TDLR: nobody is even trying to sketch out what this is going to look like. We’re flying blind
What we’re talking about: has a topic ever been covered as much as Coronavirus? There are an incredible array of brilliant analyses, articles, think-pieces, research papers and more. And a lot of firepower, especially on the business side, is now being turned toward the question not just of the pandemic, but what happens after.
And from casual observation, you would think this is also subject to the plethora of brilliant writing, sketching out our post-COVID future in fascinating and illuminating ways. But while lots of people are writing about it, nothing is yet all that informative.
We took the time to read through it all – or at least a good sample. We read: the Economist, the Atlantic, the FT, the WSJ, the NYT, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, WEF blog, IMF blog, Transatlantic Relations, HBR, Nouriel Roubini’s blog, ECFR, Der Spiegel, the Spectator, The New Statesman, Jacobin, National Review, the Nation, the American Interest, Brookings, the Carnegie Endowment, the Peterson Institute, War on the Rocks, the German Marshall Fund, Washington Monthly, New York magazine, Prospect, Project Syndicate, Bloomberg, Vox, and a random collection of economics and politics blogs.
There are of course a host of articles that focus on the pandemic itself. But in the genre of “post-COVID”, with few exceptions, current analyses fall into four categories:
A write-up of a wish-list of outcomes from the pandemic, ideology-based policy suggestions, and pleas to not let a good crisis go to waste and that we will come out of this stronger. Whether it be predicting a better and more sustainable world (“who will believe in the future that there isn't a simple way to stop industrialized animal cruelty, pesticides, noise pollution, dirty air and substandard food products”), or telling people “it’s time to build”, the list goes on.
Some of these are in fact very thoughtful, but they mostly offer people’s hopes, dreams, and priorities rather than true insight or foresight that can be used to inform business decisions.
Most common when discussing consumer behaviors, this category of article takes an existing impact of the pandemic and straight-lines it into the future to create alarming predictions about the future world. From the death of the office, to the end of handshakes, straight-line assumptions like this are not particularly useful as they are rarely correct.
A third type of analysis is one that purports to talk about what the post-COVID world will look like, but in reality just describe challenges that will be faced, leaving it unclear if or how these will be overcome and what it will mean either way. What will the economy look like? Well, there will be some hard choices. How large will the downturn be? It depends on what countries do. Where will the transatlantic alliance go? Well they now have an opportunity to rebuild trust.
These pieces are again often useful and thoughtful. But they are not assessing a post-COVID world so much as describing the uncertainties in more detail.
A further category are assessments that round up a range of factors or issues that will be present in the post-COVID world. Whether that be the drivers of a coming depression, or a round-up of views on where we’re headed, these can be informative, and are bolder about making a call, but they are often internally contradictory and cover so much ground that little insight is provided on any one issue.
Lessons to learn: there is a final category that adds more value that all of the prior categories combined:
Looking beyond just the pandemic, truly into the future, and covering a key issue for the macro environment. In reality, few of the analyses of the major uncertainties of the moment manage to avoid the traps listed above. There is little description of a post-COVID economy will actually look like – most of it falling in the “it depends” category. There are very few real explorations of what consumer behavior will realistically settle toward with a heavy dose of “listicles” and “straight-lining”. And there is very little real discussion of policy scenarios and outcomes that go beyond “wish-casting”.
Which leaves the big question of the global order, where the most nuanced analyses have been done. While many still falter, here are a few worth reading: On a world turning inward, On the acceleration of trends rather than a turning point, On the future of de-globalization, and On a new cold war.
So while you are flooded with content about the post-COVID world, be careful what you read and how you integrate information. This is not just true of general news consumption, but from advice you receive on planning for post-COVID.