Monday, April 20, 2020

The Road Out

Sometimes I use this blog as a sort of macro-- when I find myself engaged in the same pieces of the same argument, it just gets easier to try to hash it all out in one spot so that thereafter I can just point instead of typing it all out again. This isn't very much about education, it's not very carefully edited (in fact, I may well keep adding edits till I get it closer to what I really want--hey, I'm a blogger, not a journalist), and it's not short. You won't hurt my feelings if you just skip it.

My social media pages are overflowing with anger these days; I imagine yours are much the same, even if you only interact with people on your side of things. Worse even than the usual political sniping, I find it kind of disheartening and discouraging. It's as if we as a country, as a society, are emotionally unable to process, let alone cope with, the unfolding crisis. 

It's not that people just disagree--it's that the human tendency to assume that people on the other side are stupid and/or evil just seems to be out of control. It's not enough for my pro-open-back-up friends have to disagree with people who see a larger threat. They can't just say, "I think that model is wrong" or "This seems like a bad idea." Instead, it's characterizing people who are complying with safeguards as hysterical victims. Governors are fascist, trying to impose authoritarian regimes. Hospitals and medical authorities are cooking the books and faking the numbers because money and Big Pharma. 

Meanwhile, on the other side, people who want to re-open the economy are murderous bastards, money grubbing killers intent on lining their pockets with blood money.

And all of them talking about this situation is really, really simple and if you don't see it that way, you are just evil or stupid. All reasonable and rational people agree with me.

Yes, the pandemic has elevated one of the central tensions of our country-- business versus human beings. And I've long believed that we have long been too far tilted to the economics side of that, that we try too often to run the country on a foundation of business values rather than human ones. I even believe that much of our trouble right now is exacerbated by that business emphasis, making us underprepared and making our economy too brittle to handle this, as well as highlighting the ridiculousness of having so many people whose jobs are "essential," but whose pay and health insurance is at the bottom of the barrel. Not to mention our use of measures of prosperity that somehow only really measure how well people at the top are doing.

All that said, humans depend on the economy functioning. If the economic collapse continues or worsens, the first people to be crushed under the rubble will be the non-wealthy. When the bubble burst in 2008, it was not the head of Goldman Sachs who ended up homeless. When the economy tanks, peoples' lives are ruined. Peoples' lives are lost. I do believe that the economy should serve humans, and not the other way around, but a ruined economy is like a lifeguard in a body cast. The people who will get crushed by a unchecked pandemic are also the people who will get crushed by an unchecked economic collapse.

So there are reasons to want to re-open the country beyond greed and power.

At the same time, the coronavirus is not an imaginary threat. Real people have really died from this really contagious virus. It's demonstrably not "just like the flu." And while some sub-groups may be more at risk than others, there is no group that hasn't been touched. Arguing that people under sixty or under twenty are hardly ever killed by it is not that helpful. Here's a bowl of M&Ms-- 99 are perfectly fine and one is deadly poison. Are you going to just grab a handful for a snack?

I'm not any kind of virus scientist (and neither are the people writing all the "Why this isn't really a big deal" articles I keep seeing). But I have friends who are, and I trust them. And I trust the information that tells me that something really contagious and potentially deadly is spreading rapidly around the world and the country. People are scared, and the closer they are to the reality, the more they have personally encountered the deadly effects of this, the more scared they are. Maybe you feel that there's nothing to worry about, but the barest minimum of human empathy should require you to appreciate that people are really afraid. I'd argue that they have reason to be afraid, but if you want to argue that this is all some kind of overblown hoax, I'll argue that you still have to deal with the reality of a whole lot of scared people, and "deal with" doesn't mean simply mock, dismiss, and berate them, nor does it mean circulating baloney from weak sources whose only claim to credibility is that they confirm what you already believe. None of that will get you where you want to be (unless your part of that group that doesn't care where we end up, as long as you get to kick people around on the way). 

The "don't take my freedom" crowd has their own set of fear issues which shouldn't be hard to understand for those of us who are disturbed by Trump's repeatedly expressed desire to be emperor. I think they're mostly wrong; when you carry a virus around, you are making choices for other people. The right to drive does not include the right to drive drunk. But I get that they're worried about the State coming to get them. They've been fed a steady diet of that fear by folks who gain money and power from it, but that doesn't mean they don't actually feel the fear.

All of this would be easier to navigate if we had solid information and actual data (well, somewhat easier, since we live in an age in which people feel entitled to both their own opinions and their own facts). We don't, and we're apparently going to be subjected to an endless subsidiary argument about why not. We could get started on the problem now, but Trump lacks the ability to function as either a useful President or useful human being in this situation. The better hope is that, as they figure out that DC has rendered itself irrelevant, other leaders and authorities will somehow get the kind of testing in place that's needed in order to get a grip on things. How infectious is this stuff? What are the mortality and morbidity rates? How is transfer best slowed down? We don't really know, and we won't know until we get testing running at the level needed to generate useful data.

And the politics that has polluted the issue means that some folks are actively working to obscure rather than unveil information. And no, I don't see this as a both sides do it issue-- Trump and the GOP are working far harder to rewrite events into a politically useful form than the Dems are.

As for the "I have no obligations to any other people except myself" crowd-- I don't know how to explain to you that you should care about other people, though I might point out that much of what is upsetting folks right now is that other people have stopped taking care of them in a seamless and easy manner, so maybe you could flip that around and see your own effect on others. But this one has always stumped me. There are no self-made, self-sufficient people in this country--not a single one. If you think you don't owe anyone else anything because you made yourself, you are deluded.

For veterans of the education debates, it should not be news that on all sides you will find people who are in many ways dire opponents. Opposition to Common Core brought together people who are staunch believers in public education and people who would happily see it eliminated. So yeah-- some folks are seriously concerned about both the problems of a shuttered economy and the threat of a pandemic, and some folks are angling for a political advantage, and some folks are super-sad that their ability to do whatever they want has been impinged on, and some folks think that if it hasn't happened to them it just doesn't matter. 

But I titled this post "The Road Out." So here's what I think about that.

First, it would help if people could be kind. This is a scary, difficult time-- on many levels for some people who are worried not just about the virus but about things like food and shelter and the hope of having an income again some day. We aren't all in this together; some of us are getting hit hard and some are not. Do not assume that because everything's great at your house, everyone who complains is just a whiner. Our situations are widely varied and wildly specific. If your situation is good, be grateful, and show that gratitude by treating others well.

Assume good intent, but when someone tells you who they are, listen. You may want to ding me here for my comments about Trump and his uselessness in this kind of crisis as well as his lack of human virtue and his unfitness for the Presidency, but I've been watching Trump for forty years or so, and he's always been pretty direct about telling us who he is, and I believe him. There are reasonable, rational people of good intent on almost every side of this thing--assume you are dealing with one of them until they convince you otherwise.

At the same time, don't be a dick. I hear from former students about people who are crappy to the workers in stores and fast food places, as if these employees are agents of Deep State oppression. If you are actively trying to make life more miserable for someone, just stop. That includes trying to make people feel bad for disagreeing with you on Facebook. And that includes passing on things you haven't verified. Seriously. Like the radio caller who said that hospitals are getting paid $39K for each COVID death, so they're lying about it. The same people who think that school shootings are faked are out in force again, and I believe deeply and fervently in free expression but with great power comes great responsibility and somehow people have got to stop amplifying this bullshit, because it hurts us as a country in profound and lasting ways. So I don't care how much you love that the article or meme you found supports your chosen point of view-- you have got to do your due diligence before you post.

Second, adjust expectations. We will not come out of this overnight. There will not come a magical morning when our leaders will announce, "Okay, it's all gone. Everyone can get back to their normal stuff." Nor will there be a magical, "Hey, everyone admits it's not really a problem, so we can just cancel all the precautions and just re-open everything again." And even if those magical moment actually occurred, all the frightened citizens are not going to say, "Cool! Yesterday I was afraid for my life, but now that you've said that, all the fear is completely gone." 

I agree with those who say it's going to be a game of steps. When much decrease in viral spread is enough? How much of the economy can be re-opened? Re-pose those questions over and over and over. Between round of the questions, collect a mountain of test data so that we can see how it's actually going. 

Governors could open schools and businesses tomorrow-- but who would go? In my neck of the woods there are businesses that shut down before the governor ever issued any edict. Certainly there would be some folks right there when the doors opened.  And after the spread of COVID-19 that followed, how hard would it be to get people out of their homes the next time? 

This will all be complicated by the other issues we have to navigate. A Presidential election. A shredded social safety net. It turns out when you shrink government until it can be drowned in a bathtub, it's not much help with a pandemic or the accompanying economic mess; we should probably talk about that, and I'm sure there are people who won't want to have that conversation at all. We need to talk about health care. We need to talk about why some people got hammered so much harder by this mess than others. We need to talk about how to come up with a government that can help when it's needed without overreaching. We need to talk about how urban solutions are a bad fit for rural areas. And we'll have to have these conversations in the midst of a swirl of attempts to write and rewrite history. 

I'm really hoping that none of that gets in the way of getting the country up and running again, whatever that is going to look like.

None of this is going to come with easy answers, and it is ripping the thin cover off problems we were already successfully mostly ignoring, so now we get to debate about those, too. 

1 comment:

  1. I just got a chance to read this. Thank you for your balanced approach and your willingness to listen to the other side. While I have very mixed feelings, I tend to come down more on the open it up sooner than later side (not overnight of course, and, no, I'm not joining packed, armed crowds protesting for my "freedom"). I appreciate your understanding that there are other reasons for wanting the economy opened up besides "Wall Street".

    If we lived in a country where we could expect reasonable help and protection from the government, I could see extending the quarantine much longer. But we don't live in that country - neither party will provide anywhere near what we need) so I think we do need to consider how to avoid economic ruin that will impact far more than "Wall Street".

    And I have deep concern for mental and social health factors that are worsened by the shut down. Abuse victims who are quarantining with their abusers. People who live alone with limited ability to interact with others. I am watching my previously bright and vivacious 11 year old turn into a nocturnal creature whose only form of interacting seems to be snarling. My own mental health isn't doing so well.

    I very much respect your position too, as I realize the disease is not only highly infectious, but also a horrible way to die - alone - drowning in your own lungs and I certainly want to prevent as much of that as we can. I just wish there were a better way to balance the disease itself against other threats of suffering and death. How many people, for instance, will die of cancer because of not getting screenings that aren't happening right now? If nothing else, non-coronavirus medical and mental health treatment needs to be one of the first things re-opened.

    Anyway, again, thank you for your call to mutual understanding without demonizing people for the crime of dissent. I hope you and yours are weathering this as safely and sanely as possible.