Economists are our astrologers. Like the astrologers of old, they prognosticate with reference to undoubtedly real phenomena: exchange and markets and production for them and the motion of stars and planets for the other. Sometimes their investigations increase our knowledge. Astronomy grew because of the astrologers’ need for accurate maps of the heavens and economists occasionally teach us new things, though it seems many economic discoveries are discoveries in the same sense as were Columbus’s travels. Like the astrologers of old, they are trusted by the rulers of this world whose decisions are rarely taken without their advice and approval. Like the astrologers of old they are held to be sages with access to esoteric knowledge. Like the astrologers of old, their pronouncements have the power to radically alter our lives. More and more it seems like the astrologers of old, they have no idea what they’re talking about.
Friday, March 20, 2020
What we all want right now is a return to normal. That makes total sense, but I think it’s partly a mistake. Of course, I want to be able to see my students again. I don’t want to have people avoid getting within six feet of me. I want grocery stores with food in them. I want to see Violeta to get my hair cut. I want to shoot the shit with my colleagues in person. I very much want to go to the gym. I want local stores to open back up and survive. I want people to keep their jobs. I want people not to be sick or be afraid of getting sick. I want people not to die.
A crisis like this, though, can be an inflection point and we shouldn’t come out of it without staying focused on what was wrong with normal and what we shouldn’t return to.
We have a healthcare system that is inadequate to our society’s quotidian needs—let alone those that arise in a pandemic—and that is inaccessible to too many of us.
We’ve become inured to the fact that people live on our streets, in our canyons, under bridges, becoming visibly shocked by this only when we can score a partisan point, but all the while ignoring that these are people with as much dignity as we have, but whom we allow to live in ways we would find too horrible for our pets.
We have an economy that serves the most well off, who are quite happy to accept—that is, demand— the help of government but are unwilling to do anything for society absent their direct benefit. As the phrase has it, they socialize risk and privatize profit. We’ve come to accept that we live for the economy, rather than believing the economy exists to serve all human flourishing.
We’ve internalized the lesson that we are all and always in competition. We’ve created an all-encompassing Hobbesian—or, is it just capitalistic—mindset whereby what matters most is that I have more than enough toilet paper or food or money or space or cars or whatever even if it means that others basic needs go unmet.
We’ve all but killed off any sense of a community, of an us. We complain about social distancing not because we lose the kind of social contact that we need to thrive, but because we can’t do the things we really like to do.
We take no responsibility in either the sense of blame or that of obligation, but instead look to blame and vilify others—Others—and leave everyone else to fend for themselves. After all, no one’s luck is my fault and I pulled myself up by the bootstraps that I myself fashioned out of nothing.
We admire and celebrate the shallowest of celebrities and confuse fame with depth and integrity and wisdom. We treat wealth as if it were virtue.
We confuse our own worth and that of others with what they have.
We engage in politics that is little more than ressentiment. We’re happy enough if we see the right people hurt, even if there is no benefit to us.
Of course, we aren’t all or always like this. I know that, at least sometimes, I am. I hope when this is all over and things return to normal that we can leave those parts of normal behind.
A philosophy should give you some guidance on how to live. I think that’s no longer the universal view among professional philosophers, but I have the luxury of existing on the edge of the profession with the other teaching professors and lecturers and instructors and adjuncts.
In times like these it’s worth asking whether the philosophy by which we live is up to the task. Different philosophies have met that challenge for different people. I’m not going to plop for one particular one here.
But, the consumerism that has driven so much of contemporary life isn’t it.
Sunday, March 15, 2020
In one of the essays he composed in the paralysis that preceded his death, Tony Judt described himself as a conservative because he was a leftist. That has stuck with me since I first read it. His idea was that radical changes are often worst for those at the bottom of society. Those with means can usually weather them. Even in a revolution, they are able to emigrate. Justice can never wait, but in every advance and every seeming progress, we should be aware of what may be lost and who may be harmed.
I think about that partly because we have spent several decades worshiping disruption and innovation as if they were good things and as if those harmed by the new were responsible for not having kept up and now would just have to learn to live in the altered landscape. Learn to code!
I’m thinking about it particularly these days because I think we are on the cusp of the kind of massive disruption that changes everything. If COVID-19 is as bad as the models predict we are going to come out the other side into a very different world as different, I think, as the world of 1920 was to the world of 1914.
If that happens—or even if it doesn’t—those of us who come out relatively unscathed have an obligation to look out for and take care of those who are not well fit for what follows. It may well be a wild ride; we need to make sure everybody gets to the end.