Chinese author Cixin Liu’s visionary science-fiction novel “The Three-Body Problem” features a planet called Trisolaris with an unstable atmosphere whose surface occasionally becomes uninhabitable — and whose inhabitants can literally dehydrate themselves and turn into static pieces of canvas skin until the crisis passes.
We are all Trisolarans now. The coming of COVID-19 has impelled us to dehydrate our lives and our economy so we can survive an atmosphere in which an aerosolized virus has achieved the power potentially to kill millions.
Liu’s Trisolarans can only come back to life after their atmosphere stabilizes and someone rehydrates them. The question before us real-world Trisolarans is: How do we rehydrate ourselves and revivify our economy after a period of forced indolence?
For far too many people, it seems, even posing the question generates automatic condemnation. Let a local politician say he wants to “reopen” his town, and he is accused of indifference to suffering and dying, all in the name of mere commerce. With so many lives at stake, the condemners declare, how can anyone even begin to think about resuming normal activities?
The answer is simple: How can we not? We must think about it, because we need it to happen. All of us. We need it to happen, and as soon as it is possible to do so, because we literally cannot afford to continue living this way.
Not psychologically, not practically and not economically.
First, consider the psychology. For a time, the salient metaphor of this dreadful moment seemed to be that America had placed itself in the economic and social equivalent of a medically induced coma. But powerful and vivid as the idea is, it’s not quite right.
Comas deprive their victims of consciousness, but we are all living through this disaster painfully aware of every disruption of the lives we were leading before it — not to mention the anxiety, the boredom, the isolation, the cabin fever, the stir craziness.
A great 1997 documentary called “Hands on a Hard Body” detailed a contest at a car lot in Texas, in which all the entrants had to do was stand by a pickup truck, put a palm on it and just stay there. The last man standing won his pickup. As you watch, the contestants begin to go totally crazy from the profound effort it takes to do absolutely nothing.
The challenge we’ve been presented by the COVID-19 crisis is to exist in a condition of forced indolence, and the experience is close to intolerable. Left unchecked, indolence can begin to have a degenerative quality. It begets more indolence.
The indolent begin to forget, in bizarrely short order, what it was to be active, engaged, out and about — so much so that even though we in New York have only been living in this lockdown condition for five weeks, it already seems like a violation of some deep social stricture even to imagine going to a restaurant, or a movie, or a ballgame.
The more America’s forced indolence begins to seem like normal life, the harder it will be to emerge from it.
Now add to this the consequences of the forced indolence in the form of an instant and unprecedented recession (talk about burying the lede!).
The federal government has already committed in excess of $6 trillion to help Americans and the American economy weather this storm. The US economy generated $21.4 trillion last year. That $6-plus trillion in direct government moneys and Federal Reserve liquidity is the equivalent of 3 months of this country’s overall economic output.
We’re already a month into our dehydration, and a week ago one of the sources of relief — the forgivable loans to small business — ran out of money. The fund will be replenished momentarily, but what happens when those trillions are gone?
This consideration needs to be at the heart of our conversations about the crisis. To pretend we can ignore it, or accuse those who are focused on it of callousness and attempted murder, is to be guilty of a kind of emotional manipulation and hysteria that, left unchecked, will cost this country the very wealth it needs to weather this dreadful storm — and rehydrate us.