Friday, April 3, 2020

Encouraging a New Localism

 The rich definitely do not want to move from the privileges they currently enjoy to the hard work of refashioning a more sustainable and ecologically balanced society.   Perhaps they see the problems in society being minor, requiring only a few tweaks to improve conditions OR they are planning for a collapse to take out 90% of the useless eaters and they will manage on what remains of their nest egg. I am not sure we middle class mules with a little money and a few privileges want to move to sustainability either. The thoughtless don't think about it. Who wants to trade good times and a pleasant dream for a down and dirty reality?  The realists among us would like to get started on a practical politics that addressed our current complexity failures. Planning for less energy, more austerity and less complexity seems prudent. The  problem appears to be the transition.  Elites like global solutions because it pays well and  puts them in charge.

So I'm thinking about a politics that would actually make a difference.

We had an economic system that was not sustainable and now it is slowly grinding to a halt.  Something will have to pick back up soon because a lot of us are going to get hungry sitting in our rooms for 2 months with no paycheck.  But we have an opportunity to do something different. A fleeting thought is that I would like to get back to "normal" and make my Viking cruise reservations but frankly normal was getting closer to falling apart anyway.  A return to the former normal will not be possible. 

The $2.2 T  emergency legislation "fix" is more of the 2008 same.  Save the System, not the workers.  It has become obvious that there is as much made up money as necessary for the largest banks and corporations but not enough for basic health care for all.  After 9/11 the instructions were to "go shopping".  After 2008 the instructions were to "pay up" or lose the house.  In the current crisis it is "stay home" with no job or money until told you can come out and go back to work, risking sickness and then coping with long lines at the ER. And then ruinous bills if you are actually treated.   America needs some big changes.

The conclusion is "Organize or Die".  If you wait patiently like a Katrina survivor you may hear the choppers overhead but you will miss the press conference about how much is being done.  The only way up and out is to construct a new order that engages your participation and not just your acquiescence. This is not easy work.  Managing the decline of industrial civilization is going to require clawing back some wherewithal from the rich. The virus is a direct attack on the local and a huge increase in power for the centralizing forces in society.  Central government claims more responsibility and your job is to do what you are told.  Governments are becoming more like military structures (of which our military is a subset) that command, irrespective of careful discussion and citizen input.  We are in wartime mode and sacrifices will be required.  Fine.  I would ask whether our non-essential government employees that are sent home are getting paid?  Are the DMV people furloughed?  Is TSA doing a 50% RIF since airline traffic is down 90%?  Is your Congressman getting a check?  Government can pay everybody it needs to from the most essential to the least necessary.  That maintains a lot of loyalty.  And the levers of control extend from the federal to state to local police forces and county sheriffs.  The National Guard may be organized by state and used to be a state militia but it is now a branch of the military and is paid under national regulations.

Our state now has a shelter in place order that I anticipate being pretty forgiving but the claim that I cannot leave my house without permission is a substantial reduction of my rights as an independent citizen and as a human being.  If I wish to drive across town to see a friend, talking with them and maintaining a 6 foot distance, am I allowed?  If I am stopped at a road block and quizzed by the authorities about my purpose for being out, I would claim that I am not required to justify personal travel decisions. (Practically, of course I might have to lie because I don't have the immediate courage to protest). I believe they can tell me to go home or be arrested for breaking the order.  If I call a neighborhood meeting at the local church and 15 people show up and are careful with their proximity--what constitutional law would then deny us our first amendment rights to assemble?  I am being ornery because I do want to do my social part but I think people should be aware that theoretically the government can't just make up convenient laws to make people do what they want. 

Centralization is also an undermining of the private.  Public employees, large corporation employees are being paid. Public retirees are in a protected class with a direct pipeline from the government money creation operation. Private workers are out of work.  Private retirees are watching their 401-Ks shrivel and may be on the hook for big losses when the Fund companies have counterparty risks that blow up and they cannot pay their obligations.  Annuity and insurance companies have the money and will pay if they can, but if they can't?  You will be out of luck.  I won't get into your bank's liabilities having made what are now non-performing loans.

Where is the money?  It is hidden in all the chits that represent it.  I have mentioned that my 1000 household neighborhood has an average house valuation of $400,000.  $400 million will buy them all. A Federal Reserve policy to "do what it takes" and advance $2.2 T to the Treasury would allow them to purchase 5,000 neighborhoods like mine.  There are 384 SMSAs (Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas) in the USA. The money created to fund the most recent emergency legislation is enough to buy more than 10 complete neighborhoods in every city in the USA. And as for who gets it--330 million Americans( at most) are getting $1,200 which is about $500 billion and somebody else is getting 3x as much.  Small businesses, large corporations(Boeing, American Airlines, etc) and systemically important banks.  The destruction of money through bad loans is counterbalanced by created money.  The government is going to get to decide who lives and dies just like the overworked ER doctors. Why on earth are we working for something that can be created when needed at whatever level is desired?

So who is sacrificing?  Front line health care workers.  The millions of dollars we pay intelligence analysts, the CDC, and the leaders who are supposed to listen to them failed at anticipating or controlling the outbreak.  And so the sacrifices are now being made by overwhelmed private health care workers.  I am out of work and sacrificing some income but am not on the front lines of health care delivery and do not consider it a sacrifice.  Dentistry as a profession has been obliterated just like restaurants, hairdressers, or nail salons.  The young dentists with loans are facing bankruptcy.  Mid-career dentists with staff responsibilities and other fixed costs are facing the same.  I am advised to ask the government to pay my staff, my rent, and my utilities.  I am counseled to apply for unemployment.  Alabama's unemployment is $125/week for 14 weeks (recently reduced from 26) but the federal government is being generous and will give me up to $600/week.  Here, go on this website that's crashing with 20 million other people.

 No one should owe anything for any aspect of COVID-19 treatment.  Not the tests, not the beds in the hospital and not the ventilator.  The ambulance bill that takes you from your house when you can't breathe should be presented to the $2.2 Trillion magic money tree who can then decide whether the ride is worth $2,000 or $200.  This could be the first step in Medicare for all.  My 28 year old daughter has an ObamaCare abomination of an insurance policy with $5,000 deductible and coverages that are incomprehensible until she gets the bill on her $24,000/yr income.  Sure, she is young and healthy and may not have a bad case if she gets it but millions of young people are in her situation and many could be financially destroyed by this virus.

We are entering a new normal and there is a tendency for those in charge to say sit tight and we will return everything to the way it was.  We want to believe it but it is bullshit.  The virtual is not a substitute for the real.  An economy cannot work from home with fake money.  We seem to be constructing a sophisticated prison where we can Zoom and Skype and play on the computer but not actually go make anything.  If we return manufacturing to the USA from China we are going to need hands on people not computer geeks.  Unless we are planning robots and AI.  Regular people get to sit home and play video games with their UBI.

There are more local farmer's markets and more locally sourced food programs  but real production and manufacturing is done elsewhere.  Almost any good you would be inclined to buy is produced more than 1000 miles away.  Everything necessary to live locally is purchased from the global market.  If I want lumber, or hardware, or fertilizer to build or grow something, it is produced far away. The global idea that we would all be linked in trade and mutual dependency has in fact worked but it has not bred as much trust as envisioned.  People are concerned about their dependency on people that don't necessarily care about them.  And this is world wide. Privileged national leaders are trying to make centralization "work" but it is working for the elite not the common man.  So the industrialization project that has taken us from feudalism, to local towns, to nation states, and now a transnational globalism has arrived at maximum complexity and will be re-localizing in the future.  Given our resource utilization, worldwide growth is over.  Efficiencies would improve our transition but zero sum policies will necessarily breed conflict.  Many prefer conflict to cooperation--they feel force will give them a better outcome.  That has always seemed a dangerous assumption to me.

Now that we know infinite growth on a finite planet is not possible, our efforts at democratizing the world to achieve a more congenial world system for our privilege is exposed as a lie.  Will we encourage a politics of deconstruction and greater localism or keep pushing for advantage?  If we lean less on others, they will increase their demands on us in the name of equality and fairness. We would have to embrace austerity to improve the gains to other countries.  I don't detect a great willingness to sacrifice for others when 64% of American live paycheck to paycheck.  Our earliest goal as a nation was to avoid entangling alliances and the philosophy that supported that was isolationism.   But we became an empire and now have to figure out how to simplify without crashing our economy.  It might not be possible--collapse talk has been around for about 20 years.  When the world trade center fell--we saw physical proof that the high and mighty were being challenged until taken down.  We fought back inappropriately then and the consequences are staring at us now.  Can we change? No one wants to change-- it's too hard.  Everyone really wants to be forced to change so they can evaluate whether they are better off fighting or adjusting.

We are now experiencing the  financial event, similar to 2008, that should activate an awareness of the need to change the status quo. It is time to get political unless you'd rather just live in a dictatorship.  It might buy you a higher standard of living to go along to get along but I for one would prefer less empire and more empathy.

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