Michael Hicks: 2021 was an unnecessarily horrible year


The end of 2021 was surely met with relief by most Americans. It was a grim and dangerous year that need not have been so awful.

As 2020 passed into memory, there were signs of hope everywhere. The miracle of vaccination offered to end the COVID-19 pandemic that gave our economy its worst year on record and killed 375,000 of our neighbors. The bitter election of 2020 was over, and we could look forward to the 46th consecutive peaceful transition of a presidential power. The tranquility that follows from elections offered a quieter, more prosperous 2021. This hope was shattered, repeatedly and with grim and dangerous outcomes.

The very heart of our democracy was attacked on Jan. 6, 2021, as a group of rioters, sprinkled with hundreds of active insurrectionists, attempted to overthrow our government. For the first time in two centuries, our Capitol was ransacked. Our elected leaders, including the vice president and all the members of the House and Senate, were evacuated from their places of duty in the chambers of Congress.

We have had many enemies in the 245 years of this Republic, but none have successfully interfered with Congress in this solemn duty. Not in the Civil War, not at the heights of two world wars, a Cold War or terror attacks has this happened. A year later, we have arrested 700, imprisoned dozens and are in the midst of a lengthy investigation that seems poised to link members of Congress and the Trump administration to sedition and insurrection.

Hopefully, this unfolds through the coming year, bringing to justice those who sought to undo our democracy. But, as we end 2021 and move into another election, the same dark forces that organized the Capitol attack remain focused on again regaining the presidency by whatever means are needed. This attack on our Republic is far from over, and as 2022 begins, it remains the most dangerous threat to our democracy since the Civil War.

By New Year’s Day of 2021, COVID vaccines had been administered to nearly every health-care worker and first-responder. Here in Indiana, a truly first-rate vaccination plan was in full swing. By January, vaccines were abundant, easy to schedule online and available in every city and county in the state. It seemed like time to breathe a sigh of relief over the imminent end of the pandemic. That was premature.

The polarization of politics interrupted a sensible, non-partisan public health effort. To put the silliness in context, nearly every American adult has had dozens of vaccines. Here in Indiana, children are required to have a total of 22 vaccines or boosters to finish high school. If you are a veteran, you’ve had maybe two dozen more. Yet, a stunning number of Americans have decided to oppose the COVID vaccine, largely as a marker of political fealty.

Since June, when vaccines were universally available, nearly 200,000 unvaccinated adults have died of COVID. Stunningly, after the vaccine was fully available, COVID as a cause of death spiked in adults aged 25 to 64. These are the unvaccinated. But older adults were vaccinated, and saw COVID death rates decline. Perhaps living through previous pandemics affects judgment in positive ways.

Perhaps it is a small solace that these 200,000 unvaccinated deaths were wholly voluntary. Still, we are all paying for the intransigence of the anti-vaxxers, none more so than the families of those who have died without reason. We now have two deeply dishonorable causes for which a few hundred thousand Americans have surrendered their lives: the Confederacy and COVID anti-vaxxers. Both belong in the intellectual garbage can of history.

The large number of vaccine opponents slowed the economic recovery, perhaps stalling it in early summer. The continuing effects of COVID strain our economy and contribute to ongoing fiscal and monetary stimulus. As 2022 begins, we still are not fully recovered.

The effect of stimulus and modest recovery also brought supply chain troubles to the USA. Though the overburdened logistics system mostly accommodated the huge growth in demand, the supply chain disruptions remain an annoyance. The economic recovery from COVID remained uneven across workers and industries. While the unemployment rate plunged, millions of workers failed to re-enter the labor force. For many workers, the decision to remain out of work is designed to improve their lives, but that doesn’t lessen the workplace challenges for businesses.

This past year also saw inflation re-emerge as a threat to our economy. By autumn, prices for staples, such as meat, milk and gasoline were noticeably higher. Some of this turned out to be transient, receding as supply chain disruptions were smoothed out, but most of these price increases are more permanent. Though we remain months away from real risk of accelerating inflation, it is now clearly a growing threat. This means higher interest rates, and an economy that will be growing more slowly in 2022.

Internal security threats posed by insurrectionists, economic weakness and political misjudgments cloud our nation’s international affairs. A stronger, more confident nation would not have failed in Afghanistan as we did. Arguably, our departure always was going to be difficult, but it could hardly have been planned more poorly. The damage it did to our alliances makes war elsewhere more likely.

The world is too dangerous, with too many adversaries on too many fronts for us to suffer unforced errors of this type. As I write this, Russian forces mass along the Ukraine border, seemingly unafraid of the United States or NATO. If we dodge war in this region, we should count ourselves more lucky than smart.

The passing year was not all bad news, but nearly all the good news was more muted because of failures. We suffered the failure of a losing president who did not respect our Constitution, his oath before God or the American people. We suffered the broad failure of an anti-vaxx revolt that unnecessarily cost the lives of 200,000 Americans. We suffered a stumbling economy that has still not fully adjusted to the COVID shock or risk of continued disease. We suffered a humiliating defeat of arms through the absence of strong leadership or planning.

We should all welcome the New Year, now more than ever.

Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. His column appears in Indiana newspapers.