Long train

Many days I don’t write. Partly because I feel confused. I know what’s happening in my little cohort, probably on my street and in my family; I watch a few minutes of CNN at night but can’t stand the sight or sound of Trump; I read the Chronicle in the morning, especially the national and international news; I read the London Review of Books and the NY Review of Books; I am in a couple of online discussion groups.

Around our neighborhood, people are decorating their front yards with “treasure hunts” so that homeschooled kids who get taken for a walk by their exhausted moms and dads can find things to distract them with.

But now 5 weeks have passed and I have become acclimated enough so that when I see a movie on TV in which people are walking down a sidewalk through crowds of people, or gathering together for dinner or on the beach, I feel puzzled: What do they think they’re doing? Oh– that’s from before.

Lifting up and looking a bit farther is hard. Hard to get the brain around. For me, it’s like doing math.

“Back to normal” won’t happen because the virus is among us. Now that Massachusetts is starting to test everyone, they’re finding that 60% of people test positive and — was it 40%? – of those are actually sick. The curve in Massachusetts is not flattening yet. California still can’t test everyone — not enough tests. No explanation of who gets it harder or weaker, except that obesity is a risk factor as is being African American. Children die, too. And there is no treatment and no vaccine.

The shutdown was intended to spare the healthcare system by slowing the spread of the virus. Sweden didn’t do a shutdown, possibly because they trusted the size and competence of their national healthcare system and were willing to risk individual deaths to spare the economy. I am now hearing that at Kaiser, there are extra beds and no crush in the ER. So that’s working. Elective surgeries are being scheduled. But protecting the healthcare system is not the same as protecting people. The shutdown protects people in the sense that if you stay away from someone who has it or is carrying it, you are less likely to get it. But it’s main purpose is to save the healthcare system. We will all get it, eventually, unless there is a vaccine. And about the same time there will be a vaccine, there will be a new virus. We had MERS, SARS, Zika, Ebola — Mother Earth loves life, just not ours all that much more than other kinds, and she’ll keep trying.

The Long Train with Empty Boxcars

The long train wreck goes like this: labor creates value. That’s where it all starts. Any kind of labor — that’s what digs the hole and plants the fruit trees, catches the fish, sews the clothes, raises the pigs, teaches the kids — on up. The difference between beans on a coffee tree and a latte is work. Value abstracted and made concrete becomes money; money gets exchanged for things people need and for more work. So before labor happens, no value happens; it’s just animal life and we’re just more animals.

So right now, some people are working and getting paid. Many, many others are not. They are not working and they’re not getting paid. Since they’re not getting paid, they’re not paying. They’re not paying rent, student loans, health insurance premiums, car payments, mortgages, etc etc. Those boxes have zeroes in them.

Shattuck Avenue in central downtown Berkeley. No traffic. I’ve never seen it this way. The cranes are not moving. Not a soul on the sidewalk. This was about 2 pm on a weekday.

The train travels slowly, pulling its increasingly empty boxcars, passing from the person who gets laid off from work to a bank that can’t collect on mortgages to empty container ships sitting motionless in San Francisco Bay, heading to a global financial crash.This is leaving aside things like the fact that people who have employer- based health insurance and lose their jobs and lose their insurance and can’t get healthcare so they’re sick in the midst of all this, sick with things other than COVID-19 — cancer, heart attacks, depression. You can see the economy moving slower and slower, with less and less money in circulation, as people eat up any savings they have and go broke, and the unemployment fund runs out, and the businesses that used to hire are wiped out and can’t start up again: the long-term effect of that — and there goes a choo choo train that pulling an increasing number of empty cars as it hurtles across the landscape.

If I make $15 an hour as a barista and bring home $300 -$600 per week and suddenly don’t have that, the whole chain that starts with my work serving coffee, for which I am paid, to me paying my student loans, credit cards, rent, car insurance, and taxes gets filled with zeroes. I just read that right now 90% of the world economy is under lockdown. There is so little oil being used that oil producing countries are actually paying to store it somewhere.

I put gas in Gabi’s car some time in early March — or maybe late February — and I’ve still got half a tank.

How does this compare with the 2008 financial crisis, that made such big news? The 2008 global financial crisis developed out of banks cynically pushing sub-prime loans to collect as many payments as they could before the borrowers hit the variable interest rate walls — 3 or 4 years out, when low interest rates suddenly skyrocketed up to 15 – 18%; then the banks smilingly went and captured whatever collateral there was to get, except that by then whole neighborhoods were one foreclosure after another and instead of having some virtually free real estate in their clutches the banks had a lot of worthless deteriorating junk. Then they were in trouble, and since they were all eating out of each other’s troughs, it became a global crash. At that point the fed rushed in and bailed out not the homeowners but the banks, only one of which – Lehman Brothers — was not “too big to fail.” That was under Obama.

Countrywide, wasn’t it, the original dreamer-upper of sub-prime loans? I actually sat on a plane next to a young girl who said her father had been the president of Countrywide. She told me this as part of me trying to make sense of why a pretty blond Los Angeles girl would get sent to a Catholic college in Texas — did she have to get out of town? She told me she was going there because her father wanted her to — and from that, she told me who he was. She was a bit embarrassed but also a bit proud that he was famous enough so that I probably knew who he was. I don’t think she made that up.

Anyway, what’s going on here makes that look like kid stuff. 2008 was about homeowners and banks. Although we had seen Katrina hit Louisiana, we did not directly connect the collapse of our major banks with global warming. This is about global warming, as COVID-19 is only the most recent in the “named” viruses (or other diseases), from SARS to MERS to West Nile to Zika, that scariest of all to me. So even if we survive this, we can be sure that another one will come along soon.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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