similarities, which may be helpful in confronting our current reality but also warns us and alerts us when something truly, radical and unprecedented occurs as did this morning with the release of the labor market numbers for the United States. It’s more than three million new people signing on for unemployment insurance in the US. This is completely unprecedented in its severity, it’s a shock like none other, it’s 10 times worse roughly speaking than what we saw in the worst months of the 2008, ‘9 crisis. Ultimately, the unemployment during the great depression of the ’30s accumulated to far more but even then, there was no month quite like the week that we’ve seen and we have more weeks to come as this closure bites.
That too is a useful role for historians is to remind us that in fact maybe something that we’re confronting is radically new, I think climate change fits in the same category of radically new problems, and to sharpen our awareness, therefore, of just how difficult our situation is, how complex it is, and how we can’t really escape. In other words, also the present that we’re in. We cannot leap back to some preferred world for which we had a solution. In a sense, [inaudible] analogies always strike me as a little bit too comforting, they almost a bit of escapism because we know how that story ended. Despite the casualties, it ended well. Our side won and it was a good war and we prevailed. The horrifying thing about our current moment is that it doesn’t have any of that clarity or certainty. Not for anyone of us individually, not for our families, our loved ones, the most vulnerable that we may know and not for us collectively.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: In most of our conversations, Adam about other policy issues on this podcast and in other settings we’re usually looking, as you said, for a historical analogy or a historical setting to give us some comfort and some comparison to move forward. You’re arguing here as you’re doing the Washington Post, that this moment is truly unprecedented. If that’s true, which I’m sure it is, what do we do with that?
Adam Tooze: Then, I think we have to start, this is what I like about that move is that then it forces you to really look at the present, the minute. There’s no point in spending a lot of time trying to look for a big broad parallels to something that happened in 1929. What you have to do ruthlessly, relentlessly is just throw yourself into the immediate present. I spent all afternoon looking back at the reports put together by the IMF, the International Monetary Fund, and the BIS, the Bank of International Settlements, that’s the club of central bankers, who last fall in October, November, December, were putting out alarming reports about the state of global debt at that moment four months ago, which now, of course, appear even more alarming in light of what’s happened in global financial markets in the last two weeks. My awareness of and so the significance of the messages that they were giving us then, it’s even more heightened if you like, by the reality of the last two weeks. I think you have then to orientate yourself immediately in the present. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some general conclusions that you can draw. It’s likely that if stock markets plunged, then investors will run to safety in something like US Treasury has gotten the debt, which are one of the safe havens. Except that, that didn’t even happen last week and the week before that. Again, that bench line of normality where we have an inverse relationship between riskier and less risky assets, that broke down, why? Because everyone was panicking. The only financial asset that anyone wanted was cash. Under those circumstances, even gold sold off, you have that, what philosophers call the dialectical relationship between thesis and synthesis, similarity and difference, oscillates backwards and forwards.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: It does seem that we’ve moved, whether consciously or not into a new deal analogy in thinking about what to do about this. The way our stimulus packages have been discussed and various other things, are you warning against that as well?
Adam Tooze: I do think it’s wrong. Yeah, I think it’s the wrong analogy because stimulus isn’t the point here and this is also why the World War II analogy is so misleading. Because in the war, of course, the point is mobilization. In a stimulus, the idea is to use government spending to create a chain reaction which dynamizes the private economy and puts people back to work and that’s the opposite of what we need.
What we’re actually trying to do is if you are induced to a medically induced coma and the economy put us on life support, knock the economy out for a period of 2-3 months and then, the purpose of the two trillion dollars and that will need to be more, that is being injected is to tie people over, to enable us to get through this without excessive scarring. The real worry when you do this in the same way as if you actually put a patient in an intensive care unit on a ventilator there is lasting damage. We are right now obsessed with getting places on ventilators. I had, unfortunately, a brother-in-law who died on a ventilator and I can tell you, that’s not a place you want to be ever, because it does permanent damage to your body. It does permanent damage to you psychologically because they put you under with opiates but you’re not actually fully unconscious. You live in a zombie-like state as your body is kept alive, it’s absolutely horrifying. That’s what we’re doing to the national economy right now. We are all looking at it our windows say, in New York, I can see businesses slowly dying in front of my eyes. The question is, can we through various means of makeshift, through credits, through government assistance, keep them alive in a diminished and weaken state, such that, say in July, they can reopen and that business will still be there?
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Is it conceivable that one could do this, what you’ve laid out, that one could in essence put the economy in a coma and then revive it from a comma to something that would look like what we thought of as a global and national economy before?
Adam Tooze: We’ve never done it before. So it’s possible, but it is a gigantic experiment. But flat-out, we’ve just never done it before. There are historical analogies to economies which are suddenly shut down, but they’re all very unattractive. So the end of communism in the Soviet Union, the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, or Imperial Japan, or the beginning of World War I, when people didn’t understand what the war was going to be about. They thought it was basically a kind of national holiday to prove US manhood. That turned out to be misunderstanding. But in the first two months of the war, there was unemployment and the financial markets sold off before they realized this was going to be a war, total mobilization. But those are our only even remote equivalences to this. There is no other moment where we have systematically employed the power of the state, and not just in one place, in one city, we’re now doing it across all of the major advanced economies to simultaneously shut them down. So it’s an astonishingly daring experiment which we’ve tumbled into.
You can see the pushback. Obviously, I find the actions of the President Trump appalling and profoundly irresponsible. But it’s easy to sympathize with. In fact, I don’t know what your household is like, but in our households, each one of us basically day-by-day struggles, and the others in the household had to help that individual who at that moment is struggling with the logic of quarantine. Yes, we have to do this. This doesn’t make any sense. Look, there are still people outside. Nevertheless, in fact, it’s a truly schizophrenics situation to find ourselves in. It’s a measure, I think, of the degeneracy of American politics right now, that it’s finding it so difficult to hold the line, which is indeed a very difficult line to tow.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: What are the likely consequences if we do not handle this crisis well, for United States global economic standing?
Adam Tooze: Well, I think the immediate consequence is that we end up in a really bad equilibrium. Game Theorists have ways of theorizing the situation that we’re in. This is a prisoner’s dilemma type problem, where if we can all cooperate to effect a massive shutdown, then the period of shutdown is short, the number of casualties is small, and the whole thing ends up looking like a success of national policy, our basic standards of political judgment and public conduct are confirmed, and it isn’t exorbitantly expensive in economic terms. That’s as it were, the good equilibrium that the South Koreans, the Taiwanese, and indeed even China look like they’re staring towards. They are now making real steps to restart their economy. Unfortunately, what we have in the West is, as it were, the degenerate form of that, where we oscillate back and forth. We want to get to the restart far too soon. As a result, I think the risk is that we end up with very massive economic losses and very large casualties. How that then plays out in terms of the position of the United States economy globally is very complex. Because this is completely unfamiliar novel terrain, we will have to wait and see. For me the urgency of doing all of their writing and thinking, I’m precisely trying to accompany that with whatever resources I can.
There is extraordinary heterogeneity in the American response because at the same time as we have, as it were, the goings-on at the White House press conference every day, we have the actions of the Fed, which over the last two weeks has once again, following on from its actions in ’08 and after, demonstrated it’s completely indispensable position at the heart of the global economy. The financial economy of the world, like it or not, runs on dollars. There’s only one central bank that can provide the limited quantities of those. The Fed understands this. Despite the fact that it’s a national central bank, it understands that it has a global world. Very quickly this time, it reacted to the crisis by opening up liquidity provision, dollar provision to central banks in other countries. That is showing effects. It’s probably not going to be enough. It have to be very much more complex safety that’s put in place for the emerging markets and developing economies, which are only beginning now to stumble into the depths of the crisis. But the Fed is acting. So there’s a real lack of coherence really about America’s position in this crisis, which I would argue has been characteristic of America’s position.
Well, you could go all the way back, Jeremi, kindly cited my book about World War I. You could go back really to the beginning of America’s entry into World Affairs. It’s difficult for America to concert, if you like, the different facets of the American power and American politics around presenting a coherent face in a coherent policy towards the outside, there are high points in which it manages to do this. The Marshall Plan being the most obvious one, but we’re in a low point right now.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Right. I was going to say, Adam, it certainly sounded like you were echoing much of your early work on the disorganization and incoherence of American policy in the early 20th century, and maybe this is something that’s symptomatic of the way American political economy operates. I wanted to ask you more about the Fed because I’ve been trying to understand this as well. It does seem to me the historical analogy the Fed is operating with is from 2007-2008, and it appears they’re trying to do what they did then and more. What are the limits of what they can do? How much quantitative easing is possible? How much liquidity can they put into the market?
Adam Tooze: We got 99 problems, but that ain’t one. That really isn’t the thing to worry about. The Fed can do as much as it likes. There is extraordinary demand right now for dollars in the world. There is extraordinary demand for US Treasuries as a safe asset. There were blips in the Treasury market, which were very unprecedented. But that’s the sign of the fact that what people really, really want to use dollar. In other words, basically just cash accounts with the Fed would do them just fine. So there really is no limit to what the Fed can do in that respect. That doesn’t need to be our concerned. I think the real question is, can the Fed reach and should the federal reach all of the nooks and crannies of the credit system, both within the United States and outside?
You got you folks who are in Texas. One of the absolutely the hardest hit sectors, for better or worse, is going to be the energy sector, the oil sands, the shale industry, which is, as environmental critics will tell you, basically a kind of a child of QE, a child of Federal Reserve Low Interest Rate policy. Obviously, it’s a technological innovation of very considerable significance. The real achievements of the fracking industry, undeniable. But financially, it would not be possible without it extremely mild, shall we say, monetary policy environment. In other words, very low interest rates, very easy credit. In a situation like this where credit is getting tight for private borrowers and where there is a huge loss of confidence and commodity prices globally in this part the oil price of collapse. That sectors in real trouble. It’s not clear really whether the Fed is able or willing to devise instruments to protect what’s called high yield, or in colloquial term, junk corporate borrowing. Junk isn’t quite as bad as it sounds. It just meaning corporate debt, which is not Coca-Cola, or Intel, or Google. Triple A rated bomb proof gold plated corporates. Everyone else is in the so-called high yield or junk category, including lots and lots of brand names you’re familiar with. The entire hotel industry, even in a good year, is in that category, as is much of the world cutting independent oil industry.
The Fed has, as it were, legal limitations on the kinds of risks that it’s really able to take on behalf of the American taxpayer. That doesn’t generally include, and what it doesn’t generally include buying investment-grade corporate debts, but they’ve found a way around that by creating an off-balance-sheet vehicle to make support possible for corporate debt. To go to the high-yield sector would be really difficult. Of course, the boundary between the two is not a scientifically given natural fact, it’s a judgment by ratings agencies, but surprise is whether debt is in the investment grade or in the high-yield category. There’s an awful lot of debt notionally still in investment grade. About half, in fact, of the stuff which is notionally investment grade is on the boundary, it’s BBB. So it’s just one downgrade away from dropping into a category which the Fed can’t currently support. That gives you an idea of how institutionally constrained the Fed’s action is. It can do a general credit but it can provide limitless quantities of dollars. It can pump liquidity easily into the high-end bits to the American economy. Whether it can reach the mom in pop store, the little restaurant, or even the medium size business with slightly dubious credit rating, and quite a lot of the American economy does exist on that line between life and death, that’s a very different question.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: It does seem to me, Adam, that we have reason to be skeptical just based on historical experience at the mom in pop store will will benefit from this?
Adam Tooze: Well, absolutely. The ’08-’09 was, as it were, a shocking demonstration of the way in which bailouts are biased towards the big actors. Too big to fail became a byword for that oligopolistic tendency within capitalism. It’s not just a matter of technique and technicality that it’s difficult for the Fed to reach those businesses, they’re not. In the Fed’s terms, systemically relevant would be the language that’s used. Their failure is just one tree falling in a forest. It’s not a forest fire, and so it’s easy to ignore them. But I do actually think that politics is shifted here in quite an interesting way, and the Fed is making a really determined effort to try and reach out beyond that frame. Ben Bernanke and Yellen, I didn’t know really so much about Powell, but they were affected, I think, by the force of that critique and the power of the inequality mean from 2013 onwards.
Did a lot of research on how central banks could do more provision for small businesses. I think the politics of the bailout are too quite interesting. Obviously, it’s bifurcated. There’s an element of the two trillion dollars, which is really a slush fund for the business. But then if you look at the other parts of it, they’re very heavily weighted to lower-income families, which will leave as it were the top 10 percent, many of whose jobs are also in jeopardy and in a more uncomfortable position that we might expect from previous actions by Congress. This is a genuine bargain, I think, between the Democrats on the one hand and the Republicans on the other, it’s not just a rerun of the republican tax cut of a few years ago.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Right. I guess, though, to just stay on this point for one more minute, it does seem to me that what the stimulus bill that passed the Senate shows is just as you said that there’s an argument for a more vibrant social welfare net, and there’s an argument for bailing out the big businesses, but it does still seem that small businesses have trouble getting the help they need.
Adam Tooze: Absolutely. All of the evidence that we’re getting from surveys of different types shows that they’re very fragile. They’re 4-6 weeks away from failure. You only have to live on a busy High Street in any American city to know how rapid the churn is of restaurants and stores and small business of all types, they come and go at an extraordinary pace. For them, if any of them lose six weeks, if there isn’t some comprehensive deal on rent payments and mortgage payments, in particular, I would imagine are absolutely key, then it’s going to be very difficult for many of them to survive. The data is overwhelming. Half of those businesses car really don’t have funds to enable them to tide over for more than 4-6 weeks. We’re personally affected because my wife has a small travel business, but for the fact that I have the secure income at the University, she would be in terrible trouble. She’s had to cancel all of the trips of the year. She has no means of generating any additional revenue and we’ve looked at the stimulus and it’s not obvious that a small business like that with a modest turnover has any place in that package except maybe through the small business loan facility. But like you say, it’s really quite difficult to figure out whether folks in that position would go.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Yeah. It’s been quite startling to me, Adam, just living in Austin, Texas where we’re filled with these restaurants and other small businesses that have been booming to see how quickly they go from boom to bust. It’s extraordinary.
Adam Tooze: It’s really tough. Anyone who imagines that kind of bourgeois bohemian fantasy of leaving your high pressure white collar job, but then going into running your boutique, artisanal bakery, or your lovely cafe, I think really needs to wake up and smell the coffee. Those jobs are relentlessly self exploiting. Their incredibly tough.
As an academic who used to think of himself as a workaholic, living with somebody who’s actually self-employed, and actually has a business that relies on pitching trip after trip after trip to very demanding clients, you really begin to sense what it actually takes to earn a living. In a competitive marketplace, it’s extraordinarily tough out there for those folks.
Zachary: Moving to a different note, what does this economic crisis and the fallout that we’re really beginning to see tell us about the state of globalism?
Adam Tooze: These are the big questions. I’m in two minds, and I really think it’s a bit of a Rorschach test. In the sense of, there’s a blot, and the blot is this massive shock that we’re all experiencing. There is a real tendency, I think, for people to project onto it what is in a sense already in their heads. There has been a great wave of commentary which basically consists of and now in light of corona, may I propose the thing that I’ve always proposed anyway, if you like, in op-ed after op-ed.
I’m a confirmed liberal internationalists with a cosmopolitan biography. It’s difficult for me to think outside that box. There’s nothing about this crisis which convinces me that in and of itself, it’s an argument against globalism. Though I can easily see how it might be exploited for those purposes and it’s easy to see how you could get and this is one of the reasons I’m leery of the World War II analogy because it rapidly becomes an argument for scientific talk of industrial production of medical equipment and we should all be sewing our own mouth guards. There are heroic examples of this. The checks your vicuna deserve far more credit than they’ve received for their national effort which everyone just got their sewing machine out, basically made all the masks they needed, a sole country but nevertheless impressive. But I don’t buy that necessarily.
For me, it’s an argument for intelligent globalism. It’s been an extraordinary global event in many ways. We’ve been in touch with each other, monitoring each other’s progress. If you have the life that I’ve been privileged to enjoy, then that’s the way this crisis happens to you. It’s absolutely not a national local shock, I’m affected. As it were exposed in so many different places at once in Italy, in Germany, in Britain, in France, in the United States, and several different places in the United States. For me, it becomes a drama of how we do globalism more intelligently and more safely in future. For me, the response to the crisis would be upgrade the infrastructure of globalization, do smart things that make this a safe planet so that we can go on doing much of what we’ve been doing before, which over the last 30 years has brought extraordinary benefits to huge numbers of people on the planet, not just privileged. That’s really a [inaudible] I think that should be slain and needs to be slain over and over again, though, it is also obviously created inequality. This is another dimension of this about inequality that needs to be taken extraordinarily seriously.
The most vulnerable, again, are going to be the poor, the people without insurance, the people who basically don’t appear to have access to public media or the ability to process the messages so as to get make themselves and their nearest and dearest safe. It’ll be very interesting in the aftermath to look at the social composition of those who died and those who got sick.
Because my sense being in New York is that the affluent and educated are no longer on the street. Some of them are in the Hamptons and the rest of us are frantically reading the New York Times and figuring out life strategies and trying to keep busy.
When you do venture out onto the street, that is not the population that you encounter on the street anymore. There are people begging who are extraordinarily exposed. There are little shopkeepers on corners extraordinarily exposed. There are people who are clearly isolated, elderly, and mobility devices wandering around and you just fear for their health over the next three or four weeks and the nightmare that awaits them in hospital when they end up there, where again at the frontline, they will be treated by the lower end of the medical hierarchy, which is overwhelmingly recruited as far as I can see from the images, women of color, who are in the frontlines of this struggle and dressed in garbage bags. It’s an indignity and shame on this country. That is a problem not of globalism. That’s a problem of backing up globalism with the tools of inadequate welfare state, with the intelligence of the modern public health system that actually deserves the name, and with some reserve capacity. We should do shop stockpiles.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: I agree. That’s very well said and very sensible, but it does expose one of the main contradictions or dialectics as you were referring to earlier, which is that if we are to get through this and create a more vibrant global system as you’re describing it, we need more national control in the short term because the coma that we’re going into is being enforced at the local level, not even at the national level in many ways. It’s Governor Cuomo in New York.
Adam Tooze: I think that puts the whole national paradigm in question. From that end, not only is it clearly necessary that the Fed should act globally to support the global dollar system, not only are we going to need to think extremely seriously and imaginatively about how we contain the virus, if and when we North America get to the point of having contained it here, we are going to be in the business of insuring that Mexico is a safe destination and a safe place of origin for the millions of people in our lives that have to commute back and forth between Mexico and United States. They in turn, are going to need to know that the rest of Central America is also got our zero below one.
This is not going to be a battle that we can win. It’s a classic glocalization type problem and that it has to be one simultaneously at the local level and at the global level. It has been in education as a European being here during this crisis and seeing the extraordinary significance of the governance. If you think about the role of Cuomo in New York or I don’t even know the name of the person in Kentucky, but that’s obviously a politician making a real difference to that community. Belaboring them every night, shaming people, calling people out, really driving the emergency response in it, and you just have to look at the difference to the infection rates in Tennessee next door. It’s a world apart. So again, the mobilization, yes, but I don’t necessarily see the nation as the obvious frame or the necessary one. There are moments when they have to work at that level. But beyond that, this has been overwhelmingly a problem of big cities apart from anything else.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Right. There is an element of this where it almost seems like some of the best advice at times is to ignore national leaders and focus on just institutions you’re describing.
Adam Tooze: But the same thing is happening in Brazil, where Bolsonaro is doing all this nonsense about herd immunity and the regional governors there in that vast country also are saying, “Absolutely no way. We’re not doing that.” So the big states with federal issues. What’s really amazing, I think about China looking across these examples now is the way there a nation-state actually really did succeed in containing the problem in one province. If you’re able to do that, then your options are completely different.
So that’s actually the only way in the sense of maintaining national control over the problem is to keep it localized in one region. By the time it becomes what we have in the US right now, it necessarily devolves to a multitude of crisis centers which are too remote from Washington and are fighting their huge problems. There’ll be one in San Francisco, one in New York, one in Washington State, in due course, one in Miami. The center loses control. If you want true central control of this problem, you need to achieve what the Chinese did, which was contain in Hubei, and then you can pipe in resources from all over the entire country. You can do that. If they had huge outbreaks in Shanghai and Beijing, the problem would have been a completely different beast because there’s massive regional politics in China too. So it would have been very difficult.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: That very well connects to one of the themes in our podcasts, which has been that the world we live in, is a world that’s globalized and localized, or in many ways globally decentralized.
Adam Tooze: Yeah, and then network, right, in strange ways across those decentralization.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Exactly. So we always like to close our podcast episodes, Adam, with some discussion about what citizens who are listening, especially younger citizens, what they can do. What’s your advice, not necessarily survival strategies for the short term, though those are welcome as well, but how should especially young listeners who care about the future of both the global health system as well as the global economy, what are the things they should be thinking about and doing today?
Adam Tooze: Well, I think we all know what the rules are for the period of this pandemic. We need to be patient with each other, we need to learn to live in confined circumstances, we need not to drive each other crazy. Those are are tough lessons. Beyond that, I really do think it’s a spectacular opportunity for public education. I’m a professor, I can’t help myself, I think of a crisis like this as a gigantic lesson. It’s God’s way of teaching us about epidemiology. It’s God’s way of teaching us about exponential processes.
There are other exponential processes which are also affecting us very dramatically. When we come out of this, we will be right back into the politics of climate change and the energy transition which will define the lives of that generation of younger listeners that you’re speaking about. You and I, Jeremiah, are too old really to see the climax of that problem in any real form. But anyone in their 20s, in their teens, that is the challenge of the 30-40 years ahead. So this is a good moment to think hard about the implications of those runaway processes and the extraordinary urgency of early action or timely action at least. So for me, that’s the real takeaway here is. Some of the lessons that we’re learning about what we can do in a confined and constrained way may in the end still have some relevance for that next challenge. That’s a way in which this remote podcast that we’re doing here and the communication that we can learn to enjoy in this crisis may in fact be half images of future way of life?
Dr. Jeremi Suri: Yes. I agree. Zachary, do you agree with Adam? Do you also see that for younger generation, not the old guys that Adam has labeled both he and I are being, do you see this as a topic that’s a call to action, and do you see people thinking and talking about this in your generation?
Zachary: I think that it’s definitely on the minds of all young people at this moment. I think what’s particularly poignant about it is that it affects everyone and no one can look away and say it’s not about them. I think that, as Adam said, this is really an opportunity to educate young people and old people alike about the importance of vital health infrastructure and making sure that everyone has access to a healthcare network.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: What about thinking of yourself and the connections between your actions and those far away? Because that’s been at the core of this, what Adam was calling the complex system.
Zachary: I think that’s definitely been a part of it to try. But I do think that young people are still struggling with this concept. We talk about this in a class like world geography to see kids try and struggle to see how a virus originating from the beginning in China, how that’s relevant to us is a little hard. But I think that’s a real lesson for us now to see how something that started so remote from us has become something that really hurts their lives.
Adam Tooze: Do not spend another February not reading the news from China, it’s more or less aligned. I got to take away from this. I happened to be in Africa at the time, which is my only excuse. But that four-five-week period just haunts me now. It was all going home that they were having to go through everything that we’re going through here and we simply did not. Somehow the penny didn’t drop, like this was going to happen to us too. That’s the disconnect we can’t afford anymore, I think.
Dr. Jeremi Suri: I think that’s absolutely right. I fall into the same category. I kept thinking this is something that was not going to be quite as large and move quite as quickly as it did. Even though now I look back and all the evidence was in front of me, Adam, we operate in paradigms that don’t keep up with the changes around us. Well, Adam, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your insights. I hope all of our listeners will look for your work and I’m sure you’ll be writing a lot more. I hope you’ll be writing a lot more on these issues in the New York Times and Washington Post, Financial Times, Guardian, and elsewhere. Zachary, thank you for your inspiring poem. Thank you to our listeners for joining us for this episode of This is Democracy.
MALE 2: This podcast is produced by the Liberal Arts Development Studio and the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.
MALE 3: The music in this episode was written and recorded by Harrison Lunkey and you can find his music at HarrisonLunkey.com.
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