Pandemic Journal (# 32): Another Vision of the New Normal  

Whenever we in the U.S. and elsewhere are able safely to leave the restrictions of the COVID-19 Pandemic, we, in my opinion, will not return to what we regarded as “normal” before this pandemic. Nor do we know what the “new normal” will be. A previous post discussed noted commentator Fareed Zakaria’s opinion on this subject.[1]

Now we look at another vision of the new normal from Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist, author and native Minnesotan.[2]

He opens with this blockbuster, “When we emerge from this corona crisis, we’re going to be greeted with one of the most profound eras of Schumpeterian creative destruction ever — which this pandemic is both accelerating and disguising.” Indeed, “No job, no K-12 school, no university, no factory, no office will be spared. And it will touch both white-collar and blue-collar workers, which is why this election matters so much. How we provide more Americans with portable health care, portable pensions and opportunities for lifelong learning to get the most out of this moment and cushion the worst is what politics needs to be about after Nov. 3 — or we’re really headed for instability.”[3]

“The reason the post-pandemic era will be so destructive and creative is that never have more people had access to so many cheap tools of innovation, never have more people had access to high-powered, inexpensive computing, never have more people had access to such cheap credit — virtually free money — to invent new products and services, all as so many big health, social, environmental and economic problems need solving.”

Friedman gains support for these startling predictions from Ravi Kumar, the president of Infosys, an Indian tech services company with his office in New York City and corporate headquarters in Bangalore.

According to Kumar, “the Industrial Revolution produced a world in which there were sharp distinctions between employers and employees, between educators and employers and between governments and employers and educators, ‘but now you’re going to see a blurring of all these lines.’”

“Because the pace of technological change, digitization and globalization just keeps accelerating, two things are happening at once: the world is being knit together more tightly than ever . . . and ‘the half-life of skills is steadily shrinking.’ As a result, whatever skill you possess today is being made obsolete faster and faster.”

Therefore, “the most critical role for K-12 educators . . . will be to equip young people with the curiosity and passion to be lifelong learners who feel ownership over their education. . . . self-motivation to be a lifelong learner will be paramount.”

Moreover, “explained Kumar, accelerations in digitization and globalization are steadily making more work ‘modular,’’ broken up into small packets that are farmed out by companies. Companies, he argues, will increasingly become platforms that synthesize and orchestrate these modular packets to make products and services.”

“Kumar added, ‘work will increasingly get disconnected from companies, and jobs and work will increasingly get disconnected from each other.’’ Some work will be done by machines; some will require your physical proximity in an office or a factory; some will be done remotely; and some will be just a piece of a task that can also be farmed out to anyone, anywhere.”

These changes will enable “many more diverse groups of people — those living in rural areas, minorities, stay-at-home moms and dads and those with disabilities — . . . to compete for it from their homes.”

All of these changes are “already having a big impact on education. ‘We have started hiring many people with no degrees,’’ explained Kumar. ‘If you know stuff and can demonstrate that you know stuff and have been upskilling yourself with online training to do the task that we need, you’re hired. We think this structural shift — from degrees to skills — could bridge the digital divide as the cost of undergraduate education has increased by 150 percent over the last 20 years.’’’

Today Kumar’s company, Infosys, “is not looking just for ‘problem solvers,’ he says, but ‘problem-finders,’  people with diverse interests — art, literature, science, anthropology — who can identify things that people want before people even know they want them.”

Kumar also claims, ‘We’re seeing the democratization of software — the consumers can now be the creators.’ It shows you how AI will take away jobs of the past, while it creates jobs of the future.”

Significant changes are in store for postsecondary education. According to Kumar, it “will be a hybrid ecosystem of company platforms, colleges and local schools, whose goal will be to create the opportunity for lifelong ‘radical reskilling.’” Already some companies like Infosys, IBM and AT&T are “creating cutting-edge in-house universities that partner with traditional universities and even high schools.

Conclusion

 Wow! What a lot of thoughts to ponder and evaluate! Comments with informed reactions to this Friedman column are encouraged.

As a retired, older individual, I have mixed reactions. On the one hand, I am glad that I will not have to face these changes in my own life. On the other hand, I regret not being able to be around for many more years to help in some small ways society, my sons and grandchildren cope with these challenges.

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[1] Pandemic Journal (#31): What Will Be the New Normal?, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 6, 2020).

[2] Friedman, After the Pandemic, a Revolution in Education and Work Awaits, N.Y. Times (Oct. 20, 2020)

[3] This Friedman passage refers to the famous concept of “creative destruction” by Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950), an Austrian political economist, who emigrated to the U.S. to become a professor at Harvard University. His 1942 book, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, argued that capitalistic economies proceeded by creative new processes, products and structures that destroyed the preceding ones. (See Joseph Schumpeter, Wikipedia; Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Wikipedia; Creative destruction, Wikipedia.

U.S. Clarifies Positions on Cuba and Venezuela in Preparation for Summit of the Americas

This coming Friday, April 10, President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and other U.S. officials will be in Panama for the Seventh Summit of the Americas. In preparation for this major meeting, President Obama and other officials have been clarifying U.S. positions about Cuba and Venezuela. The New York Times also chimed in with an editorial about U.S. and Cuba.[1]

Cuba

During a April 4th interview with New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, President Obama said, “engagement,” combined with meeting core strategic needs, could serve American interests vis-à-vis [Cuba as well as Iran and Burma] . . . far better than endless sanctions and isolation. He added that America, with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities. “

“You take a country like Cuba. For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition. And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies.”

The President made other comments about Cuba this week in an interview by National Public Radio. He said, “As soon as I get a recommendation [from the State Department on rescinding the designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”], I’ll be in a position to act on it.” The President added, “The criteria is [sic] very straightforward. Is this particular country considered a state sponsor of terrorism — not, do we agree with them on everything, not whether they engage in repressive or authoritarian activities in their own country. I think there’s a real opportunity here, and we are going to continue to make – move forward on it. Our hope is to be in a position where we can open an embassy there, that we can start having more regular contacts and consultations around a whole host of issues, some of which we have interests in common.”

Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser in the White House and a principal U.S. negotiator of the agreement with Cuba to engage in reconciliation, said this week that the terrorism review is likely in the final stages. “It made no sense that the [U.S.] consistently essentially made the decision to isolate ourselves from the rest of the Americas because we were clinging to a policy that wasn’t working. We would anticipate that this [rescission of the terrorism designation] does help begin to remove a significant impediment to having a more constructive engagement in the hemisphere, because we demonstrated an openness to engage all the countries in the Americas, to include Cuba.”

These remarks have prompted a lot of speculation that just before or at the Summit, the State Department will announce that it has finished its review of its designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” and concluded that it should be rescinded and that the President has decided to do just that.

Venezuela

Mr. Rhodes also tried to dampen Latin American outcries against the President’s March 9th executive order imposing sanctions against seven Venezuelans and stating that “[T]he situation in Venezuela . . . constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and [the President] hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.”[2]

According to Mr. Rhodes this week, the wording of the executive order “is completely pro forma.  This is a language that we use in executive orders around the world.  So the [U.S.] does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security. We . . . just have a framework for how we formalize these executive orders.” Moreover, the executive order was not “aimed at targeting the Venezuelan government broadly or bringing about some type of dramatic change in terms of the government of Venezuela.  It was focused on a number of individuals who had been determined to be associated with human rights violations.  And we have executive orders like this around the world, and they’re a tool that allows us to have consequences associated with our support for universal values.” [3]

New York Times Editorial

An April 7th editorial in the New York Times recognizes the obvious: the change is unfolding slowly. “Untangling the web of sanctions the [U.S.] imposes on Cuba will take years because many are codified into law. The Cuban government, while publicly welcoming a rapprochement, seems intent on moving cautiously at a pivotal moment when its historically tight grip on Cuban society will inevitably be tested.”

Nevertheless, the Times argues, “it has already reset Cubans’ expectations about their future and their nation’s role in a global economy.” And “it has made it increasingly hard for [Cuba’s] leaders to blame their economic problems and isolation on the [U.S.].”

Moreover, the Times points out, “some early concrete steps are promising. Obama administration officials and business executives have met in recent weeks with Cuban officials to explore how American companies can help upgrade the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure and provide cheaper and more available Internet service. Executives from Google, whose platforms and services are widely desired in Cuba, visited the island in mid-March to make headway in the company’s goal of establishing its presence there.

In addition, “Airbnb, the company based in San Francisco that allows people to list their homes online for short-term rentals, announced last week that it had broken into the Cuban market, unveiling 1,000 listings there. That debut in Cuba could boost the small, but growing private sector in a nation where people have only recently been allowed to earn a living outside state employment.”

The new U.S. policy of engagement is gaining the increased support of Cuban-Americans. A “poll conducted last month by Bendixen & Amandi International found that 51 percent of Cuban-Americans agreed with the decision to start normalizing relations with Cuba, an increase from 44 percent in a survey in December.”

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[1] This post is based upon the following sources: Friedman, Iran and the Obama Doctrine, N.Y. Times (April 5, 2015); Nat’l Pub. Radio, Transcript: President Obama’s Full NPR Interview On Iran Nuclear Deal (April 7, 2015); White House, On-the-Record Conference Call on the P{resident’s Trip to Jamaica and Panama (April 7, 2015); Reuters, Obama Says Would Move Fast to Take Cuba Off Terrorism Sponsor List, N.Y. Times (April 7, 2015); Reuters, U.S. Closing In on Recommendation to Remove Cuba From State Terrorism List, N.Y. Times (April 7, 2015); Davis, Latin American Trip Will Test Obama’s Push for Ties with Cuba, N.Y. Times (April 8, 2015); Neuman, White House Seeks to Soothe Relations with Venezuela, N.Y. Times (April 7, 2015); Editorial, Cuban Expectations in a New Era, N.Y. Times (April 7, 2015).

[2] The President’s executive order and the reactions in Latin America were subjects of posts on March 16, 18, 19 and 20.

[3] Mr. Rhodes’ dismissal of the preamble to the executive order, in my opinion, is undoubtedly correct as a matter of U.S. national security and is helpful in trying to calm Latin American nerves, But Rhodes’ comment raises a troubling question. I assume the preamble is based upon a federal statute allowing certain sanctions to be imposed in certain circumstances threatening national security. If that is the law and if, in fact, Venezuela does not impose a threat to national security, then is the executive order illegal under U.S. law?

 

Westminster Town Hall Forum

The Westminster Town Hall Forum engages the public in reflection and dialogue on the key issues of our day from an ethical perspective. The Forum is nonpartisan and nonsectarian.[1]

Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis

Forums are free and open to the public. They are held on select Thursdays from September through May from noon to 1:00 p.m. (CT) at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Nicollet Mall and 12th Street, in downtown Minneapolis. Each forum is preceded by music at 11:30 a.m. A public reception and small group discussion follow the forum from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. The Forum presentations also are broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio.

The Forum started over 30 years ago with its first speaker, Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. Since then it has featured over 200 speakers, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the inspirational South African leader; Elie Wiesel, the author and Holocaust survivor; Arthur Schlesinger, American historian and presidential assistant; Ellen Goodman, newspaper columnist; Cornel West, Princeton University Professor; Gwen Ifill, television journalist; Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist; Robert Coles, author, child psychiatrist and Harvard University Professor; Walter Mondale, former U.S. Senator and Vice President; Salman Rushdie, novelist;  and Edward Albee, playwright.

David Brooks at Forum

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, author and commentator, has appeared twice in recent years at the Forum, to audiences of over 3,000 each time.


[1] Westminster Town Hall Forum, http://westminsterforum.org/.