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The Great Shutdown

These are scary times, we are in uncharted seas. But for the first time we are in front of it, we are doing some navigation. Yes, we are fighting a whole lot about which way to go and who puts their hand on the wheel, and I’m watching it, afraid and confused, but we are watching it in real time. This much information is a new thing for us as humans, take away the last 200 years and through the rest of our history the best we could hope for was a messenger from the next village. A constant barrage of terrible news is a lot for our mental health to take.

Yes, we’re the tiny villagers and we are looking at this 200 foot monster and it’s terrifying. But up until now every disaster we’ve faced has been like an earthquake, no indication of pending doom, no idea of anything coming (maybe we’re even asleep) when the disaster hits.

For the first time ever the hit to our global economy is because of altruism. Business is slowing down because we are trying to do what is right. You don’t need to be a political leader to be bold, you can be a pizza guy from Tennessee. This is the Great Shutdown.

Usually a disaster arrives, the stock market tanks, and unemployment skyrockets. Over 85 years ago we (well, not us personally, humanity) survived the Great Depression. The turn of the century brought our Great Recession, which always struck me as some mass media company boardroom realizing “Hey, we need our ‘Great’ market tragedy too. People need to feel our generation has been through ‘Great Disaster’ also.” 

The Great Recession was terrible. Any time people lose jobs and poverty rises because of some explosion of greed and/or stupidity in the markets we have failed. But comparing the depression to the recession reminds me of Mel Brooks: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” 

The words we use matter. Two days ago I was reading an article about what I call “horrible math”, the work economists do to determine how to respond in crisis, which ultimately requires putting a dollar value on a human life. The article talked about how the EPA (a government agency here in the U.S. that, among other things, works to clean up pollution) used $6.1 million dollars per person as the bar to set for starting a project. This highlights the inefficiency of our global economy as experts find that number shocking because in other parts of the world you could easily save lives for under $2,000.

The thing that really got me was that they landed in a bunch of trouble when they were looking at adjusting that formula by age. The idea was that a neighborhood with children that were going to be part of the economy for decades has a higher value than a retirement community where most people aren’t working and are measuring time left in years, not decades.

Of course this was a complete disaster, anyone with even the most basic knowledge of the U.S. political system knows that most Americans can’t be bothered to vote or get involved, except senior citizens who are our de facto rulers because they pay attention and vote. Outrage arose (and this was before social media when outrage required some effort) and the agency stated that “discounting of seniors” would never be their policy. Basically begging for forgiveness in hopes of the next election not bringing a wave of candidates bent on burning the EPA to the ground and salting the earth so nothing ever grew there again.

Most would finish the story and move on, but having spent my life looking at how language affects things in the real world the critical mistake was clear. Words matter. The phrase “discounting senior citizens” will send any government official to the firing squad. If only they worked harder to find the right words to express what they were trying to do. “Paying a premium to save children” would be the exact same math, financials, and effort but is a completely different story. What grandparent would vote against saving their grandchildren? They’d have a blank check.

How we describe this economic downturn matters. This is not greed and panic (ok, the toilet paper thing is panic.) We are shutting down our economy to save it. Calling our government response a bailout or stimulus package are terms from previous disasters, we’re trying to do something better. 

We do have a lot of thinking to do over the next few years. It’s a good time to reconsider our 1980’s hangover of  “maximizing shareholder value” (at the expense of humanity) by using mass layoffs and sending manufacturing to other countries. Maybe we ought to manufacture some medical supplies in every country. Find a way to encourage everyone to have 3 months expenses in the bank. Provide incentive for companies to carry a 3 month reserve of salaries and benefits. Remember that as many healthy people as possible is the goal above “for profit” in healthcare.

My Dad worked for over 40 years at a large American corporation, the time when people had one job for their career, a pension, a good health plan. Every summer the plant would shut down for 2 weeks. The whole town knew that shutdown was good for the business, good for the community, and who doesn’t love summer vacation? 

This is a horrible thing we are going through, but remember that for the first time we have our hand on the wheel of this ship. We’re sailing into dangerous seas. We have to do everything we can for our fellow crew, do all we can to keep our ship afloat. But for the first time the majority of us aren’t helpless children looking to a small group of bold scientists and brave medical professionals to save us. We’re aware of what’s going on and can communicate with everyone on earth. We can observe, understand, learn, and show compassion. We can use our science and faith to find a way through.

Updated: Thanks to Samantha from Facebook who reminded me that the Great Depression was over 80 years ago, not 100 as previously stated (I was thinking 1913 which is World War I, not the Depression.)

She also mentioned the Spanish Flu of 1918 as proof that this is not new to us. This is true and I had found some interesting data about what happened when Philadelphia decided to go ahead with a parade (much like the way many Governors refused to lock down, they may be having to answer to these kinds of graphs come November – or maybe not.) I thought this post was already all over the place so I didn’t want to get into that. There’s also some writing about how Spanish Flu killed more than World War I and yet there’s very little written about it, some posit that the Flu was more traumatic than the war, but that is beyond the scope of this post.

This caused me to look into data about the 1918 Flu affect on the economy, and the short version is there’s not much besides the mortality figures.

Finally, this stirs up all kinds of privacy questions for us to look at going forward.

John J. Wall is a Partner at Trust Insights and the Producer of Marketing Over Coffee. One day years ago he felt like quitting Twitter. In classic egocentric social media behavior, he tweeted about it. His friend Garry Polmateer said that on every Friday they should share what they learned from the week in #FriLearning. This is his contribution for March 27th.

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