Some people I know think the world has gone mad. I agree with them, but not for the reasons they cite.
They think it’s mad for people to be “forced” to wear masks and to stay away from work or loved ones during the pandemic. I think the fact that five billion people across the globe are wearing masks and taking other steps to protect the health and safety of others, is perhaps the most hopeful and merciful sign of global solidarity in a time of crisis that the world has ever witnessed.
They think it’s mad for people to be calling for the abolition of police forces while at the same time “allowing rioters to vandalize” government buildings with impunity. I think that replacing staggeringly expensive militarized police forces that have a long, horrific record of killing innocent people wth impunity, their violence focused notably on BIPOC citizens, the homeless, refugees, immigrants and other mostly defenceless people — replacing them with a throng of community social workers whose mandate is to address the myriad problems (poverty, mental and physical illness, racism and discrimination, obscene inequality of wealth, power and opportunity etc) that underlie the strife in our communities, is a brilliant, radical and long-overdue plan.
But I do agree the world has gone mad. Witness the fact that more money is being spent on military actions and “defence” against supposed “enemies” viz Russia, China and select Middle East nations like Iran and Syria, than has ever been spent on anything, by any group, ever in our history, and those countries are being subjected to cruel sanctions that almost exclusively kill and starve innocent citizens, while (a) Russian and American astronauts and scientific experts collaborate closely on the International Space Station and other globally valuable science programs, and (b) Chinese medical authorities and scientists have worked openly and closely with colleagues all over the world since the start of the pandemic, sequencing and globally sharing the virus’ code way back on January 10th, without which a vaccine might well still be at least a year away. Insane, right?
(Yes, I’m aware that this article already contains several sentences so long as to possibly qualify for the book of world records. I get wordy when I get worked up.)
And there are some things even more insane than that. This will be the first of a series of articles on the most insane things going on in our world. There is a nuclear level of dysfunction and cognitive dissonance in each of them.
My subject for this first article is inequality. On that score, here is what’s insane:
- All the net wealth increase that has occurred across the entire planet since 1980, the production of which is directly responsible for pushing us past the tipping point of climate collapse, has accrued to just the richest 1% of the planet’s citizens. Everyone else has become poorer.
- As a result of tax laws passed by administrations of both the Tweedledum and Tweedledee party in the US since 1960, the richest 0.1% of Americans now pay the lowest average effective tax rate of any income group. The trend is the same in most western countries, though it’s not quite reached that insane level.
- Despite the ghastly economic hardship that has accrued to the vast majority of citizens on the planet as a result of this pandemic, the stock market is at record high levels, and analysts say it is poised to go much higher.
- Throughout the pandemic, which would have resulted in the foreclosure and eviction of up to 30% of renters in many countries had it not been for rent and eviction freezes and emergency payments to renters and mortgagors by governments, the real estate market has been especially hot throughout the pandemic, with average prices in many areas rising 20-40% since it started. In some communities fewer than 20% of those working in the community had the income to afford to buy or rent in that community, and that was before the pandemic began.
- Recent public offerings of companies like Airbnb, which has never turned a profit and has seen its revenues devastated by the pandemic, have been priced at more than twice the expected offering price, and been oversubscribed.
Now that’s mad. You have the richest 1%, who combined have more income than the remaining 99%, with so much money pouring in that they’ll dump it into ridiculously overpriced stocks, real estate and IPOs — anywhere there is at least some prospect of it at least holding its value. They will never need it. They don’t know what to do with it all. And governments desperate to try to keep that wealth in the country are proposing even more tax cuts to the ultra-rich to encourage them t0 do so.
For the rest of us, it’s alms time. The word comes from the Greek word for pity, and we’re used to using it in reference to meagre provisions for the destitute, the ill, refugees, and the homeless. But what we have now is an alms-based economy. Those desperately needing money for medical care to stay alive or to address incapacitating health problems are literally begging on YouFundMe and other sites that were set up purportedly for raising venture capital for new enterprises. The small cheques sent to many (and in some areas, most) families during the pandemic are, let’s face it, charity, alms for the poor who can’t make it any other way. And even then, many governments are dithering on whether such alms for the majority of the population are “affordable”. In many western nations, close to 20% of children live in families below the poverty line, dependent on food stamps, school meal programs and other “handouts” that can disappear overnight.
And the citizens aren’t the only ones who’s been left begging. The mainstream media have reached the level of insolvency, despite their billionaire owners, that they’ve all had to erect paywalls of one kind or another that prevent many from even reading the news about how bad the situation has become. A paywall is the equivalent of a pay toilet — a charge for an absolutely essential service. A charge that many now cannot afford.
For many citizens now, charities and foundations begging for money constitute the largest portion of what they get in their mailbox (physical and email). Most of them provide what should be considered essential (health, education, environmental protection, and public advocacy) services.
Of course, the big corporations that back Tweedledum and Tweedledee don’t have to, exactly, beg. They get the money they need to keep their share value from collapsing buried in omnibus bills with other pork, kickbacks and “subsidies”. Corporate welfare for the vast enterprises of the 1% has been around since even before Reaganomics and Thatcherism. But it’s now a fine art, with the corporate lawyers actually drafting much of the legislation that gives them all the money and tax breaks they want; the politicians don’t have to raise a finger, except to vote “yea”. And it’s a revolving door between the halls of office and the offices of the corporate C-suites of the corporate welfare bums. If you’re part of the 1%, which nowadays with financial mobility reduced to nearly zero means if you’re already rich or are the child or spouse of someone who is, you really can’t lose. If you’re not in that elite number, you soon learn that “others need not apply”.
This is insane. It’s embarrassing. It’s unsustainable. It’s in the process of destroying our ecosystems and rendering much of the world unfit for human (or other) habitation. The rich know it — they’ve already acquired all the good safe haven properties in New Zealand, Hawai’i and other places that may escape the worst of growing ecological and economic collapse. Now they’re just trading them with each other for profit, pushing the prices up even higher.
And the rest of us, feeling justifiably helpless and hopeless about what to do, can only watch as it all starts to spring apart. The nature of complex systems, as I’ve repeated ad nauseam, is to self-perpetuate and to resist change until they become so dysfunctional they utterly collapse. The alms economy is very far along that road. Better keep walking that tightrope, because they’ve taken away the net below.
When scientists study mice in terribly overcrowded, unsustainable conditions, they notice that the mice inevitably go crazy. They kill each other. They retreat into immobility and allow themselves to die of starvation. They eat their own young. Normally generous and even altruistic, when the system is so haywire that normal behaviours no longer make sense, they stop sharing and instead hoard. No one to blame for this; it’s how complex systems work. Sometimes collapse is the fastest route back to sustainable equilibrium, nature’s last resort.
We’re no different from the mice. Look out, they’re coming for your cheese.
More on Tweeledum and Tweedledee in Part Two, coming up soon.