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Sailing in unprecedented waters

Michael Barone on

Precedent doesn't provide much guidance. There's a deadly coronavirus threatening to circulate through the population. The resulting government orders and social sanctions of self-distancing and self-isolating behavior are unprecedented in living memory.

Operating without guiding precedents casts into doubt many longstanding practices and assumptions.

First, as the Hoover Institution's Michael Auslin writes in RealClearPolitics, "After dealing with the first great global crisis of the 21st century, the world must fundamentally rethink its dependence on China."

Americans are suddenly realizing they depend on China for health care products from face masks to pharmaceutical medicines, including nearly half our penicillin and nearly all our ibuprofen.

Veteran China watchers have noticed that China's economic growth has slowed down; its working-age population is peaking (thanks, one-child policy!); and its legal system and statistics remain unreliable. Now almost everyone is noticing, in Auslin's words, "China's lax public health care, incompetent and intrusive government, and generally less developed domestic conditions."

A turning point for China means a turning point for globalism. For 40 years, American leaders of both parties have assumed that cheap Chinese-produced consumer and manufactured goods are a bargain. COVID-19 strengthens the arguments of Trump Republicans and protectionist Democrats that these products actually cost too much.

 

Global supply chains, which seemed primed to reduce costs forever, now seem to have the potential to increase costs exponentially. Governments and business firms seem likely to conclude that it makes more sense to buy things made closer to home.

Consumers may feel that way, too. Destination weddings, often requiring thousands of dollars to attend, may become sharply less common. Los Angeles suburbanites may skip a father-son ski trip to the Italian Dolomites and just drive four-plus hours to Mammoth Mountain instead.

Are we seeing a turning point in public policy as well? Blogger Mickey Kaus notes that President Donald Trump, in his (at last) impressive presentations, has called on big business leaders to help lead recovery efforts. For all the rhetoric obeisance to small businesses, this is reminiscent of how big business mobilized the nation in World War II.

That happened because former President Franklin Roosevelt knew from firsthand experience in World War I that then-President Woodrow Wilson's seizure of railroads and shipyards didn't work very well. To maximize production to destroy Hitler, Roosevelt calculated, government needed to enlist the guys who knew how to get things done.

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