We’ve painted ourselves into a corner with the outbreak of Covid-19 (aka Coronavirus). How much manufacturing previously done in the West is now (not being) done in China and other countries in Asia? We made a decision in the 80s that American manufacturing was too expensive and that we’d do better as industrialists and consumers to move production to Mexico and Asia. This, I suppose, is fine, save that we stopped paying living wages to America’s (former) manufacturing employees and increased their credit lines as a sort of compensation.
That’s three of several dozen problems that have been building up in the US over the last 35 years or so. How we handled American purchasing power is a different part of the discussion. China raised its own game in the years following the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989. You can’t have democracy but if you’re a Chinese citizen you are entitled to some more of these trappings of capitalism. And it seemed to work. Many Chinese got filthy rich, casinos opened on Chinese real estate, for example, and if you weren’t used to democracy, it did work. Hong Kong? Different question. (Fairport Convention’s Jewel in the Crown seems appropriate.)
Anyhow, US and to a lesser extent, I think, European purchasing power went up, because a lot of Chinese made a lot of stuff very cheaply. So it didn’t matter that real wages in the US haven’t shifted much in 40 years. The decline of unions in post-Reagan America pushed workers into so-called service industries where real wages are kept artificially low much of the time.
Bottom line: We don’t MAKE anything, and as a result we’re in a position where the place that does make all our stuff is on lockdown for we don’t know how long. And creating a manufacturing sector out of whole cloth can’t be done so easily anymore. (It could be done if we were willing to pry a little bit of money and commitment out of the 1%. Not in the cards at the moment.) The same is true in Europe. We have the tools to create that self-sufficient situation, but it means retraining the populous to buy what they need and a lot less of what they want. We’re going to learn mighty soon that the old watch, phone, and TV will last a little longer. (A little less of the planned obsolescence would go a long way.) Clothes and everything else we buy might be more expensive, but part of what we need to do to recover, sustainably, from this crisis is to rebuild the industry and rework how we as people and consumers and industrialists relate to industry.

I know that I’m extraordinarily blessed in that I live in a country with a safety net and that my health insurance costs are capped by law. There are a lot of complaints about Dutch medical care, and I’m sure that if I delved deeply enough, I’d find some horror stories. However, in the Netherlands, and in most of Europe, catastrophic illness doesn’t bankrupt the insured. Note that no one here is uninsured – the benefits system is such that a person in straits for whatever reason is still covered. If you’re not in straits, the system requires each person to pay for a basic level of coverage. At the moment, that basic level costs something like EUR 110 per month. (I don’t know the precise number because I take advantage of a higher level.

I don’t know how to address things like GoFundMe pages for people who suffer catastrophic illnesses or emergencies or simply get blindsided by insurance companies that cover ambulance company X, but not ambulance company Y. Too bad that company Y was sent when you called 911. No, it’s not that I don’t know how to address these things, it’s the fact that we’re still stuck in the situation that people aren’t covered for illness by default. When the Clintons tried to work out some kind of universal health coverage in the US in the 90s, they were beaten back by the insurance industry. When Obama tried the same thing, he was beaten almost from the get-go. The fact that he managed to eke some success out of all that political capital, and all that bloody opposition is a credit to the man.

I worked in healthcare for several years in the 90s. My mother was a medical secretary and my stepdad was an EKG tech before he moved into fundraising at the same hospital. So I’ve always had some input and insight as to how these systems work. For an idea, see the history section of the Wikipedia article on health insurance in the US.

Because Franklin Roosevelt sidestepped the issue at the time he was pushing for various reforms in social policy, the medical industries were able to consolidate their efforts against any kind of socialized medicine. By the time Truman took up the gauntlet in 1949, the AMA was prepared. And for 80 years they and the various for-profit healthcare organizations have fought tooth and nail to prevent any kind of socialized care in the US. And because everyone with full-time employment in the US has an insurance option through one of these plans, the money keeps flowing up to the healthcare industry. Woe be to you if you have to work multiple part time jobs to make ends meet, because it’s unlikely any of them will provide you with a company-subsidized option. So no matter what you do, you’re in deep to the industry should you need care. Of course, those who are uninsured or underinsured will hesitate to go to the doctor when there’s something seriously wrong. Heaven forbid the coronavirus gain a foothold in the US, but even without it, those at greatest risk for spreading communicable illnesses are those least able to take the time to get care for them. Even in my office (software company, generous work from home options), I have colleagues who feel compelled for whatever reason to come into the office when they’re seriously ill. (I shared a crowded train with one a couple of weeks ago – he’d been home for a few days, and was obviously still sick, coughing into his hands and rubbing his eyes. Alas, the drug store was all out of hand sanitizer because of the latest rush on the stuff.)

So not a week goes by that I don’t see a GoFundMe call on Facebook from someone whose friend is needing money for catastrophic healthcare costs. One level of compassion is to give something to each of those. This is reasonable, but also ridiculous, given how much money should be in the system but isn’t. Ridiculous because it’s somehow easier and better for those with little enough money already to help each other than for the obscenely wealthy to ease up on the greed in the system. It’s another version of the rich guy, working class guy, and immigrant/poor guy looking at a plate of cookies. As the rich guy takes all but one, he says, ‘Look out, the immigrant’s gonna take your cookie.’

I honestly don’t know what to say anymore about this situation. For several years now, I’ve seen the comment that this is the point at which the French started building guillotines. I think on a gut level we know that in France politics suddenly became bloodsport and didn’t stop until the engineers of the Reign of Terror were themselves sent to the scaffold. We also seem to have sufficient bloodsport/bread/circuses/entertainment to keep us looking the other way as the things we deserve as members of this society, as contributors to the social contract are taken away.

It’s not a just matter of someone less fortunate than we are taking our cookie, it’s that along with all of the other basics that are part of surviving and thriving together, compassion calls on us to fund as individuals what should be funded by society as a whole.

Edited to add this link, posted to cbsnews.com the same day I posted this entry:

“You wouldn’t think you’d go to jail over medical bills”: County in rural Kansas is jailing people over unpaid medical debt

Sometime during my freshman year at university (1985-86), I read an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle suggesting that the current generation should be the last generation of humans on earth. This intrigued me because it seemed obvious to me we’d already done enough damage and perhaps the other species here could make a better go of it once we cleaned up our mess and got out of the way.

I made mention of this to a few people. My mother, if I recall rightly, found the idea distasteful to say the least. She hadn’t read much science fiction at the time, a lot of which probably influenced my agreement with the writer’s sentiments.

In the intervening years, I’ve occasionally tried to find the editorial in question, with no success. Recently, though, I read a letter to the New Yorker which made reference to the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. Ah. That would be the group. It’s not hard to believe that the whole thing could be just one person who occasionally sends out a newsletter.

So I’m thinking about this in the context of compassion and doing right by the earth and those halcyon days when our population was only three or four billion. The image below is from the July 1975 issue of Mad magazine. Current population, 45 years later? 7.7 billion.

Mad Magazine, July 1975

Occasionally I hear people talk about healing the earth. Usually in the form of a platitude on a bumper sticker or t-shirt. This makes the person with the platitude feel better, If this is a form of virtue signaling (I’ve always been a little unclear on that concept), I’m still okay with the sentiment, regardless of whether it leads to concrete action. What gets me is the response one sometimes hears, that the Earth has been through worse and will heal itself.

This may be true, but we’re wiping out species at an astounding rate and can’t seem, as nations to stop being cruel (the US rolling back rules on national park exploitation, for example). And, it’s an attitude that absolves corporations and municipalities from their responsibilities as stewards of the earth and as stewards of various populations. Flint, Michigan and its drinking water issue – several years later, still not solved, for another example. The attitude that the earth will heal itself doesn’t absolve us of turning the oceans, once teeming with life, into garbage dumps, fished out. In his recollections of the Kon-Tiki expedition, Thor Heyerdahl shares over and over again how easy it was to survive in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on the fish that were in abundance. I think he’d be horrified today of the state of large swaths of that ocean.

What is it about these times that sets it all up as a zero sum game?

I keep saying it: No one gets out alive as an individual. This much we know, but do we have to take half or more of the earth’s species with us? We seem to have no restrictions on the amount of cruelty we’re willing to exert on other people, species – yes, a lot of us are good, but as a species, we prove ourselves incapable of making the place better for the next generation. Or even to maintain a baseline for this one. The number of people who are going to die as current trends continue – fires, lack of insects, dropping levels of protein in rice, dropping levels of ice – it’s something we seemed to be inured to. It’s okay to leave what’s left to the next species to come up. We’ve proved ourselves unworthy.

Is voluntary human extinction an instance of compassion for the rest of the planet? There’s a cynical part of me that says absolutely, because I’m not sure we’re likely to contribute anything meaningful in the greater universe, should we make it off this planet before wiping it out entirely. I’ve had friends argue that the art we create shouldn’t be lost. I hate to think that so much won’t be appreciated by later generations, but there’s so much that’s not appreciated by this generation. First world problem, that.

And anyone advocating this must be able to examine the question: How would I feel to be the last one remaining, the one left to turn out the lights on Homo Sapiens? I’d like to believe I could lie down having done the job well. But the thought also terrifies me.

My thoughts on compassion boil down to the question, ‘What do we owe each other?’ What do we with privilege owe to those without? What do the powerful owe to the powerless?

This isn’t original- it’s the entire premise of The Good Place. Have you watched The Good Place yet? Really, go and watch it. (And if you haven’t seen it, don’t read too far into that Wikipedia article – the twist at the end of season 1 depends on you having no idea. Most of the cast had no idea. But watch it.)

From a recent episode of the Allusionist podcast:

And the etymology of compassionate? It’s late Latin for com plus patti, so to suffer together. And yes, the root of passion is to suffer. But compassion is ‘to feel the pain of others,’ which is terribly moving.

Back when they still taught civics and government in American high schools (showing my age, I know), we learned that America’s founding fathers didn’t invent the documents on which the country is based from whole cloth. Teachers referenced and sometimes even assigned material from France’s Age of Reason. I’m sure one or two referenced Jean Jacques Rosseau’s Of the Social Contract. At 15, I’m sure I couldn’t actually have absorbed much about it. If one had boiled it down to this sentence (from the introductory essay of the Penguin edition (Quentin Hoare translation), I still would have zoned out:

‘Rousseau’s central aim in Of the Social Contract is to explain how the freedom of the individual can be reconciled with the authority of the state.’

What did stick with me was this: Rousseau argued that the members of a society owe certain things to the group, and can expect certain things, by virtue of all participating in the same society.

And so, reminded that we are all in this together, I started reading the source document. Rousseau is addressing not just any society but a certain kind of perfect direct democracy in which Citizens engage in public deliberation as the legislature of the State with the complete understanding that harm to other members harms the body of the State and that harm to the State directly affects the other members of it.

That’s a poor paraphrase of a very small part of Rousseau’s philosophy, but it’s something like this that the writers of the Constitution were after when they wrote ‘in order to form a more perfect union,’ into that document’s preamble, this idea that we form a government in order to do better by all of the members of the society.

Rousseau is philosophizing a utopia; the folks at Philadelphia were keen to put Rousseau’s principles into practice. It’s unlikely the founders had that much compassion on their minds, given that a few decades later we had to fight the Civil War over their abject failure to abolish slavery (for a start). They did, however, consider the need to have the branches of government independent of both one another and of the voter.

One of these things we learned in those Civics classes was that the amendments to the constitution were generally advancements towards that more perfect union. A sort of ex cathedra of the people. (Rousseau, I think, would have approved of the idea of the general populous acting as a single pope.) As such, the 17th amendment, which provided for direct election of senators, was an advance. I was listening to a political podcast a couple of days ago (It might have been WNYC’s Impeachment: A Daily Podcast – 22 January, but I wouldn’t swear to it) in which there as an assertion that the founding fathers couldn’t have foreseen a senate as craven as the current one because the original version of the Constitution called for state legislatures to elect the senators, avoiding certain issues regarding who senators might be beholden to.

There were a few good reasons to address the process for the election of senators, including periods during which at least one state failed to send any senators at all to Washington because of deadlocks in the state legislature. On the other hand, we can probably guess that a call for the direct election of senators led by William Randolph Hearst (yeah, the newspaper magnate who successfully agitated for war with Spain in the 1890s) might be suspect. (Note: I’m well aware that the issue is a lot more complicated than that and that for a few decades, the benefits of direct elections outweighed the disadvantages.)

This, of course, isn’t the first time I’ve questioned the truisms that a 1980s LAUSD education implanted in my brain, and that a couple of college poli-sci classes tried to remedy. For a long time I held to the idea that many of our steps were a step towards that more perfect union. To paraphrase Dr. King, the arc of our democratic experiment was bending towards some kind of perfection.

Of course it doesn’t, and the gravitational pull of so many things in our society has bent the arc towards indifference (at best). There doesn’t seem to be a Latin-rooted antonym for compassion that includes that root of suffering. Indifference is one of the clearer opposites – a complete lack of suffering with those nearest.

What am I getting to with this discussion: The question of what we owe one another relates directly to how we vote. I’ve talked about voting with compassion. I believe we owe one another a government that isn’t cruel, capricious, or beholden. At the moment we suffer all three, and the one thing that’s least helpful in these discussions is belief.

I don’t know if this statistic belongs in this blog entry or another, but I’ll leave it here for the moment:

Federal immigration officials told a judge last week they believe they’ve finally settled on the number of children separated from their parents by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. The number is 4,368. (Los Angeles Times, 18 January, 2020.)

In his book Be Here Now, Ram Dass recounts a teacher who would utter the occasional aphorism and then leave the room, such as ‘When a pickpocket meets a saint, he sees only his pockets’ (Chapter 9, ‘Ashtanga Yoga’). Expanded, this might be rephrased ‘The needy see only in others what can satisfy their needs.’ As Lampert views Freud and Darwin as being reductionist, this interpretation of the guru’s teaching reduces the idea to something very base.

Ram Dass, when he was learning, had already been a psychotherapist for several years and had some experience in human need. We’re all in need, all in pain, and all fighting battles others can’t see (as one meme that I see often puts it). The trick is to alleviate pain in spite of the perceived worth of the one in pain, the perceived view of whether they deserve it, their ability to express gratitude (indeed in spite of whatever response the recipient gives – it may not be gracious according to your definition), their skin color, their fill-in-any-reason you think you have to think they are unworthy.

Deuteronomy 15:11, There are always poor and needy among us. This is used to excuse any attempt to eradicate poverty as doomed to failure. And it goes hand in hand with that pickpocket quote. Ram Dass uses the quote as an example of a tool for self-reflection. When we talk about neediness, though – food insecurity, homelessness, psychological need (in whatever form that might take), there’s a block to letting the need of others touch us. What are the excuses for not making eye contact with the person begging (or ranting) on the street? I excuse my own haste with the mantra that I’ve got to get somewhere. I’m historically convinced by those in need to give more than I’m comfortable with (I’m not yet ready to tell myself or anyone else to give until it hurts), so I run off before I can give much of anything. I turn away. When I have my act together in the morning, I shovel change into my pocket so that I can at least give that when asked. But that’s barely sandwich money for someone without a roof. The short answer is to see my last post about voting with compassion.

I’m pretty sure I’m not unique in telling myself a short story to excuse not doing something for another person. Some people in need take all the time and energy you might have to give them. I’ve been on both sides of that equation, and except for the most banal topics, I wouldn’t give anything of myself for fear of being sucked dry, or tell anyone with the tools to help how much pain I was in for fear of being that emotional squid. Can I stop telling those stories?

The problem with trying to discuss this stuff is that I come off as very very preachy. And hypocritical. I’m historically a selfish person with my time, my energy, and my money. But the source of the change I want to see in the world is that compassion I keep talking about. I have privilege in more ways than I can count. In no particular order, my privilege includes the confidence of the middle-aged white male that I am, residence in a country (The Netherlands) which boasts a pretty robust safety net, gainful employment, and savings and a pension. And I’m trying not to be just those things.

With the new year, I can certainly say, again, that I’ll give more, take less, volunteer at the food bank and so forth. (Last year I made an effort to volunteer, but my Dutch was too lousy. It’s slightly better now. Need to try again.) And I’m surrounded by people who are both privileged and committed to change. I want to do more to eradicate need. I’m only just starting. There are already leaders – part of this blog experiment is to identify the most effective ways to follow.