Making Sense

May 10, 2020

by Steve Stofka

65 years ago, the scientist and author Isaac Asimov published a novel “The Naked Sun” (Asimov, 1956 – Wikipedia).  A robot detective investigates a murder on Solaria where the inhabitants rarely have physical contact with each other. They teleconference via holograph TV. How did we become characters in a science fiction novel?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is closed but online visitors can look at some of the collections (MetMuseum, n.d.). Via Zoom, patients can have HIPAA-compliant remote sessions with their therapist (Zoom, 2020). When a friend had a fever, his doctor performed a preliminary screening remotely. Some questions. Tilt your laptop screen down a bit. Hold your head in that position. Good. Open wide and turn slightly to your right. Shine your flashlight down. Hold it there. Turn back toward me. Tilt your head down and to the left. Ok.

The monthly employment was released on Friday. In two months, the unemployment rate went from less than 4%, one of the best in the past century, to 15%, the same level as 1940, when eleven years of a Depression economy had ground the American spirit into a permanent state of disbelief. Industrial production in April was the lowest ever recorded. Annualized auto sales dropped below the levels of the financial crisis in 2008-9.

This country is a world leader in data collection. “Just the facts, ma’am” was an iconic trope of the mid-century TV show “Dragnet.” Because this is the land of so many uncomfortable truths, we shy away from facts. This is the land where boosterism was invented. Thousands of people were drawn to Midwest and western towns by exaggerated claims of opportunity (NEH, n.d.). The taking of land from native peoples, the dismal performance of untrained cavalry in battle against the Plains Indians, and the repeated breaking of treaties were conveniently suffocated by editors and publishers who wanted to appeal to newly arrived European immigrants on the east coast. Those who reported the facts were asked to change their stories to make the settlers and the soldiers look heroic. If Indian people had bought books and magazines, the editors might have portrayed them in a better light.

In the 19th century, most people grew their own food. It was and is hard work. After exhausting the soil many families either worked for a larger farmer or moved to another area and started again. Slavery was a convenient institution for an agricultural economy. Centuries of abuse by Southern landowners were buried in the landfill of American history.

For the next century, scholars in economics, history and social studies will tell the story of this pandemic. High school students will have to remember facts about the pandemic and produce an essay of 250 words for the AP history exam. The people who suffered through the pandemic will be marked by a million graves in cemeteries across the country.  The businesses that faltered and fell will be forgotten.

The economic data produced during this era will become a benchmark for future generations. A record drop in employment, in production, in retail sales, etc. The policies enacted in response to this crisis will certainly influence future generations. Our institutions are shackled by the chains of historical crises.

Former Presidential candidate Andrew Yang ran on a platform of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), a monthly payment to all Americans as a substitute for the dozens of housing, food and education subsidies that clog our bureaucracy and contaminate our politics. His supporters –  the Yang Gang – continue to support this common sense platform. It is simple. It gives people dignity and some control. Mr. Yang could not gain popular traction among Democratic voters. The party thrives on complex bureaucratic programs that require a lot of administrative staff. Simplicity is a long word that many Democratic politicians cannot spell.

Had such a monthly program been in place, a lot of suffering might have been avoided.  The IRS reports that it has sent out stimulus checks to one-third of the population (Keshner, 2020). Are you in the fortunate group who has received the funds? Millions of people are waiting for their stimulus check. Millions of applicants anxiously await their unemployment checks. The state systems are overwhelmed by the number of people applying for benefits. Food banks are reporting even more demand than they experienced during the financial crisis.

We live in a highly developed and educated society, but we respond to crisis with our monkey brains. Each of us has a unique sense of what is fair, and injustice triggers our sense of outrage. Politicians know this. They work hard to control the policy levers. They need us to vote for them. A monthly check to everyone does not secure political loyalty from anyone. Mr. Yang, stop making sense!

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Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

Asimov, I. (1956). The Naked Sun. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Naked_Sun

Keshner, A. (2020, May 8). IRS has paid out over $218 billion in stimulus checks. Retrieved from https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-irs-has-already-paid-out-over-half-the-stimulus-check-money-heres-where-it-went-2020-04-24

Metropolitan Museum of Art. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.metmuseum.org/

National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). (n.d.). Boosterism on the Prairie. Retrieved from https://publications.newberry.org/makebigplans/node/3162

Zoom. (2020, April). Video Conferencing, Web Conferencing, Webinars, Screen Sharing. Retrieved from http://zoom.us/. HIPAA Compliance Document. https://zoom.us/docs/doc/Zoom-hipaa.pdf

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