History is not repeating itself, we are unfolding a new page in national life. The past has gone forever. There is no abiding present, it flies while we name it, and as it flies it is our duty to provide for the thick coming future. . . . We are to shape the future. We cannot escape the duty.
— William D. “Pig Iron” Kelley (1865)
(Credit for this quotation goes to James Livingston, from his Facebook page)
I wrote Part 2 of this series back in May, when the full scope of the coming Covid collapse was not fully visible. Since that time, the US has basically fallen apart, and more bad shit is coming. Consider these horrible plot lines:
- There are about 30 million people collecting some kind of unemployment benefits right now, and economists think that maybe 40% of all jobs lost during the pandemic will not return at all. And despite Ivanka’s advice to eat Goya beans and “Find Something New,” people who were already living paycheck to paycheck before Covid are not likely to have a ton of time and cash to sign up for new training courses and certificate programs.
- Somewhere between 73,000 and 110,000 small businesses have closed their doors permanently since March (possibly a lot more). Since small business drives about 45% of all economic activity, this is very bad news for all of us. These businesses usually operate on very slim margins, so there is not going to be some magical wave of people with tons of cash to fill the void and open up replacement establishments.
- In July, around a third of all households could not make their full housing payment, with 19% saying that they made no payment at all. With the enhanced unemployment benefits set to expire in July (unless Congress manages to extend them, which is in flux at the time of this writing), expect to see mass attempted evictions over the next few months. I’m predicting that people will just stay put even after being evicted, because there is just no place to go. Squatting will become commonplace, and landlords will struggle to find enough physical bodies to forcibly remove millions of people from their homes.
- With commerce in such unprecedented freefall, state and local tax revenues are tanking, and the result will be a decimation of public employee payrolls, especially teachers. Around 18% of the entire workforce is made up of state and local government employees, so the collapsed tax revenues will have profound effects on the quality of our lives, especially those of our children.
- Federal leadership on the pandemic has been, to say the least, woefully negligent. This is not the place to go into a full Trump rant; I may do that next time. But let’s just pick out the latest Republican obsession: getting kids back into school this August and September. Now, I myself do not have any children, so I can’t begin to imagine the conflicts going in parents’ heads about both the absolute need and absolute risk involved in putting kids back into classrooms. Believe me, people across the political spectrum want to see children back playing and learning with their friends and peers, and in a safe way. But as usual, I don’t think that Trump and his cronies are actually that concerned with the actual health and well-being of kids, teachers, and families. They view opening schools as just another political/ideological battle, where anyone who is asking for caution and patience is shouted down as an alarmist or traitor or whatever. And while I think that a huge part of Trump’s obsession in getting kids back to school is the desire to make at least this one part of life seem ‘normal’ again, to boost his chances at reelection, I also think that there another lurking goal in there, one that is not so much duplicitous as it is delusional. My sense is that Republicans think that if kids get back to school, that will be some kind of magical economic elixir, and all of those freed-up parents will suddenly get their business suits and sensible skirts out of the closet, and get back to work. It’s as if they think the cascading business collapses have just been an artifact of parents being stuck at home with their kids, and not being able to do regular job stuff and all its associated buying of shit.
This brings me back around to the general theme of these Last Fiction pieces: what should we do now? The answer to that question has changed a lot as the pandemic has developed, because our general situation has become so much more precarious. Our options are narrowing. I don’t know about you, but everywhere I look, I see people who are simply on the edge of cracking up for good. We talk about the ‘new normal’ all the time, but nothing actually seems even remotely normal. It’s basically the ‘new abnormal,’ or the ‘new totally-fucked beyond comprehension.’
The reason that Covid has been so destructive economically is that our situation before the crisis was not good. Despite Trump’s grandstanding on how awesome everything was, and the mainstream media’s fatal collusion in seeing a booming stock market as the equivalent of economic health, things for regular people before the pandemic were sucky. As Andrew Yang continually reminded us in his brilliant presidential campaign: two thirds of workers report living paycheck-to-paycheck; 40% of households would not be able to handle an unexpected $400 expense; 25% of Americans have no retirement savings; household debt of all kinds are at record highs, and so on.
In short, there was no economic stability or security for most Americans before the Coronavirus hit. People were living on a razor’s edge, barely getting by as employees or small business owners, while they watched the vast majority of the spoils of history’s biggest economy go upwards into the stratosphere of the 1%. So the massive pain we are now experiencing as a country is a direct result of the profoundly unjust inequality that has been building over the last few decades. It is not stressed often enough that what inequality really means is instability. This is not a secret. Aristotle knew it. The founding fathers knew it. Social scientists of all stripes have been trumpeting the dangers of prolonged inequality for many years. Unequal societies do not last, and they almost never heal themselves peacefully. Check out my Transparent Trojan Horse series for more on this.
OK – enough ink spilled on all of the preliminary stuff. That leaves me about 5 words to wrap things up. So I may run long.
We’re in a spot now where there are not a lot of options for action. Yes, there are a million things that desperately need our attention: climate change and ecological collapse, systemic racism and mass (unjust) incarceration, gerrymandering and voter suppression, sexism and the perseverance of wage inequities, the crumbling of our physical infrastructure, the creeping fascism of Trumpism, constitutional defects like the Electoral College and the defining of corporations as persons, etc. There is a lot to fight for and against.
But the sheer solidity and ubiquity of the entrenched system itself, combined with how little time we have to make some epoch-making changes, dictate that we find some tightly-defined and outside-the-box solutions. And as that old cliche about crisis being the same word as opportunity, in some language that I can’t remember right now, this Covid moment might allow for this weird laundry list to happen.
- First: Universal Basic Income has to be implemented. I just don’t see how anything else of substance can happen until that baseline is there, to prevent our society from quickly degenerating into roving street gangs and multi-faceted civil war. Seriously, if we don’t get money into people’s hands right away, on a regular basis, to stave off the hysteria that comes with severe deprivation, then we can kiss our asses goodbye. I am praying with every fiber of my being that a compromise stimulus bill gets some semblance of UBI into place, at least temporarily. Once it is in place, a whole host of other options open up.
- Second: Sponsored Intentional Communities. As I described it in another place:
- To smooth the road for that spending, and to create a tangible example of what UBI could look like, I would encourage a set of wealthy individuals to create a group of intentional communities around the country, in cities, small towns, rural areas, exurbs (basically all over the place) — maybe a dozen or so in total. Each would have around 25–50 total residents, and their physical layout could range anywhere from a co-housing setup, to a large-building retro-fit, to a rural compound layout. These communities should be chronicled on social media from the beginning, and should include regular people of all political stripes, preferably combined in the same communities. Each community should take advantage of the power of scale, forming a kind of ‘domestic corporation’ — pooling resources, division of labor, and pulling functions back into the community that can usually only be purchased on the open market. Each adult member would get $1000 a month from the financiers, simulating a UBI. Other goals should be embedded in these communities: environmental sustainability, self-reliance, business ventures, open dialogue governing, in-house healthcare and daycare, etc. The goal in establishing these communities is to demonstrate how larger social units are necessary to navigate and weather tough economic conditions, and also to show that these groups are inherently more psychologically rewarding. A huge factor in the instability of American society today is that the social unit has become too small. Individuals, couples, and families (even if extended) are just not big enough to handle the new economic realities, of collapsing labor-value and escalating costs of living. And with the decline of labor unions and other intermediate social institutions, there is no obvious avenue for collective action. Creating larger social units, powered by a Universal Basic Income, would allow a host of opportunities to emerge, ways to give regular people the power to shape their own futures.
- Lastly: Modern Money Theory. If we can get UBI and some high-profile intentional communities up and running, then the doors would be thrown wide open to an MMT understanding of federal spending, labor value, and the purpose of money in a world that has moved beyond the problems of scarcity and into the realms of justice, sustainability, and resilience. If you are not familiar with MMT, check out this earlier post of mine, and also check out The Deficit Myth, by Stephanie Kelton. She is the best popular explainer of MMT, and this book should be on every American’s reading list. MMTers generally do not like UBI, preferring instead a federal Job guarantee (JG). I don’t have a huge objection to a JG in principle, but I think that a UBI better grasps the realties of our future employment landscape, as well as the philosophical shift that needs to happen in the way we view the moral value of labor. See Tim Dunlop’s Why The Future is Workless for what I consider to be the best explanation of where we have come from, and where we are going, with regards to labor.
OK, that completes this particular series. Next time, I’ll probably turn my sights to an anti-Trump jeremiad, but hopefully with some unique ideas that range out beyond the usual screeds about his narcissism, fascism, and utter cretinism.