Thursday, April 09, 2020

"It's Money that Matters!"

I shop at a grocery store on "my" side of the freeway, one that has attracted many shoppers from the "rich" side of the freeway.  The same shoppers who feared the bandits and rapists and muggers in the parking lot of that store when it opened a few years ago (the store provided intense security theater to assuage their fears) now shop at the pick up side (the cars are seldom lower in value than Lexus, and often are Mercedes or Jaguar).  Eh, it's a big city.

There is a Target at the shopping mall immediately across the freeway and about half-a-mile down the road.  It carries clothing and offers a full grocery store and pharmacy.  I never go there, but it's across the freeway from me, the grocery store I use is literally within walking distance of my house.

Back when stories of toilet paper shortages were just hitting the news, I went to "my" store and noted plenty of toilet paper (I didn't need any, I didn't care, but I'd seen the news reports).  Three days later I was back, and the paper shelves (toilet, towels, even serving dishes, IIRC) were bare.  Panic had struck long before the county told us to shelter in place.  Weeks before, in fact.  Baking ingredients went soon thereafter.  Suddenly everyone within reach of that store was a home baker who needed whatever ingredients the store had (almond flour?  I use it for speciality goods.  I'm convinced people saw "flour" and figured it was a wheat substitute, which it distinctly isn't.).  Those shelves are still bare.

I've since found toilet paper, yeast, and flour, at the Target at the shopping mall.  Not much, granted, but more items like that (and cleansers, too) than at "my" store.  I'm convinced its because the people who shop that Target are not rich (most of the neigbhorhoods across the freeway from me are some of the highest dollar areas in the city, which is to say in the country) and don't hoard because a) they can't afford to, and b) it doesn't occur to them.

People who have a lot, and who define themselves by what they have (I just heard a fascinating lecture about how "medieval" Europeans identified themselves by their function in society.  It's a modern conceit that we identify by how much $$$ we have, and what we own.), live in almost constant dread of losing it (so when the store I shop at opened on my side of the freeway, people drawn to if from the other side feared for their possessions when they crossed the invisible line).  The store was emptied of toilet paper and paper towels and hand sanitizer and even chicken parts (at one point) because so many people defined themselves by what they had, and they feared losing that to consumption, and not being able to replace it at will (what good is money if it can't buy you anything?).  All of which is a long way around to coming back to the tweet, above.  The first part, not the last and prominent part.  We'll get to that, too.

The first part, which disparages closing society so society can be saved.  It's a fair question which "solution" destroys the village in order to save it, but it's only a fair question if you consider the economic questions equivalent to the physical and moral ones.  No society, as Neibuhr pointed out in the '30's, can ask its members to sacrifice all for a moral principal.  That is, you may consider it your moral imperative to die for your beliefs.  Can you ask that sacrifice of, say, your family?  It takes a very particular view of family to say they must be left without you (especially young children) and suffer your loss (emotionally, financially, how many ways?) so you can make a point.  Extend that argument to society, and you see the point rather quickly.

OTOH, we are asking people to die for our sake, even if we aren't doing it for the sake of the economy.  Doctors, nurses, EMT's, police, even grocery store clerks (three at "my" store have been diagnosed with covid-19) are at risk so we can live our lives; eat; even rely on medical care to save us when we get sick.  We're doing that much without, perhaps (and as a society, almost certainly, unless we make massive changes when all is said and done.  Who is more valuable to us?  Grocery store clerks and EMTs?  Or CEO's and celebrities?), thinking about it.  The argument in that tweet says we need to exploit people more, for the sake of money.

"I think the river is a great, brown god," Eliot wrote.  I've re-written him more than once, to say the market is a great green god.  That is how we live:  money matters, because money defines us.  We are who we are because of what we have, and the most important thing we have is money.  When William Barr prates about "freedom," he means the freedom to spend money.  But someone has to be there to receive that money.  I can return to the bars and restaurants and movie theaters, but the wait staff there have to interact with hundreds, not just me.  I can go back to the mall, but the clerks there have to associate with hundreds, not just me.  I am not free to spend money unless someone is there to take my money.  When anyone says the economy must be restarted, they mean people need to go back to making life comfortable for us, the ones with money.  Sure, they get money, too; but they get a pittance, what trickles down from the horse after it gets the oats.  We ride the horse.  We ride on their backs.  Our money makes us matter.  They don't. Even their sacrifice doesn't.  It's nothing more than the necessary offering to the great green god, which rewards the rest of us.

The few.  The proud.  The indifferent.

We aren't indifferent, of course; but arguments like that tweet, like two of those tweets, are.  They are arguments of selfishness.  Society must return to "normal" so those people can recover their status, their place, their identity.  They complain because they fear what they will be if they lose money, if they lose the ability to spend their money and buy goods and services that make them powerful.  They don't care about people, about the masses who are, yes, unemployed by this nightmare; or the people struggling to help and putting themselves literally in harm's way so we can stock our refrigerators or get health care our insurance premiums have already paid for.

When we do return to normal, let us refuse normal.  Let us defy old ways of valuing people by their bank accounts, of valuing worth by money.  Why is the rich man more honored than the grocery clerk?  Why is the CEO more honored than the EMT?  Who, in the last analysis, is truly more important to society, to us, to we the people?

I hope we find out.

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