No one wants to live through a pandemic. But for those who don’t have a choice, there is a silver lining: pandemics have historically brought about periods of social disruption that have had positive outcomes for the following generations. There are reasons to be optimistic that we will experience some of that today.
The most prominent historical example of this is the Black Death in 14th century Europe, which by some estimates wiped out 30 to 50% of the total population (exact numbers are not known). The comparison to COVID-19 deaths is dramatic: As of a month ago, 0.2% of Americans have died from COVID-19. (Not that you would know it was such a small percentage considering the sturm und drang). We may think the death count from this pandemic has been traumatic, but we simply cannot comprehend what it would be like to lose a third or more of the population.
But for those who survived the medieval plague, and for succeeding generations, rapid depopulation created an opening that had not existed in the entrenched social hierarchy of the largely feudal society. Labor shortages suddenly allowed for social mobility, and gave the underclass a voice. Says anthropologist Sharon DeWitte: “the Black Death marked the beginning or, at the very least, an acceleration of a huge economic and sociological shift in Europe.”
When the world seems to be ending, it might be on the verge of changing for the better. It’s possible that we’ll get to experience analogous sociological shifts today, but, luckily for us, we haven't had to endure dramatic depopulation. Policy decisions that were intended to “slow the spread” of disease instead brought every aspect of our personal and economic lives to a halt. Before the pandemic, our society was functioning on autopilot. Now we have a chance to take back control of the wheel -- and the momentum to do so.
There are plenty of things ready to get disrupted, and that energy can be felt strongly where I live: New York City. On the Reason Roundtable Podcast episode “Economy is Weird Right Now”, Reason editor-at-large Nick Gillespie described New York City as feeling like a “deflated balloon.” That’s an apt description for a place that has always considered itself to be the center of the universe. But Gillespie ends his point optimistically, noting that while it’s unlikely that New York will ramp back up to pre-pandemic levels in the near term, he believes there’s a lot of potential because there was so much detritus that needed to be cleared away.
Many New Yorkers knew that was true, but as long as the city was growing, there was little incentive to do anything about it. We complained: about the public school system that consistently failed students, the MTA that continually hiked fares while offering deteriorating service, the unaffordable housing, and the proliferation of homeless people. But New York was still New York: it was the business capital, the place where opportunities existed for everyone, and the home of theater, art, and culture. It didn’t seem like anything could radically change that.
Then, the pandemic brought the city to a standstill. More than anything, it irrevocably ended a tradition that had become a myth: that white collar work must be done from a specific office location five days a week. Thanks to computers and smartphones, office workers have known for a while that their job can be done from anywhere. But for a long time, there were good enough reasons to pretend otherwise. Once offices were closed, many young people found it was much easier to live where they could own a reasonably sized house and pay a reasonable share of their income in taxes -- places without homeless people, unreliable subways, or failing schools.
How this will affect New York in the long run will probably depend largely on how our policy makers adapt to changing circumstances. In July 2021, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo urged employers to bring everyone back to the office, and said publicly that a 15% decrease in the number of people returning to New York “would be devastating.” During the same briefing, Cuomo also addressed rising crime statistics, saying he’d heard from many people that they “just don’t feel safe in New York City.”
The city is currently glowing from reports that it’s exceeding sales tax expectations, and Wall Street has announced a record year for profit — both of which indicate a strong economy. But this month, Nicole Gelinas reports for the New York Post that 11% of New York’s pre-COVID private sector jobs are “still missing” -- and that includes a 7% drop within the financial sector. We’re hovering very close to the percentage of decline that Cuomo warned would be devastating.
The fact that New Yorkers elected Eric Adams for mayor indicates they might be waking up to this reality. Adams is a black former-cop who pledged to be tough on crime and took a comparatively moderate economic stance compared to the other candidates. There is at least some reason to be optimistic that New Yorkers believe the progressive jig is up.
New York is just one example of this trend. Disruptions are occurring across our societal landscape. A particularly exciting example is in public schooling. In 2020, school closures and virtual learning gave parents, many of whom were also suddenly working from home, a window into the classroom every day.
Issues compounded: the invasion of Critical Race Theory; teachers unions insisting that schools remain closed; ongoing mask mandates; parental frustration. This past year, parents have challenged their school boards like never before — and gone viral in the process. In Loudoun County, VA parents are working to recall their school board. An easy way to tell that the school system is receiving unprecedented pushback is that AG Merrick Garland unleashed the FBI to investigate angry parents.
But even while many parents continue to fight with school boards, more parents are pulling their kids out of institutional schools to homeschool instead. In the academic year 2020-2021, 11.1% of American households with elementary school-age kids reported homeschooling, doubling from 5.6% the year before. Among families that self-identified as black or African American, the change was even more significant, rising from 3.3% to 16.1%. “American homeschooling goes boom,” writes Suzy Weiss, in a long-form article that is well worth reading in full.
According to the New York Times, public elementary school enrollment in NYC declined 4.5% in 2020-2021, and Reason reports that NYC charter schools experienced a simultaneous 7% increase in enrollment (though Reason indicates that NYC politicians have been suppressing that information). The New York Times goes as far as to call the pandemic’s effect on public schooling “profound.”
In Virginia, the home of Loudoun county, all eyes have been on the gubernatorial election where conservative candidate Greg Youngkin made education a central feature of his run. He said in a recent speech: “this is no longer a campaign, it is a movement where we are all standing up for our children.“ Youngkin’s surprise victory over Democrat McAuliffe was immediately tied directly to his position on education. Many commentators pointed to McAuliffe’s ruinous debate gaffe, where he said “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” as a turning point of the race. In September, McAuliffe held a lead in polls among those who ranked education as a top policy priority. By the end of October, that group had swung to Youngkin by a significant margin. Headlines following the election are already hailing Youngkin for turning the Republican Party into the “Party of Parents” -- and outlining a roadmap for the rest of the GOP to follow.
Could this be the beginning of fundamentally disrupting our education system? As a long-time proponent of school choice, I feel hopeful. Whether you believe that the school system simply needed reform or it needed to be upended entirely, the fact remains that public schools and teachers’ unions had existed to benefit faculty and staff (rather than the students) for far too long. The pandemic finally upset the status quo and gave parents back their voice. A new dynamic that puts the parents back in charge has the potential to dramatically improve the lives of future generations of students — generations that might otherwise have been stuck in a system that seemed intent on doubling down on failure.
The pandemic has been an overdue catalyst for change. I sincerely hope we can seize the opportunities available in these moments of upheaval instead of letting them pass us by. It can be tempting to “return to normal” — and many voted for Biden based on that idea alone. But our old “normal” was a process of slow decline, brought about by our entrenched, self-interested institutions. It suited them to have us believe they were too big to be challenged, and too necessary to live without. But they never were. Now that we know that, let’s go after the rest of the government.