How Coronavirus Smashed the Overton Window

By Dr George Dibb, Head of Industrial Strategy & Policy Engagement, UCL Public Policy & UCL IIPP

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the global response to it, has caused an economic shock with all the potential to worsen into an era-defining depression. The levels of unemployment seen around the world exceed those at the peak of the 2008/9 financial crisis by many times, and the COVID crisis has resulted in a simultaneous world-wide shock in both supply and demand.

Around the world, the incredible scale of this challenge has been matched by policymakers and politicians reaching for new policy levers in unprecedented ways. Even where the shape of these policies was familiar, the scale with which they were deployed had never been seen before. In the UK, the Government is now paying almost 40% of citizens’ salaries, either directly through the public sector (16.5% of workforce), or through the furlough scheme (23% of the workforce). In the US and the EU, COVID response packages of a staggering $2tn and €3.2tn respectively have just been approved.

The paradigm that defines what is acceptable or “too extreme” in public-political discourse is known as the Overton Window. But extreme circumstances call for an extreme response. The scale of the challenge of COVID-19 has also forced policymakers to redefine what extreme meant. Coronavirus has well and truly broken the Overton window.

Overton windows have been smashed before

For those seeking to change a political paradigm, the removal of this constraint creates a moment of maximum opportunity, but also maximum turbulence.

Overton windows have been smashed before. Most recently, the great economic crisis of 2008/9 represented a similar challenge to the status quo, and whilst many of the radical policies embraced by governments at the time were seen as Rubicons never to be crossed, many of them are now the unchallenged political norm. The political response to the financial crisis demonstrates this turbulence: on the left, many saw opportunity in the collapse of the financial system and the rise of the ‘Occupy’ movement to rebalance the economy in a more inclusive way. Yet the actual economic response was crippling austerity that we now know only served to exacerbate previous inequities in wealth, health, and education.

Turbulence in the wake of the COVID Crisis

Today, we see many similar shifts in political ideology. Advocates for the austerity approach in the last crisis have declared that government debt doesn’t matter after all. The editorial board of the Financial Times — the bastion of business — has come out in favour of governments imposing conditions on any financial bailouts and restrictions on easy-money for the private sector. But the economy that we will find ourselves in post-crisis is still dangerously uncertain during these turbulent times. To have a public policy grounded in evidence and a robust system of academic engagement in policymaking seems more important now than ever.

Perhaps the biggest indicator we have for the world this crisis will create is to look not at the decisions of politicians today, but to their deeper ideological leanings. In the much-quoted novel The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. But the character who spoke those words — like the Prime Minister of the UK — was not a revolutionary, but a conservative. It seems inevitable that given economic costs that the coronavirus lockdown has incurred, when the lockdown ends there will likely be irresistible pressure to return to “business as usual”. Despite the desires of some, it feels too early to call time on neo-liberalism just yet.

Climate Change and Transformation

We know that once this COVID crisis has passed (or perhaps even during this crisis) we still need to make a concerted global shift towards a low-carbon economy to avoid catastrophic climate change. We should learn from the global response to COVID-19 of what to do and what not to do in the coming low-carbon economic transformation.

For too long the conventional constraints of the Overton window have constrained climate change policy into a frustrating cycle; politicians have struggled to make the interventions needed to reduce CO₂ emissions for fear of going “too far”, but as the IPCC have made clear, the longer we go without making those steps, the harsher and more radical the remedial actions will need to be.

So, it is desirable to ‘embed’ within the response to COVID-19 the shape of the economy we know we need to transition to after the crisis. We must take advantage of this open window for radical support for transformation. There are already examples that we can learn from and reasons to be cheerful; around the world governments are taking a new “if you make it, we’ll buy it” approach to industrial policy and procurement with ventilators. Governments have adopted “wartime” footings, leveraging new powers in a coordinated response. There has been rapid centralised and decentralised repurposing of technologies and existing capacity to meet clear challenges.

And as Mary Robinson put it, “The COVID-19 threat has shown that governments can act swiftly and resolutely in a crisis, and that people are ready to change their behaviour for the good of humanity”. The window is now open for us to capture this spirit.

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About the Author
Dr George Dibb is Head of Industrial Strategy & Policy Engagement, a joint position between UCL Public Policy in the Office of the Vice-Provost (Research) and the UCL Institute for Innovation & Public Purpose (IIPP).

George’s role involves co-ordinating the academic policy engagement from across UCL into the government’s Industrial Strategy, from AI in healthcare to the future of mobility. George acts as the secretariat of the UCL Commission on Mission Oriented Innovation and Industrial Strategy (MOISS) and the UCL Commission on Green Innovation Policy. George’s joint position also involves overseeing the policy engagement of the new UCL Institute for Innovation & Public Purpose (IIPP), with the founder and director, Professor Mariana Mazzucato.

George holds a PhD in Physics and has worked in research positions in science and innovation, and policy positions in manufacturing, innovation, and technology.

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