You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
The galloping, microscopic horseman of Covid has quickly exposed the fatal flaws in the American system, and the mixed messaging that we’re getting from our leaders cannot obscure the basic facts, which are not too complicated but profoundly terrifying nonetheless. The systems and structures that make up our economy and society have been building up instability and inflexibility for decades, and that has painted us into a corner, severely limiting our options going forward.
Instead of focusing on how we got here (you can look at older pieces on this blog to see my thoughts on that), let’s just take of stock of where we are right now, keeping things as simple as possible.
First, before Coronavirus hit, the popular opinion was that the economy was doing great. It was not. No economy or society with our levels of inequality can be described as anything but precarious. When the lion’s share of wealth and income go to a small group of people at the top, those people then use that power to achieve political and cultural dominance, leaving the rest of us battling for scraps. America’s sham popular prosperity has been built on rising household debt of all kinds, mass incarceration of racial and ethnic minorities, bare-minimum entitlement spending, and increased police power to keep all of the economically-marginalized under control. The simple fact that most workers have been reporting, for years, that they live paycheck-to-paycheck should have been enough to puncture the ‘great economy’ myth.
But it is Covid-19 that has really highlighted our fragility. Our economy is heavily reliant on consumer-spending, and much of that spending is dependent on in-person interactions, both directly (restaurants, sporting events, concerts, etc.) and indirectly (think of the support structures that are needed for mass commuting and in-office employment). More deeply, and more difficult to describe, Covid has simply turned us into a society where we move around less, spend less, and are just more limited in the types of consumption available. And even though some businesses can thrive in this environment, and whole new areas of opportunity may be opened up, the basic reality is that as people move around less for economic purposes, the overall trajectory of activity and profitability will be downward.
Many other countries are better prepared to handle the pandemic and its economic consequences. Most industrialized countries have far-broader and deeper social support structures than the US. Universal health care, generous social wage-support benefits, work-sharing, limits on corporate profiteering, legal support for employee participation in business ownership; these are just some of the things that other advanced countries have in place to ensure that their citizens have access to the fruits of economic development. It’s not that these countries are all doing great, with no problems whatsoever. It’s just that these nations have a more robust idea that something called ‘society’ actually exists, and that the purpose of government (and usually business too) is to ensure that prosperity is as widely shared as possible among all citizens.
By contrast, the US has basically been running a just-in-time economy and society, stripping things down to a lean system of public support, and spending the absolute minimum on ‘entitlements’ to keep the torch-and-pitchfork crowd out of the streets. And what public spending does happen is under constant attack, on both moral and economic terms. Aid recipients are shamed at every turn, and private companies lust after the huge pot of government money that could be leveraged for private gain.
This bare public minimum setup is, of course, highly profitable for the already wealthy and powerful. It has created the largest economy in the history of civilization, with stratospheric levels of reward for the biggest players. It is a system that thrives off of paying regular people as little as possible, but dresses it up as a free and flexible workforce. The fastest-growing job sectors are all lower-paid, with temp, part-time, non-benefited, and gig work becoming the norm.
Because regular people live so close to the edge, and have virtually no economic wiggle-room, Covid is devastating wide swaths of our society. Small business owners, minorities, the working poor, single parents, young people — these and many more are getting pummeled. We’re facing years of long-term unemployment, mass homelessness, increased incarceration, expanded poverty, the whole deal.
So this is our current position: we’re looking at a long period of reduced consumption; consumption is what props up most of the economy, and many workers are living on the precipice of disaster, because of historically-flat wages and a bare-minimum public support system. Because Covid is unprecedented, no country could really be expected to have totally prepared for this predicament. But the structure of the US economy and society has made us especially susceptible to the crisis.
In this context, it is not surprising that US leaders only have one way of thinking about the situation: open everything back up! We have to get people spending again, no matter what, or we all die. Except that, as we’re seeing, opening back up full-tilt will result in a lot more people dying anyway, and consumers will still be wary to move around and spend, regardless of how confident leaders are in saying that everything is safe. So we’re being put in the position of risking our lives (or at least our long-term health, as no one knows yet what even asymptomatic illness might do) to get consumption going again, because we don’t have any other way to conceptualize a course of action. And on top of that, we’re also still trapped in the Polarized America way of thinking, so that anything that the ‘other side’ does is automatically suspect, and probably treasonous. So clear thinking on a way forward is thus even more difficult.
With that in mind, let’s return to Bucky Fuller’s idea at the top of this piece. Instead of fighting to find an approach to Coronavirus that fits into the current American reality, we’re going to have to build a new model that bypasses our status quo system, rendering it obsolete.
For that model, we’ll need three things. First, we’re going to need a Universal Basic Income. No, money won’t fix everything, but for any other goals to be accomplished (Green New Deal, disincarceration, reparations, universal basic services, single-payer healthcare, redesign of the electoral college, etc.), we’re going to have to defuse popular rage and get the economic boot off of people’s necks (as Andrew Yang put it). Impossible to get in, you say? Perhaps not as hard as you would think, especially in the Covid era. UBI is the perfect Transparent Trojan Horse, and the pandemic is going to necessitate that the government spend a lot more money on direct individual relief.
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.
These working communities would open up the UBI discussion on a national level, and then the final piece of the new model could be tackled: a Modern Monetary Theory understanding of our government’s use of spending to accomplish social goals. The backdrop for many of our political struggles is an antiquated view of what money actually is, and what it is for. We have long passed the stage when money has to be kept scarce to compel maximum labor from everyone in society. In fact, the dire state of the planet, where every major natural support system is in decline, is testament to our need to actually reduce our overall activity and impact on the environment. If human skill and labor is becoming less economically valuable, we should not still be forcing full employment on our citizens. We should listen to the labor market, reduce overall personal work time, and use the fiat money power of the federal government to create public spending on things that are truly good for society: education, health care, leisure time, access to quality natural landscapes, etc.
I know this all sounds ridiculous. But the point is that we are never going to get anywhere by thinking inside the Polarized America framework that we’re trapped in right now. Inside that bubble, each side basically needs the complete political destruction of the other side to accomplish its goals. Conservatives want to embed their worldview via lifetime judicial appointments and permanently-suppressed voter turnout, in hopes that, what, exactly? That once we outlaw abortion, get prayer back into schools, shame the entire LGBTQ and atheist communities back into the shadows, and get white Christian people back on top….. then, what? I have no idea. Deportation of anyone that is different, or forced mass conversion of all non-believers, or maybe just keep all of the heathens in cages? And for liberals, with whom I obviously identify more closely, their lofty and more worthy goals are basically all tied into creating a complete and long-lasting political dominance, as well as a massive sea change in limiting money’s access to the political process, which I just don’t see happening any time soon. The laundry list of liberal goals is impressive, but I just don’t see a bridge from here to there, when the assumption is that our basic arrangements right now are pretty good, if we just green them up and expand them to more people. I don’t see a way forward on that path.
Instead, I think we need to build that new model. Create some communities with simulated UBI; populate them with people of all political, racial, ethnic and cultural stripes; splash their dramatic struggles and successes all over YouTube and other social media, creating a compelling new version of Reality TV that is actually real. Once people can see that tangible example of what a positive future could be like, they will rise up and demand UBI. And once UBI is in place, the actual meaning of money in a world that does not need to create artificial scarcity will become clear, and we can then set our sights on an expanded set of goals: disincarceration and reparations, a Green New Deal, universal health care, etc.
But it all has to start with a flesh and blood model, one that will make our current polarized paralysis seem unthinkable and obsolete.