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Election Offers Family a Teachable Moment

October 28, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on October 27, 2020

The upcoming presidential election looms large. The resurgent COVID-19 pandemic presents a universal threat to human health and well-being. Our daily lives have been dramatically altered by the presence of the virus for the past eight months, and likely for many months, perhaps years, to come.

For my wife, Lori, and I, the stakes are higher than any election in our lifetimes, so it has been a steady topic of conversation in our home. Somewhat to my surprise, our Zoe and Adam, now 14 and 11, insisted on watching the recent debates and town hall meetings, must-see live entertainment, according to Zoe.

With their mama a front-line health care worker, their daily frustration with online schooling, cancellation of most out-of-school activities and persistent limitations on family and friend visits, they too, are acutely focused on the candidate’s views and proposed solutions for ending the pandemic. As a parent, I appreciate the teachable moment presented by these circumstances.

So, circled around the kitchen table for a recent Saturday supper, I presented a mini-version of the Great Cake Lecture, a lesson I offered many years ago as a high school government teacher, to classrooms full of inspired and uninspired students alike. The topic of the lesson is one of the core functions of government, the fair distribution of resources, a philosophical exercise known as distributive justice.

I engaged my young students by pointing to the 9-inch round cake sitting in the center of the table (actually it was a homemade gluten-free pumpkin cornbread that Lori had made) and ask, “What would be the fairest way of sharing (or distributing) this cake?”

Adam quickly asserted, without raising his hand (perhaps evidence of the lasting impact of online schooling where actual hand raising has become obsolete) that the cake should be cut into four equal pieces, one for each of us.

“Well done,” I said, pointing out that he had offered an egalitarian solution where the most important value is equality, such that decisions are aimed at ensuring equal access to resources and outcomes.

I then asked, “What if the cake was not gluten-free (Lori is gluten intolerant), would it make sense to give everyone an equal size piece of cake?

Adam shot back, “Is that a rhetorical question?” before bursting into a fit of uncontrollable giggles, Zoe nearly choked while laughing with a mouthful of food, her face turned bright red.

Decorum in my in-person classroom was in great jeopardy so I pressed the pace of the lesson, moving straight to the heart of the matter.

“If this cake represented a limited supply of an effective COVID vaccine, what would be a fair way of distributing it?” Adam — again, without raising his hand — blurted, “Does the vaccine really work or is that just what Donald Trump said,” demonstrating that he had been paying attention during the VP debate, when candidate Kamala Harris delivered a rousing point on this very subject.

Zoe chimed in with her analysis, positing that “the vaccine should be given to those most at-risk, like the elderly, children, immune compromised and health care workers,” offering her parents further indication that her penchant for health, rules and catastrophizing could lead to a career in public health.

“Excellent point, Zoe,” I remarked, noting that her response reflected a more utilitarian perspective, where resources are distributed in a way that aims to maximize their usefulness (utility).

I knew that if I did not wrap up the lesson before they finished eating, there would be little hope of keeping them engaged, so I launched into the third and final key concept of the lesson, by asking, “Since there is a limited supply of the vaccine (how far can one stretch a small pan of cornbread, after all?) what if the government simply sold the vaccine to the highest bidder?”

They both quickly arrived at the conclusion that this would be unfair. Challenging them a bit, I said, “Well, if I have money that I worked hard to earn or if I have really good health insurance, shouldn’t I have the right to get the vaccine?” Unsure if Adam’s lack of a quick response was an indication of interest in his dinner or lecture fatigue, I broadened the context with a comparison. “Would it be fair for the government to require that everyone wear a mask when in a public, in order to limit the spread of the virus,” I inquired.

After some back and forth, I offered that another way to decide how resources are distributed and used aims to maximize individual freedom (liberty), explaining that some feel strongly that mask wearing (or not) is an individual right and not the role of government to decide. As for explaining an individual’s right to buy the vaccine (especially for those with greater means), I made a strategic decision to defer discussion of Adam Smith and the invisible hand of a free market economy for another day.

Once class was dismissed, Lori and I deepened our conversation, venting our frustrations with the impotent national leadership and anemic coronavirus response. It’s evident to both of us that at our best, Americans have historically demonstrated the capacity — through great difficulty and contention — to balance the often competing values of equality, utility and liberty. At our worst — arguably our present situation — Americans have used these value differences to pit ourselves against each other, in the name of right and wrong, us versus them and Democrats versus Republicans.

This impulse grows strongest when fear predominates, as it does now — fear of sickness, death, economic ruin and loss of normalcy resulting from the COVID pandemic. It is only human that such fear activates our basic survival instincts of fight, flight and freeze. We see examples of flight and freeze response by those who withdraw from public life or are so terrified that they seek to close themselves off in a protective bubble.

But while those responses are understandable, we need cohesive leadership and collective commitment to fight — together — to end the pandemic. Victory will come in the form of adequate supplies of PPE for all front-line workers, ample rapid testing kits, plentiful trace testing, broad mask wearing and social distancing, strategically distributed ventilators, continued development of cutting-edge medications, and, in time, an effective vaccine.

But this victory requires that we first have a leader who is courageous enough to truthfully acknowledge the full threat of the pandemic and then to set about creating a shared vision (not sow seeds of division), to meet our present challenge with our collective best.

Faced with the teachable moment of a lifetime, may we sense and seize this moment for good, on Election Day and beyond.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

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