ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
In tonight’s chapter of our Bookshelf series we are joined by Fareed Zakaria, host of Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN. He is also a Washington Post columnist and author of Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World. Fareed, welcome.
FAREED ZAKARIA: Pleasure to be on, Bob.
MR. COSTA: As we near the end of this grueling year, your book really is a guidebook. It steps back and offers insights on how the pandemic has changed us, the nation, and global politics. You begin your book by saying plagues and have consequences. And you use history to tell that story. So, Fareed, what can we learn from history about how pandemics cause lasting disruptions?
MR. ZAKARIA: Well, if you look – if you look back in history, you can see it can be seismic. I mean, the bubonic plague of the 14th century in Europe was probably the greatest plague ever. It killed about – believe it or not – it killed about half the adult population in Europe. And the result of that, ironically, was it had two great consequences. The first was to end serfdom. Because, if you think about it, all of a sudden you have many fewer laborers, right? Human work becomes much more valuable because they have many fewer workers. And so it became difficult for the lords to lord it over the serfs. That began the process of the emancipation of serfs throughout certainly Western Europe.
The second, which is a slightly more subtle intellectual one, was it began the process of the Enlightenment and Rationalism because a plague that devastating led a lot of people to say: Wait a minute, if we have a benign God and he’s all powerful, why is he doing this? Maybe he – maybe he works in a different way. Maybe – they began to ask questions. And so you can see that one is a kind of an economic consequence, one was an intellectual consequence. But they both ended up being massive and transforming.
MR. COSTA: What about the cultural consequence? I was struck in your book about how you said after the pandemic in the early 20th century we had the roaring ’20s, and all that entailed.
MR. ZAKARIA: Yeah, it was extraordinary, isn’t it? After World War I and the Spanish influenza – worst pandemic in centuries – what did you have? You had the jazz age, the roaring ’20s. New York City became the center for a whole culture of speakeasies because, of course, there was prohibition. And so you have thousands of illegal bars, gin joints, sprouting up all over New York. Look, I think there is a good chance that one of the short-term effects of the end of this pandemic will be a burst of pent-up demand. People – you know, we’re all – we’ve all be starved of certain things – human company, you know, the sociability, people want to travel. So there’s a lot of those things that I think you’ll see an immediate boom.
But the difference this time, Bob, is that there are real technologies – I write in the chapter on digital life that we have created digital life, which didn’t exist in the ’20s. So in the ’20s, if you wanted to go back to work, you had to go to the office. If you wanted to go get entertained, you have to go to a theater. Those things how we have alternatives. We have digital alternatives. So my guess is that after a brief burst of – you know, a roaring ’20s-like year, we will find a new hybrid model where some of the things we’re doing now we will continue to do, but there’s always that deep craving that human beings have to associate with others, to mingle. You know, I quote Aristotle, who I think had it just right. Man is by nature a social animal.
MR. COSTA: In your chapter about how this digital transformation will occur, and likely continue to unfold, you note that the city could change as a gathering place, as a place of work. What do you mean by that?
MR. ZAKARIA: Well, I think there’s no question that these technologies make for a different kind of model of work and life. You know, I think we still think of almost a 19th century industrial model of the city, that you live in one place – often a suburb. You leave in the morning, you go to a completely different places, you work there the whole day, and you come back. Your life at home is completely different from your life at work – different people, different context, different, you know, words, restaurants, everything.
Well, I think we’re going to see much more of a mingled model now because the reality is I think people are going to work two to three days a week sometimes, maybe four days. Maybe they won’t go in at all one week. And so what you’re going to see, in a way it’s a return back to an older model when, you know, the shopkeeper lived above the store, the craftsman plied his trade in the garage where he lived, the farmer always lived on the farm. So we might find that work and life become more mingled. And that will create a different city. It’ll create a city maybe of neighborhoods that are more complete and intact.
New York is a lot like that, but most cities are not. You know, every 10 or 15 blocks of New York contains everything within it. Paris is beginning to experiment with exactly this model. They call it the 15-minute city. But I’m very optimistic at the end of the day that cities will not be hollowed out. I mean, cities have survived everything – the bubonic plague, the great plagues of London, the great fire of London. In the18th century, the yellow fever plague swept Philadelphia, killed one-tenth of the population. And Jefferson, who hated cities, said: This is the end. There won’t be big cities in America anymore.
I think people at the end of the day like to gather. And the simple thing – this is not nostalgia – the simple truth is you make more money if you live in a city. That’s why we have seen over the last 300 years a massive global trend toward urbanization. I don’t think one pandemic will change that.
MR. COSTA: Fareed, we spoke on the program about how this is an American crisis. Of course, it’s also a global crisis. But what about in China? How has the pandemic changed China?
MR. ZAKARIA: Well, I think one would have to be – to admit that the Chinese have handled the pandemic, all told, pretty darn well. So it started there. They mishandled it at the beginning, they then lied about it. There’s no question there was a certain amount of deception, part of it probably because it is a repressive dictatorship. But then they were able to act with extraordinary speed, intelligence, and, you know, they really bludgeoned it. So that it’s essentially gone. The economy has bounced back. People in China are back in movie theaters. They’re back in sports venues.
It would appear that China will come out of this stronger. It will be able to get its economy back faster than any other country. And within the public, from what I can tell – and this is obviously a bit of a difficult subject because it’s not an open society – but from what I can tell people credit the government with having responded fast and effectively. And they are proud of the fact that COVID has essentially disappeared from China. And looking around at the world, and particularly at the United States as it fumbles and as its case numbers skyrocket, the Chinese say: You know what? We’ve handled this every well. Our government has handled it very well. So I think for Xi Jinping this – he’s had a good pandemic, if I may put it that way. (Laughs.)
MR. COSTA: Fareed, during the program you talked about the tides of populism and nationalism that are roiling global politics. Does the pandemic change that in any way?
MR. ZAKARIA: You know, I don’t think we will know for sure because sometimes these trends take a while. I point out in the book, you know, who would have known that the global financial crisis of ’08-’09 would produce the rise of right-wing populism? If you think about it, the global financial crisis was caused by the irresponsibility of the private sector, of banks. You could have imagined it would result in people moving left economically. Instead, they moved right culturally. You know what happened, I think, is that people got anxious.
And when people get anxious, the thing that gets them most anxious is the sense that they’re losing their nation, their country, the character of their country. They start worrying about immigrants and people who don’t look the same as them, and things like that. So it evoked a kind of cultural anxiety which helped the right-wing populists. One thing I can say about this pandemic is it is going to heighten, sharpen, exacerbate inequality dramatically. Just think about, you know, our world. We are able to function pretty well with this pandemic. There’s the awkwardness of Zoom and the teleconferencing. But, you know, lawyers, doctors, accountants, businesspeople, consultants, all these – media people, professors, they can all continue to function.
But anyone working in a restaurant, or hotel, or cruise ship, a retail mall, a theme park – for them it’s the Great Depression. And these are low-wage – lower-wage workers anyway. So that divide is going to get massively exacerbated. And what that does to the politics of the future I think is the great open question.
MR. COSTA: Fareed, you write in your book that President Trump, quote, “Deserves a great deal of blame for downplaying the pandemic, undermining the guidelines of his own scientific advisors. But there is more to the story than just an inept White House.” Fareed, what is the rest of the story?
MR. ZAKARIA: Look, we had a broad systemic failure, beyond Trump. You know, the CDC sent out the wrong tests. HHS has not been able to put a national testing program in place. We have bizarre, and chaotic, and varying funding for it. So why is this all happening? This is all happening because for the last 40-45 years the United States has demeaned, disrespected, and defunded its federal government, and as a result gotten a dysfunctional set of bureaucracies. Ronald Reagan came into power in 1980. And he said: Government is not the solution. Government is the problem. He said, the nine most frightening words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.
But if you have that attitude – and, by the way, it was more than an attitude. We don’t realize how much these agencies – core agencies of the federal government have been defunded because the military buildup has always been huge, spending on Medicare and Social Security has gone up a lot. So it looks like federal spending kept going up. But the reality is that these agencies – Health and Human Services, things like that – have all suffered massive cuts. And more importantly, the whole culture has been one to say: They’re the problem. You know, nobody smart works there. And to the extent they have any power, the idea has been to strip them.
So Steve Bannon comes into office in the early months of the Trump period and says: The goal of the Trump revolution is the deconstruction of the administrative state. Now if you’re trying to deconstruct and destroy the federal government, then we shouldn’t be surprised that in a pandemic it doesn’t perform that well.
MR. COSTA: Fareed, your book can be seen also as an argument for the importance of global cooperation. One example you discuss in your book is the collaboration between the Soviet Union and the United States at the height of the Cold War, with both nations putting their own differences aside to help the WHO, with the ultimately successful project of eradicating smallpox worldwide. What can we all learn from that episode?
MR. ZAKARIA: I think the most important thing we can learn is that we’re really all in this together. We’re not going to be safe if we aren’t able to vaccine everyone. We’re not going to be safe from global health challenges in general if we can’t achieve a degree of information sharing, cooperation, even joint standards on some things, because it will make it so much easier for everybody. It is really the ultimate win-win. But this pandemic has actually forced everyone to look inwards somewhat. It’s not just the United States. It’s certainly probably most prominently the United States. But other countries also initially moved in.
But clearly the solution is going to be for us to cooperate. Look, with the vaccine you’ve got to get everybody vaccinated. With information flows regarding the next pandemic, you need to make sure everybody knows what’s happening and when. We need a more powerful World Health Organization, not a less powerful one. The reason the World Health Organization is not able to perform well in China is because the rules are written so that it doesn’t have the authority to. And guess who wrote the rules? The United States, because we didn’t want the WHO moseying around in the United States.
Now, this is part of the challenge we have to – we have to confront more generally, which is if we are going to navigate a world with climate change, with cyberattacks, with issues relating to space, these are all going to be issues that can only be handled collectively. And so rather than trying to jealously guard our own prerogatives here, what we should be looking for is the most effective solution. Which is, of course, not a world government. That’s just nonsense created by people who want to scare the American public. It’s some degree of cooperation among sovereign countries to achieve a greater good – like the eradication of smallpox, like the eradication of AIDS in Africa, like the battle against Ebola – which was successful.
We can do it. We’ve done it in the past. I’m not arguing for some dreamy-eyed idealism. Just practical cooperation so that we recognize: If we’re all in this together, and we work together, we all win.
MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it there for tonight. Many thanks, Fareed, for this discussion. It’s appreciated.
MR. ZAKARIA: My pleasure, Bob. Thank you.
MR. COSTA: Thank you.
And thank you all for joining us. Make sure to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter on our website. We’ll give you an inside look at all things politics and Washington Week. You’ll also receive a weekly note from me.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and see you next time.