Being a Good American in a Pandemic

NPR was talking yesterday about small businesses as the backbone of our economy, and how staying at home during the pandemic will cause bankruptcies down the line, for everyone from the coffee-cart vendor on the corner to childcare providers.

Small businesses are 44% of the US economy but “create two-thirds of net new jobs and drive U.S. innovation and competitiveness.”

The pandemic has made me think yet again about my function in the economy. I am a fine debtor, with mortgage, car payments, and other millstones around my neck. I participate small-ly in the market through a retirement plan. But for reasons philosophical, practical, and unavoidable, I do not buy much else, other than food at the supermarket and household supplies. Does this make me less of a citizen? What if we all acted that way?

We may be about to find out. With social distancing, many will be forced to slow down consumption, and not just at local restaurants.

The US Travel Association says, “U.S. residents logged 463.6 million person‐trips for business purposes in 2018, with 38% for meetings and events.” A “Person-trip [is] defined as one person on a trip away from home overnight in paid accommodations or on a day or overnight trip to places 50 miles or more [one-way] away from home.”

But as the number of infected rises, state, local, and (slowly) federal governments act to reduce transmission, and business and vacation travel is dropping dramatically. The academic creative-writing world’s annual conference was held this year, despite the host city’s state of emergency, and gave such an appearance of irresponsibility that a co-director resigned. Attendance was poor.

What would our economy and society look like if we all cut back on nonessential things for good? Reduced the carbon footprint of air travel? Shuttered the belching factories for rubber chickens? Worked from home, when convention said we could not, and saved the tires on our cars?

Cutting waste would be good for the environment and our resources, of course, would reduce artificial demands on landscapes, and perhaps slow the infection of communities with corporate franchises. What we find we can live without should be noted for the future.

The viral scare is one more chance, under triage conditions, to consider taking into account a true bottom line. The question is who will suffer as a result.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.