Phil Power | From coronavirus crisis, innovation may sprout

Phil Power is founder and chairman of The Center for Michigan.

“Try something. If that doesn’t work, try something else.” – President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression

That’s a sensible piece of advice, especially now when we’re in the middle of the worst crisis since the 1930s. It speaks to President Roosevelt’s willingness to experiment without getting hung up on precedent or ideology. And makes the point that great national challenges often call forth innovative and far-reaching solutions. 

New York Times columnist David Brooks made a similar point last week, writing about COVID-19, the “plague demands that we address our problems in ways we weren’t forced to do before. The plague brings forth our creativity. It’s during economic or social depressions that the great organizations of the future are spawned.”

Think about it. The great national safety net of Social Security was a creative response to the Great Depression. Millions of people couldn’t find work. No job, no income. No income, no way to feed your family. In response, federal works programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority Act and the Rural Electrification Administration brought electricity to vast swaths of the country. 

Some called it socialism. But millions of families (including mine) managed to survive on Social Security. Today, the $2 trillion federal rescue package calls for per capita payments to many American families in desperate need right now. 

Some might call it a government give-away, but when those checks hit mailboxes not many will turn them down and they infuse cash back into the temporarily cratered economy.

Years ago, in an easier and less partisan time, I ran a congressional office in Washington. It was a complicated enough endeavor back then. And there isn’t a lot of societal mercy for members of Congress. But I can’t help but consider how challenging it is to govern now. Social distancing rules out much communication routine or any sense of normal policy deliberation. Despite those hurdles, I won’t be surprised to see more creative problem-solving, including in the Capitols in Washington and Lansing, as this crisis unfolds. Our society is certainly crying for innovations now. 

Considering our medical system is buckling at the sheer, horrific weight of COVID-19 case volumes, vital equipment shortages, and dangers to health care workers in a pandemic it seems few, if any, health systems or government agencies clearly recognized or could have prepared for this in advance.

Yet telemedicine is connecting conventionally sick people to doctors and counselors, nurses are providing some kinds of urgent care typically reserved for doctors alone, public spaces are being converted to field hospitals, and support groups are springing up to provide much needed help to heroic and exhausted first responders. 

The roots of the crisis, and the responses of governments and institutions will be studied and debated for years, from Washington to New York, to New Orleans to Detroit, to Lansing and so many other places far and wide across the country and globe. 

Beyond predictable and petty partisan mudslinging, deeper and deliberative analysis will surely till ground for innovation, reforms and new ways of protecting public health and economic prosperity. 

Under the stimulus of our present crisis, soon might well be a good time for a long-term, serious-minded re-think of how our governments and institutions can be re-engineered to work better.

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Fri, 04/10/2020 - 7:58am

Yes life changes after great national convulsions. Some winners will be created. But is it really for the better and on what level? 9-11? I'd argue definitely not. All changes from these events have tended to be for empowering the national at the expense of the individual and local.

Fri, 04/10/2020 - 10:59am

Totally agree, 9-11 gave us the patriot act which is illegal per constitution and its amendments, and now look what's happening with this fake crisis.

Time for everyone to disobey. They can't arrest all of us :)

Fri, 04/10/2020 - 11:50am

Two administrations must shoulder responsibility for depletion of the PPE stockpile, especially N95 masks, during 2009 swine flu outbreak, and failure to replace them. Let's start fixing things with correcting that situation so we are prepared for the next pandemic.

Fri, 04/10/2020 - 1:33pm

I encourage Bridge and Mr. Power to take that first step in fostering new ideas, new approaches to addressing the problems. If Bridge would create one 'article' that structure so a problem/concern facing us in the recovery would be presented and ask readers to offer ideas, build on others ideas, describe their thinking behind each idea to help others look at the problem from a different perspective. The comments would need to be structure, no dredging up history [it can't be changed], no comments about individuals or political philosophies, all comment to the article would be about means/methods to address the problem/issue [be sure the problem is specifically described so other problems are drawn into the conversation].
I believe the collective wisdom of Bridge readers is greater than any 'expert' in any field on any problem facing Michigan.

John Q. Public
Sat, 04/11/2020 - 10:49am

If I have a good idea, I'm sure not going to throw it out in the public domain for someone else to monetize. I learned that lesson at work.

Sun, 04/12/2020 - 7:09pm

I hope you have some ideas and they make it to use in our communities [and you profit from your creativity], we could surely use many new innovative approaches.
What I have found is that ideas that has many in their develop are more likely to succeed because more of the barriers are addressed during their development. There are many ideas that are public and have no legal protections and yet those that profit are the ones that execute the ideas best, good luck.

Chuck Fina
Sat, 04/11/2020 - 7:35am

FDR was an enemy to the Republic and to liberty itself. I would be pretty ashamed to bring him up at all unless discussing his propensity for the needless murder of countless endangered species during his "trophy hunting" excursions. Dude was a real piece of work, nothing honorable nor good about him.