Preserving the economy without a restructure

I was having a conversation with a few friends the other day about how bad things were likely to get economically speaking and what a post-coronavirus recovery could look like.  Specifically what sorts of hard choices might need to be made when the economy reopens and what it might mean to lose restaurants, bars, concert venues, sporting events, shopping malls, etc as we know it.

It brought me back to my work on the housing collapse and foreclosure crisis, where over 9 million families in this country lost their homes due to (largely fraudulent) foreclosures from when the housing bubble started to pop through the economic collapse. During the response to the 2008 collapse, the Fed gave banks over $16 trillion in response. This amount of money, if still deployed but not given directly to Wall Street banks, could have paid off every underwater mortgage in America. Then it could have bought a home for every homeless family. Then it could have provided free college to all. And so on.

The amount given to banks was truly staggering – and it didn’t solve the problems. Millions were foreclosed upon. Housing values remained down. Massive amounts of wealth, especially in African-American and Latino communities, was destroyed. The Fed, with license from Congress and the Obama administration, pointed a money cannon at Wall Street and the American public barely got anything for it. But the banks stayed solvent and we did not have to go through an economic restructure or change the rules of the road in a substantive way in the industry that was culpable for causing the collapse.

This is relevant in the context of Covid-19 because right now we’re watching the federal government and the Federal Reserve find repeated ways to point a money cannon at business. Over $2 trillion in cash from the federal government and multiple rounds of liquidity from the Fed, with a current projection of up to $6 trillion. This has been done as already approaching 20 million people have lost their jobs and we are still figuring out the scope of the pandemic.

Long story short, we’re going to put an unthinkably large amount of money into the economy – mostly via financial institutions and giant companies – and early indications are that, like 2008 and beyond, the American people will see very little real outcomes from it.

How would I do things differently from the start?

  • Federal government pays all workers 80-100% of their wages, via their employer, regardless of income (I am for 100% but am open to being convinced a partial haircut is acceptable). Employers are banned from firing people. This keeps wages in peoples’ pockets, people with employer-provided health insurance on those roles, and minimal disruption to the labor market.
  • No rent or mortgage payments for the duration of the crisis. No foreclosures or evictions in this period.  The Fed backs up debt holders in the housing market & commercial RE market. You probably need to go ahead & have the Fed back up any securitized debt objects to prevent a massive wave of financial institution insolvency – but if we’re trying to avoid cataclysm, that’s fine by me.
  • Medicare for All for Covid, but for real – not Trump’s bogus allusions to it. No one should pay a cent for Covid testing, treatment, care or vaccine.

You do all this and people stay in their homes, get treatment, have economic security, and we don’t blow up the economy through social distancing and quarantines. You protect pretty much everyone but the investor class, who won’t be seeing their usual returns on non-securitized investment vehicles (like, say, restaurants or bars or sports clubs). But you basically punt the pandemic as an event that requires an economic restructure. This also would do the most possible for stopping the spread of the pandemic due to people not getting care they can’t afford or showing up to jobs while sick.

I would be very open to an economic restructure. I would be very open to Wall Street banks, hedge funds, and private equity vultures taking losses unto bankruptcy. I would be very open to using this moment to get Medicare for All, full-stop.

But simply put, if I wanted to see how the government could have acted in a way that would still put the massive amounts of money in play that are and will continue to be thrown at this problem, with a goal of minimizing change to how our economy works, then this would be what we should have done.

We’ll find out a few years after the crisis that whatever we ended up spending will have been enough for us to have the government do what’s listed above, to protect people, keep them sheltered, fed and healthy… but we won’t have done it. Instead we’ll have enriched Wall Street and protected wealthy investors from losses, with no meaningful public benefit to show for it.

Solidarity Against Trump’s Austerity Death Trap

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Amidst the fear and pain of the Coronavirus pandemic, the one thing that has given me hope is how people have come together in response – meeting the needs of the moment with togetherness instead of panic. There are countless mutual aid efforts happening around the world and incredibly bravery from frontline medical staff. People sing out their windows together in Italy to give each other hope. People bang pots and pans together out their windows in Brazil to protest the inadequacy of the government’s response.

In the US, all signs point to the Trump calling people back to work next week in the face of all medical advice. Conservatives are lining up with takes that suggest the death of a few percent of the population – hundreds of thousands to millions of people here in America – are less bad than the collapse of the whole economy. Trump thinks a crashing economy is worse for his political future than mass graves. (Let’s leave aside the absurdity that an attempt to restart the economy would survive a million dead Americans, or that Trump even himself stopped the economy to begin with). Carl Beijer has called this Trump’s austerity death trap and I think that captures it well.

Already online there is talk that workers should go out on general strike if Trump tries to force people back to work. My fear is that while the labor movement may not be strong enough to support this, many people will make the hard individual choice that indeed their lives and their families lives are more important than their jobs. They will put some degree of faith in the government to provide direct aid and some faith that they can get by on charity, on credit, and on personal austerity. They will bravely do the thing that is obviously right, but their President (and surely soon, the conservative media and their bosses) is telling them is wrong.

It is critical that people who say no to Trump’s prioritization of the economy over human life feel supported. It is critical that people do not feel alone in this decision, that they not feel shame in their abstention from work. It is critical that space is created for not only people to refuse this demand to keep the gears of the US economy going with the lives of working people.

There is a critical opportunity to both support people and encourage them to make the right decision and create the tools to help spread this reaction – whether we call it a general strike, an abstention, a non-cooperation movement against Trump’s deadly self-interest. What we need is visual and cultural signifiers to share. Not just badges and memes on social networks, but something local and offline.

I’m not a visually creative person. My first thought of a white bedsheet out a window probably has the wrong connotations but is the sort of thing that could be done by almost anyone in the world. A white bedsheet with a painted green slash could provide a solution. The green ribbon is being used in southeast Asia alongside the hashtag #WeWillOvercome. And the color does tell the story of the sort of recovery we want (be it a green stimulus or a green new deal or both)!

I don’t know if Trump will press Americans back to work. I do know that if he does, it will likely result in the rapid spread of the coronavirus and a massive increase in human suffering here in the US, at minimum. This is a terrifying moment, the worst imaginable outcome of putting a selfish, stupid, incapable man in the White House.  But in the face of this stupidity, we are not alone. We have each other and we have common sense.

There never really was mass resistance to Trump’s presidency. If there ever will be, this feels like the moment where it will emerge – beyond twitter and across our communities. The irony is now it cannot be in the streets, but must be online and in socially distant ways offline, too. That’s why I see value in a finding a unifying visual meme to connect those who will together reject Trump’s attempt at mass murder at the alter of the economy.

Fatherhood & Bernie Sanders’ Humanism

“Are you willing to fight for that person who you don’t even know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” – B. Sanders

I’ve spent a lot of time over this prolonged presidential primary thinking about the concept of hope and why, despite the exterior appearances of a cantankerous New Yorker, I find so much hope in Bernie Sanders and his presidential campaign. 

I believe it stems from becoming a father and experiencing politics with a sense of real consequences far beyond myself. It’s not an original thought to realize that having a child changed how I see the world. It wasn’t until my son was born a little over two years ago that I started to feel the things I believed in emotionally, as opposed to simply believing them intellectually. 

Having a child has shown me the lived value of another human life beyond my own. The persistent fear a parent has for the basic health and welfare of a child that starts helpless and who in time grows to have more and more ability (and at two, still no judgement).  I see this shift in basic stuff – a stronger emotional pull upon hearing of tragedy or a sense of grief at seeing someone experiencing hardship. Other times it’s big picture – a deeper sense of fear as to what looming global problems (climate change, rising right wing nationalism and anti-Semitism) could mean for my son. Through the experience of parenthood, I’ve grounded my politics in a way that is so much stronger, deeper, and more affirming than ever before. 

Life in this country is hard. Economic inequality and insecurity makes it hard. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia all make it hard. In the face of these things, not everyone responds to the experience of parenthood by looking outward. People have a tendency to start to build up little walls to protect this new thing that they feel is tenuous or delicate. Parochialism, territorialism and fear set in. Perhaps it’s why we’ve ended up a country so defined by who we fear and what we lack. 

We need hope in the face of these systemic hardships and self-imposed walls. And the thing that is so special about Bernie Sanders’ campaign for President is the way in which he has quietly staked out the most hopeful campaign in my adult lifetime. 

Bernie asks us to look at our neighbors not as others, but as people with the same material, emotional, and familial needs as ourselves. When we do this, we can see our respective hardships. We can see the value and importance of providing care, regardless of cost. Of having good paying jobs with dignity and rights. Of freeing people from the hopelessness of student debt. Of ending military adventurism and investing in solutions to the climate emergency that is already devastating communities across our country. 

“I look around and see so many other people barely holding on,” Ms. Yanos said, choking back tears as her kids did their homework at the kitchen table. “It’s not that I think it will be all rainbows and sunshine if he’s elected, things won’t change overnight. But people younger than me, they are going to demand change in their lifetime.” (NYT)

Politics is fundamentally about how we share our brief time together on this planet. It is about how we care for each other when we are sick and how we protect each other when we are vulnerable. It is about the extent to which we choose as a society to either honor the dignity of our neighbors and other people around the world, or how we distance ourselves from them and deny their humanity through, at best, indifference and, at worst, state sanctioned violence. Through parenthood I’ve felt the difference between these choices like a gut punch. How could we ever choose to not affirm each others’ worth?

Bernie’s platform is one that uniquely puts forward the value of every individual human life. His call to fight for someone you do not know just as hard as you’ll fight for yourself is a bold act of faith in each of us to see the world in the same way. To see that each of us has our own struggles, our own complexity, our own unique value as human beings, worthy of not just protection but societal action on our behalf. From this act of faith comes solidarity and from solidarity comes the power to affect change together.

I don’t particularly care what you call Sanders’ platform – whether it’s democratic socialism or a mere modernization of FDR-style Democratic Party liberalism. What inspires me is Bernie Sanders’ humanism. The belief that the problems any one of us faces merit a president who will fight for them, not because they are big demographic problems that have economic impact, but because, god damn it, it is our friends and neighbors who are dying without care or rationing insulin or having to work three or four gigs to live paycheck to paycheck. That a better world is possible. That this better world can be achieved if we work together in solidarity and with an embrace of our shared humanity.

Sanders has described the effort as a kind of support network for people left out of mainstream politics — an effort to help millions of people, in his words, “feel less alone.” (Buzzfeed)

Bernie is at his best when he gives us not his litany of villains (though knowing the enemies who stand in the way against a better world is important), but when he gives us the space to find hope together. Hope is so important, especially when the economy works for almost no one, when we face a rising global pandemic and a climate catastrophe, when we have been failed by our leaders and it feels as if things are just slipping past the point of salvation. 

We need to have the discipline to find hope, both in each other and in a political movement. I want to be a part of a politics that values each individual life and fights for solutions to the problems we face that are grounded in the goodness of each of us. I want for the audacious hopefulness of Bernie Sanders’ campaign to inspire millions upon millions of people here in America to participate in the political process, demand a better world and build it alongside people they do not know. The urgency of this moment demands it.

I can’t recommend the pathway of having a child to find humanism in your politics. We don’t have time for that. But what I can do is encourage you to listen to what Bernie Sanders is asking of us with an open mind and an open heart, free from cynicism and with a belief that a better world is possible. 

The primary is not over. Biden has not yet won. There is time for us to look around, to look at our country and the need for hope, solidarity and a politics grounded in the value of each and every one of us and still elect Bernie Sanders as President. 

Volunteer. Talk to your friends and neighbors. Donate. Vote.

The Civic Upswell

Eric Liu has a piece in The Atlantic that looks at the civic upswell that’s happened in response to Trump. It’s overall encouraging, celebrating that “people are exercising both power and character.” It’s optimistic in a dark time.

This line is something I might be skeptical of:

“The surge will likely outlast his presidency. Americans today are rushing to make up for decades of atrophy and neglect in civic education and engagement.”

Let’s say something – Russia, lying about what he knew, corruption, emoluments, being certifiably crazy – forces Trump from office, either with impeachment or resignation or removal under the 25th Amendment, Section 4. In that case, Mike Pence would become president. Pence is just as extreme a conservative as Trump, if not more. However Pence speaks the language of civil governance. He doesn’t tweet crazy things. He sounds like any other politician.

My fear is that even if Trump is removed from office (which I want to see happen!), the removal of the tangibly insane thread from conservative governance would quell the popular civic outpouring that is currently taking place.

Pence would feel normal, even if he still pursuit draconian immigration/deportation policies, gutted social programs and took a bellicose posture towards Iran, China or Russia. The normality, the leveling-down of extreme policies by the press because of being more normal than Trump, would be a cold splash of water on the current civic upswell.

It would be up to us as organizers to keep it going, but it would be far less self-sustaining and require even more coherent, intentional organizing.

The Hard Work of Change

In Jacobin, Alex Gourevitch has an interesting article challenging the resistance movements that are emerging in response to Trump to be sure to include a positive vision for the world we want to see.

I’m seeing frequent references on the Left to the need to do real politics; to build power through slow, hard work; to organize in impacted communities; to not attempt to take shortcuts to achieving mass actions. All of this is correct and worth noting. That’s why the start of Gourevitch’s article is frustrating to me:

Under Obama, Occupy squandered the initial hopefulness and general appeal when it let procedural squabbles sap its energy and undermine its potential for a real political intervention. No wonder there was little public support when the police showed up. The resurgence of activism associated with the Black Lives Matter movement marked another significant moment for the American left but, despite three years of protest and consciousness-raising, public attitudes towards the police have improved and there are few balancing accomplishments to point to.

These are valid objections to make, yet they miss that many of the things which have grown out of Occupy still exist. Mutual aid projects like Occupy Sandy, Occupy Our Homes (especially in Atlanta and Minneapolis), and Strike Debt did just the hard work we see demanded of now – and it paid off with sustained engagement and local presence.

Elements of grassroots political power that formed in the crucible of Occupy were there supporting and accelerating Black Lives Matter. Dream Defenders and the Wildfire Project immediately comes to mind, as does the persistent community-based organizing from Occupy Our Homes in Minneapolis and Atlanta. Local groups from BLM and OWS are out front in organizing the response to Trump, including through the Indivisibles and the Women’s March.

None of this necessarily amounts to sea-change in the political landscape, but it does speak to the ongoing hard work by people committed to create change through organizing in impacted communities. You can’t look at Occupy or Black Lives Matter and say that they failed to build power simply because they didn’t succeed in achieving all of their goals full-stop. It’s an unfair and unrealistic expectation that every movement that emerges in response to a major disruption be immediately capable of delivering lasting transformative change, especially when so few organic popular outbursts, let alone well resourced strategic ones, have reached this level of success in the US. This is and was what the hard work of organizing is about, these movements did it and there’s something to learn from them, and why they didn’t achieve their goals even while doing the sort of organizing that many from the Left want to see today.

I’m starting from a somewhat negative stance on Gourevitch’s piece simply because I feel these are comments worth making, not to disqualify where he goes with his evaluation of what we’ve seen from the Trump resistance so far. He writes:

The point here isn’t to bash the Left; it’s to take a sober look at the opportunities and limits we face. The truth is, this should be our moment. The Trump administration and Republican Congress are a fragile entity, whose control of the state rests less on mass support and more on the undemocratic features of our institutions.

Trump received a minority of the popular vote, the fifty-two Republican senators in Congress represent 44 percent of the population, and the eight-soon-to-be-nine ghouls in Supreme Court robes are even more insulated from actual majorities. Moreover, there are all kinds of internal divisions among Republicans on how to handle everything from health care to immigration. To the degree that Trump and the Republicans look like an unflinching, reactionary juggernaut it is because there is so little organized power to stand in their way.

This is exactly right. Admitting that moments that have felt transformative, but failed to be so, isn’t an attack, it’s the truth. There’s plenty that we should be encouraged by right now. And as I noted above, I still see much from OWS and BLM that indicates a positive direction of travel, if not outright victory.

Gourevitch raises a critical point regarding how the Left has actually tended to sit outside of the political realm, using only direct action tactics to have impact, while avoiding more traditional mechanisms.

[T]he downside of direct action is that it has often served as a tacit admission of the Left’s inability to translate social power into political control. The Left has generally been on the outside looking in and its celebration of direct action put it in static rather than dynamic opposition to the corruption and opportunism of existing parties.

Direct action is critical in terms of forcing people to think about the crises before them and respond beyond business as usual. But the whole point is that it occurs in a place of harm, at a moment when politics have failed. He goes on:

We can field thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, even occasionally hundreds of thousands, and then be safely ignored. We call it resistance, but any exercise of our agency that isn’t total cooperation with the status quo looks like resistance. It contains no internal measure of success or failure, which is why it is compatible with retreat or even resignation. And while it is “mass” politics in the sense of many people, protests do not require anything like the ongoing commitment to principle and organization that something like party politics does.

Our unwillingness to admit our own weakness is the flip side of not having a clear set of principles that can serve as the basis for a mass movement. Instead, we give ourselves the appearance of unity and purpose by resisting evil and by taking our collective “No” out into the streets. We find comfort in knowing that we are not them, that at least we are doing something. Trump is immediate and present, the evils are right in front of us, numerous, and ready-to-hand.

Being for something is the key counterpart to resistance and mass mobilization against Trump (or his corporate backers). The prescription is freedom:

The better principle is freedom. It is the interest everyone has in being free from the myriad forms of domination and oppression that most people face, and it is expressed by being part of a movement that seeks to transform society. Freedom is something everyone wants, but can only be achieved if we demand it and pursue it jointly. It is a principle that naturally bridges all those aspects of left politics that otherwise separate us. We are divided by the varieties of oppression and the proliferation of identities that are born out of that oppression, but we can be united by the desire for freedom.

Less abstractly, freedom is the principle that explains and unifies what we are for. We are more than being against Trump, racism, sexism, inequality, etc. We are also more than a list of demands, like universal health care, cheap and legal abortion, open immigration. We are only for those things to the degree that they are all the same thing: freedoms that everyone ought to enjoy.

The positive vision for society, through the lens of freedom, creates a powerful way to connect to those who are in the streets resisting, just as much as it does to those who didn’t feel energized to go out and vote in November, just as much as it does to those who felt attracted to Trump.It has a strong grounding in basic human needs and desires. It’s a strong organizing principle, one that can safely nurture and grow our intersectional values of equality, fairness, safety, and health. It’s a clear lens that can be used to condemn and resist against Trump’s agenda.

What’s more, while it may not sit as an articulated list of demands on many organizational websites, I’d hazard that you can ask most people who are resisting Trump what freedom means to them and you’d find it’s strongly oriented around similar real-world applications on a range of issues.

Gourvetich’s whole piece is worth reading in full. We’ve seen a lot of criticism of mass mobilizations under Trump so far and while he does make some fundamental critiques of where past disruptive movements failed to achieve lasting change, he provides a pathway towards hope in this moment. It’s certainly a start.

The Fast Pace of Trump

It’s terrifying to think that the Trump era has only been going on for two weeks and two days. It feels like it’s been months already. A huge part of this has been due to the breakneck speed that Trump has launched himself into office. Almost every week day has brought a major new executive order or foreign policy action that shakes the country with its severity and radicalism. From a Muslim ban, to reauthorizing Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline, to pulling out of TPP, to pulling back environmental regulations, every day we are regularly seeing transformational actions emerging from the Trump White House.

And that’s just the things that are definitively happening – the rumors of what could come next, from a national right-to-work (without job security) push to gutting federal LGBT protections, are pouring out just as fast. Other intended massive initiatives, like the repeal of the Affordable Care Act or building a wall on our border with Mexico, have been announced but only seen limited concrete progress.

The press isn’t prepared for the pace of action. The Democrats aren’t prepared for it. And civil society groups responding to Trump are finding themselves pulled in every direction at once by the pace of Trump’s actions.

Of course what we’re seeing Trump and his team actually do is actually exactly what he said he’d do as a candidate. He is rapidly checking off as many boxes as possible when it comes to keeping his promises from the campaign. We are just historically unprepared for this sort of directness. Obama and Bush both moved primarily through legislative actions in their early days. Their executive orders tended towards less transformational actions.

I see two potential explanations for Trump’s governing behavior, which has largely avoided anything requiring congressional action.

The first and potentially more reassuring explanation is that Trump, Bannon, and the rest of his political team are going with a realpolitik  political strategy. They want to be able to say to their base and to the country on whole: We were elected. We kept all of our promises. And when these executive orders and actions inevitably get rolled back or reduced by either legal proceedings or congressional action, they’ll be able to point a finger and say, “See, it was the corrupt judges. It was the crooked establishment. It was just like I said when I was a candidate. I kept my word and they are to blame for where we stand now.”

This explanation makes sense if the Trump team is comfortable spending a lot of time litigating their actions. They maybe don’t care about their policies being fully realized, as much as being able to tell a story that helps them win re-election. It is a cynical, yet arguably sharp, political plan.

The second explanation for the Trump executive action blitz is significantly more scary. Instead of being based on a political-electoral analysis, Trump and co. are actually governing in the manner that they see the presidency functioning. They want to act quickly because they think they are the sole decider of American policies and laws. They act without consulting Congress or even cabinet officials and staff at agencies like DOJ, DHS, DOD or State. They don’t think they need bureaucrats and experts to craft legal orders. They don’t need to consult people with deeper knowledge than that possessed by a TV entrepreneur, an editor of Breitbart, and an small-time publisher. They are in charge and they aren’t interested in waiting for others to weigh in.

The scary part of this is that it speaks towards an authoritarian orientation towards governance, one that is incurious and insulated. We saw inklings of what may happen when border patrol officers refused to honor judges’ decisions to suspend the Muslim ban last week. We saw it again this weekend as Trump took to twitter to blast a “so-called judge” who happened to issue a ruling against him. When this administration and their staff refuse to follow the orders of a co-equal branch of government, we enter a real constitutional crisis.

The actions of Trump, Bannon, Miller and others are truly terrifying. They have not displayed any competence in a traditional sense. However their pace of action and its extreme nature not only make up for the general incompetence of implementation, but ensure that many of the bad things they are trying to rush through will become realities in the end.

Either Trump is politically astute and positioning himself for four years of war against the establishment or he’s a genuine authoritarian who will govern through constitutional crisis. In either regard, he is and will continue to implement terribly destructive policies that cause real human suffering.

I’m not sure if Trump’s strategy is particularly relevant to how Democrats or the Left respond to him right now, at least not on a case-by-case basis. But as we get greater clarity on the direction of travel he’s moving down, the more relevant it becomes. A politically expedient desire to keep campaign promises quickly then spend four years pointing fingers at the establishment stopping them from being fully realized would suggest we just have to weather the storm now.  In contrast, a strong turn towards authoritarian, ignorant rule from the White House would suggest a real risk for the 2020 election being something Trump would accept if he lost. And that should be enough to make one’s blood run cold.

Supporting resistance

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I’ve been an activist for half my life at this point. When I was in high school and college, going to marches and protests really fired me up. It was the realization of grassroots, campus-based organizing I was doing. It felt awesome and empowering. But once I because a full-time activist and organizer, I got over it. It got old. I don’t get excited about protests. I don’t go to them unless I really have to, it just doesn’t do it for me. I get enough from my day to day organizing work to feel like I’m making a contribution without having to be physically present at a protest or rally.

But marches and protests aren’t actually for me, not the me of today. They’re for the high school and college me, the one who may only have one afternoon a week or one day a month to be able to make a full political statement with my body, my time, my voice. I get it if you are cynical about mass mobilizations. I get it if you don’t see the value of marches from your perspective as a professional activist or organizer, as this is often a hub of cynicism when it comes to physical action. But they’re not for you, they’re for the people who don’t have jobs dedicated to change-making in a full time way (which is to say, they’re for almost everyone else in the country).

Last weekend’s women’s marches were big and bold and inspiring. People came out because they care about what is happening in America and want to resist against it. It was a loud statement of our values and such a needed one. These marches are helping people struggle through dark times. They are creating a vibrant, visual resistance to Trump. They are bringing millions of people into political engagement. They are 100% exactly what we need right now, because they will make so much of what comes next possible.

Senate Democrats aren’t going to save us. House Democrats aren’t going to save us. MSNBC isn’t going to save us. None of our tweets are going to save us. We are going to save us and the people showing up at these marches and protests are the “we” I’m talking about.

Let’s find was to build, inspire, grow these marches. For professionals like me, let’s lend our professional talents and tools to empower and enable the people in the streets. Let’s do that even more as people move from attending marches and protests towards building new organizations, local organizations dedicated to resisting against Trump and defending our values.