Mass death is actually a bad thing for the economy

This past week we had a serious, unironic “debate” about whether or not senicide is a reasonable “plan” for handling the coronavirus crisis. This under the pretense that the other course of action — following the advice of medical professionals and epidemiologists to stay home and socially distance ourselves to curb the spread of covid-19 — is tantamount to shutting down the economy, which is tantamount to killing more people than the virus will.

Meanwhile, Congress passed a $2 trillion relief package, one quarter of which will go to the billionaire class with precious little oversight as to how it can be spent — and still apparently no one seems to have the slightest bit of confidence that the world’s richest economy can possibly weather the storms of depressed consumer demand for even several weeks much less the potentially many months this pandemic will rage across the planet. Perhaps this reveals that The Economy simply isn’t as robust as we tell ourselves it is during better times.

Dead Men Pay No Taxes

The proposed Sophie’s Choice between weeks or months of physical separation and allowing many people to die all around us is a false frame.

Millions of people dying is bad for The Economy in a very similar way to how having ICE eject millions of people from the economy is bad for The Economy. Insofar as economies require a labor force, and insofar as governments require revenue from taxation to pay for the infrastructure upon which The Economy rests, having millions of people depart from them is not a pathway to improving the economy — it is the opposite.

However, perhaps The Economy itself has become a contested concept. There may be a class-based and/or ideologically-based difference of opinion on what this concept means. Perhaps there is now:

  • the economy: the traditionally-held view of economies as markets in which individuals labor and contribute value, and trade assets in mutually beneficial ways to allocate resources efficiently
  • The Economy: a sort of shell game played by the right-wing authoritarian cohort in which the Plebes are starved of infrastructure and resources to the point of being mired inside an Eternal Present — in which we lurch from crisis to crisis — that brokers no hope for the future and no actual policy being made, other than the “policies” which continue to print money from the Federal Treasury for the purposes of propping up the precariously fragile billionaire class whose claims of meritocratic supremacy are stretched thinner and thinner each time the shells are moved yet again

Starving the Beast kills it: Feature or bug?

On paper, “Starving the Beast” is passed off as deeply held ideological libertarianism regarding the fundamental goodness of small government. In practice, starving beasts tend to die of preventable causes — and if governments are to retain the kind of power needed to be a check and balance on a growing hypercapitalist economy, they must indeed grow as well.

But beyond the general case, our specific circumstances of global pandemic lead us to a reasonable question: if laissez-faire capitalism and the free hand of the market is supposedly both sufficient to solve all human problems and vastly superior than the socialist hand of government at doing these things, then why are we in such a pickle? Why hasn’t the Invisible Hand managed to come up with its own solution to the mass death we are currently experiencing?

Or is the answer we might hear one that is too grim to bear — having been provided a clue this week in the grumbling of sacrificing the old to save the young — that a certain part of the political spectrum believe this is the market working as intended. That mass death is an acceptable “negative externality” of laissez-faire capitalism and that we bleeding-heart liberals ought to suck it up and grow thicker skin, rather than demand that governments step in to prevent preventable human atrocity.

Not only am I afraid of the answer — I’m afraid we’ll never get a straight answer in the world of political ketman we seem to have blundered into. In this world, right-wing elites including numerous elected officials continue to give lip service to a democracy that has been systematically hollowed out since the redoubling of the conservative movement in the 1970s to present, to currently resemble a geopolitical reality closer to that of modern Russia than to anything James Madison or Alexander Hamilton would have recognized.

It is technically possible that psychologically speaking, they themselves are actually unaware of this seismic shift in ideological views from that of democratic power and Constitutional authority to one of authoritarian rule and total technocratic control — but I think it’s more likely they’re simply not saying it out loud.

Inequality and the Creep of Fascism

Some people like to argue that more economic inequality is a good thing, because it is a “natural” byproduct of capitalism in a world of “makers and takers,” “winners and losers,” “wolves and sheep,” [insert your favorite Manichaean metaphor here]. However, too much inequality is deleterious for both economics and politics — for reasons that are intertwined.

Those who amass exorbitant wealth often increasingly use a portion of their gains to capture politics. While the mythological promise of trickle-down economics is that we must not have progressive taxation, because giving more money to the already wealthy is the only way to spur economic investment and innovation and create jobs — in actual fact the majority of tax cut windfalls go to stock buybacks, offshore tax havens, regulatory capture, political lobbying, and campaign donations. All this is a runaway amplifying feedback loop that tilts the playing field further away from equal opportunity, social mobility, and democratic process.

Wealthy elites seek to preserve the power structures that have benefitted them, and keep them (and their descendants) in the ruling class. It is a slow recreation of the aristocratic societies of old Europe that we fought a bloody war of independence to separate ourselves from. Yet the erosion of civil values, public engagement, and collective will — largely as fomented by the conservative elite over the past 50 years in America — and the ascendancy of the myth of “rugged individualism” have conspired to create a perilous condition in which corruption operates so openly in today’s White House and Wall Street that democracy itself is in great danger.

Moreover, we have learned these lessons once, not quite a century ago, yet have forgotten them:

“Where there is a crisis, the ruling classes take refuge in fascism as a safeguard against the revolution of the proletariat… The bourgeoisie rules through demagoguery, which in practice means that prominent positions are filled by irresponsible people who commit follies in moments of decision.”

— Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind

Putin’s Playbook: Pull factions apart from center; exacerbate democratic crisis

While we wring our hands in the United States over whether or not such a strategy is even conceivable, the erstwhile President of Russia has been running this playbook out in the open in Ukraine and Eastern Europe for some time. With help from Propagandist-in-Chief Vladislav Surkov, Putin has leveraged the open secrets about the psychology of crowds we learned in the late 19th and early 20th century to stir up emotional antagonisms within the political spectrum — to predictable results.

It’s no accident that fascism is on the march in America. The conditions have been brewing for some time, predominantly since the Conservative movement began breaking away more militantly from democratic principles and towards authoritarian philosophy (elite rule by force: preferably invisible force via economic hegemony for the middle and upper classes, and violent force / the carceral state for The Undesirables) in the late 1970s and 1980s. All Putin had to do was make use of available prevailing conditions and tools — the rise of social media in the 2000s counterintuitively blew a gaping wide security hole in the American persuasion landscape that Cold War Soviet operatives of the 1960s would scarcely have believed.

Today, as in parts of Europe between the world wars, the U.S. has partisan gridlock within The Establishment sector of politics; this exacerbates the impatience with and contempt for the status quo (aka the Liberal world order) that in some sense naturally congeals at the far right and far left margins of the political spectrum as a simple consequence of the Normal Distribution (the Median Voter Theorem captures this tendency quite succinctly). Under such conditions, an influence campaign like the one Russia wielded against the United States during the 2016 election season was tasked merely with tilting the playing field a little further — a task that platforms like Facebook and Twitter were in some sense fundamentally engineered to accomplish, in exchange for ad revenue.

New World Order? Be careful what we wish for

“Both Italian and German fascists had done their best to make democracy work badly. But the deadlock of liberal constitutions was not something the fascists alone had brought about. ‘The collapse of the Liberal state,’ says Roberto Vivarelli, ‘occurred independently of fascism.’ At the time it was tempting to see the malfunction of democratic government after 1918 as a systemic crisis marking the historic terminus of liberalism. Since the revival of constitutional democracy since World War II, it has seemed more plausible to see it as a circumstantial crisis growing out of the strains of World War I, a sudden enlargement of democracy, and the Bolshevik Revolution. However we interpret the deadlock of democratic government, no fascist movement is likely to reach office without it.”

— Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism

100 years on, it feels like we’re back at the start.

Trump’s trial balloons

Mike Flynn leading chants of “lock her up!” from the RNC podium was a test for tolerance of persecution of political opponents. We don’t do that in this country. At least, not in modern times we haven’t.

Each new boundary pushed is a test for when we’ll snap, or when the base will have finally gone too far. We haven’t hit it yet. They’re snarling; out for blood.