President Obama’s first Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, is credited with saying, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” My guess is that he said this shortly after coming into office, since in January 2009 the country was reeling from the near-collapse of the financial system and was in the midst of the Great recession.
It was no doubt that type of thinking that undergirded the financial reform legislation that recapitalized banks, established stress tests for banks, created TARP legislation, prompted the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and similar measures to strengthen what was good about the system and fix those weaknesses that had long been vulnerabilities.
Emanuel’s point has relevance on several levels, namely that we won’t fix things or address potential problem areas until we’re forced to do so. Beyond that, things that we previously thought couldn’t be addressed suddenly receive the type of energy and attention that can only be mobilized through a crisis. So yes, we shouldn’t let our current crises go to waste.
But what exactly does that look like? It is a fair question, especially since we have what appear to be multiple crises unfolding all at once. To my way of thinking, not letting our current crises go to waste is the responsibility of both the government and the governed.
The most pressing crisis at the moment is the pandemic. In order for us not to let this crisis go to waste, we need to consider how the response, both the government’s and citizen’s, has gone thus far and be honest about our shortcomings and vulnerabilities.
In the future, could the federal government play a more aggressive role in purchasing medical equipment and supplies so that states and cities aren’t competing against one another to the detriment of taxpayers? Could the government mobilize industry more quickly and efficiently to produce what can’t be purchased on the open market? I think there is a great deal of room for improvement.
As for citizens and our expectations, will we demand that those who lead us in the future gather the best scientific and medical minds available and then listen to them or will we stand by while dozens of our best minds are purged from public service or made to run for cover? We’re just as accountable.
Beyond the pandemic, there is the crisis of inequality. It’s always been there, but it wasn’t as obvious to some until they were forced to acknowledge that grocery clerks, farmworkers, and nurse’s aides were “essential,” making little money and risking their lives to get it. Will we use this crisis to address these glaring inequalities with better pay, benefits, and childcare for these essential workers?
And then there is the crisis of the jobs that won’t be coming back. The pandemic sped up what was already happening—meaning that jobs were being automated away. Will we use this crisis to get serious about a Universal Basic Income (UBI) or will we dither on about generous benefits being a “disincentive to work” in jobs that no longer exist or don’t pay enough to survive?
How about inequality in education? If nothing else, this pandemic has exposed the digital haves from the digital have-nots and we’ll soon see just how far behind certain groups of students have fallen because school has to be done virtually. Are we willing to invest in adequate access to the internet acknowledging that it’s as vital to a family’s well-being as food?
Then there is the crisis of policing and race. Acknowledging the value of police while also acknowledging the worth and dignity of people of color, will we use the crisis of George Floyd’s death and the reaction to it to make meaningful changes or will we attempt a little window dressing to make it go away?
There will changes to be sure, whether through citizen review boards, more data collection, or use of technology, to name a few. But will we seek more fundamental change like addressing how we’ve criminalized poverty, homelessness, race, and mental illness? Are we willing to exchange the “warrior” template of policing for the “public servant” model?
Never let a serious crisis go to waste—what will we do with ours?