The colors were fresh and warm. Streaks of sepia were broken between bands of red and orange ever so delightfully by winter clouds of SoCal. A Cherry tree rose in silhouette to the left while at the horizon, rising up against this morning palette, were bushes and palm trees jostling for space. I should have seen this visual a million times already, but did not. Any given morning, I am so occupied with a million priorities that I never seem to have the time, nor the willingness, to look up. At the start of the Thanksgiving week of 2020, I am thankful I did.
Incongruous as it sounds, there is a lot to be thankful for the United States of America of today. This Thanksgiving it is a good time to take stock of the blessings, even with all the idiocies we know of too well.
First, the pandemic really is ending, even if not tomorrow, not next week, not even next month. Each vaccine project is on a promising trajectory, a few with amazing efficacy. Even if we could quibble about logistical challenges and distribution priorities, by May of 2021 we will reach herd immunity, likely sooner. Manufacturers globally have started producing promising contenders, even before they have requisite permissions; US is enlisting the armed forces for in-country logistics. If there were a case for bending rules and putting aside accepted “best” practices, Operation Warp Speed definitely fit the bill in search of the Holy Grail. And I could not have it any other way.
Second, despite everything the US economy is not in tatters as in other developed countries outside China. US GDP will clock a smidge better than 4% loss over a comparable twelve-month period. The unemployment rate at 6.9% is near low levels of previous cycles, even if far higher than the milestone of sub-4%. Despite the dramatic increase in consumer debt over the last few decades, reflecting both democratization of credit and lower rate regime, delinquency on all consumer loans are at or near historic lows. Trump has bludgeoned Fed with his sermon of a “permanent” wall of liquidity and that definitely helped. With global economies in disarray, so it does not look like inflation will scale up soon. All in, an enviable situation despite the pandemic, especially when compared with peers.
Third, our institutions actually worked as they were supposed to result in the start of a Presidential transition, effective yesterday. Despite the pandemic, November elections were “the most secure in American history” with “no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised”- thus came the official proclamation. Courts are throwing out hail-Mary frivolities; state legislatures will, in all likelihood, select electors and allocate electoral college votes that reflect people’s choice and state constitutions. By the end of this week there will be enough electoral college vote assigned to the President-elect. On cue, a recalcitrant GSA Administrator came to senses and started the official transition. Challenges to votes continue, but the heartbeat is barely there.
Fourth, the incoming Biden administration is poised to hit the reset button internationally. It will take a lot of goodwill, hand-wringing, and diplomats for Tony Blinken to restore normalcy, but from what we know, he is up to the task. The last four years were a marked about-turn for the premise of US internationally – from a leader who builds institutions of multilateral cooperation to a transactional player willing to ridicule and defile past alliances. I would not be surprised if other countries are still cagey about accepting our new avatar, thus, it is a wise choice to bring back the players who actually did a yeoman’s job in similar positions yesterday. Cue in Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who served over three decades in the Foreign Service and will be well suited to convey a status-quo-ante at the United Nations, another institution that we created and nurtured but was thrown under the bus by Trumpism. Continuity, just like the country did in electing a trusted old hand as our next President, goes hand-hand with leadership.
Fifth, the country is tired of the pandemic in more ways than one. Even amongst the most faithful, and the most observant, ever-present at-home orders and restrictions against social gathering are taking a toll. The third (?) wave is upon us just as winter sets in, by the time vaccines get to people half a million people will have died of the pandemic in the US, surpassing US casualty of World War 2, and very close to the total death in the Civil War, or, god forbid, US fatality in Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. As soon as the vaccine kills the scourge, we will most certainly see a surge in activities and discretions (or lack thereof) that make us feel human again.
Realist old hands in statecraft as they are, the Biden-Harris administration should not be naïve about challenges ahead, starting with the pandemic. By the time they take reins, over 350,000 people will have died in the US from COVID-19, and the pandemic will be raging at its peak in the winter post Holidays, even if vaccines will have started pouring in. An inflection in pandemic deaths will still be far away for rest of the world, economic destruction last twelve months will be nakedly visible and vulgar, countries will be kneecapped without access to easy liquidity as we have. China claims to have already turned around fast, we really do not know. Thankfully, US is a comparatively closed economy, even before Trump, and that will very likely make us the best performing western economy, if not the best performing developed economy, in 2021. In the throes of its last days it is not unlike Trump administration to provoke a calamity, possibly in the Middle East. An unprovoked war against Iran is the last thing US needs now, and I am looking to our military leadership to bring senses, even disobey unlawful orders from the Commander-in-Chief.
As Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen will have her hands full dealing with the aftermath of the wall of liquidity, but that means global economy will have cured by then, not a bad situation for the US as it is expected to capture the upside in a big way. As DHS Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas will have to work harder to “protection of all Americans and those who flee persecution in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones” as he vowed to do upon nomination. Domestically, Biden-Harris team will have their work cut out working with (almost already) warring interests within the big tent of the Democratic Party. As long as Trump looms large as the elephant in the elephant herd, Biden should expect no cooperation from the other side of the aisle; a mid-term disaster in 2022 will handicap everything he may start by then – just like in Obama administration.
A hundred years back, as the Spanish Flu tamed, people wanted to live human, again. And they did. They thought the bold and the audacious, including these epics such as the Empire State Building and the Hoover Dam – both conceptualized during the time. Railroads went amuck on US soil, crisscrossing the country many times over and blanketing city streets. Even if Prohibition was the law of the land, bootleggers made sure you did not stay sedate. Savagery of Jim Crow did not prevent almost half of US black population migrate to the North for better life, or simply for an opportunity to live. US Economy boomed – GDP per capita soared 38% before Great Depression set in. On the flip side, US retreated into self-imposed isolationism that lasted till Pearl Harbor but I am confident that we have learned that lesson.
Big opportunities are knocking our doors, and I am praying Biden does not turn a deaf ear. This time we will invest in global relationships and technologies, and great programs that better our lives, elevate our experiences, provide better tools to handle challenges of the day after, and make us a more perfect union. We will again, proudly, be the beacon of hope, the shining city, for all around the globe who dare to have a dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of better lives for their children.
This time we will live and live better. Roaring 20’s are almost here, again! I am thankful for that.
[Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.]