By Chris McNickle | May 20, 2020

A deadly virus rages. Despite the federal government’s unequalled public health resources, the president and his advisers flail about, unable to provide coherent guidance to a frightened public. Some states rely on scientific evidence and adopt policies designed to constrain deadly contagion. Others ignore expert counsel. Florida’s governor eases life-saving restrictions against the advice of federal officials while his health department prevents medical examiners from releasing Covid-19 death data.

Circumstances force us to ask: What is the role of government today? How should it respond to the fierce disease disrupting the nation and to the economic side effects devastating American capitalism?

Experts have weighed in on the medical issues. Simply put, they advise policies based on sound public health science coupled with clear and consistent messages while vaccine and treatment research take place with fantastic urgency. The president and his team are not up to the task of leading the effort. Incompetent White House management of the greatest health and economic crises of our times reminds us that who we elect matters.

With unemployment rising rapidly toward historic heights, and economic output collapsing with unprecedented speed, the immediate need is for a robust safety net: generous unemployment benefits, expanded eligibility for food stamps, rent assistance, and small business loans.

Beyond critical stop gap measures, government has a compelling need to inject money into the economy. $2.2 trillion has been approved, with more likely to come. Elected officials have an obligation to allocate the money wisely. We cannot trust the private sector to pursue the public interest. As soon as conditions allow, the government should direct recovery efforts that will make America’s economy healthier than before the virus struck.

We have learned it is foolish to allow production of essential medical equipment and critical supplies to occur in dangerously few countries and factories. Managing risk requires smart diversification and responsible preparation. Yet, the profit motive has driven consolidation in some industries to the point that America’s safety is threatened if a handful of domestic or overseas companies—in some cases just one—are unable to respond to an emergency.

Our national government must complete a comprehensive assessment of the essential things we rely on for life as we know it, and ensure multiple manufacturers operate in diverse geographies for all of them. Anti-trust laws and national security powers provide the authority to do this. Among other measures, subsidies for factories offering higher wages in the United States than are paid overseas will be required. We must prepare plans to increase capacity when crisis strikes, and also stockpile emergency supplies. To pay for a safer country, Congress should revoke the irresponsible 2017 tax cuts. The combination of wage subsidies and fairer taxes would reduce income inequality, a welcome consequence.

The huge Coronavirus-induced spike in remote work and virtual learning makes clear that the Internet is a fundamental feature of life. Like electricity, clean water, and other basic utilities, government must make sure it is affordable and accessible everywhere for everyone. That especially includes rural areas and disadvantaged neighborhoods ill-served by the private sector. A recovery program should roll-out 5G service across the nation and recognize we have a stunning opportunity to reorient the American workforce toward 21st century jobs. With generous federal funding, states should super charge technology training programs at every level to close the digital divide.

Our federal, state, and local governments have long underinvested in the infrastructure private sector success relies upon. Roads and bridges, tunnels and rail freight, airports, water systems and the electric grid all need billions in capital spending. A modern-day version of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration can provide jobs for millions while restoring the United States to competitive standing with countries which have invested more wisely in a market economy’s building blocks.

Recovery initiatives should include a national program for infant health care and early learning for children from womb-to-five. Evidence that a majority of youngsters in many communities arrive at kindergarten poorly prepared for school coincides with research that shows investments in infant health and early learning yield huge returns. Federal funding combined with state programs could deliver what our children need to grow into the citizens and workers our nation needs.

The most obvious lesson our modern day plague teaches is that all Americans need medical insurance. It is long past time for our feckless Congress to institute a sensible, universal healthcare system, an achievement accomplished in all the world’s rich countries save ours.

Without effective government, capitalism offers the sound of one hand clapping. The United States will need a bold and highly visible public response to the Covid-19 economic crisis to restore confidence in our country’s future.

Chris McNickle writes about New York government and politics. His most recent book is Bloomberg: A Billionaire’s Ambition.