Opinionista Anton Cartwright 30 March 2020

Crises expose us and remind us of what we value

Cyril Ramaphosa is South Africa’s president and a former businessman. Unlike some other leaders, he is also a humanitarian with a sound mind and has placed the immediate task of preventing deaths ahead of the task of saving businesses in order to fight the coronavirus.

Crises come in different shapes and sizes, making comparisons unwise, but the Covid-19 crisis is already, before it has shown its full hand or economic impact, the most serious global crisis since the Second World War.  

One thing common to all crises is their ability to expose. Those politicians who have relied on spin, bluster and intimidation, rather than principles and facts, are self-identifying in the face of Covid-19. Crises test us all, and bring deeply held assumptions, biases and prejudices into the cold light of public scrutiny. (I like to think of myself as a family man, but my kids might tell you otherwise after a few days of lockdown.)

Take, for example, the practice of triage practised as a matter of pragmatic necessity in hospitals everywhere. That long healthy lives matter more than short sick lives has no moral or ethical underpinning. It is also mathematically intractable, as Kenneth Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem revealed when trying to solve for the “greatest good for the greatest number” back in 1951. Until now most of us were not the people being shuffled off on account of our age or co-morbidity, and it did not seem worth the effort to scrutinise whether life-saving resources to hospitals should be constrained in the first place.

The Covid-19 crisis is also exposing economic policy. In South Africa, this is important as the economic policy has been mostly implicit and obscured since the advent of democracy, due to the need to accommodate very different ideologies within the tripartite alliance. The political fudge is not unique to South Africa and has been enabled by the blurring of Cold War ideologies.

That confronting our economic assumptions has, until now, been considered inconvenient and untimely has seen the country grow comfortably numb and unquestioning of some day-to-day atrocities. Deaths caused by toxic emissions for the sake of jobs and the country’s balance of payments, unsubsidised taxis and associated deaths while investing taxpayers’ billions in keeping our airlines safe, booming property prices while a growing number of people live without formal shelter or tenure. And on the other side of the ideological spectrum, cases of fiscal plunder in the interest of patronage guised as creating a new black elite. Both the left and the right have used the economic policy lacuna to state their claim and influence, and may even have become subconsciously vested in it. It is the biases and blind spots that we subconsciously hold that can be simultaneously most difficult to change and most damaging.

Now, without the fiscal buffers, we had prior to the Zuma administration, Cyril Ramaphosa has had to take some excruciating decisions, all of them plagued by innate uncertainty about the virus’ impact on the future and exposing horrible trade-offs of relative harm. In the process, he has had to lift the veil on what he really values in this country. Fortunately, Ramaphosa is a humanitarian with a sound mind. Unlike the self-revealing early policies of the United States and the United Kingdom, Ramaphosa has placed the immediate task of preventing deaths ahead of the task of saving businesses. As a businessman, this must-have hurt. He knows that business collapse and economic stagnation will in time cost lives too, but he has made the tough call. This is much more complex and profound than placing people above profit. It is an approach that values human life, and rightly understands the economy not as something to protect capital, but which exists, in the first instance, to protect and enhance the welfare of people in as direct a manner as is possible, rather than through any “trickle-down”.

In the ethics experiment taught to first-year students, a person observing a runaway train about to kill two people has the choice of pulling a lever and diverting the train so that it kills just one person. Most leaders don’t pull the lever. They would rather let circumstances kill two people than have a direct hand in killing a single person. To the extent that this applies to our current crisis, Ramaphosa has pulled the lever and we should all be grateful. He has prioritised the immediate protection of life, not only backing businesses to find ways to limit the second-round impacts on life and well-being, but also getting them to redirect their resources to saving lives in the first round of viral harm. This ethical decision is the closest South Africa has come to having a coherent economic policy since 1994, and it is a good one.

Significantly, Moody’s chose to see it differently. In the process, they exposed their own assumptions, as well as their inability to engage real-time data. At a time when the capitalist realism is withering with every new policy announcement – banks providing interest payments in an attempt to self-preserve, the Conservative government in Britain providing wage support, the Republican White House evoking the Defence Production Act to force General Motors to manufacture ventilators in a move that would have made Marx proud – Moody’s chose to uphold a mode of neoliberal financialisation that will cost lives and deepen the crisis.

We know their lines – “don’t shoot the messenger”, “this predates Covid”, “we only focus on the macroeconomic fundamentals” – but they seem to be missing just how irrelevant, and unhelpful, their world is at this time. Usury is an old-fashioned word that for most of civilisation has had pejorative connotations. Somehow, concealed from public scrutiny, and almost certainly because it quietly suited the elite, we are now learning that so much of what we called “the economy” was really about sustaining the ability to pay interest on capital.

It is too early to assume that this changes everything’ 1912, 1948 and 1994 should teach South Africans that some things stay the same even when everything else changes; wealthy South Africans have a history of massaging the economic rules of the game in their favour. It is for that reason that we should notice what is being revealed that was previously hidden.

The default for this crisis will be to widen the gap between rich and poor, incubating another great ill in the process. However, we now also have the opportunity to continue, with the same urgency, to build upon the economic foundation that we have been forced to create in order to save lives. I can’t think of a more solid foundation. Now that any economic policy is thinkable, what thinking will we do? We have shown that it is possible to marshal the available resources, with the same wartime conviction, to the things that, when stripped bare by circumstances, we all value: saving lives, building connections, preventing ecological collapse and in the process reimagining ourselves in a new economy. DM

Anton Cartwright is an Economist and Director Credible Carbon, Senior Associate Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership (CISL).

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