The Old Year in Review

I cannot remember another year as awful as 2020. True, I’ve experienced moments that rivaled the worst of 2020 (like when my grandmother and dog died within a month of each other), but collectively, 2020 sucked.

I’ve been out of work since March 13, when movie theaters closed in Seattle. While I’ve gone to the store (occasionally) or visited others after mutually quarantining (rarely), I’ve spent most of my time in my apartment, which isn’t great for mental health, but is somewhat helped by living with my girlfriend, possessing a cell phone, and owning a cat.

Having all this free time meant I could finally work uninterrupted hours on my writing projects and voice acting career, but “could” is different than “would.” I should’ve remembered the last time I was stuck at home. I’d just graduated from college and lived with my parents, since I had nothing else lined up. I tried to write magazine submissions and my first novel with no social life, which went about as well as you think it would — though time and circumstances were different (9/11 happened several months later, and smart phones weren’t a thing).

As this pandemic continues, I’ve gradually been learning to put my mental health first and to stop feeling guilty for not filling my days with endless productivity. Of the two types of work I’m focusing on, voiceover is the more physically demanding, writing the more mentally challenging.

But, to be successful at each, I have to ignore any monetary rewards attached to them, not because I don’t want to earn money putting my talents to work, but because focusing on the monetary aspect tends to strangle the creative aspect. Doing creative work for money causes me to fall into a depression, particularly during gloomy Seattle winters. Writing for any reason other than that I love writing, or doing voice acting for any reason other than that I love voice acting, ends up being counterproductive.

Speaking of doing things for money, I don’t miss work. What I miss is hanging out with my coworkers and being able to go to live events and movies. If universal basic income became a reality, artists, house spouses, and part-time workers would finally be able to put time and energy into their passions, rather than having that time and energy drained in working jobs for the “privilege” of living paycheck-to-paycheck. We’d finally get paid for the work we do, not how much money we generate. And for those people whose jobs’ only purpose is to make money, perhaps we could put that money to better use by taking it out of their pockets and putting it back into their communities.

Imagine a world where no one has to worry about not making enough money to eat. To own property. To buy clothes. To have healthcare. To pay the bills. Civilizations were formed because it was easier to band together for protection than to go at it alone. Isn’t it time they fulfill this promise and protect us from want?

Here’s hoping that when the world opens up again, we’ll be ready to demand a more perfect one.

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.

Lessons from George Orwell

Note: Started this draft last year, but the post still holds true.

George Orwell (1903-1950) wrote classics that people still read. And in no other year than this one (except for the one that makes up its title) might Nineteen Eighty-Four be considered more relevant reading. Since Orwell witnessed imperialism in then-Burma as part of the Indian Imperial Police and fought Fascism in Spain, he was particularly clear-eyed in his assessment of what a dystopian future would look like under an authoritarian regime.

His was not the first book to tackle this issue. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, which was banned in 1921 in the former USSR but was subsequently published abroad, dealt with a similar subject, though Orwell’s world was not, as Zamyatin’s book was, as insider’s account of the Soviet Union with a nod toward the future, but rather a model that built itself upon all the totalitarian movements of the 20th century. Brave New World came out in 1932, and so also precedes Nineteen Eighty-Four, though its focus is more on sociological forces than political ones.

What Orwell showed more clearly than the other two novels is how a totalitarian regime could keep power forever. In essence, it boils down to control.

1.) Control the past

If the past is constantly altered so that its original form only exists in memory, and memories can be questioned, then the past never existed, or only existed as those in power wish it to exist. It also means that any time outside of the present reality never existed.

2.) Control facts

If you can make people believe that “two and two is five”, then facts no longer exist, and people will believe whatever you say. Winston, the protagonist of the novel, states, “There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” Except that holding onto truth makes you mad in the eyes of the state.

3.) Control emotions

People in this book are admonished if they show emotion, unless it’s anger or rage.

4.) Control relationships

Children are encouraged to spy on their parents. Men and women are only to have sex in order to procreate, and cannot enjoy it. Married couples are placed together based on incompatibility.

5.) Control society

People are put into Upper and Lower Parties. Beneath them are the proles. Each group is controlled in different ways:

The proles: “To keep them in control was not difficult. A few agents of the Thought Police moved always among them, spreading false rumors and marking down and eliminating the few individuals who were judged capable of becoming dangerous, but no attempt was made to indoctrinate them with the ideology of the party. All that was required of them was a primitive patriotism which could be appealed to whenever it was necessary to make them accept longer working hours or shorter rations.” (p. 62)

The Lower Party is controlled with telescreens, Hate Week, and the Thought Police.

The Upper Party is controlled by their anger against the other, stoked by a continuous state of war with the other world powers.

This is the point when my rough draft ends. It lacks an ending, but what kind of ending can I provide? Orwell isn’t very hopeful when it comes to overthrowing such a regime, and the only thing that can give us hope is that no authoritarian regime in history has lasted forever. The tragedy is that they last at all.