THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
"Nobody is just a typist, just a dishwasher, just a cook, just a porter, just a prostitute...Everyone has a least one story that will stop your heart."
– Claudia Shear, "Blown Sideways Through Life"
There's an old story about an economist from a Western country who visited Maoist China, where he was shown an enormous dam that was under construction. Many thousands of workers crawled over the vast site, digging with shovels. He asked his minders why they weren't using earth movers and other machines, and they explained that heavy equipment would put all of these people out of work. "Now I understand," said the economist. "This isn't a construction project, it's an employment program." He then suggested that they replace all the shovels with spoons, to give work to even more people.
With tens of millions of Americans suddenly losing their jobs over the last few weeks, and countless more around the world suffering the safe fate, it might seem heartless to bemoan the worthlessness of so much of the work performed by so many of the world's people. But it has never been more clear that the vast majority of economic activity that makes us the richest nation in the history of the world is fundamentally useless. If you were sent to a mall under normal conditions, and given the task of buying something that was absolutely essential to your survival (the food court would be off limits), you would have to come away empty-handed. Among the millions of objects for sale on any given day in a mall's many stores, not a single one is something you cannot literally live without. There is a reason why supermarkets and pharmacies are open, while department stores and nearly every other retailer are closed. Our economy depends very, very heavily on consumer spending, which requires the production of vast amounts of goods that no one really needs, for the purpose of providing employment, circulating money, and paying taxes to sustain all of the public benefits of living in civilization.
John Kenneth Galbraith summarized this paradox neatly in The Affluent Society: "The income men derive from producing things of slight consequence is of great consequence. The production reflects the low marginal utility of the goods to society. The income reflects the high total utility of a livelihood to a person."
An income is nothing to be dismissed. The generation of wealth pays for a good quality of life, and living well is hardly an unworthy objective. All we have to do is read the news to know what it's like to live in a place without a reliable source of food, or comfortable housing, or decent medical care, or paved roads, or public order. There's nothing wrong with not wanting to be hungry, cold, sick or frightened. But when the economic rug is pulled out from under us, as it has been in such spectacular fashion in the last month, it is impossible not to notice that the designation of "essential" applies to a shockingly limited range of products and services. The reason gasoline for cars is essential is only because we need it to get to work, in order to earn money that we can use to burn more gasoline, to go to the store to buy more things, and continue to return to work, and so on. Without a commute, we don't need cars, and we don't need gasoline. Nor do we need oil to heat an office that no one is occupying, nor electricity to keep the lights on where no one needs them, nor dress-up clothes if there's nowhere to wear them, nor dry cleaners to clean them, nor shops to sell us more of them when they wear out or fall from fashion, nor accessories and jewelry to adorn them, nor closets and cabinets in which to store them, nor carpenters to build them...
The ripple effect of losing all of this worthlessness is astonishingly wide.
Commodities that were once worth whatever price we had to pay to keep ourselves moving, contented and stylish are abruptly worth nothing — literally. The gasoline sitting in the tank of your idle car in the driveway has no intrinsic value. Hence, the price of American-produced oil dropped below zero last week. This development is "unthinkable" only because we tend to think of the free market as an instrument of prosperity. But the market merely defines the relationship between what we sell and what we buy. It does not exist to comfort us, provide gainful employment, or ensure rising stock prices. The current situation is not a failure of market economics, but its vindication: Low demand, low prices; collapsing demand, collapsing prices. With so much superfluous economic activity stripped away, we are witnessing the "invisible hand" of the marketplace, in Adam Smith's deathless phrase, in perhaps its purest form. What is difficult for us, as children of paradise, to acknowledge is that the "hand" is not only invisible, but also deaf, blind and indifferent.
Is this the only way to organize the economic life of modern society? Does the abject misery of feudalism, the colossal implosion of communism, and the failure of all other previously attempted economic systems to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, mean that the way we live now is the only life possible? Is there no alternative to industrial production with its destructive consequences for human health and for the planet, no end to the tug-of-war between capital and labor, no path forward but great wealth for the few and perpetual struggle for the many? Must we surrender to the illusion that economic theories are governed by the laws of nature, and are therefore immutable?
To many Americans, adopting the kind of socialism practiced in Europe, most distinctively in Scandinavia, would be a panacea for all that ails us: a redistributive utopia that produces considerable wealth while smoothing over the worst excesses of capitalist greed. To others, it is anathema, a path to certain ruin, a self-inflicted disaster in the making whose consequences are plainly manifest in the world's vestigial socialist "utopias", most notably Venezuela and North Korea.
Both of these views are self-evidently exaggerated, but in their extremes they offer an explanation as to why our thinking on this subject is so absolutist, and so muddled. Many conservative free-marketeers never met a regulation they liked, and see any constraints on business as unwelcome and unnecessary (though corporations go to great lengths to lobby legislatures to impose restrictions on their competitors, which they deem perfectly justified).
With all due respect to Andrew Yang and other proponents of a guaranteed basic income, it is hard to see how this model is any more sustainable than the one we currently live by. It is a radical idea insofar as it pushes the boundaries of existing redistributive systems, but it is not quite the paradigm shift that it is commonly given credit for. No doubt, if a guaranteed basic income could in fact be provided on the scale of nations, it would be enormously beneficial to billions of people. The current worldwide economic nose-dive would have been far less painful for countless individuals if such a system, along with universal health care, were already in place. But any far-reaching redistributive reform ultimately has to address the question of where wealth is going to come from in the first place, and how much of it has to be created to sustain a system of public welfare, indefinitely, that is far more vast than anything ever before contemplated. If this problem can be solved, we would have a greatly improved economic landscape, but not an entirely new one.
It is a given that in a few hundred or a few thousand years, if we survive as a species, we will not live this way. No economic or political system, and no way of life, lasts forever unchanged. How we respond to crises as they arise will be the measure of how painful the transition will be.
The skies over Los Angeles, Beijing, Delhi and nearly every other major city in the world are clearer today that they have been in the memory of most living people. The shut-down prompted by the coronavirus, which wreaks its worst havoc on the lungs of its victims, has been an unexpected gift to those who suffer from respiratory diseases. But let us not suppose that this is anything but a momentary phenomenon. When the economy roars back to life again, as it inevitably will, the smoke, haze and soot will return in all their former glory. The pandemic may permanently change the way we interact in a variety of ways, from working remotely to not shaking hands, but one thing will remain the same: the engine of commerce will not be stopped. There is just too much riding on it. It may take a while for business to recover its losses, but it will return, for better and worse.
Covid-19 has made it painfully obvious which professions the world cannot do without. We must have doctors, nurses, EMTs and other health care professionals. Police and fire fighters are critical for a society to be well organized and not in a constant state of anxiety. Those who provide food, water and medicine are fundamental to existence, and the people who disinfect our indoor spaces and take away our garbage are also indispensable. The skill and patience of teachers is newly apparent to parents, who, now that they have to balance stay-at-home jobs with their children's education, have discovered that having once been a student does not qualify anyone to be a teacher. And while musicians, artists and writers do not put food on our tables, many would agree with Robert Motherwell: "Art is much less important than life, but what a poor life without it."
But most of those who are farther down the list, and who clearly contribute the vast majority of economic activity, also need to live somehow. After the pandemic, we may have a new-found, if fleeting, sympathy for the waiters, baristas, train conductors, farm hands, call-center reps, warehouse shoppers, assembly line workers, day laborers and sales clerks about whom we scarcely gave a thought in the past. But an even greater test of our collective character will be whether we retain our reverence and forbearance for celebrity chefs and fashion designers, overpaid athletes and temperamental divas, talking heads and self-help mavens. Will we still grant an audience to anonymous legions of online stalkers and character assassins, or will we finally starve them of the attention they crave? Only if we refuse our patronage to the narcissists who squander so much of the energy of our common humanity, and turn our backs on the culture wars, with their manufactured outrage, zero-sum politics and incendiary discourse, will we have indeed been changed for the better by this virus. Only then will we know if the civilization we so desperately wish to return to is worth the price of the choking smog that will soon engulf us once again.
April 25, 2020
More on this topic: The End of Labor as We Know It
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