Rethinking the world

Some useful suggestions from Aisha Ahmad on how academics should work in these unprecedented times, none more helpful than her advice to use the current moment to question our assumptions about how the world works:

In the spirit of distraction, and in addition to my never-ending series of Quayside posts, I’m going to try to use this blog to highlight interesting articles that get me thinking about everything that’s happening. I’m doing this primarily for my own education, but hopefully some of you will find it interesting or useful and not too banal or obvious.

If these entries don’t do it for you, I recommend my old university friend Giles’ blog, One-Way Mirror, where he mostly reviews science fiction and fantasy books and films. He’s a great writer.

First up is Branko Miloanovic: The Real Pandemic Danger Is Social Collapse:

“The world faces the prospect of a profound shift: a return to natural—which is to say, self-sufficient—economy. That shift is the very opposite of globalization. While globalization entails a division of labor among disparate economies, a return to natural economy means that nations would move toward self-sufficiency.”

We were already seeing moves in this direction: a renewed focus on national industrial policy, particularly as it relates to artificial intelligence and digital policy more generally (what I’ve been calling digital economic nationalism), the increasing tendency to identify tech companies by their country of origin, and the China-US cold war over tech policy and 5G. Then there’s the question of climate change, which you’d think will eventually have an effect on the viability of air transportation and international cargo shipments.

Add to that the declining relative power of the United States, the indispensable country in global governance, and you have a recipe for a shrinking world even without the novel coronavirus.

Societal collapse, warns Milanovic, is not an impossibility in the U.S., or elsewhere:

The movement to natural economy would be driven not by ordinary economic pressures but by much more fundamental concerns, namely, epidemic disease and the fear of death. Therefore, standard economic measures can only be palliative in nature: they can (and should) provide protection to people who lose their jobs and have nothing to fall back on and who frequently lack even health insurance. As such people become unable to pay their bills, they will create cascading shocks, from housing evictions to banking crises.

Even so, the human toll of the disease will be the most important cost and the one that could lead to societal disintegration. Those who are left hopeless, jobless, and without assets could easily turn against those who are better off. Already, some 30 percent of Americans have zero or negative wealth. If more people emerge from the current crisis with neither money, nor jobs, nor access to health care, and if these people become desperate and angry, such scenes as the recent escape of prisoners in Italy or the looting that followed Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 might become commonplace. If governments have to resort to using paramilitary or military forces to quell, for example, riots or attacks on property, societies could begin to disintegrate.

Canada’s position in such a world: a small country in the North American region whose world will shrink largely to the continent we share with a superpower that is working through a lot of issues at the moment. There’s a good chance that we’re about to enter a new era in Canada-US relations, if we haven’t done so already.

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