In the great search for metaphors to justify the largest-scale violations of human rights in our lifetimes, the disease managers finally hit on the term “pause button.” We were merely pressing it for a while to get our bearings, un-overload hospitals, gather personal protective equipment, flatten the curve, and generally figure out what to do in the presence of a new virus.
They had to pause you so that they could figure it out.
Here is a typical headline, this one from the Los Angeles Times:
We all know what a pause button is in real life. The music is playing and then it is not. But you can press the button again and the music will play. Society, then, in all its unfathomable complexity, was rendered as a song on Spotify playing on a machine over which our masters in public health held the controls. It was like a smartphone: push and release. No big deal.
Well, it did turn out as a pause, not for 15 days, or even 30, but all the way for three years. The pause button jammed.
The pause button pertained not just to earth but heaven too. Three years ago, during Lent, Christians could not go to their parishes to confess their sins as they had for 2,000 years in preparation for Easter. The most important Eucharistic services of the year – during which time the faithful receive grace from a host with real presence of God – were flat-out canceled, as were the other sacraments.
One supposes that they assume God too is under their control.
Incredibly, the complaints were few, particularly from the clergy who chose compliance over faith. Those who shut their doors for one or even two years are now paying a heavy price for the decision. The leadership essentially announced that they were not essential. Parishioners and congregations decided to take them at their word.
But it wasn’t just worship services. It was everything. And by everything we can include supply chains, industrial manufacturing, artistic creativity, seasonal changes in fashion, and the timeline of history itself. Commercial life came to a standstill. Unless you wanted liquor or weed – all the better to calm down a locked-down population – you were pretty much out of luck.
Here we are three years later and the Wall Street Journal has taken note: “How Shopping Got So Boring.”
“Manufacturers and retailers of everything from computers to dresses hit pause in the past few years when it came to innovation, the result of pandemic-related upheavals in the design, manufacture and distribution of goods, industry executives said. Shifting consumer demand and the expectation of an economic slowdown also played a role, the executives said.”
Fleshing this out a bit, the fashions at the store are retreads. The kids don’t have new toys from which to choose. Laptops are the same as they were. Automotive technology is doing well to recreate the features of five years ago given the chip shortage and parts delivery problems.
When was the last time you heard about any truly life-improving consumer product? Instead, the only new things we hear about concern Artificial Intelligence, which even an idiot knows will be deployed to fasten on us more controls.
And there we have it. The normal progress we have come to expect in a vibrant economy came to an end. Every year now feels like 2019. Nothing has changed. Risk aversion in industry, arts, music, and every corner of life is now the dominant theme.
I just attended the first symphonic concert in my life when a new piece of music didn’t take up the slot just before the intermission. To be sure, most of these displays of modern excess were annoying at best and their disappearance was something of a relief to me. Still, it symbolizes something important. In an effort to win back audiences, symphonies will stop challenging their listeners and rest on the laurels of symphonies past.
It is the same on Broadway. There are no risks, no new shows without a name brand. Instead, every show represents something tried and true, and revivals are only new presentations of one-time hit movies and characters. It’s part of an overall cultural and economic reversion to the past.
And truly, the pandemic response was not just about a pause button. It was about going backwards in time. And for a while, we really did. We didn’t have hospitals, doctors, or dentistry. When things reopened, all services became truncated and minimalist. It was as if some great stoppage occurred that deprived us of all we had come to expect, so that we would be grateful at whatever morsels came our way after it was over.
They say that the emotion of love is always on the move, either intensifying or declining but never standing still. So it is with commercial life. Nature means privation but wealth creation and progress require a constant swirl of human initiative, creativity, and risk-taking. It is beyond presumptuous to think such a thing can be shut off without consequence, and consequence for the very long term.
The 19th-century French economist Frederic Bastiat theorized that the real costs of bad policy were unseen, or invisibilium in the Latin. They are the secondary effects. They cannot be added up because they cannot be observed or calculated. He was speaking of the products not created, the art not imagined, the improvements not made, the businesses not opened, the jobs not gained. None of this appears in any calculation because they are opportunity costs: the thing not done because something else took its place.
In the department of economy, an act, a habit, an institution, a law, gives birth not only to an effect, but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause – it is seen. The others unfold in succession – they are not seen: it is well for us, if they are foreseen. Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference – the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee. … In fact, it is the same in the science of health, arts, and in that of morals.
There have been great efforts over three years to objectively calculate the collateral damage of lockdowns and put some dollar figure on it. Such efforts are appreciated but also they cannot come close to accounting for all the experiences and progress we have enjoyed but for lockdowns and the vast disruption from dehumanizing masks and vaccine mandates. Quite simply, we will never know. We can only imagine.
I’ve never been to Cuba but anyone can see the pictures of a land that time forgot, with cars from the 1950s and all other technology to match it. This is what happens when you push the pause button on commercial life. At best you freeze progress but more likely you slip back in time, steadily. Cuba stands as living proof of that.
This is not just about toys, fashion, symphonies, and Broadway. It reaches very deeply into the quality of our lives. Life expectancy in the United States just experienced the largest two-year drop in a century.
When all this began, I reflected on how Woodstock did not pause for the last pandemic. In 2020, everything locked down. This worried me because Woodstock gave rise to decades of musical influence. That was the depth of my concern over 15 days. But three years of this? The costs are certainly incalculable and even unfathomable.
You have surely noticed a nihilism alive in the culture that is giving rise to unthinkable movements toward denying the undeniable such as biological sex. There is also the massive learning loss in every grade level plus the sheer dumbing down of adults. I posted the other day about a book I read and too many people responded in shock: you read books? And look at the collapse in the reported importance of patriotism, religion, and family: it’s off the cliff.
The regress takes every form large and small, most of them surprising. I bet you would not have imagined this headline a few years ago:
Then you have the courts and the state machinery generally, which are reverting to pre-modern forms. The raison d’etre of the state in the ancient world was never doubted: reward friends and punish enemies. The modern state was supposed to be different: we once talked about fairness, rights, equality, and justice. This dangerous trend will plunge into a dark age.
The astonishing aspect of all of this is that the decline is both all around us and yet barely perceptible simply because of the numbness and exhaustion people feel in this post-pandemic world. Populations the world over were brutalized by their governments, and government forms themselves have reverted to the ancient model, used as tools not of justice and peace but to punish enemies.
Society is not a machine that anyone can control. It has no pause button. Attempt to treat it as if it does and you end up creating something distorted and possibly terrible, certainly the end of material and cultural progress but probably something much worse. It was utter folly for anyone to imagine that what they thought they were doing should ever be done. It is even more egregious that so many played along when they should have refused the pause.