Make no mistake: As deadly and disruptive as the COVID-19 pandemic is, this disease is a harbinger of even worse crises that could follow if a broader danger is not recognized. That danger is a new MAD, not the Mutual Assured Destruction of the Cold War and the existential specter of thermonuclear Armageddon, but Massive Attacks of Disruption.
Preventing or containing massive disruption to people, commerce and communities must become the overarching consideration of the 21st century. Why massive disruption is so insidious and threatening is that, as globalization, the diffusion of power and advanced technologies dramatically raised global standards of living, inadvertently, new societal vulnerabilities were created. It is these vulnerabilities that MAD targets and exploits. Unlike the Cold War, when nuclear war was deterred, the new MAD is not easily deterrable.
Seven major disruptors beyond pandemics form the new MAD: climate change, social media, cyber, drones, terror, debt and, perhaps the most dangerous, failed and failing government. About failing government, on Jan. 6, a mob, largely incited by the president of the United States, occupied the Capitol -- not only an unprecedented assault on the Constitution but perhaps an act with political consequences more dire than the pandemic.
And failed and failing government is not limited to the United States.
Of the other disruptors, climate change poses an existential danger to society. Had the cyberattacks launched against the U.S. government, presumably from Russian sources, disrupted access of Americans to electrical power, water, food, the Internet and cellphones for an extended period, the nation would have been thrust into chaos. Massive debt must be repaid. Terror lurks. And suppose the mob that violated Congress used armed drones, easily manufactured in basements and garages, how devastating would the carnage have been?
Amid these dangers, what can be done as the Biden administration takes office?
First, recognition of MAD and its consequences is essential. For America, that means pursuit of great power competition with China and Russian as the major foundation for its national security strategy has been superseded by MAD. Yet, that understanding is missing in action.
Second, President Joe Biden has an immediate mechanism for dealing with the major crises he faces. Here, the advice of former President Dwight Eisenhower is relevant. When confronting a difficult problem, Ike would make that problem bigger to arrive at an appropriate solution.
The mechanism is the Biden proposal for a major infrastructure program. Obsolete American infrastructure from the power grid, to highways, bridges, air and sea ports and education must be repaired and modernized for the 21st century. That alone will be insufficient to meet and blunt the challenge of MAD.
Seizing on Ike's advice, infrastructure must be expanded into a broader national reinvestment fund in part to stimulate biomedicine, renewable energy and sustainable environment, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, cyber, 3-D printing, advanced materials and other technologies with the purposes of rejuvenating infrastructure and the economy and containing the new MAD. It is these technologies that will empower economic growth.
A National Reinvestment Fund would be seeded with about $1trillion in federal money and at least an equal amount from the private sector through the issuance of 30-year bonds incentivized with 2% to 3% interest rates above prime guaranteed by the government. The fund would be off-budget and repaid by user fees, tolls and returns on investment. For those who doubt government can make, as opposed to print money, the Troubled Asset Relief Program of about $800 billion put in place after the financial crisis of 2008 returned an additional $80 billion to the Treasury in interest payments.
The program should be named the 1923 Fund. Following the 1918-20 Spanish Flu pandemic, by 1923, the United States entered into the greatest economic boom in its history and the roaring '20s. Fortunately, sufficient guardrails are in place to prevent the reoccurrence of the 1929 financial crash.
Electrification of the country and automobile production fueled that boom, accelerating productivity and creating massive demand for steel, rubber, gasoline, highways, bridges, restaurants, hotels and other supporting infrastructure. Today's parallels are universal access to 5G and broadband, as well as the technologies noted above. And national investment funds are applicable to most nations.
If the reinvestment fund is properly enacted, not every crisis will be resolved. But tens of millions of jobs and high rates of economic growth will be created, infrastructure modernized and MAD contained. The ultimate tests will be overcoming the madness of a disunited United States, perhaps the president's greatest challenge, and recognizing the real dangers of the new MAD.
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist and author of the upcoming book "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Are Endangering, Infecting, Engulfing and Disuniting a 51% Nation."