Scrabble, Virginia — It sometimes takes us a while to notice when certain things stop happening. We slowly become aware that something is missing, that somehow things are different. With me yesterday it was con-trails, the elongated white clouds that form from condensed (the ‘con’) and heated air being ejected from jet engines in the cooler upper altitudes. Normally, when there is a bright cerulean sky over Rappahannock County, the blue over my house is striped with puffy, white, tell-tale lines formed by high altitude aircraft. A parade of aircraft regularly pass high above my home, traveling in an east-west air corridor. Not this week. The airlines are, as a matter of their own decisions, operating minimal flight schedules for want of passengers.
Something similar happened on 9–11 and for the several days thereafter, but in that case it was because the government closed the national airspace. The initial closure was to determine how many aircraft had been, or were about be, hijacked. The closure continued while we struggled to create something like the what became the Transportation Security Agency and its’ screening processes, in a matter of days.
During those days without airlines, the only sound emanating from the skies at night over Washington were the steady engines of the giant radar aircraft, the AWACS, circling overhead and the occasional roar of the F-16s on Combat Air Patrol over the National Capital Region. Many of us called that roar “the sound of Freedom.” We found it reassuring, not unnerving.
The absence of flights after 9–11 gave climate scientists an experimental environment that they could never have convinced the government and airlines to provide them under any other circumstances. Without flights there were no con-trails. Without con-trails there were, as some had predicted, fewer clouds and thus, warner days and cooler nights. While only the lunatic fringe of conspiracy addicts think that jet aircraft create “chem trails” filled with some government sponsored biological weapon to attack people in the “flyover states,” many experts now believe that the by product of jet engines at altitude is an unnatural barrier that contributes to warming. Thus, the significant reduction in flights during the pandemic may marginally and temporarily slow the pace of climate change.
Whatever the effect on climate, the impact on the finances of the airlines is clear. As after 9–11, when many feared to fly, airlines are being financially devastated and their employees, as well as workers at supporting industries, are the first order victims of the pandemic’s effects on aviation. Congress overwhelmingly passed a bail-out, offering airlines (and aerospace manufacturers) free money and low interest loans. There were few objections in Congress from either party. Thus, as has been the case in many other countries for a long time, the airlines in the US now once again exist because of government, i.e. taxpayer, financial support. Dare we call it socialism?
Earlier this year the President and his supporters were throwing around the word “socialism” to describe the policies being advocated by some Democrats. They equated socialism with Communism and economic ruin. They suggested that having the government sponsor new programs to provide healthcare was socialist and, therefore, alike with the economic devastation that has befallen Venezuela. They mocked candidate Andrew Yang’s proposals to provide direct cash payment to citizens. Then came the pandemic.
Within weeks of the virus arriving on our shores, there was a consensus in both parties that the federal government should contribute to paying the costs of testing and treatment of the virus, the provision of equipment to both public and private hospitals, direct cash payments to those earning less than $75,000.00 and forgiven loans to small businesses. Few if any said the obvious, that these measures were socialist, or that, in the absence of tax and spending reforms, they will be paid for future generations.
It’s easy to criticize Big Government and to decry socialism, until you are in trouble. Victims of earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods want FEMA grants. Farmers, devastated by climate or presidentially imposed tariffs, want cash from the government. Airlines, auto manufacturers, banks, all do not hesitate to demand public funds when they are in trouble, often brought on in part by their own greed and failure to plan for economic down-turns. It’s only socialism when other people are getting federal money, not when the government is saving your posterior.
So when the pandemic passes, or its lingering effects become part of normal, could we please stop the bashing of Big Government and the sloganeering about socialism. Let’s begin by thanking the government employees and the medical personnel who sacrificed and some of whom risked their lives to battle the disease. Please include a special note of gratitude to the poorly compensated civil servant experts at places like the Center for Disease Control and the National Institutes for Health. Then let’s admit that most or all modern economies have a degree of socialism, both corporate and citizen-oriented. The debates we have are really just about resource allocation, who gets what from the government and who pays how much for those programs to exist.
We have chosen, as a matter of public policy, to ration quality health care generally to those in the higher income brackets. We have chosen, in general, to adequately fund public education and those who provide it only in upper income communities. We have chose to permit those employed in major financial organizations and consultancies to amass extraordinary personal wealth, implicitly deciding that what they do moving each others’ money around, is vastly more valuable than the work of teachers, nurses, care-givers, the millions of hourly workers providing essential services, and the government employees who protect us and make our essential national systems work.
Life, President John Kennedy admitted, is unfair. And regulated capitalism is an engine for economic growth and technological progress. But of the many possible questions we might think about as a nation during and after this pandemic, a couple should be whether we should only have the federal government pay for better health care delivery during a pandemic, or whether we could not be more fair and caring as a nation, not just to ailing corporations but to hourly workers with little ability to create a safety net of their own, not only when we are in a disaster, but always.