American Un-Exceptionalism in the Time of Coronavirus
The appalling response to the coronavirus pandemic on the part of the administration, Congress, corporations, and certain segments of the public should be cause for a serious reconsideration of our priorities as a country.
The current crisis highlights, as little else has, a lack of social cohesion among Americans: Clearly, we are not all in this together. The startling lack of civic solidarity has only been exacerbated by the stunning incompetence of the Trump administration.
To discuss the current crisis, I spoke to author and photographer Ann Jones.
Jones, a Distinguished Fellow at the Quincy Institute, is an astute observer of American decline, having chronicled our misadventures in Afghanistan, while at the same time documenting the political and social dysfunction that plagues us at home. Her 2016 Nation essay “After I Lived in Norway, America Felt Backward” should be required reading for those searching for an alternative to the economic and social policies that have failed us.
I began by asking Jones, who recently returned to the United States from Norway, how she thinks this country is handling the crisis, particularly compared to our European counterparts.
James Carden: You just returned from Norway by way of Boston’s Logan airport. Can you talk about your initial impressions of the respective American and Norwegian responses to the crisis upon landing?
Ann Jones: The day after Trump’s March 11 announcement of a “travel ban” from Europe, anxious Americans abroad felt an urgency to get home before Trump did something worse. So, like the frantic parents of US students abroad, I paid top dollar for an inflated ticket home from Norway. On the second leg of that journey, from London, I was wedged among some 200 students, including many coming from Italy, for a seven-hour flight to Boston. There, under the low ceiling of Logan’s cramped arrivals room, we spent a few more hours together, inching along—more a mob than a line—to the passport controllers, and then one at a time to a small room for an official “Screening.” I’m an old woman—a member of an endangered group—and by that time I was fairly exhausted. But the masked woman in charge asked me no questions. Indeed, she seemed scared to inquire about my condition; she just gestured to some pamphlets on a table and told me to go home and take my temperature. That was the entire “screening.”
I had left Norway, a country where the government and the people were taking the threat of pandemic seriously, with most already working or studying from home, and yet I returned to a country that seemed to be doing things upside-down. Here, the president lies and then issues arbitrary, alarming, pointless orders. Thousands of returning Americans, some of them probably ill, are closely confined together for up to eight hours at 13 designated US airports—perfect percolators of contagion—only to collect a pamphlet and disappear to unknown destinations all across the country. Who were we? How many of us already carried the virus? And what’s become of us?
The whole irrational operation came from the top down, and what happens to the people at the bottom, the top does not seem to care about. Today the biggest difference between the US and Norway, as both countries struggle against the pandemic, is this: Norway is not in chaos, and Norwegians are not desperate.
JC: I get a feeling that the current moment will not redound to our credit as a country. Here I have in mind the college kids who insisted on enjoying their spring break, consequences be damned (though they are hardly the only people putting self-interest ahead of public safety). And then there are the accusations of inappropriate stock trading by Senators Burr, Feinstein, Loeffler, and Inhofe (and they too were far from alone) by profiting from insider knowledge of the coming pandemic.
The spring breakers and the senators seem to share a complete lack of a sense of obligation to their fellow citizens. And I worry that theirs has become a very American way of thinking: Because I have a right to do this, nothing will stop me from doing it. That line of thinking evinces a total lack of regard for the idea that we also have an obligation toward others. How would you compare it to what you’ve experienced living in Norway?
AJ: We have a long history of disguising grasping self-interest as the “right to individual freedom.” A century ago, in America’s first Gilded Age, the Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen labeled filthy-rich captains of industry as antisocial greedy “predators” who enrich themselves off the labor of others. Those kids at the beach and the stock-dumping senators are classic Americans, living the venerable American Dream, which has nothing whatsoever to do with civic responsibility or “obligation,” much less any sense of community.
Norway, on the other hand, created itself as an egalitarian social democracy, and that makes all the difference. In Norway, for the most part, self-interest and the public interest coincide. Like the US, it’s a capitalist country. But unlike the US, Norway regulates capitalist ventures and is the major shareholder in some private enterprises of public concern. Wages and working conditions are not dictated by billionaire owners but negotiated once a year by national confederations of enterprise and labor, for labor retains the power to set the standards of work. To ensure equality—without which democracy is not possible—the government also oversees a universal welfare system. It collects high but fair progressive income taxes to support universal health care, almost-free education from preschool through university, full unemployment compensation, affordable housing, public transport, and the like. The result is one of the most equal, democratic, highly educated, innovative, modern, technically advanced, and happy societies on the planet.
Yet you may have heard that this remarkable success owes itself to Norway’s “oil wealth” drawn, since the 1970s, from the North Sea. It’s a tale Conservative columnists rerun to dismiss the obvious advantages of a welfare state. In fact, Norway’s oil money is stashed in a sovereign wealth fund, officially the Government Pension Fund, now valued above $1 trillion. With only 4 percent of a year’s income available to the government in case of emergency—and rarely used—the fund invested largely in oil producers until 2017, when it began a popular transition to investments in solar and wind power.
And here’s a fact that these Conservative columnists never mention: According to Norway’s Ministry of Finance, the real source of new money expanding the welfare state was not oil but the income taxes paid by women who entered the workforce, on a par with men, just about the time the oil came in. The welfare state, in turn, enabled women by taking on some of their traditional jobs in the home: health care, child care, elder care, and primary education. Norwegians liked these arrangements so much that by 1981 they chose their first woman prime minister, Gru Harlem Bruntland, who later went on to head the World Health Organization. Over the last few days, the oil fund has become a bone of contention in Norway, with the government tapping into the surplus to meet the coronavirus emergency and economists protesting that the emergency should be met by additional progressive taxation so the fund would be preserved for its original intention: providing old-age pensions to future generations.
These days, Norwegian enterprises—including the oil industry—feel the same pain as those in other nations afflicted by Covid-19. Shops close, businesses struggle, the currency loses value. But in Norway, the sick are well cared for by the national health service, workers are still paid by employers or through national insurance, and, in a changing job market, some workers may choose to be retrained at public expense. Few, if any, are homeless. None will go hungry. Covered by the welfare system, Norwegians can focus on family, friends, the future: what matters most to them.
Incidentally, the current government is not Communist or Socialist, as Americans may fear, but Conservative and led by women. (When Trump met Prime Minister Erna Solberg in 2018, he marveled that she spoke English, and then announced the first delivery on Norway’s $10 billion purchase of American fighter jets: F-35s and F-52s, though the latter exist only in the video game Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.) As conditions worsen around the world, Solberg has asked Norwegian students abroad to consider coming home. And on March 14—the very day I left Norway—the Norwegian University of Science and Technology urged the return of its students studying in countries “with poorly developed health services and infrastructure…like the United States.”
JC: Overall, I think it’s fair to say the response to the economic crisis brought about by the pandemic has been wholly inadequate to the moment because both parties are wedded to zombie economic doctrines: the GOP to libertarianism and the Democrats to neoliberalism. What is preventing Americans from taking even modest steps, such as those proposed by Senator Sanders, in the direction of social democracy?
AJ: I wouldn’t characterize all Democrats that way. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and others fight as best they can for the interests of the common people, the forgotten poor, the folks on the bottom. But what stands in their way is the power of the plutocrats. Why should we be surprised? The Roberts Supreme Court handed power to the corporations a decade ago with the outrageous Citizens United decision. Four years later, political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page concluded, unsurprisingly, that US government policy is shaped by “economic elites”—Thorstein Veblen’s “predators”—while ordinary Americans have “essentially no influence over what the government does.” Too many of our so-called “representatives” are captive not merely to ideology but to their donors.
JC: Pivoting to foreign policy for a moment: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s first order of business at the White House press conference on March 20 was to “assure” the American people that Iran was still under unilateral American sanctions (thereby preventing it from receiving sorely needed medical supplies from abroad). It seems the pandemic has done nothing to stop Trump and Pompeo from pursuing a childish, vindictive foreign policy. What do Europeans generally think about the conceit of American leadership in light of our actions?
AJ: Well, this is a projection of Trump’s “character” onto his so-called foreign policy. Anyone can see that he’s a childish, vindictive man who inflates himself at the expense of others. He just cut a promised billion dollars in aid to Afghanistan as well. None of our traditional allies in Europe look to the US for leadership anymore, though right-wing dictators around the world have a certain exploitative affinity with Trump. But the European response is not simple: On one hand, he’s a laughingstock, but he also evokes powerful memories of the rise of fascism. Norway, of course, was subjected to Nazi occupation during the Second World War, and Norwegians have not forgotten their American ally. A statue of Franklin Delano Roosevelt still graces Oslo’s harbor. But I think it’s fair to say that many of my Norwegian friends looking at our government today are both appalled and wary.
JC: Nearly a decade ago, the late historian of Europe Tony Judt observed that we are a country “in decline, but burdened with the rhetoric of endless possibility: a dangerous combination, since it encourages inertia…. Americans are confused and angry that so much seems amiss, but not yet frightened enough to do something about it.” While it seems we are still in the early days of the crisis, I suspect that not even this will shake us out of our collective slumber. Do you share this pessimism?
AJ: Yes, I am pessimistic, but I see things a little differently. I don’t fault ordinary Americans for confusion or inaction or collective slumber. I blame the members of the predatory upper class who have bought not only the marketplace but also the state and imposed their will on the rest of us. In the First Gilded Age, Thorstein Veblen described the result this way:
…the institution of a leisure class acts to make the lower classes conservative by withdrawing from them as much as it may of the means of sustenance and so reducing their consumption, and consequently their available energy, to such a point as to make them incapable of the effort required for the learning and adoption of new habits of thought.
Ordinary Americans, taught to aim for success yet deprived of education, health care, a living wage, affordable housing, job security, and self-respect, learn to blame themselves for their “failure.” Still, worn out as they are, scarcely recalling how their labor leaders were shot down or strung up, their unions crushed, they wouldn’t dream of overthrowing the ruling class. They want to climb up into it. That steep road is blocked. So some look for an alternative path. And some will find it at a rally, under those flashy, loud, bright-red MAGA hats.