What Can We Expect After the Pandemic?
THE CORONA CRASH
How the Pandemic Will Change Capitalism
By Grace Blakeley
112 pp. Verso. Paper, $14.95.
The chasm between just how well some have thrived economically during the pandemic and just how badly others have fared is among the more startling results of this annus horribilis. But where some see the disease as upending some industries (travel and restaurants) and boosting others (home entertainment and technology), Blakeley, an English writer, Labour Party activist and leftist theorist, sees the have and have-not divide as the latest and perhaps most egregious chapter of the sad story of capitalism.
For Blakeley, the response to Covid is twined with the great financial crisis of 2008-9: Then, states bailed out the financial industry; now, the state is bailing out all industry to maintain the system of “monopoly capitalism.” While she acknowledges that no government could just let the system collapse, she excoriates the way that officials have become handmaidens to corporations, which have pocketed the free money of central banks while millions of individuals go further into debt. That, in turn, has led not to a desirable reversal of globalization, but to even more advantages for the “Global North” and even less latitude for the “Global South.”
The only solution, she believes, is an enormous global Green New Deal. It would be hard to find a purer iteration of the socialist critique of modern capitalism in a pandemic age. Blakeley’s passion as a polemicist notwithstanding, if you don’t share her sensibility, it’s unlikely that this book will change your mind.
LIFE AFTER COVID-19
Lessons From Past Pandemics
By Bob Gordon
200 pp. Banovallum. $22.99.
In our world of constant immediacy, it’s easy to forget that all is not new under the sun. This is the first pandemic of our lifetimes, but it is neither unique nor especially deadly compared with pandemics past.
Gordon, a Canadian author, takes us on a world tour of previous pandemics, starting with the 14th-century bubonic plague. His danse macabre continues with the 17th-century Great Plague of London and then through various typhus and cholera outbreaks in the 19th century through the Great Influenza of 1918-19.
At each point, the science and medicine of the day proved woefully inadequate. Doctors and those who passed for learned persistently misidentified the way the various diseases were transmitted. Another constant during pandemics was and is the predilection of the wealthy to flee urban areas, leaving the poor and vulnerable to cluster together and suffer the worst ravages.
Gordon is at his best in these thumbnail sketches. When he turns to the lessons of the present, he is on thinner ground and his observations about the digital transformation of industry and the work-from-home revolution become more familiar. Given the current pace of change, even an instabook can feel dated: Gordon wrote over the summer, when vaccines seemed years rather than months away and when it appeared that Covid might be the defining feature of all societies for years to come.
From Crisis to Opportunity
By Scott Galloway
256 pp. Portfolio. $25.
By now, it has become increasingly evident that the pandemic has accelerated multiple trends that were currents before Covid and have become tidal waves because of it. The shift to the digital world, already in play over the past decade, has become tectonic.
Few are better positioned to illuminate the vagaries of this transformation than Galloway, a tech entrepreneur, author and professor at New York University’s Stern School. In brisk prose and catchy illustrations, he vividly demonstrates how the largest technology companies turned the crisis of the pandemic into the market-share-grabbing opportunity of a lifetime.
Galloway neither celebrates nor decries this, though he has little patience for the homilies of Silicon Valley that all disruption is for the best; he recognizes that the pandemic makes it even harder to police the “bad behavior” of Big Tech. He also notes that one industry ripe for disruption that has resisted it until now — higher education — may finally have its day of economic reckoning. That may imperil some institutions but could well unleash a new era of education.
Galloway fears, rightly, that all of the spending and government intervention may serve only to embed dominant companies. His call for more competition in an age of tech consolidation is laudable, but even with antitrust measures now being taken, how that is to be achieved remains elusive.
THE NEW GREAT DEPRESSION
Winners and Losers in a Post-Pandemic World
By James Rickards
208 pp. Portfolio. $29.
It is now common to speak of the Covid recession, but for Rickards, a longtime financial author and stock market skeptic, the assorted policy responses to the pandemic in the United States and elsewhere have produced a new Great Depression, one that has hurt the working class disproportionately. That means the starry-eyed hope for a 2021 return to normal isn’t going to happen: “In depressions, things don’t get back to normal because there is no normal anymore.” The destruction of service industries caused by the lockdown and the rise of technologies like telemedicine and teleconferencing mean the damage to the old economy is likely to be permanent.
This is not a book to read if you want reassurance: Rickards forecasts a 30-year period of lower growth. The predilection of governments to take on huge debt and to spend, he says, will only make the recovery more sluggish. While civilizational collapse is not likely, it should not be ruled out as a possibility.
Given his longtime bearishness about financial markets, it’s not surprising that Rickards ends with an investment menu heavy on cash, commodities and gold and light on paper assets like stocks and bonds. We all tend to read crises through the lens of our prior beliefs; for Rickards, an economic system built on central banks and fiat money had been itching for a reckoning long before 2020. Gold was his answer before the crisis, and gold is the answer now. It would be comforting to think that the solutions were so elegant and simple.
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