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The Long Weekend (An Optimistic Take)

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

Much of the world is in an unprecedented lockdown that has completely changed the face of the global economy. The gossamer castle of globalization has been put on ice—perhaps temporarily, but hopefully for good. We can at least hope that the extremely unequal and cruel form that it had doesn’t return.

An unprepared populace

This is a particularly trying crisis for a world full of people who don’t even understand the minimal basics of how their world even works. The world works smoothly without them knowing anything about economics, technology, physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, to say nothing of something esoteric like virology. That was part of the appeal—everything was taken care of. The soma of technology smoothed over the cracks of inequality and made a two-sided class war an effective impossibility.

Now, though, a world sunk into its own navel is forced to wake up and do something, forced to actually think and make decisions. Until now, we were allowed the luxury of believing every phantasm, every superstition. Our active participation and understanding had long since stopped being necessary for our continued existence.

Now we are suddenly and brutally dragged into the harsh light of a new reality where going along to get along will no longer be as easy as it was. Perhaps the greatest trick the devil ever pulled is to convince mankind that it had evolved beyond evolution.

This population must now suddenly really start to believe in invisible creatures that can kill them, that communicate death in for-them mysterious ways. Science and logic are no longer abstract things that nerds do while the cool kids send sext each other. Knowing stuff is now life-and-death important and many are playing a futile game of catch-up that they are doomed to lose.

They must learn to deal with effects of actions that are not immediate, that are not visible—the effects are delayed by a couple of weeks. Atavistic instinct is useless. It is the rational brain that must come to the fore. It is this up which our foundering ship relies and I fear for the result.

A discussion on SRF1[1] today had one participant begging the other two to understand that the measures taken this past Monday can only be judged in a week or two. There is no value in discussing pros or cons when the experiment is still running. Filling the airwaves with gotcha journalism and “hot takes” is a waste of everyone’s time and energy. Good riddance. The new age of enlightenment can’t come fast enough.

The economy takes a back seat

You see this old attitude in those who still say silly things like “The economy will only put up with a lockdown for so long”[2]. These people don’t realize that the economy finally has to take a backseat because the basics are no longer guaranteed. The desires of the economy only mattered when there was nothing else to worry about. Even then, it got way too much attention, but that’s how the world used to work. It no longer works like that.

You can’t just send people back to work when science says that they will all contract COVID-19, overfill the hospitals and start dying by the hundreds of thousands just because the economy is bored with not making money for rich people. I mean, you could do that, in the old world, the pre-COVID world, where it was OK to make people throw their lives away for “the economy”. This shock is finally big enough that people are (hopefully) going to ask questions.

Now, when the world has slowed down, who’s going to start back up when their life hangs in the balance just because someone on TV can’t get over the fact that the way the economy works has fundamentally changed? Those who say that the money will run out and we’ll have to start things back up in April—no matter what—are fooling themselves.

We have to see how things are—they might be worse than expected—and then make a decision. The facts will determine our next plan of action. We are trying to avoid overwhelming death counts. It looks like that finally matters more, perhaps because Europeans are on the line. The Americans, on the other hand, seem to have opted to save their ideological fantasy of how an economy is supposed to work rather than their people. History will judge them harshly, I think.

Flattening the curve and changing the world

This lockdown in several countries is intended to flatten the curve—to avoid exponential growth in COVID-19 cases that would drown even the best health-care system. The pandemic and its effects will be with us for much longer. The impact will change society forever.

This change is completely at-odds with all of the stories we’ve been told about how the world is supposed to work. All of a sudden, there is very socialist talk about not letting anyone drown in their own debt or problems—at least in the more compassionate countries. Other countries are having trouble coming around, having long since become accustomed to ignoring the suffering of its poor and disadvantaged, which has grown over the last several decades at a rate nearly equal to that of COVID.[3]

Some European governments must simply adjust their policies slightly, moving more heavily to the left in order to avoid deaths in numbers that no population would accept. Others must swing more drastically away from an austerity they’ve imposed on their lower classes. Basic morality will no allow that continue—if it does, there will be real revolution. Even the more economically liberal parties[4] look like raging communists right now, pleading that we must do what we can now—and then see how we balance the books later, when we have room to breathe.

The oxymoron of ad-hoc planned economies

Because of this, many Western governments (other than the U.S. and the UK) are suddenly faced with being planned economies—without having been able to plan for it, at all. We are all—temporarily—communists right now. The government decides which businesses stay open—which are essential—and which must close. The government will decide how to most effectively use the available materiel and resources to feed and house and heal its population until it no longer needs to. How do you supply a quarantined population of millions with the minimum of stuff they need to survive without going crazy?

Some businesses will be saved; some are beyond hope. It’s doubtful whether the airlines will be even a semblance of what they were. As one commenter noted:

“There should only be two responses to a bailout request:

“If it’s a vital industry, nationalize it and keep the workers on the job.

“If it’s not a vital industry, guarantee income for workers and let the investors eat the loss.”

This is a good start, but it should go further. Workers in obviated industries will need time and money to retrain. With so many jobs just gone in a shrunken economy, an at-least temporary UBI will be nearly inevitable. It may be that in all but name, but that’s what it will be. That’s what people are talking about when they say that “no-one should fall through the cracks”. But it will have to be something substantial and realistic and it will have to be ongoing until the endgame of this crisis is clearer.

In his book Rigged[5], Dean Baker discusses many better ways of “bailing out” failing but essential private industries. One way is to offer a tax refund in exchange for non-voting shares. if the company makes money, the government makes money. It’s a straight-up investment. That’s another way of semi-nationalizing more-recalcitrant industries.

But we should be very clear that the government—the one with all of the money—sets the terms. We can control how the money is used—instead of just pumping it into stock buybacks and CEO pay, like the previous tax cut. Boards and management that did exactly this with their last round of government largesse should stand at the back of the line for handouts and should perhaps be forced to re-invest in their own companies before they get any bailout money. If they refuse, then they get nationalized, their workers get saved and they can take a long walk off of a short pier.

Dean has been publishing a lot of good ideas on his site: When It Comes to Bailouts, Nancy Pelosi Is in the Drivers Seat by Dean Baker (Beat the Press) and Andrew Sorkin Gets the Bailout Basics Right, but Debt Is Not a Problem by Dean Baker (Beat the Press).

“Anyhow, we can debate the relative merits of these proposals, but the basic point is right. We don’t know how long we will effectively have the economy in a freeze mode, but we need to make sure that workers can survive this period, and then companies are set to pick up and run again once it is over. That is why it is so important to have a plan that keeps workers on their companies payroll even if they are not actually working.”

Of course, there will be sacrifices to make, but it shouldn’t be the same ones that we’ve been taught to accept in past crises. The government should strongly consider which businesses can handle the impact (i.e. did they just lose profits or did they actually lose money?), to what degree the industry is worth saving in the form it had (looking at you, airlines) or whether some parts should just be nationalized (possibly, healthcare … the Swiss insurers are all going to have their hands out).

The government will have to plan where they get the most bang for their buck, where they can impact the most lives, save the most families and incomes and put the most stuff back on track with our tax money. Something like an airline will bleed a ton of money out of the coffers. Saving small businesses will be a drop in the bucket compared to that.

Remembering solidarity, overnight

And how do you effect such a plan for a population that has been trained to live in a completely different situation? The notion of solidarity hasn’t been completely eradicated, but it has been superseded by austerity, by individualism, by identitarianism, by so many other things. People will have to re-learn what it means to rely on each other. In order to do that, they’ll need to really see each other.

Because we are literally all in this together. If enough of us diverge from the common plan, it will all be for naught. It won’t be easy. Especially if the “old” dog-eat-dog, everyone-on-their-own society is still in place, with no safety net. Many countries already have an adequate safety net—or can dust off and re-inflate the one they’ve been starving with austerity for the last 12 years. The U.S., though, will have to rethink nearly everything it believes about how to run a society. They have done a spectacularly poor job of preparing for a post-COVID world.

As Naomi Klein said on Coronavirus, The Election, And Solidarity In The Midst Of A Pandemic by Jeremy Scahill (The Intercept),

“And so it is all the more important to put in that safety net, put in that floor so that people feel a degree of safety and clarity that the basics are taken care of. You will have health care. You will have housing. There’s a jobs guarantee in it, all of this. It takes aim at the rampant feeling of insecurity of everybody just having to look out for themselves because nobody is looking out for them that makes these crises so much harder to handle.

“One of the things that is causing so much stress right now is hoarding. It is the fact that people are so convinced that nobody will look after them that there’s no functional state that they’ve stripped supermarkets, right? And they’re hurting their neighbors, and they’re not doing it because they’re terrible people. They’re doing it because they’ve internalized a lesson that is not wrong, that they have to look after themselves.”

I would also add that people have also been taught to forget anything they’ve ever learned about morality or ethics—anything that they may have incidentally heard in a church. All of that pablum falls by the wayside once one’s personal existence—or that of one’s close family or, even more strongly, one’s children—is under threat.

So people are acting as they’ve been trained to act. We’ve been trained to be egoistic hyper-consumers in a bottomless market of infinite resources and opportunity—for those not too lazy to go get it. We are not at all mentally prepared for a world like this.

Focusing on what matters

This doesn’t just go for the neoliberal quasi-free-marketers, it also goes for those who wallowed so deep in their comfort that they imagined that the froth of their mundane and quotidian problems were real problems. They were not real problems. They were just the only left to focus on once everything else was humming along just fine for these people. They were fed, clothed, housed, and entertained. So they made up shit to do. They found causes that suddenly no longer matter when the basics are gone, when the chips were down.

The article The Check’s in the Mail by Scott H. Greenfield (Simple Justice) describes it like this,

“But just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no oppressed in a pandemic. For the time being, the primary function of government is to keep the most people possible alive and kicking, both physically and economically, and we can argue about how bad a job it did later, when we no longer have to worry about whether people will die of COVID-19 this month, starve this month, and can get back to the really important issues of what words are most traumatic to young people.”

COVID-19 drew the world back into a very tight focus. It’s a lot harder to jump on a brigade to cancel someone on Twitter for having failed to properly appreciate Caitlin Jenner’s courage when you’re trying to figure out how to keep your job or your apartment or your life.

The Old World is not gone

Just to be clear: the old world didn’t die overnight. The current way of doing things is still on cruise control, so there are, for example, still cruelties being visited upon the official enemies, subverting a true solidarity in the face of this global crisis.

The article Stop Tightening the Thumb Screws, A Humanitarian Message by Kathy Kelly (AntiWar.com) discusses that the crippling export and banking sanctions against Iran have not been lifted. The sanctions affect medical supplies as well, which is a war crime at any time, but even more damaging now, when Iran is struggling with the outbreak, just like the rest of us.

The article IMF Refuses Aid to Venezuela in the Midst of the Coronavirus Crisis by Vijay Prashad, Paola Estrada, Ana Maldonado, And Zoe Pc (CounterPunch) notes that the IMF has refused any aid to Venezuela, out of hand, concluding that “the IMF denial of the $5 billion request from Venezuela […] is a violation of the spirit of international cooperation that is at the heart of the UN Charter.”

Hopefully, the U.S. death grip on global foreign policy will relax when its health-care chickens come home to roost. Obviously, I hope that the U.S. gets it together enough to protect its citizens—those citizens include most of my family—but it does not look good right now. At any rate, perhaps COVID will distract America enough that it can no longer browbeat the world into allowing it to put its boot on the next of Iran, Russian, and Venezuela. Maybe the Saudis will even stop killing all the Yemenis, who’ve been dealing with a 10x COVID-style disaster to their health and economy for over five years.

Depression or recession? Neither.

Economically, there is no point of talking about a depression vs. a recession. The face of the world will have changed when we all creep back out of our cubbyholes. At least, I hope it will have. I hope that people will perhaps have realized that the things they’d been taught to chase and want didn’t matter that much, in the end. They made do for months without them. Are some habits broken? I think they might be. A revolutionary moment—and opportunity—is coming. We must be brave enough to seize it, to not squander it with petty squabbling over material goods engendered by the exact same class that got us all to fight in the prior world, the world before COVID.

People will have become accustomed to what were intended as emergency measures. They will not understand why it was possible to provide such measures temporarily, but not permanently. Politicians will be stuck trying to come up with a convincing answer—because there is none.

The former world was a Ponzi scheme designed to given them as much as possible from most of the people while giving them as little as possible while still avoiding outright revolt. It was a complex construction. It is gone. Perhaps something very similar will replace it. God knows that our lords and masters will do their damnedest to put us back in our cages, to get us back to work producting excess value that they will hoover up and hoard for themselves, like beady-eyed, unthinking Smaugs.

But COVID will have taught many that the “minimum” that they can expect to be provided to them is much higher than they’d previously thought. For a brief moment in time, COVID, in role of Toto from The Wizard of Oz, has pulled back the curtain, to reveal the mean, penny-pinching and avarice-filled people behind it.[6] The genie is out of the bottle and the world of “acceptable” politics will (hopefully) have drastically shifted. At the very least, we can hope that austerity in Europe will have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

The myths we’d all been taught to believe that there wasn’t enough money for certain things will have turned out to have been false. What was always missing was political will. When the chips were down, some governments responding correctly and others will be judged harshly for their failure to respond—first and foremost, with many, many more victims than need have been.

A Long Weekend

Norway and Denmark have announced plans with which they will keep businesses and people from being unduly impacted by this. That is, if there is pain to dole out, then everyone should get impacted equally. But no-one should lose their job or income or apartment for what is, after all, a temporary stop of the economy. Think of it as a very long weekend. You wouldn’t fire someone for not showing up on Good Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Easter Monday, would you? Of course not; that makes no sense. Do you not pay them? Of course you do. It’s the weekend; it’s a holiday. They’ll be back on Monday. Your business was closed anyway.

So why would you have to fire anyone when the entire economy is taking a very long weekend? It will be back, in one form or another. There will be the metaphorical Monday at some point. At that point, those businesses will pick back up where they left off. Those people will be able to do their jobs again. You can’t just ask people to stay home for the common good and then let them lose everything. The Swiss government has also said that they will make sure no-one is unduly harmed. They will announce their plan soon for how they will handle it. I suspect it will look a lot like the Danish and Norwegian plans.

A People’s Shock Doctrine

I’m hoping fervently that this time we the people can take advantage of a shock to force through a change that benefits all. I hope that we can use the facts on the ground of global crisis to once-and-for-all prove that the world we had, the economy we had, the inequality we had was not only never necessary but was utterly inadequate for anything but the so-called happy path.

The perfectly humming machine working exactly as the architects intended—as unfair as it was for the 99.9%, it worked spectacularly well for the 0.1%—shattered catastrophically at COVID, dumping everyone off. Maybe we can grab the reins and tell the former masters of the universe to sit down and shut up while the grownups do stuff. Scientists and statisticians and medical staff should rule the day.

Tomorrow, in Switzerland, at 12:30, we’re all supposed to go outside, on our terraces, and applaud for the medical staff of the country for one full minute. It sounds silly if you’re still part of the jaded, old world but it’s a small sign that there’s a chance that the new world that is emerging may have its priorities much straighter than before.

As Chuck Mertz said on Only accumulating: We are trapped in the imperial infrastructure of coal. (This is Hell!) on March 18th,

“Let’s be honest with ourselves: we all might have [COVID]. But it is in this time that something wonderful might happen. As we tear ourselves away from each other and self-quarantine, now, with so much time on our hands and so little work to do, let’s pull together while separated. Let’s get together communally, virtually and start imagining what the world will be like when we’ll finally be able to reenter it. What is the next world we want after this one? Because this one is done.

“You know the wealthy and their fascist friends are already considering their new future for us and it will not be pretty.”

So what’s the strategy?

Predicting an endgame is useless at this stage. We don’t know when or even if there will be a vaccine. We’re in completely uncharted territory. No-one alive has ever seen anything like this. The confluence of so many people, in such an advanced civilization—one capable not only of spreading a virus very efficiently with global links, but also one capable of keeping an economy going via remote-learning and remote work, and also potentially capable of designing and producing a vaccine within a reasonable time frame—is new.

I agree with the article Coronalinks 3/19/20 by Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex),

“[…] this might look like titrating quarantine levels – locking everything down, then trying to unlock it just enough to use available medical capacity, then locking things down more again if it looked like the number of cases was starting to get out of hand. This would eventually develop herd immunity without overwhelming the medical system. A paper yesterday out of Imperial College London (discussed here) said the same thing, arguing for alternating periods of higher and lower quarantine levels based on how the medical system was doing.”

This is also what I’ve heard discussed by the excellent podcast series, Coronavirus-Update by Christian Drosten (NDR/YouTube), which is in German and has a podcast for every day since the beginning of March 2020.

However, there are so many people that it would take nearly forever to apply this strategy. The thing is: we may not have a choice. As long as there’s no vaccine, we can only build up immunity naturally—by getting the disease and hoping we recover from it. Some of us will not. A number of us that was heretofore considered unacceptably high. But there’s nothing for it. Mother Nature is in the driver’s seat for the first time in a long time. And she don’t give a fuck if you have to pee.

So, we’re just buying time, flattening the curve (as discussed above), until we get a vaccine. What if we never do? The shape of humanity changes considerably. But it was going to do that anyway—and relatively soon—because of climate change. COVID is just much more sudden and brings our precariousness into much sharper focus. The changes we saw coming due to climate change are here, now, upending our economy and our society, much sooner than some of us expected.[7]

We’re going to be living with COVID for a long time, There are some who say that the recurring strains of flu—and the accompanying millions of illnesses and tens of thousands of deaths—are all descended from the 1918 strain that killed 40–50 million people. COVID may simply become a recurring thing for us as well.

We can hope for a vaccine, but it won’t come quickly enough that we won’t need an interim plan right now. Keeping the economy on a simmer and basically using our medical services to “titrate” the population through the illness to immunity is maybe the best chance we have until we think of something better. There is no other way that isn’t even more disastrous. Just “ripping the bandaid off” (as the UK suggested) would generate a pile of corpses like the world has never seen.

So, we’re stuck with it, regardless. There is no quick and easy way to “grow” our way out of this. I’m personally holding out hope that COVID will force us to structure our societies—and their economies—in more sensible, resilient and robust ways. The practice will certainly come in handy when we finally feel like dealing with climate change like adults.[8]

[1] SRF is Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen (Swiss Radio and Television).
[2] Overheard in another SRF1 discussion; translated from German.
[3] Obviously, I’m looking at you, United States of America.
[4] The FDP in the Swiss Bundesrat Guy Parmelin was forced to announce hideously large sums of emergency funds to bail out all sorts of small-to-medium businesses.
[5] It’s free and amazing. For the love of all that is holy, just read it. It’s never been a more appropriate time. You’ve never had more time on your hands.
[6] Ok, let’s be honest: it’s mostly men. A handful of men who think that the world owes them something because they were born on third and think that they hit a triple.
[7] I thought I’d be able to shuffle off this mortal coil before things got too hairy, but here we are.

The drop in worldwide, superfluous economic activity is definitely a welcome boost for the efforts to combat climate change. If nothing else, we might see a reduction in CO2 PPM after the first six weeks of European and American lockdown. Dare to dream.

The article COVID-19 reduces economic activity, which reduces pollution, which saves lives. (G-Feed) makes an interesting point that the reduction in economic activity (and its accompanying pollution) due to COVID means that it has actually saved 50,000 lives so far.