Letisha is making acrylic paintings and inventing a better box for holding spaghetti. My neighbor was out with her 19 year old daughter fixing a bike that hasn’t been used in ten years. I made sauce for my mozzarella sticks by boiling a tomato and adding spices, and as Mr. Food used to say on CBS afternoon news in the 1990s, “Ooh it’s so good.” The Trump administration is passing $2 trillion legislation to put money into the hands of working class unemployed and it even might give them a few more dollars than they’d have earned cleaning toilets and scraping customer’s half-eaten food scraps into the garbage. It is a strange COVID world.
Social distancing sucks…at least as far as my vices are concerned. By bank account doesn’t mind that I’m not spending $35 a day at bars. That’s going to help me put a down payment on a house.
I have to say that I am pretty proud of my generation, which at this point is the dynamic segment of the body politic. If you told me six months ago that bars and restaurants would be closed and 17 million people would be unemployed overnight–a 3,500% week-over-week increase–I’d have predicted, if not riots in the streets, at least a movement on par with Occupy NYC. Instead, everyone from college students to the elderly have basically taken this all in stride. I think that shows a maturity among The People that one may not deduce existed based on the behavior of our electoral representatives.
I can tell you that as a single male who spends a lot of time in bars, shelter-in-place has been a drag on my social life. But I’ve been forced to spend time outside of bars before, because of being broke, and I knew I could deal with it. I’ve got a lot of hobbies. I thought that most other people would freak out though. I thought that crime would go through the roof and Facebook would be full of complaints. Instead, I see people posting “Eye Spy” comments–where people are posting the first picture in their phone’s photos that has the color yellow or blue. You know what that reminds me of? It reminds me of when the power would go off in New Baltimore as a kid and me, my sister, my parents and maybe my grandparents would sit around for hours playing Eye Spy or bunko or cards. And you know what? Its really refreshing!
A couple of years ago there was a blackout for a night and I was driving through Ravena. I saw kids out riding bikes and jumping in puddles for the first time in years. I think I wrote a cynical comment about it on Facebook at the time. Now COVID has been like a month-long black out and instead of bringing out the worst in people, at least everyone in my social group–which if you include Facebook friends is over a thousand people–it has brought out the best. Videos of Jesse making a marble roller coaster with his daughter. Julianna watching Charmed with her dog. Someone said that the animal shelters have sold record numbers of animals. Good for the animals. Good for those rational animals who act as masters: humans. Doesn’t this all show that we are all fundamentally…decent?
If we are fundamentally decent–as I really believe–the what about COVID makes it apparent where a month ago it was not?
Is it the fact that we are in a crisis? Let me say, emphatically: NO! Crisis-mongers sell crises. Often, they sell crises with the argument that it will make people come together and act as good citizens. Sometimes they are right, as in the case of a hurricane or earthquake when people band together out of empathy and volunteer or donate to victims. In other crises, like global warming or poverty or lack of health care, people don’t particularly respond because the problem is too big to figure out and nobody wants to try and help if other people don’t seem to be helping, too. And then you get your crisis-mongers who give us professionally-made crises that serve as opportunities for war or civil police action, pitting one group against another for the benefit of the political and economic actors who benefit electorally and economically from the likely response of the people to the crisis, because the people are scared. Those are the crises that seem to go on for ten or twenty years, paid for through general taxation, for the general enrichment of war mongers and industry. No–the decency of people is not the result of a crisis, as though we are usually indecent unless a crisis makes us rise to the occasion. Rather, the decency of people is becoming apparent because this particular crisis has damaged those processes and habits that usually and unnaturally cause us to act indecently.
What COVID and shelter-in-place has changed is the perspective of what we need to do, as individuals, to survive, economically in modern society.
Don’t you think it is pretty unnatural for two people to have children, and then to pay childcare providers to take care of those children until they go to school, and then send those children to school, and then for the two people to come home in order to spend a few hours with the children after nine or ten hours of commuting to work and working and commuting back, so that they spend a few stressed-out waking hours with their offspring 5-out-of-7 days a week? Until COVID that was what you had to do. Why? Because there was this idea that you had to be physically at work in order to do your job. The worker could not be trusted to work at home, because they would slack off and the employer wouldn’t be able to squeeze the maximum amount of labor out of the employee to maximize the employer’s investment. Now COVID has made remote work necessary, and it turns out its not the end of the world. Even at my job with the Legislature, there are rules for bills being physically printed and carried to different locations, and legislators being physically present to constitute a quorum. Staff had to be physically present to sign legislation as it was turned around from the Legislative Bill Drafting Commission from a word document into a Legislative Bill Draft. Staff would generally work 90 hour weeks in March in order to be physically present when the bills were “turned around for sign-off.” This was the most stressful part of the year, when people brought cots to work in order to sleep between meetings that were scheduled all night long. Now, by necessity, staff was sent home to telework. Systems were devised to sign off on legislation electronically. Instead of 100 hour weeks, many staff were able to do the same work in 40 or 50 hours–while being home with their families. Why would we ever return to the old system? It required tens of thousands of man-hours for the same result–why? In order to show that workers were busy? Why? Because if workers aren’t visibly working until the verge of exhaustion, they are lazy or exploiting the system? For modestly more than a subsistence wage? Sheesh. I am glad that COVID provided a justification for workers capable of remote work to do their jobs from home without the perception of being lazy or gaming the system. It turns out that work in an office is pretty unnatural and nobody wants to do it, and its better for us to do it as little as possible–and, it turns out, if we can work less, we’re going to spend time with our families and friends, which is a good thing for the individual and the kids and the friends and the families and everybody else in society.
And what of those workers who cannot remote-work because their job requires their physical presence? The fact that the federal government expanded unemployment insurance for those workers who are unemployed because their business closed is surprisingly, again, decent. The fact that the economy and therefore Trump and the Senate Republicans could not have survived the next election if 17 million people suddenly found themselves without income only diminishes the decency of the act by degrees. The increased unemployment subsidy and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for those who would not otherwise qualify for unemployment is probably the most decent thing that the federal government has enacted in three and a half years. The fact that the benefit is not merely adequate, but equal or exceeds the money that these workers would have made had their businesses not shuddered is actually extraordinary. That the Congress in a little over a week voted for a $2 trillion stimulus plan, with a Republican Senate and President, really defies belief. The fact that Republicans have claimed responsibility for such a New Deal-like response makes me think that it will be difficult in the future for them to argue for straight Trickle-Down stimulus in the future. The cat has been out of the bag for twenty years that trickle-down economics doesn’t work, but now its really going to be hard for politicians to argue that does, having taken such liberal action during COVID in order to protect the economy which Trump needs to survive electorally.
What of those front line workers in the healthcare industry? Who work at grocery stores and on mass transit? This crisis has surprised a lot of people by informing them that these workers, too, often work for a subsistence wage without health insurance. Oops. Turns out that that’s a problem. Here’s what I see happening in the next few months. Health care workers are going to have to make a decision, based on their treatment during this crisis and the likelihood of future pandemics, about whether they want to work in healthcare. It reminds me of the Black Plague. The Black Plague killed 50-75% of Europe in a year. Prior to the Black Plague, the Feudal System reigned in Europe–Lords/Landowners gave protection to serfs who scraped the earth for their bare survival and gave the great majority of their harvest to the Lords for profit. After the Black Plague, there were so few people to farm that Lords had to actually pay wages to workers to get them to farm. This was the first step in the transition of the European economy from serf-labor to wage labor. I think after the dust of COVID settles, healthcare workers will require higher wages and health insurance in order to work in the healthcare industry. I don’t think there will be strikes. I think there will just be a shortage of people working in the field, which will trigger higher wages and benefits from hospitals and insurance companies in order to lure them into service.
All of this begs the question, for me: are we done with 40 hour work weeks in offices for subsistence wages or a little better? Or have we subtly transitioned to an economy where there is a more relaxed relationship between government, employers and employees? Must work be stressful and irksome in order for employers not to feel taken advantage of? Must all workers commute to work, in the process incurring childcare costs and commuting costs, or can we just continue with this system where a remote worker works to the extent that there is work to do, and spends the rest of the time at home, doing whatever they want to do?
Rather than tie up this note with a thesis statement or something, I want to throw out an idea. Imagine that everyone who is working from home now just continued to work from home. How would that effect families? How would that effect family budgets? How would that effect people’s sense of well-being and health? How would that effect the environment? Take this for a thought experiment: Albany has a lot of state-owned office buildings. What if 60% of the workers in those offices worked from home? Would the parking and air quality improve in the city? Could the state vacate most of the floors in those office buildings and retrofit them for low-income housing? How would that effect rents in the city? How would that effect crime in the city? Would it bring money to the state through such rents? Would it enable the state to pay property tax on those buildings, which they are not doing now? If the state was paying property tax on 10 buildings in Albany, which it is not paying now, wouldn’t that decrease the property taxes of the other real property owners? Wouldn’t lower taxes make real estate more attractive, triggering the purchase of more buildings which are currently vacant, further decreasing property taxes? Would this create a greater tax base for Albany to pay for amenities like parks and festivals and a rejuvenated waterfront? Could Lark Street be the next Warren Street in Hudson? If so, wouldn’t that provide a market for all the craftspeople who live in Center Square? If Lark Street had a dozen new shops with interesting items for sale, and maybe functioned as a pedestrian street on Saturdays like Burlington, with a band, wouldn’t that draw lots of new people to the area? Wouldn’t that be a boon to the restaurant owners and the tipped workers in the area? If the answers to all these questions for Lark Street are “yes”, wouldn’t the answers be the same for a lot of small cities?