A Changed World

The US before the pandemic was unfair, greedy, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and cruel. When all this is over — when the virus has been tamed and we can once again go outside without wearing masks — will our world look the same? I hope not. So much can be done to improve our lives that it seems like a waste of resources to spend it stymieing people here, just so citizens who have too much money can have more of it.

Here, then, are solutions we need to consider if we wish for our future to be more utopian than dystopian.

  • Overhaul, fully staff, and fully fund public resources for the poor

We tend to shit on poor people in this country. The budget for social programs are often underfunded and understaffed, and each one has to be applied to separately. Then, to continue getting benefits, you must fit certain criteria and perform certain actions, some of which are onerous and might actually hinder your recovery, such as applying for three jobs a week or doing a work-approved activity (luckily suspended during the pandemic), regardless of whether or not your field has jobs available and at a comparable or higher pay rate. At one point, I received too much money from the government stimulus to continue getting food assistance, even though the boost (so far) was temporary. Health insurance, fortunately, continued to cover me for free.

Why not integrate all of these agencies so that one application is sent to all the resources we might need, with a smooth transition between local, state, and federal agencies? Why not make the payments automatic until you can find work again? Poor people tend to be much harder workers than the rich (who don’t need to work to live), and rather than think of how much money we’re losing on the few people who only wish to mooch off the government, we should increase the amount that everyone receives, especially since the most vulnerable citizens to layoffs tend to also be the most likely to be living paycheck-to-paycheck. 

I recommend having a base amount that will pay for most essentials in the area where each of us lives and then adding a percentage of money on top of that. Speaking of which…

  • Pay a universal wage and/or tie the minimum wage to cost of living

The more important of these two is the universal wage, since that will allow people to quit jobs more easily that mistreat employees without having to worry about financial ramifications. Imagine how just a society we’d have if employees held most of the power instead of employers? We wouldn’t need unions; we’d have something better (though unions still would be useful for organizational purposes). Employers would have to address employees’ concerns or risk losing their workforce. And employees would work at jobs that make them happy, regardless of how much or how little they pay. You can see why this hasn’t been passed yet, can’t you? Think of who would stand to lose the most if forced to be ethical all the time. Except that they wouldn’t. Companies would have more loyal employees if they came for the work rather than the paycheck, and it would foster greater work environments for everyone.

But what about people who don’t want to work? Well, is that the only way society can be supported? In times past, the rich were allowed the most amount of leisure, and yet many of them contributed to the arts and sciences. Even if all they’re doing is spending money, surely that benefits businesses, right?

As for minimum wage, even the best minimum wage laws only tie wages to inflation, when they should be tied to cost of living. That would transform minimum wage to an actual living wage.

  • Separate health insurance from work and make it not-for-profit

Add a public option. Taxes pay for health insurance. It’s free or low-cost. If a variety of plans are offered, paid plans only charge for extra features which are unnecessary for maintaining health. Dental, medical, and eye should be lumped together. It makes no sense to separate dental and medical. Eye care should cover glasses and contacts, not just fittings. Fitting fees for contacts should be abolished.

  • Tax passive income more than active income

Active income rewards work that (hopefully) helps society function. Passive income rewards people for making money. It requires no effort, and the more money you have, the more money you’ll make. On the other hand, interest rates in banks should be better than they are now for normal middle-class families. Those savings tend to get used for improving quality of life, rather than being hoarded or spent on a fancy new toy.

  • Outlaw billionaires and cap CEO pay at 10x the lowest-paid employee’s wages

Billionaires shouldn’t exist. Someone that makes $1 billion a year makes a thousand times what someone making $1 million makes. No one needs that kind of money, and no one can make that kind of money on salary. Plus, hoarding money at the top effectively takes it out of the market. Spreading it among people who only have enough to buy essentials makes it more likely that it’ll re-enter the economy.

As for capping CEO pay, if your lowest paid employee has to go on food assistance but you can buy a fleet of helicopters (and be rewarded for gross incompetence with a raise), you’re making too much and they’re making too little. Ten times $30,000 is $300,000, which should be plenty for anyone. Ego and the pursuit of status is the only reason why these exorbitant salaries exist in the first place.

  • Hold everyone accountable, ESPECIALLY the powerful

One of the major missteps of the Obama administration was not aggressively prosecuting the banks that caused the 2008 economic collapse. They also didn’t prosecute the former administration for war crimes (though their drone strikes might’ve fallen under the same umbrella — see this article).

Fixed fines tend to harm the poor more than the rich for the same crime. Being fined a percentage of your paycheck (person) or net worth (companies) would be a more equitable solution, though possibly impossible to enforce. Or wave fines in favor of community service. Make the punishment benefit our quality of life, not line the pockets of the “haves” with money from the “have-nots.”

  • Prisons should be for rehabilitation

Guess what they’re for now? Punishment often leads to prisoner abuse, but if the focus is on rehabilitating the prisoner, rather than punishing them, that might lead to less of an us-versus-them mentality among the guards, and achieve better results when they are released. And if they’re too dangerous to ever be released, have the parole board decide that, not mandatory prison sentences. Finally, like healthcare, prisons shouldn’t be a for-profit business.

  • We need to be proactive instead of reactive, cooperative instead of competitive, collective instead of individualistic

We’ve known about the climate crisis for decades, yet each year we don’t address it, the solution becomes more expensive, and the damage wrought by longer dry seasons (wildfires), warmer waters (bigger hurricanes), acidic oceans (loss of life), and other disasters becomes more costly. Like a disease, the cheapest and best approach was to treat it early, or not get it at all. Instead, we’ve stuck our fingers in our ears, stuck our heads in the sand, and hoped it’d go away. Instead, the monster keeps getting bigger and meaner. And closer.

Economic health is tied to environmental health is tied to personal health. Everything we can do that gives us better and more fulfilling lives, everything that improves the environment, everything that shares the wealth with others, everything that’s cooperative and not competitive, everything that includes all of us and not just a select few, matches our potential to our reality. Imagine if we hadn’t kept women out of the workforce for decades, or hadn’t kept people in chains for centuries? Imagine if we’d passed stronger maternity and paternity laws so that men and women could take years out of their jobs to care for their children, rather than weeks or months? Imagine if we had more Katherine Johnsons or Dean Dixons? Or more Alice Guy-Blachés, Agnes Vardas, or Kathryn Bigelows?

The irony of individualism is that in order for it to work, we need to have each other’s back. No one person can hoard the common good for themselves. It must be shared equally among all.

Connections

I was reading an excellent post by Sheila O’Malley on Before Sunrise (which I found in a link on her post celebrating Richard Linklater’s birthday today) when she revealed a detail I’d never noticed before (and I say this as someone who’s seen the movie more than 10 times. The only movie I’ve seen more times is Amadeus). This detail is that Céline and Jesse meet and start their walk on June 16 — Bloomsday, when a young James Joyce went on a walk with Nora Barnacle, his future wife and muse (it’s also the day — June 16, 1904 — when the whole of Ulysses takes place). To clarify, June 16 is the day Céline and Jesse met on the train, June 17 is when they went their separate ways. And then I realized something.

As some long-time readers know, I lived in Japan for several years. Notice the dates in that linked entry. I took off on June 15. I landed in Japan on June 16. My first full day there was June 17. Had I left a year earlier, I would’ve arrived exactly 100 years after James and Nora went on that fateful walk.

The only difference between the June 16 events listed above and my own is that mine didn’t involve falling in love with a woman. It involved falling in love with a country. More than that, those three years witnessed a transformation in how I viewed myself, others, the US, and the world. To quote O’Malley (who quotes Joyce), I “stopped living ‘in fragments,'” and if I feel somewhat fragmented now, it’s only because my connections have weakened over time.

Musical Tastes and the Titanic

After I moved out of my parents’ house (for the final time), my dad told me he’d send me everything I owned when I turned 40. Luckily for me, he waited an extra year.

One of the fascinations of receiving these items (mostly movies and music) is to see what I was into at an earlier age that seems like a mistake now.

For example, Celine Dion.

Now, I’m not here to bash Dion. She has a great voice, but despite being far from my favorite singer in high school and college, I bought three of her albums: The Colour of My Love, Falling into You, and Let’s Talk About Love. Excluding classical music recordings, the only other artist who I bought as many or more CDs from is the Dixie Chicks (who I still like better than Celine Dion). True, Falling into You won a bunch of Grammies, including best album (beating out, among others, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness — a better and more ambitious offering by Smashing Pumpkins), and it’s my favorite album of hers that I own, but it also contains my least favorite song by her (or by any artist, for that matter): the pure schlock “Because You Loved Me,” complete with awful melody, horrible orchestration, and lyrics that are two steps below the worst of Hallmark card greetings. I’ll be honest, I only bought Let’s Talk About Love because of the song “My Heart Will Go On.” Though about as well-written as, well, a James Cameron movie, the merging of melody and vocals make this song just about perfect in its emotional impact.

I haven’t seen Titanic since it came out in theaters, and I ended up seeing it late in its run (in 1998, but before the Oscars). I enjoyed it, but I was a much younger, more inexperienced person back then, which is not to discount my thoughts on the film, just to point out that — like all those albums I bought when younger — my tastes since then have changed. Would I enjoy it as much if I saw it now? Who knows?

I saw it with my friend and her then-boyfriend (now ex-boyfriend). The boyfriend didn’t want to be there, and said disparaging comments in not the softest voice as the ship was sinking, including a highly sarcastic, “That’s so sad,” at the emotional climax of the film, when all of us in the theater wanted to focus on our tears and not on thoughts of physical violence. Plus, I had to pee with so much gushing water on screen, and so missed part of the movie –as did many in the audience. Listening to the song again made me want to see the movie again, which then made me wonder when the last Titanic survivor died, which led to me to Wikipedia articles of the last survivors of other maritime disasters (the Lusitania, the Empress of Ireland, the General Slocum). And then I remembered that I used to love reading about the survivors of these disasters as a kid. Well, okay, I was more interested in the disasters themselves, but I was six when they discovered the Titanic on the seabed floor, and I remember watching A Night to Remember on TV (and reading the book when a bit older), so this fascination had its roots in then-current events.

In this time of quarantine, I feel we could learn several lessons from these past tragedies. First, so many people died on the Titanic because they weren’t prepared for a disaster. There were too few lifeboats and the crew was inexperienced in loading them. Second, most of the people who died were in steerage, so as in most catastrophes, the poor got hit hardest. Finally, despite the massive loss of life on all these ships (and steamboat, in the case of the General Slocum), there were survivors. Often they were scarred by their experiences (if they were old enough to remember them) and kept those scars all their lives, but the fact is that they grew up and had lives of their own for all those people who didn’t.