This article is part of the series Governance, in crisis.
By Adam Przeworski
Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor Emeritus
Department of Politics
New York University
Crisis, in context
A personal note to begin. During my 80 years I have lived through every kind of hell. When I was four, the entire population of Warsaw, where I was born, was expelled by the Nazis, who were systematically burning the city. Under falling bombs, my grandmother, mother, and I were marched 15 km to a transitional concentration camp, where we spent a week expecting we would all be killed. When the war ended, hunger followed. One of my greatest life achievements, at the age of eight, was when my mother discovered that she did not have enough money to take a tramway to pick up her monthly salary at the other side of Warsaw, and I found a coin which was the missing fare. I lived under communism, through the Vietnam war in the US, barely escaped Chile during the 1973 coup, and was in New York on 9/11. I thought I had lived through every conceivable misery. I never imagined that I would spend my 80th birthday cooped up with no one other than my wife, not even my daughter and granddaughter, as the world fell apart, with millions sick and thousands dying. I do not think anyone else did.
Changings our habits (and beliefs)
One reason many people nevertheless ignore the continuing warnings about social contacts is incredulity. If you believe that something is impossible – perhaps more accurately, if you never imagined something to be possible – updating beliefs and adopting actions based on updated beliefs is slow. It cannot be analyzed by standard models we use to study changing beliefs. Even if we do change our minds, as Donald Trump belatedly did, we update gradually, so unfounded optimism lingers.
we need to be forced, compelled by the State, to abandon our habits, whether or not we have changed our beliefs
Yet even if we fully realize the danger, most of our actions are based on habits, not rational decisions taken each time we are about to do something. Hence, we need to be forced, compelled by the State, to abandon our habits, whether or not we have changed our beliefs.
This experience could have long-term political consequences: if it is successful, the China model may become our future; if it fails, we may live in a state of permanent revolt.
Inequality and institutions
One reason the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, hesitated about closing schools is that about one-tenth of school kids, 114,000, are homeless and depend on the school provided lunch to eat. This is in a city in which I have overheard a conversation between two very rich people, in which one asked the other, “How many houses do you own?” with the answer “Fourteen, of which one is a family compound.”
one cannot bemoan the persistent inequality and defend the institutions that perpetuate it
This makes one wonder about “representative institutions”: whom do they represent? We see “populism” as a threat to representative institutions but there is something illogical and perhaps duplicitous in this lament: one cannot bemoan the persistent inequality and defend the institutions that perpetuate it. Had these institutions been more representative, perhaps there would be no homeless kids in New York City.
The US was seemingly unprepared for what ultimately came with COVID-19, and European countries were not much better. According to some estimates the demand for hospital beds was up to three times higher than their supply, not to speak of intensive care units. This should not be surprising and perhaps it is not irrational.
The issue is known as the “ambulance problem:” how many ambulances should a city operate? If their number is sufficient to cover the peak demand, including unprecedented events, most of them will be idle most of the time. Hence, it is rational – the argument goes – to be prepared not to have enough ambulances when a catastrophe strikes.
We are keeping tanks for the worst eventuality, but not hospital beds. Is this rational?
But think of military equipment. It may be rational to invest in nuclear weapons that would never be used; indeed, we invest in them so that they would never be used, “MAD” for mutual assured destruction. But tanks? It is very likely that few tanks we produce and maintain ever see battlefields. We are keeping tanks for the worst eventuality, but not hospital beds. Is this rational? (My gratitude to Steve H. for this observation).
This is an excerpt. To read the full article, visit The Global.
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