Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Two Economies

[1920 photo by Lewis Hine titled Power house mechanic working on steam pump.]

Some are in a rush to
 “reopen the economy.”

The economy.
As if there were only one.

But there are two economies:

  • the Essential Economy, and
  • the Luxury Economy.

Yes, the Luxury Economy is paused.
And yes, it is losing money.

But the Essential Economy is still operating.

And what a lucky, lovely, life-sustaining thing that is.

Ordinary people—those who work in fields to plant or harvest crops, who drive trucks, who stock shelves or operate cash registers in grocery stores, who keep our lights on, who patrol our streets, who fight fires, who drive ambulances, who operate food kitchens, who are doctors and nurses in hospitals and clinics and nursing homes—ordinary people are, each and every one, nothing short of heroes.

Heroism pervades the essential economy, where amazing souls risk and regularly lose their lives just to keep our essential services working.

We haven’t closed that economy.
So there is no need to speak of reopening it.

Of course, there are people suffering in the Luxury Economy. A great many. Not everyone who works for the luxury economy lives in luxury, so please don’t misunderstand.

But if the Essential Economy creates enough food, housing, health care, etc. to sustain us, then the rest of it is just a dance we do because we are not making our nation more fed, more housed, etc.

If we’re not part of the Essential Economy, we’re the entertainment, amusing them and perhaps ourselves, while we wait for a handout. They’re creating all of the essential value. At best, we’re left to creating “optional additional value,” but by definition nothing we can’t do without, or we’d still be doing it.

So we’re operating at a surplus, not a deficit, and the reason we know that is that the essentials are being met even without our whole population working. We’re just bad at dividing up our collective surplus.

The things society needs to do it is still doing, to the extent we ever were. We’ve always been far from perfect at that, but that’s topic for another day. Right now my point is that the Essential Economy isn’t shut down, only the Luxury Economy is.

And so, you see, to speak of “need” to reopen “The” Economy is a slap in the face to the contributions and, frankly, to the sacrifices made by these heroes.

Let’s be blunt: The whining is about when we luxuriate anew, when profit-taking can resume, when we can start polluting again, when businesses can get back to exploiting within impunity.

These things we so urgently need to get back to are not needs. These are just things that some among us are used to doing because money makes them feel important.

But these activities are not what is important—if they are even good for us at all.

We in the Luxury Economy are likewise not what is important.

We matter as individuals. I don’t meant to suggest we’re expendable. But what qualifies as hardship and what is mere inconvenience is something we owe scrutiny. There are some in the Luxury Economy sitting comfortably on accumulated wealth as others are panicked, barely getting by, worried about keeping a roof over their head or where their next meal will come from. But that isn’t a collective wealth problem, that’s a problem with how we distribute surplus.

Also, many of the people sustaining themselves on amassed wealth think of themselves as virtuous, that they did the right things, that they are deserving of their comfort now. But we see now more clearly that if they earned all that wealth in the Luxury Economy, they’ve provided none of the value that is now sustaining them. They’re just lucky they are now sustained. They are asking for handouts right now, just like the rest of us. They differ only in being more smug, in their sense of entitlement to those handouts they need as much as anyone.

We often run on autopilot, indulging the presumption that things are as they are for good reason. But based on an unscientific survey of my friends, most of whom are on the prowl for yet another Netflix series to binge, my guess is that we have time on our hands, time that could be spent contemplating whether we should ge back to familiar routines or get busy finding new ones.

And so, just to sum up…

The fact that many of us have jobs that do not contribute to essentials is proof of our collective wealth. When we need food we go to work—but not to make food, because there is enough, even if badly distributed and poorly shared. No, when we need food, we go to work just to make money, a dance we do to feel worthy of surplus food and essentials made by a few.

We who do not create the true value, the essentials that are largely and miraculously and heroically still available even now should be thankful supply lines are moving and should be asking how we can help that, how we can assure they are properly paid for arduous, dangerous, and relentless work, how we can make sure their families are taken care of while they do this, and how we can make sure their health care is assured, not whining about when we can resume pointlessness again.

If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

If you haven’t read my essay Corny Economics, you might want to head there next. This post was intended as a sequel, but I tried to write this on the assumption that you might read them in either order. Otherwise, I might have here used the parlance of Corny Economics, replacing “Essential Economy” with “Corn Economy” and “Luxury Economy” with “Harmonica Economy”.

The 1920 photo by Lewis Hine titled Power house mechanic working on steam pump was obtained from Wikimedia, which identifies it as being in the public domain.

The “drop caps” effect I used is a modified version of the helpful advice from Chris Coyier’s article Drop Caps at, which I found in a Google search. He suggests it’ll work across multiple browsers, and it looked to me like it should. I used it in a span tag, since my use was a one-off and I didn’t want to fuss with style sheets. And I liked the color enough that it influenced some of the other design, and that in turn led me to the idea of working the entire piece in vary sizes and colors, so I evolved the article from there. I had been looking for a visual way to make some of the points clearer and this was one of several things that catalyzed the final result.

I find I often write text to fit visually, I don’t just mark things up after-the-fact. I change the lengths of sentences so that in plausible line-breaking on various browser settings, I expect it to look good. In cases where I am looking for a particular break, I experiment with reshaping windows and watch for widowing and often just replace spaces with non-breaking spaces ( ) so that if a line break occurs, it has substance and semantic units fall, perhaps more raggedly, in meaningful units.


PC said...

Thanks for doing this. And I agree, as far as you go ... but I don't see that you address the field of child care, which is critical to many of the essential workers and only a luxury for others, nor education, which is about to be center stage.

netsettler said...

An issue this complex is necessarily approximate. I'm sure there are a number of details I did not address, but the function of the post is into to draw a specific line, but rather to observe that there is a line, and that line is approximately already drawn. What we need to do, we are largely still doing. What people are complaining about is deviation from routine, not something that that compromises our society's survival. We are at far more risk of not surviving by attempting to return to routine prematurely than by worrying that continued staying safe from the virus will keep kids from going to school. Fundamentally, this is a post about survivability, not about desirable social policy in the steady state. Of course education is important, but right now the goal is to survive. Hopefully the other post alluded to above, Corny Economics, helps to make that point.