The U.S. began to change its approach after Nov. 3, 2020, when Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the presidential election and the Democrats held the majority in both houses of Congress. Following his Inauguration in January 2021, President Biden moved quickly to rebuild frayed ties between America and Europe, setting up a forum to share collective intelligence that could inform a smarter form of government.
With Biden in office, the U.S. took those demands seriously and attached strong conditions to the next wave of corporate bailouts. Companies receiving funds were required to maintain payrolls and pay their workers a minimum wage of $15 per hour. Firms were permanently banned from engaging in stock buybacks and barred from paying out dividends or executive bonuses until 2024. Businesses were required to provide at least one seat on their boards of directors to workers, and corporate boards had to have all political spending approved by shareholders.
In the summer of 2022, the other major crisis of our age took a turn for the apocalyptic. Climate breakdown finally landed in the developed world, testing the resilience of social systems. In the Midwestern U.S., a severe drought wiped out crops that supplied one-sixth of the world’s grain output. People woke up to the need for governments to form a coordinated response to climate change and direct global fiscal stimulus in support of a green economy.
Yet this was not about just Big Government, but Smart Government. The transition to a green economy required innovation on an enormous scale, spanning multiple sectors, entire supply chains and every stage of technological development, from R&D to deployment. At regional, national and supranational levels, ambitious Green New Deal programs rose to the occasion, combining job-guarantee schemes with focused industrial strategy. Governments used procurement, grants and loans to stimulate as much innovation as possible, helping fund solutions to rid the ocean of plastic, reduce the digital divide, and tackle poverty and inequality.
A new concept of a Healthy Green Deal emerged, in which climate targets and well-being targets were seen as complementary and required both supply- and demand-side policies. The concept of “social infrastructure” became as important as physical infrastructure. For the energy transition, this meant focusing on a future of mobility strategy and creating an ambitious platform for public transportation, cycling paths, pedestrian pathways and new ways to stimulate healthy living. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti successfully turned one lane of the 405 freeway into a bicycle lane and broke ground in late 2022 on a zero-carbon underground metro system, free at the point of use.
Rising to the role of the “entrepreneurial state,” government had finally become an investor of first resort that co-created value with the public sector and civil society. Just as in the days of the Apollo program, working for government—rather than for Google or Goldman Sachs—became the ambition for top talent coming out of university. Government jobs became so desirable and competitive, in fact, that a new curriculum was formed for a global master in public administration degree for people who wanted to become civil servants.
And so we stand here in 2023 the same people but in a different society. COVID-19 convinced us we could not go back to business as usual.
The world has embraced a “new normal” that ensures public-private collaborations are driven by public interest, not private profit. Instead of prioritizing shareholders, companies value all stakeholders, and financialization has given way to investments in workers, technology and sustainability.
Today, we recognize that our most valuable citizens are those who work in health and social care, education, public transport, supermarkets and delivery services. By ending precarious work and properly funding our public institutions, we are valuing those who hold our society together, and strengthening our civic infrastructure for the crises yet to come.
The COVID-19 pandemic took so much from us, in lives lost and livelihoods shattered. But it also presented us with an opportunity to reshape our global economy, and we overcame our pain and trauma to unite and seize the moment. To secure a better future for all, it was the only thing to do.