May 2, 2020

The Iron Lady and the Coronavirus Age

Like Thatcher, we’ll need to achieve much out of the ordinary. Love of country is the place to start.

I’ve been trying to get a sense of the economic effects of the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 675,000 Americans. Government record-keeping in those days wasn’t what it is now; there’s not much data. You see references in academic papers to factories closed, businesses shuttered. You see newspaper pictures of people in masks and clippings about people dying in hallways. Yet what followed was the Roaring ‘20s — expansive, even ecstatic economic growth.

Conditions were different. The shutdowns then weren’t national but local, and varied in severity. The pandemic was less of a psychic shock because people were more used to death: Tuberculosis, gastrointestinal infections and syphilis killed; there were no antibiotics, no chemotherapy; infant mortality was twice what it is now. Men just back from the war had seen carnage. The economic historian Amity Shlaes noted in an interview that there was a sharp economic downturn at the beginning of the 1920s, “but it was very brief, and not an outcome of the pandemic.” “We came out of it in part because of optimism, public policy choices, and also realizing for the first time, post-war, that we could become an economic superpower.”

Today’s American economy is massive, complex, interdependent, a varied consumer-based economy with service and communications sectors. Everything changes in a century. But maybe there are things to learn from a study there, a history of how America dug itself out of that crisis.

For now I think the employment impact of what we’re going through will be more dramatic than perhaps we understand. The first-quarter numbers released this week felt almost encouraging — economic output shrank at an annual rate of only 4.8%. Terrible, but absorbable — again, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” But the second quarter, which will be reported in July, is the one everyone fears, because it’s when the dimensions of the catastrophe will become clear.

The administration says the economy will explode with pent-up energy after the lockdown. It’s part of their job to cheerlead in this way, to say there’s nothing to fear. But recovery will surely be tentative. Health fears will change habits. A lot of people will have no money to spend; many will be careful with what they have.

Thirty million have filed for unemployment. Here is a fear based on the vibrations coming from CEOs and other captains of great entities: They’ll use the 2020 crash as cover to do things they’ve long wanted to do, which is get rid of costly people in their corporations, especially in the middle levels. Some will speed up artificial intelligence and robotics. They’ll announce they’re “redefining their mission.” They’ll be shaking off people they’ve wanted to shake off.

All this will happen within a context of political change. Progressives see opportunity. They lost on Bernie Sanders but will seek a bigger breakthrough in a restive, battered country full of people reconsidering their loyalties. They won’t let this crisis go to waste. Right now I’d watch the Democratic Party. Tara Reade’s allegations, true or not, offer cover for the left to try to dislodge a non-revolutionary. Also for a party establishment that fears Joe Biden will blow up in the general election because he has trouble following his own thoughts.

That takes place within another, possibly countering context. Right now, in political terms, the federal government doesn’t look so good: failures to mobilize early, claims that didn’t materialize, chaotic and divisive daily briefings.

Who led most strikingly, most vividly? Governors, who, though they may not know it, have provided a daily commercial for federalism — for the states as independent entities, 50 different laboratories of democracy operating within a constitutional structure of separated powers. Remember when the president announced that he was in charge of ending the quarantine, not the states? In response, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave a classic lecture based on federalist principles, on the rights and responsibilities of the states. He won. There’s been a whole shifting of the argument there.

Columnists often say things like “the tectonic plates are shifting.” They are shifting as never before and all at the same time. We have never seen this earthquake.

What is essential now from our political class? I find inspiration in a monumental work, the journalist Charles Moore’s three-volume biography of Margaret Thatcher. It is a masterpiece of fairness and insight. It is also something new, a work of justice done to a woman in modern politics.

At its heart it is not a story about political survival but about seriousness — about the purpose of politics, which is to guide your nation safely through the world while creating the conditions and arrangements by which your people can flourish. It is about winning the argument about how to achieve safety and flourishing.

In his stirring epilogue, Mr. Moore sums up Thatcher’s career, legacy, and essential nature. She cannot be understood, he writes, based only on her public statements. She must be seen also in light of her character: “Its contradictions were striking. She was high-minded and highly educated, yet had a common touch. She was fierce, but kind; rude, and courteous; calculating, yet principled; matter-of-fact, yet romantic; frank, yet secretive; astute, yet innocent; rational, yet capricious; puritanical, yet flirtatious.” She “combined an immense assurance about following her own way with a permanent uneasiness in life.”

A friend is quoted saying she’d “not been allowed the time to be happy” in childhood. Mr. Moore: “She sought the laurels of fame and power, but could never rest on them. She applied her high standards to herself and, for all her pride in her own achievements, found herself wanting. Her only solution was to press ever onwards.”

Her sex was “the key factor” in her complicated political rise in the Conservative Party. “To succeed, she knew she would have to do everything twice as well as the others, virtually all of whom were men. If she failed, no chums would save her. It was the privilege of the ruling class and the ruling sex,” both of which dominated her party, “to be almost careless about their own careers and quite unobservant of others who did not share their advantages. They knew they would be more or less all right in the end. This sense of ease made some of them condescending to Mrs. Thatcher and others friendly and encouraging. What none of them felt was her anguish — about what to wear, how to speak, how to look after her husband and children while she climbed to power, how to survive. Friend or foe, they understood very little about her.” She was alone.

What at bottom drove her? “If there was one uniting force in everything Mrs. Thatcher did, it was her love for her country.” All truly great political leaders have this love, which involves a heightened vision of their nation. Thatcher’s love was not always requited. “But great loves such as hers go beyond reason, which is why they stir others, as leaders must if they are to achieve anything out of the ordinary.”

We will all need to achieve much out of the ordinary in the next few years. Leaders, including CEOs and politicians, will have to get us through this thing. Love of country is the only place to start.

Republished with permission from

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