It’s not every day you read numbers like the following. Covid relief had the following effects: it reduced long-term depression and anxiety by 20%, financial instability by 45%, and food shortages by 40%.
All that should strike you as both especially meaningful and a little sad. Why? Because Covid relief wasn’t meant to solve any of those problems. So while it’s welcome that it’s solving problems it wasn’t meant to, it’s also sad, because, well, it shouldn’t have to be that way.
All of which makes me wonder: maybe Americans just need relief, period. For living in a failed state. Maybe Covid relief should just be made permanent.
Scratch that “maybe.” The economist in me knows it’s wrong, because he also knows that Americans have needed relief — period — from an imploding economy and collapsing society for quite some time. And that giving Americans relief is probably the best way to stop the economy from going on imploding, and society from keeping on collapsing.
What the numbers above give us is a picture of how bleak American life really is, for most normal, working people. Elites don’t get it — they’re busy looking at numbers that are largely meaningless by now, like GDP or stock markets and os on. Hence, Washington and Manhattan have been busy high-fiving each other for decades now — while the middle class became a minority and the American Dream died.
Two checks of not more than a thousand dollars each lifted American living standards dramatically. That is what these numbers tell us. But what they also say is that that happened because American living standards are so abysmally low in the first place. To say that financial instability fell by 45% only raises the question: in the world’s richest country, why should financial instability be a way of life at all? And yet it is — as is the anxiety and depression that inevitably follows, which the eminent economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton conclude have caused an epidemic of “deaths of despair.”
Why do Americans live like poor people? That is the question these numbers raise. They paint a portrait of American life as endemically, chronically, inescapably insecure. Americans are insecure financially — they can never make ends meet. They’re insecure socially — always at risk of plunging further downwards, falling through cracks. That adds up, in the end, to emotional insecurity — the lack of happiness that plagues American life, and the consequent rise in anger, rage, depression, suicide that follows. And all that, ultimately, causes political and social insecurity — a nation in which everyone feels existentially threatened by everyone else, let down by elites, abandoned, betrayed. Americans live a dog-eat-dog life, battling desperately for daily survival — and these grim numbers are stark confirmation of it.
Let me give you some context for these numbers. Upward mobility is all but a distant memory. The only kind of mobility Americans really have these days is downward. There’s no such thing as being middle class, really, anymore — though Americans are too proud to admit it. Everyone, more or less, is part of one gigantic underclass, who are debtors. There are minor distinctions to be made, sure — I have “student debt”, a mortgage, credit card debt, and “medical debt,” while you just have the mortgage and credit card debt. But we are both debtors who will end up owning little to nothing at the end of our lives — neo-serfs, pacified by insta-friends and superhero movies.
50% of all new jobs, roughly, are “low wage service jobs” — the polite way that American economists put half an economy essentially becoming servants: maids, drivers, runners, and so forth. Matching that, about 50% of jobs — probably more, depending on how you count it — don’t even pay enough to live on. Hence, the astonishing spectacle of employees at America’s largest, richest companies — Amazon, Walmart, etc — having to turn to food stamps to make ends meet.
The statistics, though, barely begin to tell the story. Americans are obsessed with money. I don’t mean that in an 80s kind of “greed is good” way. I mean that most Americans are constantly haunted by the anxiety of never having enough money. Just enough to pay the bills. To feed their kids, educate them. To ever own their home. To ever pay off those debts — which seem like a curse, which can never be lifted, because nobody knows the magic spell that’ll undo it.
Americans are always, always worried about money. They live in constant fear of not having enough. Much of the world thinks that’s irrational, and calls Americans greedy. But the truth is subtler than that.
Americans are always worried about money because they have to be. There is not enough to go around. The rich became the super rich became the ultra rich by hoarding all the money. That began in the 1970s, which is when incomes began to stagnate. Real incomes, famously, haven’t risen since then.
Today, that means that Americans are on the receiving end of the following bargain. They have to try to make ends meet on the same income, more or less, as half a century ago. But things like healthcare, education, housing, retirement — all the basics — have gotten astronomically more expensive. Not as in “a little bit” — but as in “hyperinflation.” Americans don’t see it that way, but they should because that’s the simple fact — the prices of basics have risen by thousands of percent, while incomes haven’t budged at all.
That’s why Americans are always worried about money. It doesn’t matter, really, if you’re “middle class,” “working class,” or “poor” — today, those distinctions don’t matter so much in America. They only indicate how much debt you’re allowed to carry, really. But that only leads, often, to a heavier burden. Whatever stratum of society you’re in, your fate is the same, unless you’re one of the ultra rich — you are going to live a life consumed by worrying about money.
Now, while the world doesn’t quite get why Americans worry about money so much (they never have any), Americans, too, don’t get that this is a terrible way to live. Being consumed by the fear, anxiety, and despair of never having enough money is a frightening and haunting thing. It’s called poverty.
Poverty isn’t just some kind of absolute lack — I’m thirsty, I’m hungry. Poverty is also, more accurately, insecurity. I don’t know if I’ll be thirsty tomorrow, hungry tomorrow, the next day, next week. In fact, most people who’ve studied the subject will tell you that long-term insecurity is a far better indicator of poverty than today’s lack of a thing is — because I could have plenty of something today, only to have it taken from me, for good, tomorrow.
America is the world’s first poor rich country for just this reason. I call it that because it feels like a poor country. Not just in the decrepit infrastructure and almost total lack of public spaces or goods. But, more deeply, in people themselves. In their heads, in the ways they act, relate, think, conduct themselves. America’s a country where the average person is always, always desperate for more money, because they know they’ll never have enough. That’s the truest definition of poverty I know. It’s a place where people are deeply insecure.
Where do you see that insecurity in America? The better question is: where don’t you? I’ve talked to you already about the fact that the average American now lives and dies in debt, no matter what “class” they’re in, save the ultra rich — that’s the fundamental kind of insecurity at work, financial insecurity.
But financial insecurity, of course, leads to social insecurity — people don’t feel valued, worth anything. As the social order disintegrates, many retreat into the arms of atavisms — obsessions with a fictional nostalgic past — like fascism. Others, still, find more and more shallow escape valves, to provide themselves some morsel of security and worth — the disposable digital trash culture of Instagram and Tinder and so forth.
Social and cultural insecurity create these terrible backlashes which are the scourges of modernity — fascism, extremism, fanaticism. It’s not so hard to see why. If your world constantly feels like it’s falling apart, you are going to need someone to blame — and someone to save you, too. Americans’ world does seem always to be falling apart. Hence, the explosion in fundamentalist religion, which perfectly mirrors the collapse of the middle class. The rise of conspiracy theories as bizarre and demented as QAnon. Americans need someone to blame — at least a kind of American does. Scapegoats need to be found. So demagogues arise.
Max Weber explained it all best a century ago. Modern life is meaningless, shorn of any kind of deeper worth than market relations. Take those away, my friend — “I’m a steelworker, I’m an auto plant worker” — leave people with nothing, and you have a massive powder keg on your hands. Where then do people find their identities, selves, institutions to belong to, anything to give themselves a sense of meaning and value and worth? Bang! Fascism happens — as people turn to every flavour of fanaticism and extremism, which ultimately culminate in supremacy.
That’s the place America went to. Is still going to. People have been left in deep insecurity. I don’t mean that in some metaphorical way. I mean it literally. Americans are too proud to admit it, because in American culture, there’s no greater embarrassment than poverty. But they are broke, most of them. Economically insecure, financially insecure, Americans go on to live lives which are socially insecure. And increasingly, that is turning into political instability, too — as insecurity always does.
Insecurity is the defining feature of modern American life. So let me say it again: if cash transfers work so well to raise American living standards, maybe we should just make them permanent.