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Society’s “Time Out” Gives Us A Chance to Reflect

March 24th, 2020 by dk

I think of social distancing as a societal and adult version of a “time out.” We used this discipline  technique often when our boys were growing up. As they were sitting alone in a corner, we asked them to consider how and why they had been naughty. It’s time for all of us to do the same.

We can start with corporate greed, but only because it’s emblematic for many other tendencies that have sprung up around us that may be more subtle. Government bailout pleas came first from airlines.

Airlines warned that they would be out of business by May without a $50 billion bailout — after making record profits for most of the past decade. Did they save those profits to weather this storm? No, they bought back their own stock.

Corporate short-sightedness is naughty, but it’s also normal. Just-in-time inventory practices increase efficiency, but only when everything is available almost immediately. That sounds good, until it’s not. We are facing a tragic shortage of ventilators and hospital beds because efficiencies became more important than contingencies.

We’ve stopped preparing for disasters. Forty percent of Americans can’t cover an emergency expense of $400. That might be because they are underpaid, but it’s also because we’ve come to believe that saving is for suckers. Dave Ramsey notwithstanding, we plan only for tomorrows that are sunny. That’s not good.

Turns out we’re not really capitalists at all. We’re fair weather capitalists. At the first bump in the road, we want socialist shock absorbers — free virus testing, paid sick leave, mortgage loan relief.

Airlines and hotels offer free refunds for unused reservations. Utility companies suspend shutoffs for non-payment. Student loan interest is suspended. Broadband providers are temporarily lifting data caps. TSA is allowing passengers to carry 12-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer.

Why are these humane responses reserved for emergencies? How did normal become so inhumane? There’s plenty of naughtiness to spread around.

None of us is safer than the weakest among us. We’ve forgotten that, if we ever knew it. We hoard because we feel strongest when we’re shopping or eating. We’ve lost track of how caring for others can make us feel stronger. Altruism also happens to make us stronger and more resilient, but we’ve gotten too busy for that.

We chose an entertainer as president, because we didn’t think it would matter. Protesters took to the streets for a few months, but then settled back into their routines. People cancel their subscription to local journalism because it might not be as good as it once was. Self-satisfaction is not what keeps us strong. Ignorance is not bliss.

I’ll end with one hopeful sign. Climate scientists have seen CO2 emissions plummet across Europe. China’s air is the cleanest it’s been in decades. Slow sustainability is here. Our childishly naughty normal has been interrupted. We’re taking time out to see things more clearly. We can distinguish now between what’s impossible and what’s merely unpleasant.

We have the capacity to avert ecological disaster, after all! The solutions may be unpleasant, but they can no longer be seen as impossible. 


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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