“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” — Edith Wharton
COVID -19 shutdowns have hurt me financially, but I’m not really suffering. So, when Congress was debating their $600 relief payments, I promised I would donate mine to people who needed it more. I planned to give half to homeless people here and half to hungry refugees in other countries.
Problem was, I had no idea how to get money to unhoused people. Because of disability, I don’t get out much, and the idea of going down the street in a wheelchair handing out $20 bills seemed uncomfortable and dangerous.
Then a homeless Facebook friend named Shelby alerted me to the idea of giving out gift cards from places like Target or Subway. I asked him if he could distribute them for me, and he said OK; just mail them to him. A group of his friends were assembling hygiene packages for homeless encampments that weekend.
So that Wednesday, I went to a local Target to buy gift cards. Because I couldn’t physically reach them, I asked one of the store staff for help. He was happy to get me some, but then he asked me, “Do you want Happy Birthday or Congratulations, or what?”
I told him it didn’t matter what the cards said, as I was planning to give them to homeless people. Some shoppers must have heard me, since as the clerk was ringing up the cards, a woman in her 40’s pressed a $20 bill into my hand saying, “That’s a great idea.” Then an older man did the same thing and all of a sudden, I had $40 more in gift cards than I anticipated.
The experience felt really good. When Shelby texted that he had received the cards and given them out, I texted back this Target story. He said it warmed his heart to hear, to be reminded that most people want to help. He told me how pleased the people he had visited were for the hygiene kits with the cards.
The next time I went out was Saturday to the Farmers’ Market. I told the same story to my friend Elliot and to an elevator operator in the BART station named Orlando. They both had similar delighted reactions: their shoulders dropped as if they had suddenly relaxed, and they broke into smiles. Orlando said the story had made his day and thanked me for telling him.
Telling my story kept working. Monday, I had a physical therapy appointment, and I told the therapist my experience. He said, “What a good idea! I’ve got these two gift cards I don’t know what to do with. Now, I can give them away.”
Telling a story spreads it
As a storyteller, I enjoyed all this positive feedback. A few days later, I told my 11-year old friend Essence the story, while she was on break between classes in the distance learning she does at our apartment. She responded, “One good deed leads to another.”
Essence had given me a new way to think about gift cards. I had thought, well, I’m giving money away; I could see how that might inspire someone else to do the same.
And that happened. But I hadn’t considered how hearing about others’ generosity might make people feel. I saw that I could keep telling this story, and others who heard the story could repeat it, maybe add their own. Then the good feelings and positive actions really could ripple like waves in a pond.
Like from the point of view of my two shopper/contributors. Yes, they helped a couple of people and could feel good about themselves. But if they tell others what happened and what they had done, they might encourage all kinds of generosity in the world.
As American novelist Edith Wharton said, “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Maybe reflecting light is the job of a writer or a speaker, but anyone who can speak, or even smile, can be a mirror.
I remember in my speaking career ; the stories that touched people were almost never about things that were wrong. That information was important, but people craved examples of others doing right, getting better, succeeding or coping, stories of love and cooperation.
So, I hereby resolve to keep telling about others acting well. Of course, that means I must keep having good experiences and doing good things myself. And I’m advising you: if you do something good, or become aware of other people doing good, don’t hide it. Tell the story. Let people know. Who knows whose darkness you might illuminate?
Even if it’s you who did the good thing, tell people. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Don’t hide your light under a bushel basket,” but hiding is so easy to do. Most of us are taught as children to hide our lights, to not show off. But how much we deny others when we hide!
It was really only luck this story happened at all. Because of disability, I had to speak up to the clerk at Target, and because of that, others heard me, and two decided to contribute. If I had just grabbed the cards and bought them, the gifts wouldn’t have rippled so far.
I hope this story helps the ripples spread. Maybe some readers will help out a few homeless people or others who are suffering.
Sometimes we’re candles, and sometimes mirrors, maybe sometimes both. If you are doing good, don’t hide it. You might inspire others.
In 2020, police killed over 1,000 Americans, possibly as many as two thousand. According to mappingpoliceviolence.org, 28% of the victims have been African-Americans — who make up only 13% of the population — but people of all kinds die too often in police encounters.
This rate of police gun violence is more than ten times that of any European country. Fear between police and citizens makes our streets meaner, harsher places for everyone, including the police themselves.
After the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Black Lives Matter movement put out the slogan ‘Defund the Police.’ While far too much funding indeed goes to law enforcement, the slogan was widely misinterpreted as ‘Abolish the Police,’ which made the idea a nonstarter in most communities and violently resisted by police departments.
A more effective proposal would be ‘Disarm the Police.’ Few people advocate getting rid of police entirely — though some do — but for at least five reasons, we would be much happier and safer if police were only armed for very special assignments.
1. Too traumatized to handle guns
When a cop shoots someone, they almost invariably avoid punishment or even discipline by saying, “I feared for my life.” And strange as it seems, they are usually telling the truth. According to Resmaa Menakem MSW, author of My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Path to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, most Americans have been traumatized by violence their families experienced in their home countries or here.
But police are a specially traumatized group. They regularly observe traumatic situations at work. They inflict trauma on others, which is itself a form of trauma. They are trained and taught to live in fear of violence from the people they police. As a result, they fear for their lives and over-react accordingly.
Their traumatized fear is strongest when dealing with Black and other dark-skinned people. Menakem describes the racist beliefs many officers subconsciously hold about Black bodies: that they are invulnerable to injury, have superhuman strength and do not feel pain.
After Ferguson, Missouri cop Darrell Wilson got into a fight with and killed Mike Brown, a large but unarmed Black 18-year-old, he told a grand jury: “When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” (Wilson is 6’4” tall and weighed 220 pounds at the time.) And after shooting Brown several times, Wilson testified that, “It looked like he was bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.” So, he shot Brown again, this time fatally. Was that rational, or was it trauma-driven paranoia?
We read constantly about Black men shot by police who mistook a cell phone, a sandwich, a cigarette lighter, or a wallet for a gun, and responded by firing up to 40 shots into their victims. Some, like Tamir Rice in Cleveland, have been as young as 12 years old. Some police fear Latino, Native American, and poor white people nearly as much as they fear African-Americans. How can people living with so much fear handle guns safely?
Trained to fear
According to Seth Stoughton, professor of law at the University of South Carolina Law School and a former police officer, police trainers’ heavy emphasis on police safety and the dangers of inattention or hesitation condition officers to shoot before a threat is fully recognized. Recruits are shown videos of officers being killed to impress on them how much danger they face.
Ex-cop turned researcher Arthur Rizer told Vox.com, that police work often makes officers fear and suspect all civilians. Rizer says many believe “they are ‘at war’ with the public.” He continues, “There’s a ‘me versus them’ kind of worldview, that we’re not part of this community that we’re patrolling.”
2. It’s not the bad apples; it’s the tree
“Police departments blame rogue cops for excessive violence,” Barbara Armacost wrote in Harvard Business Review. “But the problem is organizational culture.” Violent officers “tend to repeat their abusive behavior with impunity.” Some cops have dozens of abuse complaints and several shooting on their records, but still keep their jobs.
“Not addressing repeated brutality,” writes Armacost, “conveys the message that some level of abusive behavior is okay… Certain features of police culture reward aggressive behavior or send a subliminal message that some brutality is permitted or even necessary.”
Police departments emphasize quantitative performance, says Seth Stoughton: crimes solved, arrests made, and tickets written, not harder-to-measure accomplishments, such as dangerous situations defused or avoided. By rewarding aggressive actions — which may even be dubbed heroic — this system can escalate police-citizen confrontations. While officers are rarely disciplined for shooting someone, some have been fired for not shooting.
Police culture idealizes toughness and scorns vulnerability. My friend Jeanette, who does de-escalation trainings with officers, says they are strongly discouraged from talking about their traumas, fears, anger and grief. ‘They’re just supposed to suck it up,’ she says. So, they cannot heal their trauma.
According to Zack Beauchamp on Vox.com, “Officers are taught that the only way to guarantee survival is to dominate the citizens they’re supposed to protect.” Guns contribute to this aura of toughness and dominance, even if they are never fired.
Why would city governments, supposedly representing all residents, embrace violent policing and even occasional shootings? Among many reasons, one stands out. Police have, since their creation in the 19th Century, been given the job of suppressing opposition to the propertied classes who run their cities, and that requires violence.
3. Property above people
According to an extensive report from the Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) Institute of Police Studies, police in America largely started as slave catchers, strike breakers, and guardians of rich people’s property. Protecting property against those without is the main reason we have police, and a major reason they should not be armed.
Policing hasn’t always been all about force. In a chapter called History of Urban Police, UCLA professor Eric Monkkonen reports that 19th Century police performed social service work such as running soup kitchens and finding lost children. Friendly fictional police figures like Andy of Mayberry and Officer Clemmons on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood may be based on those early police roles, but by the 20th Century, departments dropped most of the social services to focus on protecting private property (aka “fighting crime.”)
EKU Professor Gary Potter says that, “The use of public police to serve private economic interests and to use legally-ordained force against organizing workers was both cost-effective for manufacturing concerns and politically useful, in that it confused the issue of workers’ rights with the issue of crime.”
In the South, according to the National Law Enforcement Museum, many police programs began as slave patrols. “White Southerners lived in near constant fear of slave rebellions disrupting this economic status quo,” they write. “As a result, these patrols were one of the earliest and most prolific forms of early policing in the South.”
The enforcement of owners’ law against slaves, industrial workers, and the very poor — all of whom were fighting for their lives — was necessarily violent, as it is today. This is why disarming the police is a working-class demand.
4. White supremacist influence
Not all police are racists. But police departments throughout the US have been infiltrated for over 100 years by violent white supremacist groups. The FBI reported in 2006 that, “White supremacist infiltration of law enforcement can result in abuses of authority and tolerance of racism within communities served.”
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “Internal FBI policy documents have warned agents that the white supremacist and anti-government militia groups they investigate often have “active links” to law enforcement officials.”
In an August 2020 article for t he Brennan Center, Michael German wrote, “There is an unbroken chain of law enforcement involvement in violent, organized racist activity right up to the present.” Members of openly racist organizations serve in law enforcement in over a dozen states. A cell of over 40 Klansmen has been exposed in Kentucky, and an even bigger cell of neo-Nazis have infiltrated the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, where a lawsuit revealed killings, brutality, house trashing, and other acts of lawlessness by sheriffs in the town of Lynwood, CA.
Giving neo-Nazis and avowed racists weapons and legal authority to use them in Black and Brown communities creates violence and despair for people who live in them, in return for an illusion of safety for those who stay away. It is the very definition of racism, state power directed against people of color.
5. Disarming will help the police, too
Police work is hard and dangerous; although statistically safer than farm work, construction, truck driving, and a dozen other professions. Police believe they are in constant danger on the streets, and most believe they need guns to protect themselves. In many situations, though, their guns make them less safe and more stressed.
Social work educator Lori James-Townes wrote on Slate that “Police come armed with tasers, guns and batons, prepared to deploy violence…looking to control and suppress instead of solve problems. They typically escalate a situation.”
Police brutality cases seem the motivation for a number of ambush killings of police officers in the last few years. After the 2016 murders by police of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philandro Castile in Minnesota, at least eight officers were killed in revenge attacks, according to the New York Times. Their guns could not protect them.
Police guns kill police, too. An August 2020 article on City and State New York reported that in New York City, the only two officers to die in the line of duty in the last three years were killed by friendly fire, and more than a dozen officers attempted or committed suicide using firearms during that span.
Police bodies suffer from the stress of their combative relationship with the people. A study at the University of Buffalo found that the pressures of law enforcement put officers at risk for high blood pressure, insomnia, heart problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide. It cannot be healthy to be feared and resented by everyone you meet, to feel constant fear of attack, to fight for dominance or to engage in violent, traumatic behaviors day after day.
Must police be armed?
Police might feel naked without their weapons, but experts believe the vast majority of police encounters do not need to involve force. If police acted more like social or community workers, they would inflict and suffer less stress and violence.
Some towns — like Alexandria, Kentucky — use actual social workers to take many calls formerly handled by officers. They have found unarmed responders reduce repeat emergency calls while also getting residents the help that police officers don’t have the skills, resources or time to provide.
So, many police could be replaced with trained non-cops. But police can also perform more effectively and easily if they back off the need to dominate every encounter. They could start that by putting the guns away.
Police in many European and other countries work without guns and rarely kill or are killed by citizens. In many countries, police have actively resisted plans to arm them, because guns would make their jobs more dangerous.
Police violence supporters will say the USA is a far more dangerous and lawless country, but how much of the danger is self-fulfilling prophecy? If you fear people, treat them as enemies, and put them in desperate situations, they are, of course, more likely to become violent. But changing the role of police would make violence much less likely.
Sociology professor Greg Smithsonian of Brooklyn College believes that disarming police would “change the social compact, producing a different relationship with civilians.” There would be less aggression and bravado, more actual help for people in need.
Social workers do not need guns. Police need to stop thinking of themselves as soldiers, and start acting like part of the community they serve. This transition will take time, but would make police part of the solution and not the problem.
When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) demanded that Congress pay people to stay home during Corona virus shutdowns, Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina, tweeted:
“AOC, Are you suggesting you want to pay people to stay home from the money you take by defunding the police? Or was that for the student debts you wanted to pay off, the Green New Deal or Medicare for All? #WhereIsTheMoney”
Where is the money? What about the deficit? What about inflation? Conservatives always ask those questions to dismiss demands for needed programs like COVID relief pay, universal basic income (UBI,) free public college, and Medicare for all.
But don’t answer them. Those are trick questions. Conservative ideology opposes populist reforms, as they opposed Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, unemployment compensation, and many other plans to help working-class people.
Opponents can’t publicly admit to opposing those things, so they in public that programs are unaffordable. ‘We don’t have the money,’ they say, and even if we did, spending it might cause runaway inflation. They say government budgets should be balanced; all expenses need to be paid for with taxes, or else money will lose its value and prices will soar.
The world’s richest investment companies, such as Black Rock and Goldman Sachs have been warning loudly about such inflation for years, even while demanding and receiving government bail outs for themselves and their corporate clients. But these arguments are wrong, contradicted by 100 years’ experience and by new research; and it’s worth learning why. So, let’s go over their objections. Where WILL the money come from?
Money cannot run out
Money is not a real thing that exists in the physical world, like oil or water. It’s a social agreement invented to make it easier to exchange things. Economist/futurist Hazel Henderson says that money is not wealth itself; it is only a way of measuring it.
Wealth consists of real things like food, labor energy, manufactured goods, natural resources, inventions: things that people want and are willing to give something for. When current Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell was asked on CBS-TV ‘Where is the money going to come from,’ to pay for Corona virus relief, Powell responded that they would just print it, digitally and as banknotes.
The Fed knows they can create all the money they want with a few key strokes. They’ve been doing it for decades to keep stock markets up, to pay for bank bailouts and military buildups, among other programs. Banks also create money when they give loans. A loan for a house or an oil pipeline doesn’t come from anywhere; the bank just adds it to the loan recipient’s account.
Leading Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economist Stephanie Kelton PhD, author of The Deficit Myth (2019), explains that national governments that can print their own currency can never run out of money. For a country to run out of money would be like Play Store running out of an app.
Oligarchs and their propagandists warn that money will lose its value if we give people too much. If too much money is chasing too few goods, they argue, we’ll wind up paying $1000 for a quart of milk. These inflation warnings sound plausible, and such “hyperinflation” has, in fact occurred in poor countries. But when we look more closely, we can see that in the current world environment of high productivity, mass unemployment and falling wages, inflation is only a story used to frighten us.
Inflation is not a threat
What is inflation and what causes it? Investopedia defines inflation as “decline of purchasing power of a given currency over time.” Inflation is not just a rise in certain prices; prices can go up for many reasons. Inflation is a loss in a currency’s value, a loss in public confidence in a government’s money, affecting all prices. What makes this happen?
The traditional answer is that inflation comes from too much government spending. In this theory, government deficits lead to an excess of money, which then loses its value. But this explanation is greatly over-simplified and often just wrong.
According to Stephanie Kelton, a depression economy is not normally a time of inflation. Prices can still rise for reasons such as shrinking supplies or hoarding, but the national currency is not in danger.
Inflation happens when the total amount of money in circulation far exceeds the goods and services available to buy, according to MMT. You can see inflation right now in the stock market, where trillions in government bailout dollars chase too few productive investments, sending stock prices through the roof, while the economy collapses.
But in the real world of goods and services, as long as a country has sufficient productive capacity and wealth (things to sell,) their money will not lose its value. The USA has tremendous productive capacity right now, so, according to MMT, virtually no risk of severe inflation. Some prices might rise slightly, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. If everyone was receiving $2000/month in UBI payments, and prices went up 10% as a result, the vast majority of people would be far better off.
Modest inflation is a much bigger problem for rich than for poor, for employers than for workers. Matthew Yglesias wrote on Slate.com that, “Historically, the populist political position was generally pro-inflation. Inflation squeezes creditors–bankers and rich people–and helps debtors–less-rich people.”
Hyperinflation hurts almost everybody but, along with the MMT reasons I have already given, the USA has another, almost unbreakable barrier protecting its currency. By treaties, the dollar is the only currency in which to buy and sell oil internationally. So, demand for dollars will never drop as long as the “petrodollar” rules remain in effect. And those rules are backed up by the US military, which has overthrown governments like Qaddafi’s Libya, Hussein’s Iraq, and threatened Venezuela when they considered trading oil in other currencies. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but it’s very real.
Countries without such a super-currency also could spend more money if they have productive capacity to back it up. Many countries are paying workers to stay home in Corona virus shutdowns and have not experienced inflation as a result. According to Dr. Kelton, each country has to evaluate how much money they should have in circulation, based on their own capacity, but no country need be afraid of running a deficit in their budget. Deficits won’t sink a currency’s value.
Deficit reduction is a con game
Without getting too partisan about this, Republicans’ calling for fiscal restraint and warning about deficits is a blatant con game. They don’t apply those rules to themselves.
When Bill Clinton became President in 1993, he and Vice-President Gore started the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, with the goal of making federal bureaucracies more efficient and less costly. NPRG worked so well that massive federal deficits disappeared. Helped by an economic boom time, national budgets were balanced from 1998–2001. Whether or not that was a good thing, it was what Republicans always say they support.
But when George W. Bush became President in 2001, he immediately blew up the budget with huge tax cuts for the wealthy and massive increases in military spending. This is the bait-and-switch Republicans do; Ronald Reagan did the same thing in 1981; President Trump in 2017.
Conservatives scream about deficits to stop things like COVID relief and UBI, but they create huge deficits with their own spending and tax cuts. As economics journalist Dylan Matthews wrote on Vox.com “The rational move for liberals in such a game is to stop cooperating and declare that you’re not going to pay for anything either.”
Because we don’t need to. The trillions in bailouts to corporations since 2008 prove that money can be used however a society (or its rulers) want to use it. MMT provides the theory as to how to make money work for us. Let’s go.
> Money isn’t wealth: it’s just a representation of wealth, a way of keeping score. Since governments create money, they cannot run out of it.
> The US economy can well afford adequate relief for COVID shutdowns. We can afford a UBI, health care for all, infrastructure repair, and free college. More importantly, we can afford to focus on environmental restoration and stopping global warming.
> If a society keeps producing wealth, its money will not lose value. Major inflation will not happen if an economy has valuable things to sell. Minor inflation is not a problem for anyone except credit card companies and banks.
> Focus on deficit reduction and inflation is a bait-and-switch con game. The people who promote them don’t apply it to themselves.
> Call your representatives to demand COVID relief to individuals, cities, and states.
Corona virus is having a grand old time, exploiting areas where American society is divided and disorganized, problems that have been damaging us for years but went largely ignored. Now, with the pandemic shining light on these dysfunctions, we may have a chance to address them. Here are seven problem areas that prevent our controlling COVID-19 while creating suffering for millions every day.
1. A disorganized government split into federal, state, and local levels, all divided by partisanship, corrupted by lobbyists, not valuing competence. While some Asian countries brought the pandemic under control in a couple of months, as reported by John Power in the South China Morning Post, the U.S. in ten months hasn’t been able to organize testing, contact tracing, food delivery, or hospital preparedness.
A president who didn’t take the pandemic seriously did not help. Nor did each state and county’s having its own COVID policy, or Republicans and Democrats’ refusal to cooperate over details of relief bills or containment strategies. But there seems to be a deeper incompetence. Rather than manage a complex response with many moving parts; it was easier for government to just keep shutting down, reopening, and shutting down again as numbers changed.
We can manage a blunt-instrument policy like that, but a coordinated response seems too hard for us. Isn’t this the same dynamic we have seen with homelessness, gun violence, or climate change? If a problem is complicated and difficult, we don’t even try.
2. Refusal to pay people not to work. Government-ordered economic shutdowns are of questionable value in any case, but they are completely unworkable if people aren’t paid to stay home. How will their families survive? After four months of boosted unemployment pay, the US stopped paying people for not working. So, workers had to go back out and restart the epidemic.
This policy continues a long tradition of resistance to ideas of helping working people. Social Security, Medicare, and welfare have all faced violent opposition from political, professional and religious groups, as a universal basic income (UBI) does now. Working people aren’t supposed to get something for nothing; it makes us lazy. Rich people are another matter. They can apparently sit and collect interest all day without being morally harmed.
3. A for-profit health system. Focused on high-tech treatments, our $4 trillion system cannot provide the unprofitable basic care COVID-19 requires. There aren’t enough hospital beds or staff. According to Kaiser Health News, underfunded public health departments lack trained workers and resources they would need to control a pandemic.
The system of providing health insurance through workers’ jobs took away 12 million newly-unemployed people’s health insurance in the COVID Depression, according to CNBC. But even for the insured, health care in America has long been more expensive than in any other country, and ranks lowest in quality among the rich countries, according to this study by the Commonwealth Fund.
4. Justified mistrust in government and media. We’ve been lied to for so long about so many things, why would we believe what we’re told about the pandemic? Especially when the story about how it’s spread keeps changing. (Can you still get it from paper bags?) People may remember Iraq’s WMD, Russiagate, and many other hoaxes, including fake epidemics like the bird flu of 2003.
Since media and government so often try to make us afraid of illusions, we may dismiss threats that are real. Some people remember the color-coded “terror alert levels,” in 2002, based on no evidence at all, and so distrust the color-coded pandemic threats we’re seeing now. Given this history and present reality, it’s hard to get skeptical Americans on the same page with government or each other about COVID-19.
5. Race and class divisions. According to the Mayo Clinic, COVID-19 is mostly a disease of people who live and work in crowded, unhealthy conditions: working-class people, usually people of color. Professional, managerial, and wealthy people can ignore their plight, because those with enough money and space rarely get sick. So, there isn’t much political pressure to improve people’s working and living conditions. It is easier to wait for a vaccine.
6. Valuing individual freedom over collective well-being. People don’t want to wear masks and may not believe they help. They may not want to submit to testing or contact tracing. I can understand all of that, but people could also put aside their personal desires and work together for the common good. Americans don’t do that very often unless there’s a war with a designated foreign enemy, .
This dynamic comes up repeatedly. There was a time when many Americans asserted their right to drive drunk. Corporations and rich people still do all they can to avoid paying taxes.
7. Culture of cruelty. For years, Americans have been walking by homeless people and pretending we don’t see them, watching US military interventions kill people, our intelligence agencies torture them, our prison systems needlessly incarcerate them, and not saying anything about it. So, when people are losing their homes and their jobs, or their lives to COVID-19, it’s easy to keep ignoring them.
I don’t think the US is unique in this way, but friends from other countries often tell me it’s worse here.
Fixing those broken places
For years, these seven dysfunctions and others like them have usually been kept hidden. Now that we can see them, we could, at least in theory, have a chance to fix them.
I would group these problems into two categories: the rich and powerful don’t care about us, and we don’t care about each other. If we had what Rabbi Michael Lerner calls a caring society, we could fix all of them. Does anyone think we really need the poverty and separation, the division and disorganization that are enabling COVID?
If people decided they’d be better off in a caring society, rather than accepting existing dysfunctions and cruelties, COVID-19 could be an opportunity to create a better life for everyone. Of course, some people will not want to change. They will prioritize defending their privilege and their power. I’m not saying it will be easy. But neither is overcoming a pandemic, and many countries have done that. Perhaps we can too.
I’ll be looking deeper into these issues in coming weeks. Thanks for reading. Follow me on Twitter, on Facebook or on Medium.com. Hire me for freelancing, editing, or tutoring on Linked In
My friend Gladys takes care of her 94-year old mother Sylvia, who has Alzheimer’s. Gladys tries to keep mother up with the world and so was telling her about COVID-19. Sylvia said, “I want that.” Thinking she had misunderstood, Gladys replied, “Oh, no, Ma, it’s a terrible disease that kills old people.” And Sylvia said, “Take me to where they have it.”
Sylvia’s request may sound demented or depressed to you, but it would have seemed normal in previous generations. Back then, pneumonia was called “the old person’s friend.” Before antibiotics and medical supports for breathing, like oxygen and respirators, pneumonia in old people had a death rate of 30–40% or more. When you couldn’t do things, when you were in constant pain, struggling to get through your days, largely isolated from younger people living their lives, pneumonia was your ticket out.
Now, though, the vast majority of people recover from pneumonia, if they have access to medical care and a place to live. Their loved ones don’t have to say goodbye to them, and people often live into their 90s and beyond. Some are happier about this than others.
I was born after the discovery of antibiotics, so I missed the time when pneumonia was usually fatal, but I’m old enough (just turned 70) to remember when death was a normal thing. People were scared of death, of course, but not terrified like they are now, because it was familiar. People weren’t sent away to die in hospitals like cats taken to the vet to be euthanized. They died at home, usually with their family around them, so children grew up knowing that death is real but not horrible.
Now, death is far less real for most of us. Where youth, growth, aging, sickness, and death had been the natural course of life (if you lasted long enough), death is now considered an avoidable and tragic evil.
As a hospital nurse for 25 years, I saw a fair amount of death, and not much of it was good. People died surrounded by strangers, their bodies hooked to invasive tubes and treatments. We medicated them for pain, but we could do nothing to help them make their transition into death. They died alone, unless a nurse or housekeeper had time to hold their hands while they took their last breath.
Yet, many families wanted their deathly-ill relatives to receive all the invasive treatments they could afford. If their doctor tried to get a “Do not resuscitate” (DNR) order, or take them off a mechanical ventilator, families often refused. They wanted “everything” done to keep their loved ones barely alive.
When a society denies death
In recent decades, death denial has expanded: we have started to deny aging, too. Because some people can afford to hire caregivers or put their elders in nursing homes, they can move both death and aging out of sight. The shadow side of life falls deeper into the shadows, to the point where society can pretend it doesn’t exist. And then death becomes a terror, the ultimate evil that must be prevented or denied at all costs.
Now, this denial of death and the corresponding terror has spread to every corner of our society. It is shaping our responses to COVID-19 in destructive ways.
In many countries and many American states, a rise in infection rates or in deaths triggers a shutdown of business, education, in-person medical care, social, cultural and religious life. As a result, millions become unemployed, isolated, and impoverished. Of course, rates of infection drop when most people stay home. Then when government tries to reopen things, the numbers go back up, and they close down again. This has happened in my home town of San Francisco three or four times already.
The futility and collateral damage of these policies are obvious and predictable. They aren’t stopping the pandemic; they’re dragging it out, because viruses don’t go away when people hide from them. In the meantime, lives are being lost to isolation, stress, and other effects of the shutdowns. According to diabetes foot expert Jon Bloom MD, the rate of diabetic leg amputations has soared during COVID, because people are afraid to go in for preventative care. Drug overdose deaths are way up.
I do not know why authorities keep ordering these self-defeating policies, but I’m pretty sure people only accept them because they are so afraid of death. Governments know that fearful people will go along with anything, including wars. So, they go to great lengths to tell us we could die if we don’t follow their prescriptions.
If society cannot tolerate the idea of death, then we will never get out of this pandemic. We will keep opening up and shutting down while people get poorer and hungrier. We will wait for deliverance from an effective vaccine that may never come. According to University of Colorado Health, “No vaccine for any corona virus disease has been approved for use with people.” Like many other companies, they are testing one for COVID-19, and making hopeful claims for it, but they have no idea how effective it will be.
What should we do instead?
Full disclosure: I just turned 70 years old and have lived with a disabling illness for over 30 years. I’m one of the vulnerable ones that the lockdowns are supposed to protect. As of November 12, 2020, of the approximately 223,000 “COVID-involved” deaths (about 1 in 1500 people) in the USA, 79% of those who have died were age 65 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
I do not want to be “protected;” I want to live. I refuse to spend my remaining time locked in an apartment, even one with Zoom calls. I insist on living as best I can, and I certainly oppose other people’s lives being stopped to ‘protect’ me.
I’m not saying we should ignore COVID-19. An approach that accepts death would allow for a balanced, sustainable public health response. Everyone could be strongly encouraged to wash hands and faces, to stay home when sick, to wear masks in crowded situations. But they shouldn’t need to stay home when healthy; their workplaces should be open. Cultural events and religious services should resume, though perhaps with some restrictions, as they have in Sweden.
We will do more science to refine our prevention and treatment measures. But the practice of closing down millions of lives to prevent a few, or a few hundred deaths would have to stop.
Unfortunately, that policy would mean accepting that there will still be COVID cases and some deaths, and acceptance of death is no longer thinkable for most people. Just for writing things like this, my progressive public health friends call me a neoliberal who doesn’t care about human life, an ageist who wants to throw old people away. On social media, I read comments that compare riding a bus with driving drunk, or eating at a restaurant with playing Russian roulette. And these writers believe they are ‘following the science.’ They aren’t — they’re believing who they want to believe, panicking in fear of death.
Accept death or deny life
In his book, Staring at the Sun:, Overcoming the Terror of Death, psychiatrist Irvin Yalom MD wrote, “The more un-lived your life, the greater your death anxiety. The more you fail to experience your life fully, the more you will fear death.” Our fear makes us extremely vulnerable to manipulation by promoters of technological promises and pseudo-science.
I believe we will cope with pandemics and other threats if we focus on living and making life better for current and future generations and less on preventing death at all costs. Despite all our medical technology, we can’t live forever and, past a certain level of disability, discomfort and decrepitude, most people don’t want to. We might be scared of death, but that is not the same as loving life.
We need a balance between risk reduction and life maximization. Rather than stopping life to prevent death, it will be much better to enjoy and make the most of the life we have. Yalom’s book gives good ideas on how to get there.
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Have you wondered why different people: white and Black, liberal and conservative, American Christians and Middle Eastern Muslims, see the world so differently? It’s because we’re not seeing the same world at all. Each of us sees reality through a series of boxes, made of stories we inherited from our ancestors, have learned since birth, and have had reinforced every day by society and the media.
Martin Woortman instagram.com/martfoto1
If we stay inside our boxes, we suffer in two ways. We can’t see the world as it really is, so we keep being hurt by it, and we miss its beauty. Second, everyone else in other boxes seems wrong and dangerous. This separation makes us easy to manipulate and is the source of much of our social conflict. If we understand the nature of the boxes we live in, we can better connect with others and experience the wonders of life.
Born in a box
Even before we’re born, we start to learn what the world is like. In his book, My Grandmother’s Hands, trauma therapist Resmaa Menakem, MSW, writes that children of traumatized parents are born already fearful of a scary world: vigilant against danger, unable to relax. They will teach their fear to their children. Whole communities can be traumatized by violence or dislocation, and most of them will see the world through that box of fear for generations to come.
Families and cultures vary in other ways, too. I was raised to think education was the most important thing in life; some of my working-class neighbors thought hard work was #1. As an adult, I’ve met others, often with less money, who focus on social connection as the way to survive. As a white-appearing child, I was taught to go to the police if I was lost or needed help. For good reason, some Black children learn the opposite.
These approaches represent different ways of trying to be safe in the world. All of them are based on some experiences a family or community has had. The original situations may or may not still exist, but the responses remain.
People from different boxes usually have no idea how the world looks to other people. White people who have never known many Black folks may not believe systemic racism exists. After all, they’ve never felt it. Rich people may not know any working people, and so usually have no idea what it’s like to lack money for food or to worry about paying rent. They can easily exclude such realities from their consciousness.
Thinking inside the box
Thoughts and behaviors that seem bizarre or evil to some make perfect sense to others inside their narrative boxes. I have long been baffled by this question: how could oil company executives suppress the science, some of it developed by their own researchers, that showed their products were heating the planet, with probable deadly effects? I knew corporations commonly value profits over lives, but in the case of oil companies, their products are killing their own children. How corrupt do you have to be to doom your own family?
Now, after reading and talking about it with some executive types, I begin to understand. You don’t have to be corrupt at all. You just have to keep thinking inside the boxes you were raised in, the ones society built around you and those you made for yourself.
The oil execs live in a capitalist box, in which progress is always good and accumulation of wealth defines success. Nested inside that box is a corporate box, in which their company, despite being a legal fiction, is a valuable thing which must be defended. Oil companies power people’s lives, after all, enabling us to get around in comfort. Inside the corporate box is a career box, in which money and prestige prove that the execs are good people.
Living in those boxes, the thought that burning oil is a bad thing is literally unthinkable. Those thoughts are easily kept at bay with simple disbelief (‘How could humans change the climate of this huge planet?’) with alternative belief systems (‘God is in control. He wants humans to prosper and wouldn’t let us kill ourselves.’) or alternative science (‘It’s not really that bad. The warming we see is just a natural cycle.’)
When society financially rewards you for what you do in your box, it’s harder to see outside it, especially when your friends, associates and family are in the box with you, and might get very angry if you try to climb out.
Part of the air we breathe
We all live in nested boxes, of which we’re usually unaware. We’re raised from birth to think our country is best. Our nationalities and our families’ political belief systems are the right ones. We’re taught those things in school, in church, at home, in the media. Religion (an important part of our worldview) is inherited. According to University of Southern California sociologist Vern Bengston, 50-90% of children keep the faith of their parents for life.
Seeing the world as we’ve learned it, we interpret our experiences to fit in with our beliefs. Soon, we don’t know our boxes are limiting our view; they’re like water to a fish, just the way things are, not open to question. We customize our boxes by adding on beliefs, which start as thoughts that fit what we already know.
Author Michelle May M.D. wrote on Huffpost, “Your thoughts lead to actions, which lead to results that confirm your initial thoughts. They become beliefs. Beliefs then become automatic thoughts that drive your behaviors. In other words, habits.” Once thoughts become habits, they become parts of our worldview, and opposing thoughts can’t get in.
In case we do start to question our beliefs, corporate media managers surround us with narrative walls to make sure we don’t see too far. These walls of story function like distorting windows. Through them, we can’t see the world as it is, only as the image-makers show it to us, usually as a scary place of scarcity and danger.
How we see the world – Image: Kaleb Nimz brewedtogether.com
Thinking outside our boxes is rare, as you can verify in five minutes on social media. Conservatives and liberals live in the same world, but see it through very different boxes. Republicans call progressives Libtards, and Democrats call conservatives Fascists. Our oligarchs thoughtfully provide each group with its own media outlets and information sources in both broadcast and social media form. As Andrew Marantz writes in his book Antisocial, algorithms and advertising work to put each of us in the boxes that are most comfortable for us, sometimes called ‘filter bubbles’ or ‘echo chambers.’ We wind up talking only with people who share our views.
My take on all this: the oligarchs know that people living in different boxes won’t unite against them. And the people creating those boxes live in boxes of their own, from which the things they do seem right, even socially necessary. But living in a box affects us beyond the political implications.
In our personal lives, the most important boxes are the ones controlling who we think we are and what we should do. Some of these have been constructed over thousands of years. Society starts enclosing us at birth with walls such as gender roles: the different ways girls and boys should act and the way they should be treated. We learn very young what kind of person we should be when we grow up and what we should value in life. Our childhood and adult peers have their own boxes and try to mold our boxes to resemble theirs.
Nested inside those social boxes are more personal boxes that limit who we can be. The walls here are more like mirrors than windows. Am I a good person? Am I worthy of love? Do I need to be rich or poor, educated or religious, thin or fat, or what DO I need to do to feel good about myself?
Because the world seems dangerous, we sometimes create our own boxes to keep us safe. Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, called these made-up boxes “neuroses.” If I think of myself as weak or incompetent, I won’t try things that are difficult or speak up for myself to others. That box protects me from risk but sadly limits what I can do and experience.
Can we get out of our boxes?
Buddhists say that seeing reality is a lifelong practice, kind of like what their monks do in their cells, but in the middle of fast-changing world with a hundred threats and a million spectacles to distract us. I personally don’t expect to get out of all my boxes any time soon.
What we can do is become aware of our own boxes and those of others. We can recognize that people with different beliefs have different histories and different sources of information, and so live in different boxes. They’re not stupid or evil. When we have unwanted thoughts or take automatic actions we can’t explain, we can realize that once-necessary but now outdated beliefs may be driving our behavior. We’re not weak or lacking in will power. We can do better. Here are some resources that might be useful.
Do you ever feel like some unseen force is blocking you? Self-help books, therapists or coaches might help you find a different way forward, but wait! Maybe the world wants you to do something else. That happened to the prophet Balaam in the Bible, and we can still learn from his 3000-year old story.
Like all Bible stories, Balaam’s is best read as poetry, not as literal truth. You don’t have to believe in God to learn from it. Like other spiritual wisdom — Muslim teachers say each verse in the Koran has seven different meanings — Balaam has layers of meaning that will speak to us at different stages of our lives. This story will look at two of those meanings.
First, the story
As told in the Book of Numbers, the Israelites were swarming out of the desert toward the Land of Canaan, conquering the little kingdoms of Midian in their path. The local leaders were terrified of them, and one, Balak the king of Moab, decided to stop their advance by force.
Balak knew he needed help, so he called on the prophet Balaam to come and rouse the people of Moab to fight, and to curse the Israelites. He offered Balaam a ton of money and honors. After first refusing, Balaam got on his ass and rode off toward Moab.
They were making good time, until the ass turned off the road and wandered into a nearby field. Balaam didn’t know that God, taking Israel’s side as usual, had sent a death angel to block the prophet’s path. Balaam couldn’t see the angel standing up ahead with its sword drawn, ready to kill him, but his ass could.
Not seeing the donkey’s motive, Balaam got angry, beat her with a stick and drove her back into the road.
This happened a second time. Finally, in a very narrow place with no way to turn off the road, the ass “fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff” (Number 22:27.) Then she started talking to him.
“What have I done unto thee” she asked, “that thou hast smitten me these three times?”
And Balaam said unto the ass, “Because thou hast mocked me: I wish there were a sword in mine hand, so I could kill thee.”
“And the ass said unto Balaam, ‘Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? Did I ever disobey you before?” (Numbers 22:28–30.)
Balaam admitted that she had never done anything like this before. Maybe, then, he should have wondered why she was behaving differently now, but he wanted to get to Moab and wouldn’t tolerate anyone getting in his way, least of all an animal. How human! How male!
Then, the book says, “God opened Balaam’s eyes so he could see the angel standing in front of him. The angel of the Lord said unto him, “Behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me. And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times. Unless she had turned from me, surely by now I had slain thee, and saved her alive.”
The world talks to us
The world, or God if you prefer, sends us important messages all the time. We have to decide whether to listen and what they mean. Then we can do something about them.
Sometimes people or events just happen to interfere with our plans for no apparent reason. Other times, blessings come from nowhere and encourage us in some direction. We should look into those events to see if we can understand a message there.
Often, the messages come from our bodies. According to Martin Rossman MD, co-founder of the Academy for Guided Imagery, our bodies can’t speak to us in words, so they communicate through symptoms and dreams. If we ignore the symptoms or try to suppress them, we may miss a chance to avert a catastrophe. Interactive Guided Imagery is a way of letting your body or your symptoms speak in words.
People often can’t see how things in life, like a person, a drug, a food, or a job, are bad for us. We just know we’re tired in the morning or having pain somewhere in our bodies. Those feelings are God/the world speaking to us. If we keep pushing, like Balaam tried to do, we won’t like the results.
Men often treat their bodies like Balaam treated his ass. They may have a very narrow concept of their sexuality, limited to getting hard and penetrating things. If their aging bodies no longer want to do that, they might seek assistance from medicines. Or they may withdraw from sex completely rather than try new activities that might be more pleasurable than what they had before.
Sometimes, the blocks seem psychological. I used to be a serious competitive chess player. I reached the rank of national master in the United States, but I wanted more. Chess took up huge amounts of my time and energy: practicing, studying, competing. It interfered with my relationships and other activities, but it was also fun. I was addicted.
A frustrating thing kept happening to me on the chessboard, though. I would laboriously build up a great position against another strong player, then suddenly, with victory in my grasp, make some senseless blunder and throw the game away. I would be left angry and frustrated with myself. What was going on?
Now I know these lapses were my body/mind trying to protect me, either from the consequences of success or from wasting my life pushing plastic pieces around a board.
Thirty years later, and after some good therapy, I think both were involved. With ongoing inner work, I’m more comfortable winning now, but I’m also very glad I didn’t pursue dreams of becoming a Grandmaster. The idea of a life spent poring over chess games doesn’t appeal to me nearly as much as the life I have had., either from the consequences of success or from wasting my life pushing plastic p
But I didn’t think any of that at the time. The blunders just came, like some outside force was doing it to me for no reason. I hated them and stressed out over them. I didn’t see that, like Balaam’s ass, they were trying to tell me something important.
How animals talk
Balaam wouldn’t listen to his donkey, who was trying to save him. In real life, animals can’t talk, and it’s hard for them to get our attention. They may try to let us know by their behavior. If a pet seems to dislike a new boyfriend, maybe he’s not the man you want.
Wild animals have behaviors too. If coyotes are coming to your neighborhood and eating pets, they are probably being driven out of their natural homes. Maybe we should help them protect their traditional spaces.
More often, wild animals just die. That’s all they can do to alert us to the angel of death we’re calling into being as we destroy their homes in search of wealth and growth. Are most of us even aware of the sharp declines in bird and bug populations over the last 50 years? Or do we ignore the quieting of bird songs and the absence of dead bugs on our windshields?
Learning to listen to the world
In Balaam’s story, God gave an animal the ability to speak, then opened Balaam’s eyes so he could see the angel of death. That doesn’t happen anymore. In modern life, though, we can open our eyes in other ways. We might learn to evaluate our path through therapy, or through a practice of meditation, prayer, or guided imagery. We might be on a good path but doing it wrong, or we might be better off changing direction, perhaps going back the way we came.
If the barriers are external, we might see the world more clearly if we get involved in a movement for change, because when we try to change the world, we can see how it reacts. That is why it’s so important, and rare, for people not to attach to their programs and preconceived ideas. We might have to change them.
Can we remain aware of what is happening and how people are responding, or will we, individually and collectively put our head down and keep beating our ass forward? We might get much better results when we learn to listen.
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“The lockdown that we have done in the world towards the COVID-19 pandemic is the worst assault on the working class in half a century.” Martin Kulldorff PhD
Since March, we have seen the COVID-19 shutdowns cutting back people’s lives, sinking folks into poverty and desperation. Whether or not these steps are necessary, here are some groups being ground down by these supposed public health measures.
With schools in San Francisco going virtual, we’ve been helping neighbor children with distance learning. (See Zoom School is Like Regular School, Only Worse.) We have observed children cut off from playmates, crying, depressed. We see how their learning and social interaction suffer.
These children had been eating school lunches and, in some cases, breakfasts. That’s gone now; we’re feeding two of them, but what about the others? Some parents have been forced to stay home to care for children who would have been in school. Other parents’ service jobs have disappeared. Either way, people are losing income they need for food and rent.
Playgrounds are still closed where we live, so kids are getting stir-crazy and out of shape. We take them out for walks and bike rides when we can, but they miss those playgrounds for both the exercise and the social interaction.
Because of age and multiple sclerosis (MS), I now have friends in assisted living residences. I cannot visit my ex-girlfriend Josie; she’s in the old people’s protection program. Nobody can come in the facility, and she can’t leave. Immediate family can arrange a visit in the parking lot. For me, they offered a “window visit.”
A window visit means we would sit on opposite sides of a wall and talk with each other on our cell phones. I have visited people like this, but they were in prison. I’m not traveling an hour for that; it would be worse than not seeing her at all.
Josie says social life within the facility has also shut down. People used to eat in a communal dining room and sometimes had entertainment during dinner. They watched TV together. Now, everybody stays in their room. She’s lonely, but she’s not the only one.
My former MS support group co-leader Shirley now lives in a nursing home. It’s always been boring, but she did have weekly art classes and a twice-monthly poetry group. The residents actually create some nice stuff; Shirley has been exhibited at City Hall.
Now those programs have been stopped. The home is protecting residents from each other and from the staff, but they have made their lives smaller and meaner.
Some of these results are tragic — my neighbor Dolores was 100 years old when her son Robert decided he could no longer handle her care. She had fallen several times and had needed the fire department to get her back up.
Robert found her a really nice assisted living across the Bay. Dolores didn’t want to move from her home of 45 years, but she had no choice, and it seemed to meet her needs. A week later, though, the mayor declared that all senior facilities be locked down. Dolores could have no visitors, except window visits with her son, which were pretty useless because she was too deaf to talk on the phone.
The trauma of separation demented Dolores. She couldn’t understand why she could no longer see her family and friends. She died a few months later, still asking staff why she was there.
Families without income
For those who have forgotten, the USA is not a socialist country, and we’re proud of it. When other countries such as China and New Zealand closed their economies, they guaranteed that people would have food to eat, they would not be evicted, and their jobs would return. In those places, shutdown lasted a month or two, and people are recovering.
The USA hasn’t supported people in that way. They couldn’t, with our leaders’ commitment to neoliberal austerity and people’s focus on individual self-reliance and freedom. More people are becoming homeless, a problem that barely exists in much poorer countries like Iran and Palestine, according to residents of those countries I have talked to.
Housing advocates predict a coming “tsunami of evictions” in the wake of people losing their jobs. Eviction is not a small thing. Homelessness has major impact on physical and psychological health, including early death.
We’ve seen longstanding businesses fold, while online stores like Amazon and big chains like Target make billions of dollars. People who have devoted their lives to building up a business have lost the thing that centered their lives and kept them going. Customers are limited to online shopping or Walmart/Costco/Target chains.
I have some artist friends, people who used to perform in coffee houses, sing in churches, entertain at senior centers, act in shows. Now they’ve lost that work, and who knows when it will come back. Athletes can’t play their sports, and fans have no concerts or games to go to. Do we think culture so unimportant?
Effects on health and safety
Everyone can see the mile-long lines at food banks. New food distribution sites keep opening up in San Francisco, and I hope elsewhere. I hope people keep volunteering at them and donating to them, but they still represent a great increase in poverty.
All of this is impacting health. Some of those who do have food tell us they are getting fat from being stuck inside with nothing to do but eat and watch bad news.
People are becoming more isolated. Religious meetings and political meetings have moved to Zoom, as have many colleges. We’re not just in home detention, we’re in solitary confinement. Aisha says she can see alarming health deterioration in the friends with whom she used to exercise, who are now staying home “to be safe.”
We are not safe, and all the masks and handwashing in the world won’t make us safe. People are getting desperate, and some turn to crime and drugs. We have noticed an increase in property crime and violent crime in our usually safe lower-middle class neighborhood. Is all this really helping people be healthy?
We don’t watch TV at home, but on a visit to our neighbor Linda’s apartment, Aisha saw something scary. Across the bottom of a cable news show, they were running a continuous crawl of numbers, like the stock price tickers you sometimes see on business news. Only, these numbers were reports of COVID cases and deaths, by states, cities, countries. They went on and on.
What possible news value could those numbers have? They’re not even entertaining. The only conceivable purpose is to scare people, and it seems to be working. Linda says she doesn’t want schools to reopen, because she’s afraid of catching COVID from a child.
Fear seems to be the point of the whole shutdown. The pandemic response is the mass production of poverty, a class war in disguise. Not only are workers losing livelihoods and the middle class losing their businesses, but whole countries are being sunk into endless debt, and we’re all too afraid to fight back.
As economies shrink, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been giving struggling countries bailout loans. But according to Oxfam International, “76 of 91 IMF loans extended during the Covid-19 pandemic have suggested or demanded spending cuts that would worsen poverty and inequality. The result could be deep cuts to public healthcare and pensions; wage freezes and cuts for workers such as doctors and teachers; and reduced unemployment benefits like sick pay.”
So, for American old people, young people, service workers, cultural workers, and for poor countries, the shutdowns have been a disaster. Maybe not so much in countries like Korea that have less individualistic, better organized societies. I hope maybe COVID can be a stimulus to make the US a more co-operative country.
If we’re not going to do that, we should embrace the laissez-faire approach, encourage sensible precautions, but not keep pretending our halfway shutdown is doing any good. We should definitely start by giving everyone a substantial basic income (UBI) every month and eviction/foreclosure protection. That will at least keep people housed and fed.
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I used to wonder why conservatives and Republicans called middle-class liberals “elites.” They were usually referring to academics and entertainers, maybe Hollywood celebs, not to people with real power. If professors and actors are ‘elite,’ what do you call billionaires and heads of corporations who actually run the world?
Well, last month, I learned firsthand where conservatives’ anger at the people they call elites comes from. I found myself on the incorrect side of a wedge issue, and I got slammed by my online friends in just the ays I’ve seen liberals and “progressives” slam white Trump supporters. Now I can see one reason the Left/Right divide keeps widening, even while the 0.1% sink the rest of us into poverty together.
It happened when I expressed skepticism about the shutdowns imposed in the name of stopping the spread of COVID-19. I’m on a leftist public health listserv, a googlegroup with about 2,500 doctors, public health officials, and educators. A few colleagues and I questioned whether a large-scale quarantine of healthy people was really the best approach.
I won’t debate the issues here; you might be on either side of this argument, and that’s OK. The point is how the group reacted.
Insulting and shaming
Some people agreed with our questions, but most commenters smeared us. Our views were called racist. We were called privileged, because we could afford to hide out from the virus and others could not. How people knew what we could and could not afford is beyond me, and which side of this debate was the privileged people’s side isn’t clear. But “privileged” is a term thrown around a lot by progressives to discredit opposing views.
We were called ignorant, because to believe as we did, we must not know the facts. We were called science deniers.
Some called us conspiracy theorists, if we thought that the public health response was being manipulated to enrich the 1%. We were paranoid if we thought the lockdown might be engineered to strengthen the surveillance state.
The nasty language, the sense of superiority, the insulting tone sounded familiar. It reminded me of the comments I see all the time from progressive friends about conservatives, Trump supporters, and less-educated white people. They are dismissed in just these ways: racist, stupid, privileged, science-denier. People who question government or corporate media narratives are paranoid conspiracy theorists.
It does not feel good to be on the receiving end of that language. The people doing the insulting clearly think they are smarter or better-informed than those they criticize. This is where the charges of elitism come from.
How the Left became elite
If I had known more history, I wouldn’t have been surprised by this cultural turn. According to historian Patrick Brantlinger, the term “elite” has long meant educated, cultured people, and not necessarily the rich and powerful. For centuries, educated people have considered themselves the elite who needed to teach the ignorant masses what to think. Of course, many of these elites came from the wealthy classes, but not all.
Then, in the 20th century, with the rise of mass media and broadcast news, everyone had access to information, at least to the narratives approved by the 1%. Educated people were no longer seen as the source of all knowledge.
For 150 years, the Left had come from the working class, and most Leftists were not well-educated. After World War II, newly-prosperous American workers — at least many of the white ones — moved Right, becoming conservative suburban patriots.
Meanwhile, America’s wealth allowed much of the middle class to go to college and learn to talk the elite’s language. They also learned the Leftist ideas much of the world took for granted, but which much of the American working class had abandoned. Leftist movements became more middle-class, more centered on college campuses, more elite.
And now we have social media, where all ideas are created equal. Information true and false can be shared with a click. So, it’s become easy for billionaires to play on people’s natural distrust of others. They can easily whip up hatred just by telling different groups different stories, as they do on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and other corporate media every day.
While people are sure that others’ media lies, they tend to believe their own preferred sources are telling the truth. We are literally living in different worlds depending on our information source.
More concerned with racism than health
Unfortunately, the Left consistently plays into those tactics of division. From the beginning of the pandemic, I had noticed the majority of the COVID posts on my listserv. Very few were about health measures people, agencies, or governments could take. Very few posts advocated for public health’s getting more involved in the economic relief side of the crisis.
Instead, they were demanding more detailed case information on who was getting COVID and who was dying from it, with more complete statistics on race. While accurate information is good, how will this particular information help us deal with a massive social and public health crisis now?
We already know Black, Native American, and Latino people have worse health outcomes, and we know why. Worse living and working conditions, more stress, less access to good food, and worse medical care will do that to you. It’s the same with COVID-19 as it is with diabetes, the subject of my book and this article. Why is proving these disparities again such a priority?
As the late, great, Bruce Dixon of Black Agenda Report wrote, the oppressive conditions that Black Americans suffer the most are also suffered by most working-class people to varying degrees. If we united, we could change things. That is why our rulers depend on dividing people to continue their rule.
As Krystal Ball, host of the show Rising, on TheHill.com says, “The media makes money turning us against each other.” So why are we helping them? Is it so we feel smarter or more virtuous?
The Right is not better, just different
It’s not as if the Right communicate better or are less divisive. Far from it; they’re equally insulting, just not as patronizing. They call people “libtards”; they call anyone to the left of Ronald Reagan a communist. Some of them routinely threaten violence.
We need to stop the insulting and dismissing of other views and learn to treat others with respect. Stop calling them stupid or privileged for having a different view of the world. Maybe then, we can realize how we’re all being played, and take some power back from the true elites.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) sounds a great idea in a time of mass unemployment. Though it will not come close to solving our economic, social, and environmental problems, it is a start. It might be a necessary stopgap to keep people and economy alive while we make deeper changes toward a better world.
There is still a lot of confusion about how UBI would work. Here are some valid questions about UBI, with some possible answers (and one great one) from experts like Andrew Yang and the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN):
1. Is UBI an addition to food-stamps, social security, Medicare, and welfare programs, or a replacement for them?
According to 2020 Presidential candidate Yang, social security and social security disability (SSDI) would be in addition to UBI. Medicare wouldn’t change.
Other means-tested welfare programs like SSI, which goes to disabled poor people who haven’t worked much, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) could go either way. Some on the Right want to use UBI to replace existing welfare programs, which would mean a huge cut in income for many poor people. Most advocates see it as an additional layer to strengthen the economy and reduce poverty. Cutting welfare would defeat the purpose. A lot will depend on how hard people fight to protect the neediest among us.
2. Will UBI change the power relationships in society?
This is a critical question. UBI is basically a way of saving capitalism from itself, as the New Deal did in the Great Depression. UBI puts a “floor under capitalism” as Yang puts it. It will support a basic level of demand to keep the economy from collapsing. It will not change the power dynamics that create mass poverty and environmental destruction in the first place.
UBI is a market approach; it allows people to decide what to do with their own money. This has advantages: people can start businesses, create, try new things. But social relationships will not change. There is another approach for that, a federal jobs guarantee (FJG). See Question 7.
3. Would the amount of UBI be fixed or adjustable? Who would administer it?
According to the BIEN site basicincome.org, the payments would be regular and a stable amount. I think of it as social security for all — it would probably be best run by the social security administration, not controlled by whatever party happens to be in power. Changes in the payment amount would have to be agreed by elected officials, as happens now with Social Security.
4. Will immigrants, documented and undocumented get UBI?
Unquestionably, UBI would attract immigrants, unless it were implemented in other countries as well, which it ideally will be. Under Yang’s plan, only citizens would receive UBI payments. Others say legal immigrants should receive UBI, perhaps after a waiting period.
5. Will amounts vary depending on different locales’ cost of living?
Probably not. Under Yang’s plan, “Every eligible UBI recipient, regardless of location, would receive $1,000 a month. Varying the dollar amount by location would add expensive layers of bureaucracy. Plus, UBI would actually help many more Americans live where they want to. UBI would lead to a revitalization of many communities as people take advantage of lower costs of living in certain areas instead of piling into expensive metro areas.”
UBI working groups
6. What’s the evidence that UBI works?
Studies from all over the world have shown that even small basic income stipends lead to better health, mental health, reduced crime, more jobs, and new businesses. The BIEN site posts hundreds of studies and papers from around the world and within the USA. I saw studies on their site from Kenya, Finland, Scotland, Germany, Canada, China, Taiwan, and others.
7. Wouldn’t free money corrupt people, lead to more laziness and drug use?
Those moralistic objections have been repeatedly disproved by studies. Unhealthy behaviors are actually reduced when people have more money. Think about it: when life seems too hard or too hopeless, aren’t you tempted to use drugs that make you feel better? Or if you’re broke, tempted go out and steal what you need? Having more money can improve social behavior, especially when it comes reliably every month.
8. How will we pay for it?
Andrew Yang wants to fund UBI through a value added tax (VAT) on every phase of a product’s production. Paying for UBI in this way would prevent money from losing its value, because no additional money would be added to the system to pay for UBI. It would just be redistributed. VAT itself would cause some prices to rise, but not too much because of competition among producers.
Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) says we don’t need to pay for UBI through taxes. We just create the money and give it out. As long as total money in circulation matches up with goods and services to be bought, there won’t be price inflation. But this article from Canada explains why MMT economists mostly don’t support UBI; they prefer more government intervention in the economy, like through a jobs program. (BTW, Read That Article. It explains everything.)-
9. Is UBI better than a jobs program?
As Senator Bernie Sanders says, people want to work, and much work needs to be done. UBI doesn’t teach anyone job skills or life skills, or connect them with other people, like a jobs program might. It won’t get important environmental and social needs met. “The only advantage to UBI over a federal jobs guarantee (FJG),” wrote Medium reader Charlie Silva, “is simplicity.”
Mr. Silva may be right, but simplicity is a big deal. People are desperate now. We’re in the beginning of the greatest Depression ever, and an effective jobs program will take years to roll out. Why is this either/or? Why not start UBI now, and phase in a jobs program as it’s developed?
Where UBI supports capitalism and strengthens markets, an FJG is more socialist, because governments would decide what jobs would be available. Both are good. We’ve seen the power of capitalism to create enormous wealth, and we’ve also seen too much of the environmental harm and social suffering that unlimited capitalist growth can bring.
We need UBI and an FJG. We need a mixed economy and a mixed social order. Start with UBI now; work toward an FJG.