john powell on Liberty and Equality in a Pandemic

With protestors calling on states to loosen lockdowns in the name of “freedom,” john a. powell—INET Governing Board member and Professor and the Director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at University of California, Berkeley—talks to Rob about the long history of America balancing liberty and equality. They also discuss the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Detroit’s black community, and the political imbalance in the US between rural and urban areas.


Rob Johnson:

I’m here today with jon powell, a Professor and the Director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at University of California, Berkeley, a longtime friend from Detroit, and a very important member of the Institute for New Economic Thinking’s Governing Board. John, thanks for joining me today.

john a. powell:

Rob, it’s a pleasure. I always enjoy talking to you.

Rob Johnson:

And I with you. So, we’re in a place where this pandemic has unmasked an awful lot of things. We don’t even know or have not assimilated all of the implications. But john, what is it that you’ve seen? What is it that you think is missing? What concerns you? What would you applaud in what’s unfolding?

john a. powell:

As everyone knows, since this actually touches really everyone, that in of itself is almost unprecedented. Even in terms of oftentimes war, there are pockets where things are relatively peaceful. But this pandemic actually affects the whole world. We have at this point, over half the world in some kind of lockdown mode which is also unprecedented. We have every state declaring a national disaster or state disaster that’s unprecedented.

And the thing that’s also interesting, Rob, is that unlike most disasters, hurricanes, earthquakes, they happen, they’re destructive, they take lives, they disrupt businesses, but then they’re over. And also, oftentimes they happen in a particular place, Puerto Rico, India, South Korea. And then if we are on our game, the whole world steps up to try to help. But this is the whole world being affected. So, there’s no safe place and other places that are feeling the brunt of this.

It’s not even their hotspots. And that’s part of the thing we need to actually deal with. So the hotspots, meaning there are certain localities, Detroit, Seattle, New York, New Jersey, and many others, New Orleans where we see a real flare up and appropriately we say we need to focus on those hotspots, but there are also hot communities, hot neighborhoods. And so, it’s not just Detroit, it’s the blacks in Detroit are being affected at a much, much higher rate.

I just found out my niece who’s a nurse in Detroit, has COVID-19 and is at home with pneumonia. So, the family’s very worried. And my sister, when she wrote me last night said they’ve been trying to get protective covers. They’ve been trying to get equipment. They’ve been trying to get face mask. So, the unevenness of that, so all of the things that Detroit was already on the short end of is amplify.

There are very few testing centers in the city of Detroit. So, if you think about the hotspots, you say we need to move resources there, but we need to think about it, not just in terms of spots, but also in terms of different demographics. So, why are blacks more likely to die twice as likely to die in California from COVID than whites? And some people almost blame the victim. It’s like, “Well, if black people didn’t smoke, if they didn’t eat meat. If they didn’t do…” As you know, Rob, I’m a vegetarian, I don’t smoke.

But this pandemic is more than about personal behavior. And the unevenness of it is more than about personal behavior. The fact that blacks in Detroit have a hard time getting ventilators has nothing to do with whether they smoke or not. The fact that my niece can not get a face mask and she’s working in hospitals has nothing to do with her diet or how much she exercises.

And we just read today that even in terms of stimulus money especially the payroll protection, disproportion going to red states. And so, what’s happening now it’s like everyone knows something should be done, but will it be done in a way that’s really fair, that’s inclusive? Will it be done in a way that actually brings us together while recognizing that we’re not all situated the same? Or, will it be competition? Will it be a fighter with scarcity?

So, to give you two last examples, one, the governor of California, Governor Newsom, he sent ventilators to New York or some people’s like, “What are you doing? California is in this crisis.” And Newsom’s response was, “We are not in a crisis in the way New York is. Maybe we’re two weeks out, maybe we’re three weeks out, maybe that will happen to California. So, we may need these ventilators here in California in the future.” They need them right now.

And so to me, that was example of, we’re in this together, we’re going to support each other, we’re going to take risks together. But the other extreme is states bidding against each other for resources. So, what a federal government is saying, “We’re out of it. You guys figure it out. We don’t know what stuff is.” Or, even when states get some of those resources, the Federal Government Department without telling them why, without having people be on board.

So, in large measures, we can say things will change. We probably will never go back to what we were before the pandemic, but will they be better? Will we be more xenophobic? Will we be more nationalistic? Will we be more petty? Will we actually think we have to just protect our own or will we see that everyone is connected. We can’t leave out anyone.

Healthcare providers have said, “You can’t leave out 12 million undocumented immigrants and address this pandemic.” Food grocers are saying, “We can’t keep our food supply going if we don’t protect the workers who are disproportionately Latino and a lot of them undocumented.” So, it gives us a chance to either say, “We’re really in this together. And we need to structure that and respect that and tell stories about that.” Or, is this the time to actually blame the other? Is this the time to say, “It’s someone else’s fault. Rather it’s the World Health Organization or whether it’s blacks or Chinese or whites.” So, that’s the big issue before us that the pandemic is shining in our face.

Rob Johnson:

And what kind of responses do you see around the world and where do you see, you mentioned, hotspots in cities within the United States? But there are very, very which might call different institutional structures. You have a place like Europe where they don’t even have a common fiscal policy. They have a common monetary policy and so forth in the EU. But transfers between governments is something that has to be negotiated. It’s not something which you might call at the core of social process.

You have places like India where the need for fiscal capacity to finance things is so under developed. And in other words, the basic infrastructure that produces health and life was not there at the starting gate. And so, how can they mobilize the resources or will the… which might call propagation of the pandemic and the severity of it migrate to places like southern India and the continent of Africa. How do you see the global portrait of what’s unfolding?

john a. powell:

Well, we’ve known and the UN has been saying for years about the unevenness at a global level and even along multiple axes. So if you went to India, you think of Afghanistan, a lot of workers in Iran were from Afghanistan and they’re going back to Afghanistan. They have even weaker infrastructure. But it’s also interesting how we have people migrating all over the world. That’s the good news and bad news.

We are deeply, deeply interconnected and sometimes as James Baldwin says, “Some people find that unfair, but none of us can do anything about it, although some people are trying to do something about it. They think we’ll build walls, shut down immigration, shut down migration, hunker down.” So, in the short term, I think countries… I mean, it’s too bad that we should be lifting up, even though they’re not perfect, our international bodies to make sure that there’s a floor that we actually address this pandemic as a pandemic, pandemic. I mean, it’s global. It’s affecting every country and people all over the world.

So, our response needs to be consistent with that. And so, it’s not enough to say… I mean, to some extent we did this. This is a Chinese problem in December, in January. So, we don’t need to worry about it. Instead of, how do we actually worry together? This is a virus. There was already early indication it was not going to stay put. What could we learn starting in December, in January, not when it hits New York? And what do we learn? And when it hits Mexico, we shouldn’t be sanguine in it, that’s Mexico not the United States.

So, I think for countries that don’t have the resource, that don’t have the infrastructure, we should try to actually figure out how do we collectively, as a stop gap measure, put those resources in place. But as a longterm measure, we should have floors and the Pope has called for this might suggest a basic income for everyone in the world. This might suggest basic healthcare for everyone in the world. That’s what the Pope is suggesting.

Now, he’s not an economist as far as I know. But he’s suggesting that we are in this together and there are going to be differences, but there should be a basis that no country, that no people fall below and we should take that on as a global challenge. And we haven’t done that.

In terms of Europe, Europe has a lot of infrastructure. It’s not perfectly aligned for this. It’s not perfectly aligned period. But they could align things. They could use their resources relatively quickly. India, that’s a different question. Afghanistan, that’s a different question. You mentioned Africa. Again, a very different question. And so, when you think about our global economy, Tom Friedman said years ago, “We had a global economic system. We don’t have a global social system. We don’t have a global system that connect people together. We have a global system that connect finance and goods together.” We need to actually extend that in a serious way to people.

So, that’s the challenge. But there are stories coming out suggesting that countries even in the EU are moving in opposite directions instead of actually saying, “How do we work together?” It’s like there’s scarcity. There’s fear. I need to just work with my people, whoever my people are. I need to just work with my institutions. And that’s a failed strategy. We know that won’t really work. But the impulse of it, or we’re dealing with a sense of fear and sometimes artificial scarcity. Then the impulse is to go inward. And how we address that impulse depends a lot on leadership, depends a lot on stories.

And we’re not necessarily getting good leadership and consistent leadership. We’re getting some certainly at the state level, but at the federal level, it’s a mess. And at the global level, we’re picking fights. We’re still picking fights. I mean, the idea that you would try to define the World Health Organization in the middle of a pandemic is crazy.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I think you point out many things. One of which is when you say we’re all in this together, it’s not just all in the United States or in Finland or whatever. We’re talking about the entire planet and the dire health conditions anywhere in a globalized world means that everybody’s risk rises. And so the whole, what you might call, atomistic model of society and markets and your wellbeing to use the old Horatio Alger myth, your wellbeing is something you can control through your effort, your dedication, your work, your staying in school. All those are normal things to suggest for people for lots of reasons, but they’re not sufficient.

You can have done everything right and lost your house in 2008 because the government systemic structure allow the financial markets to rupture. In this context, you and your family are at risk from things like you pointed out earlier, you had nothing to do with greeting.

Your niece cannot do something if she’s following her calling to work in a hospital if she doesn’t have a mask. That’s dreadful. That’s beyond dreadful. But I worry, john, systematically about a globalized system where we are one community, but we might say the factors of production, like technology and money have wings and people, how would I say, are much more than factors of production and you can sense that because the resistance to the free rapid migration of large numbers of people is very high.

But when finance and technology have wings, our national leaders and our state and local leaders are put at a disadvantage in a sense, the model of the nation state where we take care of our body politic is a slightly false consciousness because those other factors can move at the speed of light and which you might call create a race to the bottom in health wages or environmental conditions, which in this case with the pandemic, puts us all at risk. How do we reestablish governance and caring for people as a system in the context of this technology, which, how would I say, diminishes the power and influence of your government representatives?

john a. powell:

Well, I think a number of things. So, I think governments clearly don’t alone at the state level or city level or the macro level simply don’t have the capacity to govern at the international level. So, when we think about climate change, when we think about technology, when we think about, in this case the pandemic, they don’t know boundaries. And trying to assert boundaries simply won’t work.

It doesn’t mean that we actually have one world government which some people worry about, but it does mean that we have the appropriate mechanisms with the appropriate accountability to actually deal with global problems, including migration. It doesn’t mean that we don’t still have local differences, local expression, and even local control or influence on certain things. But we shouldn’t exaggerate it. Every low-calorie is exposed to this pandemic and we’re both from Detroit.

There were demonstrations in Lansing, which is the capital of Michigan and other parts of the country where people were literally showing up with guns, protesting a shelter in place saying, “The government can’t tell us what to do. We’re free. Get the government off our back. We make our own decisions.” And it’s actually a very flawed notion of our relationship to each other. And a very quick example of exaggerated and contorted notion of freedom. And much of our thinking of freedom, actually, we trace back to Mill’s including his book On Liberty. And he talks about what he calls self-regarding acts.

There are things that I do that don’t involve other people and I should have the maximum liberty in that context, maximum freedom. But when things I do impact other people, then I don’t have the maximum freedom. We’re in relationship. And so, obviously, this pandemic is a powerful example of what I do not only puts my life at risk, but it also put other people’s lives at risk. And the United States in particular had a hard time wrestling with the relationship between freedom and equality.

And Lincoln tried to correct that in this famous Gettysburg Address and that address, which is considered one of the most powerful important speeches, political speeches in American history given in November of 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. He starts out by saying, “Fourscore and seven years ago.” That was product controversy. What was fourscore and seven years ago was scores 20 years. So, it was 87 years ago United States had done something that he wants to bring attention to.

The thing he was bringing attention to was not the constitution. It was the declaration of independence. He was very deliberate. He wrote many drafts of that speech, and he was talking about that the Declaration of Independence had the aspiration of equality and the constitution did not. The constitution is organized on a distorted notion of freedom, liberty, and property and Lincoln was critical of that. And at the end of the Gettysburg Address, he called for a new birth of freedom that would be inclusive and would have the proper relationship with equality and would give the country a new birth where people mattered and would be inclusive.

And out of that partially came the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendment, but we’d never had that new birth and part because Lincoln was assassinated. So, we went back to much of the way we were before the Civil War and had peanuts and we had sharecropping and we had Jim Crow basically trying to hold on to the country, just being for some and not others and in that context of the distorted notion of liberty.

Again, the pandemic gives us a chance to have a new birth of freedom to say, both freedom and equality are important. And liberals tend to organize more around equality and conservatives tend to organize more around the concept of liberty. And what Lincoln was saying, a healthy country has to have both. And it seems to me, the pandemic is giving us another chance to have a new birth of freedom.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I’ve always said kind of scratching my head that the notion of liberty when 90% of the population is indentured isn’t providing what I might call the breadth of liberty that they should be championing. And so, I think there’s almost a false consciousness about unbridled liberty. I was very facetious during the aftermath of the financial crisis, and I said, “When we’re talking about freedom and liberty, it’s not about a bank CEO being able to swing around a $2 trillion balance sheet and do whatever they want.” It has to do with which you might call not only the freedom to do, but the freedom from toxic intrusion resulting from the action of others.

And it’s that balance that I think the ideologues about freedom of economic activity don’t probably address.

john a. powell:

Well, that’s exactly right. I mean, Roosevelt, when he talked about his four freedoms. It’s freedom from fear, freedom from hunger. And we do this probably and freedom is important, but when we put corporations and people on the same footing, people suffer. And we knew that from the very beginning of the country. And corporations as you know, initially were just an extension of government.

When that relationship was broken in 1830s, the court was very clear at the time, the corporations wouldn’t be allowed to influence political decisions. Well, how far are we come from that? And so it’s not the corporations are bad. It’s not even that having capital is bad is that they should be in service of people, not the other way around. And so, we made some mistakes in a big subprime crisis in 2010. We rushed to bell out the big banks.

We rushed to save General Motors, which I’m glad was saved, but we didn’t pay the same attention to people. We didn’t pay the same attention to communities. We didn’t pay the same attention to homeowners. And in fact, when it was called, and President Obama did call for it, but he called for it too late. He called for it after he’d given away money to banks. And then he said, “It would be nice if you had long remodification so that people could say their homes.” And many of the banks said, “No. We have our money and we’re going to do what we want to do.” That was a mistake.

And so, when we look at corporations, when we look at tech, when we look at big business, it’s not that they’re bad, but they should be made to be not just asked to be. They should be made to be in service of people and not in service of some people, in service of all people, both in terms of how people are employed. People are getting fired now at the job because they’re asked to do risky things and if they protest, that there’s no face masks, they get fired. That’s obscene.

But also in terms of products. So, part of it is a rethinking of our relationship with the economy. And again, I think there’s no group that has a more important role than that, than INET.

Rob Johnson:

I’m always reminded by a… Years ago, I read Thom Hartmann’s book, Unequal Protection, how corporations became people and all of the fights in and around the Supreme Court with railroad attorneys. And it was quite a tale and I would encourage people who are thinking about the proper social design of society and governing apparatus to take a long look at that work. Because I think what you described is the asymmetric role between corporations and people after corporations were granted personhood and then unleashed where their money in the political processes is equated with freedom.

I think this is, how would I say, one of the root causes of the unresponsiveness of politics and our government to the interests of a broad base of people. And that may be something that has to change. Let me ask you, John, you’re very involved in thinking and in strategy, but a change here in the realm of activism in the way in which what you might call you restore the power of one person, one vote in relation to $1, one vote. What kind of things do you envision or do you sense are necessary to bring this reform to life?

john a. powell:

I think there are many, and I think part of it is the genius of democracy when it works is that we are… And we have at least an aspiration for liberal democracy, which is important to think about because you’re not just a democracy. Democracy is majority rule. The people make laws that they obey, but a liberal democracy also says that there are rights of people who are not the majority. And so, we want to protect people even if they can’t win at the ballot box, use the words that we would use, they still belong.

The human dignity is still to be respected and to be intact. And a lot of people will say, “We never got there.” That’s true. We’ve never gotten there. But as President Obama like to say, “We’re in the process of trying to build a more perfect union.” We have a long way to go and it’s not a straight line. And there are problems at every level.

So for example, the Electoral College. So, the fact that actually the minority of people can actually elect the president over and over again, and that minority tends to be people who live not in urban centers. And this is not to cast a deeper division between urban and rural, but the fact that we don’t see ourselves as one people, as a nation, or one planet is a problem.

And so, I think it’s not just seeing that. It’s like actually building that into structures. So, I would start by backing out things like campaign financing, rethink things like the Electoral College. And at the same time saying, “Okay, one of the fears is that we don’t have the Electoral College rule. Small states will not have any say.” That can be addressed. There are different ways of having federated systems, both at a state level, national level, and international level. You can protect not just small states. You can protect small populations at the same time.

And we should have, in a sense, shared responsibility, not just individual responsibility, but also shared responsibility, shared pain and shared prosperity. And coming out of the new deal, that was essentially the deal that was being struck. And so, when we had growth in the economy, it actually grew faster among workers than it did among capitalists. It grew faster among labors than it did among corporations.

And it’s what Paul Krugman calls the great compression. The country was becoming actually more equal. And at the same time, we’re very productive. The economy is growing at a very healthy clip and the country was becoming more inclusive. So, we’ve actually seen this happen. We’ve seen it happen in Sweden. We’ve seen it happen in Europe. We know it’s not enough. Because part of that growth in the ’50s and ’60s didn’t pay attention to the environment and still left out women, still left out people of color, but it was moving in the right direction.

Right now, I’m concerned that we’re moving in the wrong direction. That we’re making… Again, from the highest corners of our society, we’re calling for exclusion. We’re calling for polarization. We’re calling for xenophobia. We’re attacking people. We’re actually fueling racism, sexism, and the only thing we seem to be able to embrace at that level, unfortunately that’s not the only level there, but it’s a small we that’s very exclusive and very scared and money.

So, hopefully, it’s too soon to say, but hopefully that doesn’t reflect the majority of Americans. I think majority of Americans and majority of people around the world are ready for a new vision and ready for institutions and structures and cultures to reflect that, where no group, no nation really dominates. We worry a lot in this country about the loss of US dominance.

I mean, the New York Times over the last year… Just go back and look at questions where China’s raised. Consistently, they talk about China threatening US dominance. The question from our perspective is not should China dominate? The question is, how can society quit? No one dominates. No nation dominates. No race dominates. No people dominates. It seems to me that’s the goal we’re trying to reach.

Rob Johnson:

When I listen to you, I’m actually reminded that when Donald Trump was running for president in 2016, that a time when you and I were planning and about to execute a conference on race and inequality in Detroit, many of my high school friends who had MD, JD, MBA, CPA were in Detroit on election night and told me they were going to all vote for Donald Trump because to paraphrase it, he went around the state of Michigan said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the system is rigged.”

Now, we may say that the prescriptions that were offered in the subsequent four years have not addressed the diagnosis that he shared, but he beat 15 Republicans and obviously Hillary Clinton in the final election and gave voice to some of that despair and dysfunction and acknowledgement that we were off course. What concerns me now is the despondency, the resignation that could take place in light of what’s been revealed if we don’t see very substantive reform.

Years ago, somebody said to me that those documents that you referred to earlier, Bill of Rights, Constitution, Declaration of Independence, became the software of America. And when things were out of line with those principles, which were a defining architecture of our belief system, it set in motion, corrective action, not always successful, but it was embodied in people and in their spirits. And my friend said to me that he feared that someone who cited those documents in this era would be considered a romantic fool and they were about to lose their traction.

So I guess the question I’m asking you, John, it can be paraphrased, is people say it’s darkest before dawn, and that’s probably true. But from where we are now, are we at the darkest point or is it going to get darker still before that light at the end of the tunnel emerges?

john a. powell:

Well, a couple of things, Rob. I would say first of all, the challenge in this country particular has always been who is included in the we, we the people? Who are we the people? And from the inception, the concept and the practice was that we is very small starting off with a fairly well hill property owning white men. But there was a projection in terms of we can expand that we, and we should expand that we. We have to expand that we.

So, there are a lot of efforts to expand the we. Oftentimes, when we was expanded, it was expanded with the understanding that some groups clearly were not to be included. So, when Andrew Jackson actually expanded the franchise for white men, he actually was very clear in terms of disenfranchising blacks. So, he was saying, “You can be part of the we, but they cannot.” And that’s been a move we made over and over again. We talk about including some people but at the expense of others.

And there’s always the fear that if we include those “others” somehow those who are already in, will lose out. And to some extent, that fear is what animated, I think, a lot of the Trump supporters, a lot of the people you’re talking about. There’s good empirical research showing that for many white Americans, when they hear that the country will no longer be majority white or they just have the experience of going out and seeing people of color, seeing gay people, seeing people who they don’t consider normal both out and even more significantly in control in the presidency and the White House. It’s like their whole world is being shaken up.

In some ways, the southern strategy coming out of the Civil Rights Movement which the Republicans embraced and executed was, how do you actually fan the anxiety of fearful whites and turn that into a political movement? And that political movement became the Republican party. The Republican party is white people’s party. And it doesn’t mean that there are people who are not white in the party, but it’s organized around the ideology of white dominance and white fear. And it’s tricky because we all suffer, black people, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, people with disabilities, straight people, white people. We all suffer.

So, can we imagine a society where my doing well doesn’t mean you have to do poorly? Can we imagine a society where we can have an inclusive society where no one dominates? So, the fear that a lot of whites have, you think about proud boys in Charlotte, they’re marching saying, “It’s Charlottesville. We will not be replaced by Jews.” So, in their mind, even though it’s totally, from my perspective, very distorted, they’re afraid the Jews are going to displace them. It’s not simple that Jews are going to come into society as equals is that they’re going to displace white people.

I don’t know if we can reach a lot of the Trump people, but it seems to me we have to be clear, we are trying to create a society where everyone belongs. If you call that romantic, I would say so be it. But I will say in terms of, are we at the darkest moment? I’m not sure because I think how we answer this question, will we create a society, a country, a world all people belong or will we create a society where is every man, woman race, religion for themselves is a big question.

If the answer is the latter, then belonging may seem like romantic. But I will say the answer is the latter. Life itself may seem romantic because it’s not clear to me that we as a species will survive if we continue to fight each other. I mean, think about it. We had to World Wars in a relatively short period of time, hundred million people killed based on fights about resources and nationalism with the center of it, the epicenter of it being in Europe. And out of that came the EU. Out of it came the UN, out of it came global systems that basically says the way we structured nation states and the way we define national interests and identity is problematic. And we’re flirting with going back to that today.

But today, we have nuclear weapons, which we did not have in 1940. Today, we have a climate catastrophe staring at us, which we did not have in the 1950s. So, I think the challenges demands a different set of responses. And it’s not clear to me whether we will meet those challenges or not. If we don’t meet those challenges, to me, there is no light for us, maybe for the planet. The birds are liking this lockdown, the ocean is liking this lockdown. But the humans, if we don’t meet this challenge, I think there may not be a light at all.

Rob Johnson:

It’s an interesting thing, John, because when you described climate, nuclear war, and we’ve talked about the pandemic, these sorts of things which you might call up end and destroy your individualism, and you began in this interview talking about, we’re all in this together, but what you might call counterpart to that is that we all have a responsibility to others and our collective responsibility gives us even more reason to be politically engaged because you’re not just protecting yourself.

Your action is contributing to the protection of assault at a time when that’s been sorely lacking.

john a. powell:

Well, I think that’s right. And there are changes happening. The world is changing very fast. We don’t know how it’s going to play out, but it is changing. We talked about this before, for example, a lot of what’s happening now and around this sort of right wing nationalism is organized around a hardcore group of white Americans. And it’s not their whiteness is the problem per se is ideology of white dominance.

But also, at the same time, we have a large cohort of whites who are very egalitarian. We have the explosion of mixed families and mixed race, mixed ethnicities in the country, but particularly here in California and Hawaii. And the projection is by the end of this century, it will be the dominant group, not dominant in terms of control, will be the plurality of the country. And at the same time, we have people who are talking about white purity and anti miscegenation. Again, there’s more than one thing happening. There’s more than one story to be told. There’s more than one possibility.

And how we lean into these possibilities matter a lot. But it’s not just a narrative. So, for example, the fact that we have a broken healthcare system, the fact that a lot of people don’t have insurance, the fact that it’s like for many insurance companies, profit is more important than people, the fact that we have some people saying, “Okay, let people die. We need to get the economy back on its feet.” The fact that we don’t have mass, we’re the most powerful country in the world. We have something like 11 aircraft carriers and we can’t build face masks. How hard is it to build a face mask?

We’ve been dealing with this, should’ve been dealing with this for four or five months. The fact that we disbanded the agency that deals with pandemics when our healthcare scientists were saying, “We’re going to be facing a pandemic.” So, in a sense, people say this is a discussion in the Academy that’s rather that you can have a we without a them, whether or not you can have belonging without othering. And I don’t think we know ultimately, we have some indication that we can go much further in terms of having a larger inclusively than we have. I would suggest we can have a we that includes everyone.

But what the pushback sometime is that, well, people need an enemy. I’m not sure that’s true. But they said, “If we had a common enemy then we would have solidarity.” We have that common enemy. It’s called Corona 19. In a sense, this is an incredible tragedy that’s affecting the world, but it’s also an incredible opportunity. We have an opportunity to sort of experience live and operationalize our shared humanity.

COVID doesn’t care if I’m black or white. COVID doesn’t care if I’m tall or short. Now, it doesn’t affect all people the same. We know that if you have a preexisting condition, if you live in certain communities, if you don’t have access, so we shouldn’t confuse that. The saying is the great equalizer, but it does expose all of us to risk unevenly. And it calls upon us to act together to change that. And if that’s romantic, we should all be romantic.

Rob Johnson:

I want to share with you an experience that came into my mind as I was listening to you. Last year, basically because a couple years before I had given a speech and talked about my father being in the Navy. The United States Navy, asked me to come be one of their visitors. And I spent about three days on the USS Nimitz Aircraft Carrier. My father had been stationed alternatively in Hong Kong and in Coronado off of San Diego. I went on this ship.

First of all, you fly into the ship, this jet, the military jet that flies you in, you’re all strapped in and it catches on a tail hook and the physical force is overpowering. They show you planes taking off these fighter aircraft. And in two and a half seconds from a standing start these planes are up in the sky. And obviously when I went home, I did that too. But in those two days, as I reflected on my father’s experience in the Navy and reflected… And his time in the Navy was during the Korean War and a little bit after.

I reflected on my own childhood, the anti-war movement, Vietnam and cynicism about American military engagement. But John, I went into the ship, 4,200 people and this daunting technology, which has so much capacity to both do harm or to be used as a deterrent to preserve balance and goodness. And on these 4,200 people, I saw many young people. I saw many women, I saw many people of color being treated as though they were part of we, being trained. I sat one night up in the electronic kind of intelligence tower with the captain of the ship and three black women under the age of 30 were managing the surveillance. These are the potential incoming attacks.

There was nothing going on that night, but they’re monitoring all over the world, monitoring communications, monitoring… And their technical sophistication in their training was extraordinary. And so here I was, this kind of anti-war sympathies who often and still does think that the budget of the military industrial complex is far, far too large in relation to the other needs of society.

But I also met the captain and his officers and the young people and I saw how they were treated and I saw how they were trained and I saw them building a confidence and a character and I felt like perhaps devoted to another mission, government service using what you might call the communal psychology that the leaders on this aircraft carrier used needs to be spread to bring many, many more young people and minorities and disadvantage to that place.

When I flew home, the first meeting I had was with a friend of mine, a gentleman who’s both Latin and black and he works on the trading floor at Bank of America. And I described my amazement and he said, “Rob, in managing this trading floor, I hire anyone I can get that has served in the Navy, in the kind of positions that you described because they’re so well focused, so well-trained, so devoted to their work, and so respectful and contributing to other people around them. These people were taught that we’re all in this together.”

And these were people on the outside that hadn’t always been treated that way. So, I guess I’m just painting this portrait for you, John, because I think the models are there and we may not want to use it in the context of expenditure on military power or aggression where defense often becomes offense. But nonetheless, this was a model I met with. They had nine different chaplains. I met with all of them and we talked about how these people interacted, how they stayed in contact with their families and so forth. And it was one of the most enriching experiences of a vision of community that I’ve ever had a window into.

john a. powell:

Well, when people talk about, where do we see this happening? The military is one place. That’s the only place, but it’s one place. Sports sometimes is cited as a place where people come together who are from different walks of life and oftentimes develop lifelong friendships. Can it be replicated? You have kind of control over what people in the military that you don’t have in civic life.

But companies, people go to work in some ways that’s very similar, go to work and potentially you’re working with people who don’t look like you, who don’t eat the same as you, people who could do much better. The capacity and need for people to belong is powerful, but also the fear and fracturing that people are willing to do is also powerful. All that means to me is that what we do matters. It’s not given. We can do better.

I mentioned the EU thing. Depending on how you count it, four or 500 million people came together in the grand experiment after World War II. Before World War II, most of the people in Germany would not organize around being European. Now, at least half the people in Germany consider themselves European, not just German, but European, same France.

So, our ability to actually connect with each other is quite profound. Think about Harari in his book, Sapiens talks about this, that 1.3 or four billion people who call themselves Christians are from all over the world, all walks of life, and they have some kind of shared identity. And Naomi Klein was a friend of both of us wrote a book called Shock Doctrine. And what she said is that basically in a crisis, the right, in this case, Milton Friedman and Chicago Boys, they took the crisis and put things in place that was unimaginable before. Most of them bad.

But they took the energy of the crisis. They took the opening of the crisis to do things that was not conceivable before. That’s what’s facing us right now. We have a crisis. And what’s not conceivable doesn’t have to be bad. It can be good. Now, do we need to rethink universal healthcare? Do we need to think guaranteed wage? Do we need to think transportation? Do we need to think our relationship with each other? Do we need to think climate change? And if so, how do we do that? And to your point, Rob, it’s like, yes, there are probably examples everywhere.

And in this crisis, the police, the first responders, the medical people, but even our military can be seen as capable of doing great things in a positive way. Good things for not just our society, but our societies. But it takes leadership. It takes work. It takes an imagination. We have to be able to… One of the great things and evolutionary biologists talk about this a lot. One of the great things about Homo sapiens, which wasn’t necessarily clear in other human expressions is the ability to imagine. That may sound silly. It’s like, “Well, what do you mean? A child can imagine.”

What they suggest is that the ability to imagine is a relatively new phenomena and that most other animals don’t have it. They know, I’m not sure, but what they’re suggesting is that we can think of something that doesn’t exist that we’ve never seen before. And sometimes, we can actually move to our creating it, cell phones. And of course, most people don’t realize the reason they call cars engines having horsepower is that they’re relating it back to the horse.

Of course, most people don’t relate to the horse now. So, it’s like just a term. And how many horsepowers does this car have? Just 300 horsepowers. A computer is not a fancy typewriter. It is something else. So, we have new forms of coming together. And I would say, just to give you one last example, there’s a friend of mine who wrote a book talking about some of the most innovative stuff in terms of clean environment.

Green environment actually comes from the military and that’s kind of inconvenient. It’s like, “No, I want to hate the military. They’re all bad.” They’re not all bad. And certainly, there are great people that are part of it and there may be even needs a time, but also the military itself can change and they have changed and made themselves a different organization more than once. And the admirals and generals in the military have written about this themselves.

So, all these things are capable of being remade and re imagined, but we have to do the work and we have to make it real to have examples and that is inclusive. So, I don’t think it’s a reason to despair, it’s a reason to actually imagine and be involved and be engaged.

Rob Johnson:

John, just as I talked about the discovery through my visiting the aircraft carrier Nimitz of something, how would I say, a constructive prototype or model or inspiration, I always hear that at times of transition, you probably didn’t recognize it. But everything that you should have done was hiding in plain sight. And I guess in my own experience, John, you are one of those things that is so imaginative and constructive. That I invited you on this podcast today so that you would no longer be hiding but be visible and in plain sight and instructive and lead because there are very few people I’ve ever encountered who I have as much respect for and faith in as I do you.

And I’ve seen you help and mentor many people, including my wife and I’ve seen you guide organizations. I’ve seen you work in my home city of Detroit and lead people through that very painful bankruptcy and I’m very grateful to know you and to follow your guidance as we move into the future. And I only hope that in a couple months time or whatever, we can come back onto this podcast and from a slightly different vantage point, continue to explore and share your guidance with our listeners. Thank you.

john a. powell:

Thank you, Rob. And I appreciate it. Very mutual. And I think one of the roles of many of us now is making the invisible visible. And I think one of the things that’s oftentimes invisible we talk about sometimes being colorblind, we’re not color blind. The unconscious is very color conscious. We’re oftentimes are structurally blind. We don’t see structures. They seem natural. And sometimes complicated to think about. Most people had not heard of a second before the crisis that most people today still don’t know what it means.

So, the last more than our economy. And I appreciate that you, INET in general with you in particular, are just visionary and constantly moved to make the invisible visible and to make the world a better place and not just doing it from as an economist, but doing it just as a wonderful human being with the wonderful experience to count you as a close friend and to have the pleasure of knowing you and your family.

Rob Johnson:

Well, thank you, John. You’re a tremendously valuable member of our board and member of an inner circle that gives me guidance in bracing this challenge. There was a whole lot as you said, that’s hiding in plain sight, but we have to invoke the imagination and your example inspires the imagination and inspires me to reach further deeper into places I’ve never considered over and over again.

Rob Johnson:

So, thank you for today and thank you for always and I look forward to the future and exploring with you again.

john a. powell:

Thank you.

Rob Johnson:

This has been a wonderful session. Thank you.

john a. powell:

Thank you for your amazing grace.

Rob Johnson:

There you go.

About the Host

ROB JOHNSON serves as President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Johnson is an international investor and consultant to investment funds on issues of portfolio strategy. He recently served on the United Nations Commission of Experts on International Monetary Reform under the Chairmanship of Joseph Stiglitz.


About the Guest

JOHN A. POWELL is a member of INET’s Governing Board and Professor and Director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. He is an internationally recognized expert in the areas of civil rights and civil liberties and a wide range of issues including race, structural racism, ethnicity, housing, poverty, and democracy.