Among the debates about the pandemic, and our response to it, is how soon we can return to “normal,” or whether we’re bound for a “new normal.” The answer is clear: There’s no going back to “normal,” because we were in the midst of destroying it when the new coronavirus arrived.
I am not talking about the notion there is no such thing as “normal” because change is constant. That requires us to ignore long stretches of relative stability man has achieved over time.
Rather, there are inflection points in history when old ways succumb to fundamental changes. Consider how the Progressive movement of the early 20th century changed not just laws but views on government’s control over industry (e.g., antitrust laws), women’s rights, and the constitutional balance between the states and the federal government (e.g., the direct election of U.S. senators). The emphasis on, and style of, public education changed in ways that distinctly remain today. It set the stage for the rebellious Jazz Age as well as the New Deal.
“Normal” was never the same.
Even before most of us had ever heard of a place called Wuhan, another such metamorphosis was unfolding over the past couple of decades:
Mass automation and artificial intelligence were set to remake the labor force; it just wasn’t clear precisely how, or with what consequences.
Populism had, as a century ago, sparked dramatic political transformations. Exhibit A is the seriousness with which avowed (democratic) socialist Bernie Sanders’ presidential candidacies were taken; Exhibit B, the election of political novice Donald Trump as president, in large part because he broke with so many political conventions.
Too many traditional public schools were both desperately in need of reforms and hopelessly resistant to them – jeopardizing the ability of future graduates to fulfill the requirements of future jobs.
Longstanding social mores, about issues ranging from homosexuality to drug legalization, were discarded popularly and, increasingly, from the law.
Government’s ability to raise predictable levels of revenue was in question; in Georgia, various state agencies have been living with a budget cut of some degree for most of the past 20 years.
And so on. The pandemic isn’t altering the previous “normal” so much as dealing it a final blow.
Some demographers, for instance, argue we now have seen “peak density” in our urban areas. Thickly populated cities not only are particularly vulnerable to highly contagious viruses. Even less dense metro Atlanta faces a constant, losing battle to build the new infrastructure needed to accommodate steadily rapid population growth.
And how ya gonna keep ’em down(town) in the office, after they’ve seen Zoom and Teams? These new online conferencing tools have allowed millions of Americans to keep right on working from home. Many of them, especially younger workers who haven’t yet started families (and might not think of the office as a sometimes refuge), won’t want to re-adopt their daily commutes and the other costs associated with working outside their homes.
A significant shift to telecommuting could not only prevent the twice-daily tipping points into traffic gridlock, easing the need for more roads and/or rails. Imagine if, say, a substantial number of state employees could live well beyond metro Atlanta. The office space needed by state government would shrink. Salaries that already tend to be lower than private-sector pay might go further, and attract better talent, if more workers could live in lower-cost areas, and either drive occasionally to Atlanta or get the requisite “face time” at a state facility in another city.
What would that mean for commercial property values – and for redevelopment possibilities? What would it mean for automobile sales – and for the growth of private “micro-transit” via e-scooters or ride-sharing? What would it mean for big-city budgets – and for the viability of small towns that have been fading?
The cities, counties and states that prosper – not to mention the businesses small, medium and large – will be the ones that cater to the next regeneration of America. It was already on the way. There’s no stopping it now.
• Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.