In this blog post, I shall make an attempt to analyze and forecast one possible outcome of the current public health and economic crisis we are now confronted with in America. This is not a prediction. Rather, it is a sketch of a possible future for this country. I think we are fast approaching a moment, an inflection point, quite unlike anything we have seen since the Great Depression ninety years ago. I invite thoughtful responses.
Sitting here in North Carolina in comfortable quarantine, it is easy to lose track of time, so I need to remind myself that my current isolation is only five or six weeks old, but will almost certainly last through the summer, perhaps well into the fall or beyond. Already, national unemployment has reached Great Depression levels, and the inevitable wave of business failures and foreclosures has scarcely begun. I believe the short term political consequences are clear. Trump will lose the Presidency, the Democrats will hold the House, and it is increasingly likely that the Democrats will take the Senate. But that, welcome though it will be, is the least of it.
Because we are facing an economic crash brought on by a pandemic, not by financial malpractice or a war, we are experiencing a once in a lifetime thoroughgoing redefinition of our collective socio-economic reality. This is nicely captured by the now ubiquitous phrase “essential workers.” To be sure, the focus of our attention is quite properly on doctors, nurses, EMTs, and the like, all of whom are required to have college degrees of some sort and many of whom are well paid. But suddenly, out of the shadows have emerged supermarket employees, food service deliverers, meatpacking workers, bus drivers, and a host of other low paid, overlooked men and women whose labor turns out to be, as it always has been, absolutely essential to the survival of high paid, college educated post-industrial professionals like me without whose services it turns out the society can actually get along quite well, at least in the near term, while we “shelter in place.”
I have previously observed, somewhat puckishly, that the crisis has abruptly transformed Modern Money Theory from a fringe heresy to unquestioned orthodoxy. Many commentators have recognized that when it comes to combating a pandemic, universal health care is the rankest self-interest, not a nutty European idea made more or less kosher by the farthest left of candidates for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. But I believe we are actually witnessing something dramatically more way out than that, namely the crisis-driven beginnings of the de facto implementation of a guaranteed minimum income. Not a minimum wage, that necessary product of the last great inflection, but a guaranteed minimum income, separate from employment. How to pay for it? The answer is a wealth tax, something unthinkable until now in the political mainstream.
More fundamental still is a rebirth of the idea of a union of the college educated, privileged one-third of the work force and the non-college educated two-thirds. This virus may, at least in the near term, bring back the old now-discredited ideal of solidarity. Is this possible? I do not know. Is it probable? Perhaps not. Could it happen without a titanic struggle? Absolutely not. But is it worth the struggle.