I got a nice response to my first post on personal finance during the plague so, as long as we’re trapped inside together, I’ll be sharing some more thoughts on what the pandemic means and how we can choose to respond to it.
Over the past few months, a lot of people have stumbled into an uncomfortable truth: as Mindy Isser elegantly put it in Jacobin, Workers Are More Valuable Than CEOs. Doctors are essential, hospital billing departments are not. Teachers are essential, charter school lobbyists are not.
When our our sclerotic Congress finally authorized universal cash transfers and expanded unemployment benefits they were making the ultimate concession: money is essential, work is not.
I call this the ultimate concession because it betrays the lie at the heart of the capitalist order, which is that the only economy possible is the economy of subtraction. The economy of subtraction is expressed in its purest form by the concept of “full employment.” Full employment is when everyone is doing something (the high priests generously excuse students and prisoners from their calculations), without regard to whether what they’re doing has any value. Everyone who could be doing something, but isn’t, is thus both a personal failure and a systemic failure: you can blame fiscal policy, monetary policy, education, the family, the quality of video games, but you must find someone to blame for the failure.
The plague has forced on a reluctant population, and even more reluctant lawmakers, the opposite scenario: an economy of addition. Since the nature of the virus means as many people as possible need to isolate themselves until the threat has passed, instead of asking the welfare-state, means-tested, work-requirement question “is there something you can do?” we’re asking the human question, “is there something you must do?” Farmworkers must work so that food is produced. Truck drivers and train conductors must driver and conduct so that food can be delivered. Utility workers must maintain our infrastructure so that we can communicate. Grocery workers must stock shelves so that people can find what they need as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The present moment is proof, if you needed it, that the economy of subtraction is not the only economy that’s possible, and whether or not you and your work have been deemed essential, you’re now experiencing what the economy of addition looks like. Less driving, more time with your family, pets, and sourdough starter, more chores getting done on time, more long walks, more time with your neighbors and less time with your coworkers, and less driving (I know I already mentioned that, I just really hate driving).
There are also things you’re no doubt missing: travel, sports, dining in restaurants, conventions, festivals. But the economy of addition doesn’t preclude any of those things. It merely says that if they are worth doing, they are worth paying for. The economy of subtraction blackmails people into unnecessary work with the threat of poverty, homelessness, loneliness, and an early death. But we are now living proof that we don’t need those threats to survive, we’ve simply chosen to use them in order to enrich a tiny class of wealthy perverts.
Today’s most fashionable cliche is that we’ve put the economy “on pause” and are waiting for the plague to pass so we can enjoy a “snap back” or “v-shaped” recovery. If the economy of subtraction worked for you before the arrival of the plague, you’re properly eager for its return as well. But this interlude shows that we have had a choice all along: a universal basic income, Medicaid for all, a living wage, paid family and medical leave, tuition-free higher education, and a Green New Deal won’t be easy to win. But don’t let anyone tell you they’re impossible: you’re living proof that they’re just within reach.