Archives for category: United States
Before I get into this, I’m aware that what I’m about to say may fall into the categories of both virtue signalling and performative anti-racism.

Black-Lives-Matter-Black-Sabbath-sm

A Facebook friend with whom I have little in common politically responded to this user pic with the rather reductive question ‘Slogan or movement?’ I’m not sure what my answer is. (And I’ll be honest – I saw a picture of a rock star wearing a shirt with this design. It’s in the style of the cover a Black Sabbath album. Part of my choice of image is sheer amusement at the conflation.) Starting with the slogan, though, there’s a meme going around which posits a person telling their partner about the pain they’re experiencing. The partner responds with something like, ‘Many people feel pain.’ True, but hurtful. This reflects how I feel about the common responses to the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ – Yes, all lives, but it’s black people being killed by white cops on the street, in their own homes by cops with no-knock warrants to arrest someone already in custody, while playing in the local park with a toy, while walking home with a bag of skittles. So for those folks and so many more like them, I say Black Lives Matter.

In our societies, this is how the phrase has been used since Trayvon Martin was brutally killed and his killer, who stalked the boy even when told to stand down, acquitted.
Systemic racism has been a boot on the neck of people of color since well before Reconstruction. And I know there are far better essays by people much better read and more experienced than I am on the subject. Repeating the phrase is a way of showing that I no longer want to operate in society in a way that doesn’t move us from racism to anti-racism. I want to be on the side of making this better, not on the side of complacency.
Is professing the phrase a precondition for action? I don’t know, but we don’t get to the next level of this society on word or faith alone. By standing up, I’m trying in a small way to say and be on the side of the repressed. It’s in that middle ground between speaking the platitude and doing the work. I know that I’m blessed as a cis-presenting white male, I’ve been the subject of very little discrimination. It’s well past the point that those who step or live outside of that is subject to repression and discrimination, and worse. I can, at this point, only imagine what it is like in these times to be Black and Trans, for example.
When I say that Black Lives Matter, I speak out that the rights to life and to simple self determination do matter and that the right to be treated equally under the law matters, and that the right to be judged as a person and not a representative of a group of people with the same skin color matters, and that the right to the same education as white peers matters, and that there is a right not to be mocked by society for two weeks every year matters, and that  the claim of tradition is no basis for being hateful.

 

Karl Marx was being somewhat reductionist when he said that history repeats itself, first and tragedy, then as farce. And I won’t be the first person to suggest that the Corvid-19 tragedy in the US is a repeat of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The earlier was (for those of us in the West) a great tragedy, and what’s affecting us now surely isn’t farce – it’s a tragedy on a larger, faster scale. One of the reasons it’s such a tragedy is that many people learned from the AIDS crisis, President Trump just isn’t one of them.

This probably isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned on this blog the travesty of the Reagan administration in not acknowledging the toll AIDS was taking on a couple of communities in the United States, even when it took the life of his friend Rock Hudson. He refused even to name the disease until well into his second term. That the hardest hit communities were the gays and the intravenous drug users might have had something to do with this. I initially wrote that Reagan was handily reelected even with ACT-UP protests in the capital, but ACT-UP wasn’t formed until 1987. As long as the communities were demonized, though, there was no need to worry. It didn’t hurt Reagan that his opponent in ‘84 was the relatively uncharismatic Walter Mondale.

But the fact is that over the first 20 years of the epidemic, 774,467 people in the US were diagnosed with HIV. 448,060 died of its related ailments. (HIV is still the cause of approximately 1 million deaths per year, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.)

The disease wasn’t discussed in US political circles, except in reference to the innocent victims. Remember the Ryan White Act? Innocent meaning not gay, not a drug user. Comics used it as a punch line. Sometimes the entertainment industry stepped up (Philadelphia), generally not. But eventually there was movement in the research and the disease became less of a death sentence, at least in the West. Africa? Still a different story. Standard Precautions also evolved out of the AIDS epidemic. Previously there had been precautions associated with whatever diagnosed illness the patient presented with. First Universal Precautions (1986 or so), which referred specifically to blood and blood-related bodily fluids, and then Standard Precautions superseded those with a set of practices for all those who had patient (and especially body fluid) contact and weren’t dependent on the patient presenting symptoms. When I was working in healthcare in the 90s (as a secretary in home health for a major HMO), I had to be familiar with these, even though it wasn’t in my daily routine to practice them.

Read that WHO doc on standard precautions, or this one from the CDC. That’s okay. I’ll wait.

Did you note the bits about cough safety and hand washing? Yeah, those ring bells because we’re coughing into our elbows now and washing our hands eighteen times a day. What about PPE, sterilization, and infection prevention? Yeah. We’ve had rules in place about those things for decades.

Which brings us to the current repetition.

We know just about when this outbreak came to the US. And we’ve listened to the president and his cohort lie, cheat, steal, brag, and generally screw over those most in need: those suffering from this dreadful flu and the health professionals doing their utmost to help those patients. If the AIDS crisis was itself a tragedy, what can we say about the sheer numbers of this pandemic and the madness of the federal response?

In United States of America, from Jan 20 to 2:00am CEST, 15 April 2020, there have been 578,268 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 23,476 deaths. (https://covid19.who.int/region/amro/country/us)

I’m not really sure how to address this. In less than a week, we will see the number of cases of COVID-19 in the US in three months exceed the number of AIDS cases recorded in 20 years. And we knew how to prevent the outbreak, or at least lessen its effects, and we knew what was needed to safely take care of those suffering. (In fairness, we knew how to do those things relatively early on in the AIDS crisis, too.) And we didn’t. Not only were we as a nation unable to meet this crisis in a unified way, we were undermined from the outset by the avarice of those who should have been setting sane policy.

In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag discusses the different ways in which tuberculosis and cancer were treated by the medical profession and by family members of those suffering those diseases. TB had an odd romance about it, but in both cases, even the mention of the disease was thought to add another burden to the patient. One of several dozen key points she makes is that, ‘All this lying to and by cancer patients is a measure of how much harder it has become in advanced industrial societies to come to terms with death. (Ch. 1)’

This speaks volumes to how much we as a society really want to believe that getting back to normal, opening the markets, and so forth is preferable to addressing the massive numbers of suffering on our doorsteps. I’ll be honest, I’ve only finished two chapters of Illness and haven’t gotten to the second volume, AIDS and Its Metaphors. But I think Sontag will have a lot to say that speaks to our current condition.

The main reason I’m bringing Sontag’s points into this discussion is that we don’t have the time to be either romantic or blithely quiet about COVID-19. We should be studying and learning and financing the science and the health to get to the other side of this. And doing the work to protect one another. But instead we have the anti-science coming out of the White House and folks like the protesters in Michigan demanding society be reopened so they can shop and have their hair done.

I grieve.

My best beloved reads the Economist every week, and occasionally I’ll read an article or two as well. She’s noted to me that periodicals like the Economist, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal are written for people with an interest in the proliferation of money. As such they’re (historically) neither right-wing nor left-wing. Save for the elephant in the room, of course.

I was rereading a column from last June from the Economist’s ‘Bartleby Blog’. On the web site, this blog is subtitled ‘Thoughts on management and the world of work, in the spirit of the “scrivener” of Herman Melville’s 1853 novel’. This alone is problematic for a number of reasons:

  • Bartleby the Scrivener is a short story, not a novel.
  • The titular character of Bartleby the Scrivener would rather starve than work. His catch phrase is ‘I would prefer not to.’ He utters this phrase whenever his boss or others ask him to do something.
  • It seems that whoever named the blog took note of Bartleby’s initial burst of hard work, not the fact that by the end of the story, he’s been evicted, arrested, and starves in the Tombs, Manhattan’s municipal jail.

With all of this in mind, I point you to the June 29th edition of the blog in which the writer discusses the differences between American and European working hours and vacation habits.

First point: In 1979, the average worker in the US and Europe put in about 38.2 hours per week. Later measurements diverge. By 2000, the US worker was putting in 39.4 hours. This fell to 38.6 hours in 2016.

Second point: European and US workers differ in the amount of holiday they take. Rather than looking at the number of days off each culture has, the blogger points out that over the course of a year, Americans average 34 hours per week, the French 28 hours and the Germans 26.

Third point: The wealthy in the US work longer hours, but still tend to work in daylight as opposed to cleaners and food delivery people who mostly work at night.

Why the differences? Taxation? Possibly. But the key point is made in the passive voice: ‘Another potential explanation is that a decline in trade union membership has weakened American workers’ bargaining power. Except that unionization rates in France and America are not far apart.’

Let’s take a look at that for a moment: What happened to the unions in the US shortly after the 1979 calculation? I’d point to Ronald Reagan’s firing of almost the entire membership of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization rather than bargaining in good faith, given that he had supported the union during his campaign. This act alone signaled the death knell for unions in the United States.

The blogger distinguishes between unionization and policy. What isn’t spoken is how a well unionized country affects policy. Employers in underunionized countries also affect policy. Far more now than they used to. In the US, legislators financed by large employers have succeeded in gutting union power in a variety of areas. And they also succeed in breaking labor laws that protect the rights to unionize. So the question of who shapes policy goes unanswered.

I can’t speak for unionization rates in France, but labor in general speaks louder in Western Europe. Mandated holiday time of at least 20 days per year as a matter of national policy in most EU countries makes a big difference in that average number of hours worked.

Continuing through the blog, we get an assertion that ‘champions of workers’ rights have focused on raising the minimum wage (so far to little avail at the federal level)’. Again, begging the question as to WHY these efforts fail at the federal level. Might it have something to do with who is financing those who set the policy? I have a feeling that it might.

The writer then discusses the longer hours worked by the higher paid than the lower paid in the US. And this class of people discussed: cleaners and food delivery workers? Take a wild guess as to the areas of employment that are the least stable from the employee perspective? And which have unionization efforts stymied by both legal and illegal measures almost before such efforts have begun? Yeah, that would be those classes. It’s not that unionization rates have dropped simply through attrition or that the US minimum wage has stagnated through some kind of Adam Smithian invisible hand of the market. Those with money have made it higher to increase either one to the point of impossibility.

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