A Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist says there have been 4 pandemics in the past 20 years — and crises will happen more frequently unless something changes about income inequality

Crystal Cox/Business InsiderThomas Friedman says there are three main reasons why there’s been so many crises.
  • Paul Constant is a writer at Civic Ventures, a cofounder of the Seattle Review of Books, and a frequent cohost of the “Pitchfork Economics” podcast with Nick Hanauer and David Goldstein.
  • On this week’s episode of “Pitchfork Economics,” Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman had an epiphany: He’s been covering different types of pandemics for the past 20 years.
  • It seems as if global crises are accelerating, and Friedman cites three main reasons why: the removal of regulations, an increase in corporate power, and the increased speed of cheap communication.
  • Friedman says that, if he were in charge, he’d give everyone on the planet a guaranteed minimum income.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Thomas Friedman is pretty much the expert on globalization. He’s authored books that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide, he writes a column for the New York Times, and he’s won three Pulitzer Prizes for his deft observations on global unrest, international commerce, and the changing relationships of the world’s superpowers.

So it’s surprising that Friedman sounds so shocked by a recent epiphany on this week’s episode of “Pitchfork Economics.”

During the economic crisis following the coronavirus pandemic, the realisation dawned on Friedman that he’s “been covering different kinds of pandemics for the last 20 years.”

Specifically, Friedman cites four distinct pandemics that have unfolded since the turn of the millennium: “a geopolitical pandemic called 9/11, a financial pandemic called [the Great Recession of] 2008, a biological pandemic called COVID-19, and a looming atmospheric pandemic called climate change.”

While it’s true that the 20th century saw two World Wars spread over two decades – though some historians argue that they were largely the same crisis with two distinct flare-ups on either end – it certainly seems as though the pace of global crises is accelerating.

As Friedman puts it, “Why is it that every seven years we have this globe-shaking event?”

Friedman cites three main causes for these crises: First, the removal of “buffers” – the regulations that used to keep corporations and bad actors at bay; second, the resulting increase of corporate power as neoliberal governments around the world cede authority and responsibility to those increasingly international companies; and third, the increased speed and ubiquity of cheap communication.

I hope you’ll listen to the full conversation between Friedman, Nick Hanauer, and David Goldstein, in which they debate the finer points of Friedman’s theory. They discuss whether the market can resolve the problem of climate change, and what role regulations can play in calming the turbulence of unchecked corporate globalization.

Something struck me as I listened to Friedman’s revelation that we’re entering a period of consistent global turbulence: The three causes he cites really just boil down to increasing income inequality, both on the micro (national) and the macro (international) scale.

It stands to reason that the United States has been at the epicentre of so many of the world’s problems, since the gap between the wealthiest and poorest families has doubled here from 1989 to 2016, and we have the highest levels of income inequality among all the G-7 nations.

As the gap between the haves and the have-nots has expanded, we’ve been at the tip of the spear of global turmoil – which also explains why the election of Donald Trump kicked off a string of populist far-right leaders around the world.

But wealth inequality becomes a mammoth global problem when nearly every nation on earth is connected via cheap, instantaneous communication devices.

Wealthy nations have outsourced labour to nations where they can pay locals pennies on the dollar to assemble our mobile phones.

But those underpaid workers can also buy their own cell phones, and they can clearly see the luxury that their labour is creating. The world is smaller now, and everyone can peer over their neighbour’s fences.

We’re already seeing tensions over inequality bubble over in the form of the frequent crises that Friedman cited. Those crises will likely only increase in frequency, wiping out the wealth of the poorest world citizens and enriching the world’s wealthiest citizens again and again in a runaway boom-and-bust cycle, until something changes.

Any student of history can tell you that these conditions of grave inequality are untenable. As Hanauer has said, there are only two likely outcomes for a system this unequal: You can either develop a police state to keep the have-nots in line, or the pitchforks will come out and revolution will begin.

Friedman doesn’t believe that’s the only possible outcome. And he has some solutions in mind.

If he were declared Emperor of the World tomorrow, Friedman says, he “would absolutely guarantee a minimum income for every person on the planet.”

If he were in charge, Friedman would also secure the right to “access to either telemedicine or actual medicine.”

And he would “radically incentivise a green revolution” with a program to “see who could invent and scale green technologies fastest so men and women can live here sustainably on earth.”

These are lofty goals, obviously, and many would call them entirely unattainable. But crises have a funny way of rapidly transforming the impossible into the probable. It’s unclear how many more shocks to the system this world can take before something big has to change. And if the long and costly recoveries from economic downturns that I’ve seen in my lifetime are any guide, it will be better for the world if everyone gets a seat at the table.

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