The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how a disease can reveal an underlying sickness—and in America, that means our failure to provide universal health care, our marginalization of immigrants and others, and our devaluation of the caring work that makes lives possible. But it has also revealed another basic truth: Our economy is fundamentally built on social connection. Without the ability to gather in shared social spaces—restaurants, airports and hotels, sports arenas, offices—our economy has experienced truly astounding and unprecedented shocks, and the speed of the recovery will depend on how quickly we can safely congregate again.
And while now is the time to address immediate needs—and the philanthropic and nonprofit sector is playing an important role in trying to fill the cracks (or really gaping holes) in the federal disaster relief efforts—we also urgently need to think about the long term.
America will never be the same after this crisis. But will America of the future be primarily shaped by an increase in individualism (think isolation in our homes), hoarding resources (think toilet paper and hand sanitizer), and fear of strangers (think physical distancing and the run on gun stores)? Or can we build on the surge of caring for others (sewing masks, donating to financial assistance funds, mutual aid efforts) and celebrating unsung heroes (grocery clerks, farmworkers, cleaning staff) to create an America in which protecting others as well as protecting ourselves is a fundamental principle of economic and social policy?
Philanthropy and the nonprofit sector can play an important role in building that better tomorrow, but only if we realize that scaling economic solidarity cannot be limited to the nonprofit sector. The pandemic has made clear that the scale of the problems in our society requires systemic change. The depth of our global interdependence requires a heightened attention to protecting all, whether in Wuhan or Watts. And fostering an ethos of mutual caring and support into our economic system will require developing solidarity in another sense—building the political will and power to ensure this ethos is represented at the highest levels of corporate decision-making and political leadership.
Solidarity and the Economy
We offer some starting points to a new frame of solidarity economics in our 2018 publication, From Resistance to Renewal: A 12-Step Program for Innovation and Inclusion in the California Economy. There, we pointed to a range of policy solutions that seem all-the-more-important today. Among them were universal basic income funded by a technology dividend, increased investment in basic science, expansion and improvement of the caring economy, full immigrant integration to bring people out of the shadows, rapid decarceration and reentry of the formerly incarcerated, universal health insurance and portable benefits, social housing programs to insure long-term affordability, industry-wide wage boards to coordinate labor and business (which would be key to a successful and coordinated reopening of our economy), and realigned tax systems that are both more progressive and more stable.
These policies were all driven by an ethos of solidarity and mutuality. But we didn’t just rely on stirring a do-gooder passion for standing up for the less fortunate; rather, we argued that much as in a public health crisis, protecting others and reducing inequalities helps us all—a finding now firmly rooted in substantial economic research.
For example, in our most recent book, Equity, Growth, and Community, we looked at employment growth in the top 200 metropolitan areas in the US and found that high levels of inequality, racial segregation, and social fragmentation actually damage the ability to sustain high job growth. This finding echoes research done by economists at the Cleveland Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund—basically, high levels of disparity are bad for your economic health.
And if our current winner-take-all inequality actually damages long-run economic prosperity, there are key lessons for how we exit from the current crisis. The biggest implication here? Those who insist that highlighting racial and other disparities is just raising “special interests” are getting it wrong; racial and economic equity are key to setting a firmer basis for our whole economy.
Indeed, with a once-in-a-generation moment to refashion our economic rules—who would have thought we would all embrace a bipartisan strategy to run up deficits to primarily protect workers?—it is time to make equity the bedrock of our thinking and policy.
An economics based on solidarity and mutuality can also help us get past old debates about the divisions between public and private sectors. It’s obvious now: the private economy will not reboot unless public health measures are embraced and extended.
Consider innovation, something often portrayed as resulting from flashes of individual brilliance and the investment gambles of swashbuckling venture capitalists. In reality, research over the past few decades has demonstrated that success results from systems of innovation in which there is substantial public investment in basic research and development—think about the internet that is now allowing so many to work remotely—and institutions, such as public higher education and economic development agencies, for ensuring the general circulation of knowledge and the diffusion of new innovations throughout the economy.
In innovation as in many other areas, debates about public versus private approaches to innovation and growth miss the important fact that both the public and private sector are critical in building and sustaining effective systems of innovation. And because of that, the public has a right to its return, most of which is now excessively captured by private actors.
In our current crisis, this is particularly important. With a nearly $700 million collective public investment in coronavirus research, it is critical to consider whether the American public, and especially the most vu