Act: Inspiration

What Might We Learn from COVID-19?

April 14, 2020

COVID-19 has much to teach us about compassion, caring, gratitude, cooperation and truth. We need to thank our news media for keeping us informed, especially at this particular moment when falsity and division abound. Leaders supporting “fake news” and “alternative facts” have failed to address a pandemic in time to save lives. But there are few rewards in politics to avert danger ahead of full crisis, so to attenuate risk and defuse trouble before it explodes. Remedial structures set by Obama were removed by Trump, and we are paying a deadly price for his folly. The shortsightedness shown by our leadership boggles the mind at times. This problem of myopic decisions is what I propose to address.

I am an economist who has spent many years asking why economics has failed us so badly in social systems design. The matter reveals some very hard truths about how we see the world, and the behavior reinforced by our institutional system. Questions are more important than answers. Sanders says socialism may help; Biden disagrees. These are not the right questions. We need a larger view.

Many economists sidestep uncertainty by assuming complete knowledge, at the expense of understanding how we might deal with doubt in the face of everyday issues of risk, trust, opportunism, myopia, and disease. Economists’ preoccupation with certainty blinds us to our rational limits: I propose a notion of planning horizons as an alternative frame.

We make decisions, not on known outcomes but on imagined projections standing on theories of how things work. These projections have an ethical range called the ‘planning horizon.’ The better we understand the world the broader the reach of our anticipations. Conscience serves to measure how well we encompass social effects.

When economists sidestep problems of knowledge, we fail to distinguish short-term myopia from more expansive vision, or petty egocentrism from enlightened self-interest. The larger our ranges of foresight – the more embracing our planning horizons – the better everything works. ‘Socialism vs. capitalism’ is not the real issue. What we need to determine is how to encourage horizonal growth through the design of our institutions.

That is the critical question. What incentives might open our minds and increase our range of awareness? Here are some hints. The better the fit of theory to fact, the further can we project our results. The more predictable our environs, the clearer our anticipations. The more supportive we all are, the stronger our teamwork efforts.

So how do we foster horizonal growth? One way is by building community and looking out for each other, regarding neighbors’ health and well-being. Doing so is in all our interests.

The more expansive our ranges of vision, the more we adapt to each other’s concerns, so the fewer conflicts we have, voiding the cost thereof. A world of trust is far more efficient than what we see today. So practical learning is much of the answer: incentives supporting curiosity, open horizons, and ethics. The more we know, the larger our vision. Inquiry ought to be nurtured.

Exchanges of information – unlike physical goods – seldom manifest scarcity. In a pandemic contagions spread, much like information engages us, stretching awareness and knowledge. Sharing creates new learning, while rivalry just divides: with common needs, opposition fails; here we seek communion as a better means to enlighten. Apart, we strive to conquer. Will we never learn? In the case of material things, whatever you get I lack; with love and information, though, “what goes around, comes around”: the more I give, the more I receive, much like smiles on the street that spread like a virus, infecting us all.

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The importance of cooperation is a story about the open abundance of complementary goods: competition creates scarcity among intangible sources of value such as love and information. If human well-being is mostly emotional, spirit and caring count. If learning is best done through sharing, competition engenders a myopic culture entrenched in a dangerous self-destruct mode. The evidence for this surrounds us!

Economists tend to believe our social relations and wants are rivalrous and not duly aligned. But do I applaud or resent your success? What is our most basic human connection? Are you friend or foe? This is the critical issue. As any economist knows, substitute trade-offs (conflicts of value) are resolved through competition. But common and complementary goals (concerts of value) call for cooperation. If sharing encourages learning, cooperation will lead to horizonal growth. Here resides a potential solution.

Competition cannot reinforce or refresh horizons, learning and love. If such social progress is stifled thereby, we are ingesting a poison for a cure due to wrong institutions. How might we verify this? Some management theorists see the signs of organizational stress as materialism, myopia, selfishness, rivalry and dysfunction. These pathological symptoms surround us, suggesting a very hard truth about our systems of social organization.

If sharing encourages growth in knowledge, competition is spawning a myopic culture revealed in ethical loss, ecological crisis, social malaise, spreading conflict, climate denial and many other ills. This pandemic – along with our lack of preparedness and the delays we are seeing in addressing the threat – offer a clear reflection of the costs of short planning horizons. Myopia is much better revised through cooperation. Are we ready to act on that?

The time is ripe for a cultural change to favor remediation, truth and greater social cohesion, as a means to smarter and safer reactions. Maybe this is what we need to learn from COVID-19.

Frederic Jennings

Frederic Jennings has a Ph.D. in Economics from Stanford University, and is President of the Center for Ecological Economic and Ethical Education (CEEEE) located in Ipswich, MA. Frederic also is on the staff of Biodiversity for a Livable Climate ( as their ecological economist.

Tags: building resilient societies, coronavirus strategies, economics, new economy