Finding warmth in a cold world
Finding warmth in a cold world
Note: This article largely concerns US politics and the current (as of May 2020) COVID-19 pandemic
Long ago on this site, I had an article that began with the disclaimer "This is a strictly apolitical blog. In writing this I do not intend to publicly support or discourage any political party or viewpoint..." It was an article basically asking "Hmm, do the television stations in fast food restaurants effect people's political views?" I since took it down, because it barely qualified as an article (it was a glorified link to a poll nobody filled out, because this was before I really had an audience) and also I absolutely don't agree with that disclaimer anymore. (If you really really really want to read it have fun I guess?)
When I wrote that article, I was still in high school. Politics effectively didn't matter to me. If I just sat down, did my homework, and played along, things worked out for me. Now I'm in my 4th year of college. Out of 5, at least. It's been a long, arduous journey. Between having to juggle two jobs and coursework just to be able to afford tuition as of late, dealing with various personal stuff, mental health issues, etc. I'm realizing that the world isn't all roses and sunshine. I actually had to not enroll in classes this last semester because the stress just got to me and left me a broken shell of a person for a while. I've thankfully recovered a bit and netted a very good paying remote internship working on some very neat space hardware stuff, but university is exhausting and I'm utterly worn down by the process.
Plus, now we have this pandemic going on. And that's been a bit of a nightmare. Look at the US. They have several hundred thousand victims of COVID-19, a completely incompetent if not outright malicious federal government, people who don't have jobs, people who can't afford rent, people who are protesting to "re-open the economy" (probably in part because they can't pay rent...), a genuine debate on whether or not doing so is a good idea despite the hundreds of thousands of people that might kill, a stunning lack of redundancy or planning from anyone for a scenario like this, a president desperately searching for quick-fix miracle cures to this, etc. etc. you get the point.
And somehow, I'm one of the lucky ones.
Scraping the bottom of the barrel
Over the past year or two, I've been substantially broadening my social sphere online. And in doing so, I've met a lot of people. Straight, gay, cis, trans, deaf, autistic, asexual, non-binary, plural, homeless... I have a somewhat solid career trajectory into a field that's reasonably high paying. They don't. I've never seriously worried about how I'm going to afford food. They have.
There's people I've met that simply will never be able to afford a decent place to live, for reasons entirely out of their control. It's very, very hard to be a marketable and competitive employee when you have severe OCD, or when you're deaf, or when you're non-binary, or when you're uncertain of your citizenship status. It's very hard to live a dignified life when you're under constant, extreme pressure at your multiple jobs, with constantly changing work hours. It's hard to study for school when you're burnt out from work. Etc, etc, et cetera.
There are homeless people, right now, who won't have a shelter tonight to sleep in. This picture is from Las Vegas, a city literally full of empty hotel rooms right now. And yet they're being forced to sleep in marked boxes in parking lots outside.
These homeless people don't come about because they're lazy, or because they somehow deserve not having consistent access to food and a bed. Riddle me this: where do LGBT teens go when their conservative parents kick them out? Where do the people living paycheck to paycheck go when they lose their jobs, or they get evicted from their apartments? Can you honestly say, in full sincerity, that you will be okay if you lose everything? Yes, there are government and community programs to fight against homelessness.. but they can only do so much. It's very hard to get back up when you're desperately fighting just to keep your head above water.
We live in a world where this is allowed to happen. Where people can have more money than they can possibly imagine spending while people are homeless on the street or living in constant fear of it. This simply doesn't make sense to me.
An isolated world
One thing that's bugged me about American society as of late is just how fractured, battered, and isolated a lot of us are. Show of hands, do you know your neighbor? The people a street down from you? I have no proof of this besides my own experiences, but I'd wager most people don't.
Take the existence of the Ring doorbell, a device designed to let you spy on any would-be package thieves. In 2017 Ring's revenue was estimated to be about 200 million dollars, and presumably that number has only gone up after their acquisition by Amazon. At about $150 per doorbell, that's 1.3 million camera-doorbells sold. Per year. From a single company. Perhaps my math is wrong. Frankly, it doesn't really matter. This product would not exist in a world where we can trust each other not to steal our stuff.
There are very few places in most areas you can go without being charged money just to exist. Public parks and libraries, basically. Both of which I am incredibly thankful for, don't get me wrong. Libraries and especially their librarians are a fantastic resource for the community, providing free access to both entertainment and knowledge. Public parks are a great place to go get away from the city life and take in nature.
But we're in a pandemic, and both of those are closed. And even when they aren't, not every area has these resources, the suburbs and the impoverished areas especially. Many of these communities are pinned together with their local church, which is fine so long as you're Christian, hearing, cis, heterosexual, etc. How do the people in those neighborhoods that are excluded from their churches get to meet and know their community? If you don't get along with your immediate neighbors (like my family), how do you get to meet anyone in your community? In my case, you don't.
A lot of blame for a lot of these problems gets directed at immigrants and liberals. It's the fault of the illegals that there's no homeless shelters, it's the liberals trying to tear apart our churches (and thus our community), it's the (((jews))) who are raising the gas prices and taking my jobs, etc. etc. Donald Trump just serves to further a lot of these feelings, especially with policies like the border wall and the ICE detention centers. Watch this very good YouTube video, it says a lot more than I could on this topic.
We live in isolated suburbs, miles apart from anything, alone in our houses, afraid to know each other. That's no way to live.
Naturally, when your life is headed to the dumps, nothing feels stable, and you're desperate, you start looking for someone, anyone who can save you. In some cases this comes in the form of GoFundMes and Ko-Fis. (This CollegeHumor sketch is very relevant. It's a shame that Facebook killed their business for their own economic benefit).
For a lot of people, Bernie Sanders has been almost a messiah figure. He's proposing some radical but utterly necessary government programs like Medicare for All, free college tuition, taxes on the rich, a solution to the climate emergency, unionization of the workplace, immigration reform, etc. (Fun fact, my medication that I need to function is $255 per month until I meet my deductible. No, I'm not happy about that.) If we can just elect him, maybe it won't solve all our problems but at least he'll try his absolute best to do so, because he genuinely cares.
It's a shame he's all but out of the running, though. I'm not particularly enthusiastic about Biden myself. He simply wants to preserve the same status quo that still hurts people, that still creates homelessness and wealth inequality and medical debt. We need more change than Biden or even Bernie can provide.
What I've come to realize over the last few months is that relying on Sanders to save us all... was never the best option. Yes, having him in the office of the presidency would make all of our lives a lot easier (fun fact: 39% of college graduates would spend a week in jail to pay off their student debt, and I'm one of them), but inherently it would only be a band-aid over the poison of American society. Bernie is the ultimate example of begging for charity. It's great.. if it weren't gambling against the odds, a million to none.
Deconstructing the dollar
Why are we all in this sitution? In my opinion, it seems that the common denominator in all of this is money. If you have money, you have the things you need, and even the things you want. People tend to talk about distributing money around, taxing the rich, universal basic income, etc. Making sure every person has equal spending power. But there's still going to be the issues of money in politics, of giant greedy corporations, of stock markets and an elite with power, of bidding wars for medical supplies, of neglected stockpiles or dry-rotten masks. Our society rewards cutting every single corner possible, no matter the human cost.
I'm gonna try and play amateur economist for a bit. Why do we even have money in the first place? I could go in a very long-winded manner and recap Debt: The First 5000 Years, a very good free book on the subject. But I won't, in the interest of time.
The typical story goes that, if you and I are bartering our stuff, we don't want to constantly try and work out what one log of wood is worth in terms of sheets of aluminum. Having money gives one, nice, standardized value to say "this object is worth this much". A dollar bill is inherently useless, it's value is entirely made up by the government, but everyone agrees that it gives you permission to take a certain amount of stuff from a vendor. Currencies tend to come naturally where bartering exists. A good example is the economy built around the items in Team Fortress 2. Certain items are used as "currencies" to compare the value of other items to. (Pictured is a screenshot from https://backpack.tf)
But that's the bad part about money. It's one value. For everyone. Regardless of need. A loaf of bread is $2, whether you're a billionaire or a broke blue-collar worker. There's welfare programs like food stamps that try to smooth out the differences, but it's just a crummy band-aid over a fundamental issue with the very concept of a fixed monetary price per object.
And really, if we're questioning everything, why not question the very concept of barter? In essence, barter is saying "I want your stuff, and I want to give you as little of my own stuff as possible for that". Which causes some pretty serious issues. Let's steal a page from a famous economist. How much is a loaf of bread or a house worth? We can of course look at the price sticker in the store. That's the exchange value. We could also use the labor value, the amount of effort needed to produce the thing. And, lastly for now, we can consider the use value, how useful the thing is to you.
If you have things to give away (that is, sell), the implication is that it has very little use value for you. You actively want it gone. Once you've produced/acquired all the things you need and a safe margin for disaster recovery or whatever comes up, what you have left is surplus. And the expectation when you're bartering is that you maximize the amount of useful stuff you get for that surplus. Otherwise you're not fully utilizing it's exchange value.
Which makes sense. until you consider the fact that there's just warehouses of things that are completely useless to you just waiting until the exchange value is just right for it to be used. Even if people really really need that stuff. The interests of the buyer (who primarily considers use value) and the seller (who primarily considers exchange value) are naturally at odds with each other. This conflict tends to get boiled down to "supply and demand" in any typical Intro to Economics course. hence the supply-demand curve stuff they teach you in Econ 101. ...where they claim the demand value is, well, demand. The price a person is willing to pay for a thing.
Here's a supply and demand diagram that I totally stole off of Wikipedia. I'm legally obligated to tell you the illustrator was Paweł Zdziarski (faxe), Astarot. Thank you. But anyways, P is price (or, really, the exchange value), Q is quantity of surplus sold, S is supply (how much surplus is willing to be produced for a given price), and D is demand (how much will be bought at a given price). The graph shows that as demand increases from D1 to D2, the best thing to do to satisfy both parties equally is to raise the price and produce more stuff.
But looking at this from this much of an abstract birds-eye view without questioning it leads to some horrifying conclusions. Like the demand curve. It's the aggregate of everyone's demand. It's a curve of the number of buyers that will pay for a given cost (the exchange value of all the stuff and/or labor they're willing to barter for the item). That's going to be influenced by need, but also by how much money the buyer has. As a very, very rough benchmark, we can say that
exchange demand = use demand × surplus money
So, people with lots of money and lots of need will always get the product. But then people with lots of money and no need are treated the same as people with lots of need yet no money. I'd say that's fine and with luxury goods that nobody needs, but this falls apart with things like medication, or safety equipment, or accessibility aids. Things that people really need, but whose buyers don't have enough money to be worth targeting as a producer compared to making things that rich people want. And so you get homeless people in parking lots during a pandemic, an ever-lasting hunger for economic growth at any human cost, and lots of people left at the wayside.
Another thing to think about: not everyone has a safe home. People are out there right now living in shacks with dangerous electrical/plumbing issues, walls falling apart, siding with terrible insulation, etc. Right now, if you want your living environment and transportation to be safe and reliable, you either need to become in expert in plumbing, drywall, carpentry, car repair, etc. etc. etc., or you need the money to be able to pay someone else to do it. A lot of people don't have the money, so these repairs just never get made. I'd argue this is incredibly silly. We totally, 100% have the resources to fix that. For everyone.
Like, let's take my parents. Their old house had crappy 100 year old wooding siding that's a great place for hornets to nest, almost no side insulation, unfinished interior drywall/flooring... in short, the place was falling apart. The only work that had been done for a long time was what my parents were able to do themselves. Meanwhile Notch, the creator of Minecraft (or so he claims; we all know Hatsune Miku is the true creator of Minecraft) lives in basically a small indoor city. Why? Because of income inequality. Because poor people can't afford safe, comfortable living environments.
If your car breaks down or your plumbing bursts or you have wasps in your living room, you shouldn't have to be "oh crap how can i pay for this?". You should be able to just ask for help, because having your stuff working and safe makes the community better and keeps you able to contribute to it. Ideally, if you're a plumber, your job should be to fix plumbing. To make everyone's house safe and everyone's bathroom functional. If you really think about it, the fact that the people most in need of plumbing repairs (say, I dunno, Flint, MI?) can't afford them is absolutely absurd.
Asking for help or for resources from your community isn't the most absurd idea. We already do this in the workplace. We don't tag dollar values to every disused piece of office equipment and do tit-for-tat bartering exchanges with our coworkers. We just let people have the things they need, within reason. After all, we're trying to get stuff done here.
Designing a humane economy
A humane economic system, in my opinion, should pool together all the supply and give it to the people who have the most demand for it. How would we construct an economy to do that? After all, the nice thing about using money is that you can express how much you "want" something with a single number. How do you express that without using the exchange value?
Let's look at how things work in large corporations. Say you're an employee, and you need something to do your job (let's say you're in a university lab and you need an digital logic analyzer, using a personal example). The first thing you can do is ask around. "Do you have a logic analyzer you're not using?" Likely there will be one laying around in the corner of a lab somewhere. Maybe it's a bit old, but it works. If that doesn't work, you can ask your supervisor to order one, and it'll be sent to you at no personal charge. You need it to work, so why should you pay for it?
Pic related, it's literally the logic analyzer me and a coworker found in a cabinet in the basement. It's a little dated, yes, but it's a very useful way to view high/low signals on many digital logic lines, either as they happen or for review after an event. This has a lot of use value to me as an electrical engineer. By moving the analyzer to a lab that needed it instead of letting it waste away in a cabinet forever, we're increasing the use value of it.
Take that concept far enough and you've basically re-invented the library. It's a place where people can donate books/movies/games they don't want anymore, that have no use value to them. The library staff worries about storage and handling and organization so you no longer have to. And even better, the library can then share them with the community, maximizing the item's use value.
Anyone, regardless of material wealth, can request books/etc. on an as-need basis. And it works! Yes, I suppose you could go the library and check out 50 books. But why would you? You can't use them. You can't sell them, or else you'll have to pay it's value back to the library in fines. Whoop de doo.
As another example, consider the housing market. We've got supply. we've got demand. We could just have people fill out a form saying what they need in a living place. How many bedrooms, how many bathrooms, restrictions, general area, etc. A thing people already do. So then whatever organization is in charge of distributing housing (in capitalist society, a realtor) has a list of what people need, and a list of unoccupied houses.
So here's a crazy idea. Take the people, take the houses, pair them up. Maybe don't let people live in more than one place, just to keep demand reasonable. Tada. Problem solved. People who need houses have houses. No need for this silly money nonsense. No need to go into debt for 30 years just to have a roof over your head.
If there's not enough supply for the level of demand, people skilled in building houses can just go build houses. People already build houses voluntarily for the good of the community, if you look at Habitat for Humanity. This is that, just on a larger scale. And any absurd requests like 500 room mansions will go under serious community scrutiny before anyone volunteers to build it. It's not like the current system, where people with lots of money can make people build many hideously impractical McMansions just because that generates profit for the building company. It's not like the current system, where landlords are super defensive over empty houses while homeless people exist. You just give things to the people who need them.
Work for all who want it
And on that note, I want to talk about the unemployment rate. For some reason it's ingrained in everyone that low unemployment numbers are good. ...but why? The very phrase "job creation" just feels utterly nonsensical to me. People are patting themselves on the back for making up things for people to do. If you really think about it, lots of the jobs we have frankly completely pointless.
Look at this pandemic. Look at how many workers are considered "essential". Turns out, there's not exactly a lot of them, if the number of unemployed American workers is any indication. Hospital staff, emergency services, shopkeepers, maintenance, farming, transportation, distribution, power, water, critical production, etc. Infrastructure stuff. That's really all you need to keep people from dying. Everything on top of that is surplus. And, from a capitalist view, we want to take that surplus and get the most value out of it. Which is defined in dollars. Because of course.
What if we took these essential tasks, the maintenance and upkeep, and just spread it out across everyone who can work? Everybody pitches in a little bit. Or more, if they want to. Everyone will appreciate that. Or less, if they can't. We don't mind, we've got more than enough surplus labor. But the average could be around 4 or 5 hours a day, completely spitballing. Maybe less, with increased automation over time. It takes significantly less people to run a farm today compared to 100 years ago.
Then we get a lot of people with a lot of free time that they can do whatever the heck they want with. Some people will sit around and play video games. Cool. Have fun. Other people will go, look at the city or town they live in, think of ways to improve it, and make those improvements, one little bit at a time. (See: open source software, Wikipedia, Minecraft servers, community gardens, food banks, etc.) Nobody's stressed, emergencies aside. No crunch, no pressure, no threat of death by starvation or exposure to the elements or other horrifying things if you just can't work. We absolutely can make a humane society for everyone.
Solidarity, not charity
Let's get back to the concept of charity. Between GoFundMes, food stamps and working our butts off for little profit, a lot of us, the working class, are begging for scraps a lot of the time. Look at healthcare costs, look at housing costs, look at tuition costs. It's all absurd. We battered, fractured, unlucky souls cannot rely solely on the generosity of those with more money and more power to heal our ills. They're the ones hurting us, after all. For the upper, "owner" class, it makes no economic sense to give away money, unless it's either a token amount to get us to shut up, or a strictly wage-labor relationship where they profit off of it.
Occasional charity is too inconsistent and too sparse to solve the world's ills. But there is an alternative: solidarity. Instead of trying to "trickle down" support from people up top, we build up support from below. We don't let one small group of people bully us around just because they say so. We stand together, instead of letting ourselves be split apart. We unite for a better world, one where no one single person can ever be responsible for the deaths of millions.
Here's a funny example to look at: the insurance industry. As someone with insurance, you pay a monthly rate into a big pot of money. When you need to take money out for, ex, a car wreck, flood, etc. you can take out a lot more than you put in. More money is put in by everyone than is taken out, and only a few people take money out in any given month. The collective resources of everyone benefits everyone much, much more than trying to do everything alone. (Granted the whole point of the insurance industry is to skim off the top of the pool and profit off of it by denying insurance payouts as much as possible, but I digress.)
We can also look at the current Coronavirus pandemic. The essential workers must go outside and be possibly exposed to the virus. Other people can work from home, or wear masks when they must go out, and be at lower risk of exposure. By individually lowering one's exposure risk, they can reduce everyone's exposure risk by giving the virus less opportunities to spread. The government isn't being very helpful here (to say the least...), so by standing together and protecting our essential workers that treat patients and find cures, we can fight the virus ourselves. We can make sure our neighbors get the support and care they need. We don't have to wait for the people in charge to be merciful. We can take matters into our own hands.
How to start helping
The long-term goal here should be to provide adequate food, water, housing, and medical care for everyone on the planet. And yes, all people, regardless of how much work they're able to do, regardless of their gender identity, disabilities, skin color, etc. This is only possible if we trust each other, can depend on each other, and can rely on each other. Yes, that's a big ask. But we don't have to start at big. Just start with "mutual aid"; helping who you can where you can.
A very good place to start is your workplace. That's not too big. If you think you're being overworked, or that you're being paid too little, or that you're being exposed to needlessly risky situations, you're probably not alone in thinking that. Ask around. See if your coworkers feel the same way. Compare wages, talk about what you like and don't like about work. Then consider joining a union like the Industrial Workers of the World to take action, put the power of your workplace in your hands, and bargain with your bosses for an environment you feel comfortable working in.
You could also consider volunteering. For this current pandemic, search for "COVID-19 volunteering" and see if anything seems like something you can pitch into. Besides that, you could look into helping with food banks like Food Not Bombs or whatever your local charity is. Or you could volunteer at the library, and ensure that everyone in your community has access to the information they need. There's lots of options. Ask around! Get to know the people in your community.
Lastly, I'm going to suggest two things for you to read. First off is Anarchy Works by Peter Gelderloos, an introduction to anarcho-communism. That's the school of thought I low-key spent this entire article trying to explain. The other one is The Conquest of Bread (also known as "the bread book"), a 1892 book by the Russian anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin. It's a bit more dated, but also a bit more in-depth as well to a degree. Also, this isn't related to the communism thing, but it's a good idea to learn about the perspectives of others. Seek out webcomics, books, zines, literature that gives you a little better clue of what makes people "tick". Broadening your view of the world is always a good idea.
I realize this is a lot to throw at you, considering how tough things are right now. You don't have to agree with me. But at least think this over. Consider asking "what if" and "why" about the world you live in. Sniff out opportunities to help your friends and your neighbors. The next article I write is definitely not going to be political, just in case you're worried. Regardless of anything, stay safe out there.