China, the Virus, and the Imperative to Build for Tomorrow
Marc Andreessen’s “It’s Time To Build” is a hopeful cri de coeur in this time of pandemic. Americans, and American elite leadership specifically, need what strikes me as essentially a spiritual awakening, and Andreessen speaks to that in his own way by pointing out that an ugly aspect of American life that this virus has revealed is a sort of cultural impotence:
Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings. This monumental failure of institutional effectiveness will reverberate for the rest of the decade, but it’s not too early to ask why, and what we need to do about it.
Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed — no Western country, or state, or city was prepared — and despite hard work and often extraordinary sacrifice by many people within these institutions. So the problem runs deeper than your favorite political opponent or your home nation.
Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination. But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t *do* in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to *build*.
We see this today with the things we urgently need but don’t have. We don’t have enough coronavirus tests, or test materials — including, amazingly, cotton swabs and common reagents. We don’t have enough ventilators, negative pressure rooms, and ICU beds. And we don’t have enough surgical masks, eye shields, and medical gowns — as I write this, New York City has put out a desperate call for rain ponchos to be used as medical gowns. Rain ponchos! In 2020! In America!
We also don’t have therapies or a vaccine — despite, again, years of advance warning about bat-borne coronaviruses. Our scientists will hopefully invent therapies and a vaccine, but then we may not have the manufacturing factories required to scale their production. And even then, we’ll see if we can deploy therapies or a vaccine fast enough to matter — it took scientists 5 years to get regulatory testing approval for the new Ebola vaccine after that scourge’s 2014 outbreak, at the cost of many lives.
In the U.S., we don’t even have the ability to get federal bailout money to the people and businesses that need it.
We have shut down much of our country in response to a virus that we saw devastate Wuhan and northern Italy, but we do not seem to know what to do next. This is partly because those who lived through similarly serious pandemics, like the Spanish Flu, are no longer with us. But the greater problem is the one Andreessen addresses: because we have forgotten how to “build,” we are struggling to imagine how we will lead ourselves out of lockdown and back to normal life.
In retrospect, it will strike us as odd that we are not thinking strategically about how to build in this time. We still tend to think of our states as laboratories of democracy, yet we are not seeing governors meaningfully step up to call for the return of critical manufacturing capacities in their states. And we are not seeing governors call for the creation or replenishing of strategic stockpiles.
It should be an American imperative in the wake of this pandemic to decouple the American economy from the Chinese Communist Party as rapidly as possible, and to learn again how to provide for our essential needs. This virus continues to underscore the inherent limits of globalized supply chains to provide critical goods in a fragile time. We’re seeing that America’s supply chains aren’t really America’s supply chains.
China’s totalitarian human rights abuses would themselves provide sufficient cause for America and other nations to decouple economically in retaliation against a regime that treats its own people as lower even than many of the worst kings of old treated their subjects. The consequences of the spread of what the press initially termed the “Chinese virus,” the “Chinese coronavirus,” or the “Wuhan virus” have been devastating on a global scale. We remain at risk of Great Depression-scale collapse, due as much to the initial lies and cover-up of the Chinese Communist Party as to any political incompetence of ours.
We once envisioned a modernized China, believing that trade would simultaneously liberalize its political regime and expand the territories of the free world. Not only has that envisioned China not come into being, but the unfolding Chinese surveillance police state suggests that the American investment may have been a total loss. It turns out that we may have invested or forfeited trillions over five decades to produce a totalitarian superpower whose amoral capitalism and predatory mercantilism are perversely complemented by an explicit hostility to the human rights of not only its own people, but also of the world at large. A sober assessment of America’s strategy is overdue, particularly if we hope to continue to lead internationally on matters of human rights. Cheaper consumer goods simply cannot be an acceptable price for the oppression of China’s persecuted minorities and political dissidents. America will not be taken seriously as a moral agent in international affairs so long as it implicitly accepts that the value of the human person, and the degree to which the human person is owed protection, can ultimately be measured by their perceived material utility.
American independence was won in part thanks to our independence of spirit. We were able to recognize that we were a resilient and a self-sufficient people, and that recognition contributed to our boldness in establishing ourselves as an American people. Do we still have the traits we had at our founding? We’ll need them, along with a renewed vision and creative spirit in confronting the realities of a post-pandemic world order.
To the degree that America is responsible for the strength of the present Chinese regime, we owe it to those now paying the greatest price from this virus to think creatively about an America that can not only compete with China through resilience and self-sufficiency in the time to come, but ultimately an America that recognizes that we owe it to those who came before us to do better:
Our nation and our civilization were built on production, on building. Our forefathers and foremothers built roads and trains, farms and factories, then the computer, the microchip, the smartphone, and uncounted thousands of other things that we now take for granted, that are all around us, that define our lives and provide for our well-being. There is only one way to honor their legacy and to create the future we want for our own children and grandchildren, and that’s to build.
Let Andreessen’s words ring in our ears.