7 Books That Show the Truth About Poverty

Let's enlighten ourselves before we engage in class warfare.

Looking out onto the landscape of 2024, Natural disasters like bushfires, earthquakes, and hurricanes are becoming more common and worsening in intensity, and the divide between the rich and the poor keeps growing.

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Stay Safe? - The Illusion of Safety

A true understanding of the intersection of risk and human nature entails disseminating accurate information regarding actual risk levels and letting people make their own decisions.

It's a sign of the times that we hear the phrase "Stay safe!" everywhere. While I know it's well meaning, it has started to grate on my nerves like nails on a chalkboard.

Oftentimes it closes a communication, or comes as advice, with the addition of "stay home" - as if we can stay safe by staying at home. While true with regard to those most at risk, as a general matter this can create the illusion of safety and mask real danger.

When we talk about safety, we should also consider the economic tsunami washing over our nation. The usual argument between "staying safe" and "opening the economy" presents a false choice based on the illusion that a safe path actually exists.

Stay Safe Handwritten

I'm not going to engage in second-guessing the shutdown itself. I think we can give those who executed it the benefit of the doubt for having made the best decision they could with the information they had. We can also assume that it helped avoid the feared broad meltdown of the healthcare system and that it saved lives. However, we have to hold our leadership accountable for the decisions they're currently making in the name of safety, particularly as more information becomes available.

It's clear that the debate around reopening the economy has become highly political along red/blue lines. Frankly, I don't think we should care about the politics of it all, but I do think we should care about the truth. So, as you listen to advocates of the "lock down" versus the "open up", I ask you to consider the following questions:

Who has skin in the game?

Many people have been able to work from home through this disaster with little financial impact, at least for now. Thank goodness, or the economic pain would be even more widespread. That said, those individuals should have compassion for the many kinds of work that cannot be done remotely as well as for the entire sectors of the economy that have been vaporized by the shutdown.

No one has been unaffected, but some people have more economic skin in the game with respect to reopening the economy. Others have more skin in the game with regard to exposure to COVID itself. This leads to the confounding choice between "safety" and opening the economy. There are varying degrees of risk exposure based on the short, mid, and long term consequences of continued shut downs.

What is actually happening to our health system?

One of the main justifications to shut down our economy was to make sure that the health system wouldn't be overwhelmed and increase lives lost. We accepted that and marched along like good soldiers. We even eliminated so called "elective" procedures (like treatment for cancer patients) in order to prepare for a surge.

Our health care professionals adapted and found ways to care for the sickest of the sick alongside COVID patients and even dynamically improved the outcomes for COVID patients. It seems that the shutdown has been gradually working.

But, we also have to look at the situation on the ground as some of our healthcare systems must lay off thousands to compensate for empty beds as well as the loss of highly profitable elective procedures. In the meantime, hospitals are empty while people die at home for fear of going to the hospital.

We ill-serve our citizens - especially the ill - as well as our system itself by unnecessarily prolonging this situation in the name of safety.

What about another potential growing public health crisis?

Our healthcare experts have spent years evaluating the environmental contributors to poor health. Healthcare connects to every aspect of our lives as a matter of promoting health and wellness. We know that stress and anxiety lead to poor health, suicide rates spike based on desperation, abuse at home arises from hopelessness, unsettled home situations lead to poor health, food insecurity leads to poor health, poverty leads to poor health, and homelessness presents a national health problem. All of these things are environmental contributors to poor health.

Roughly 30 million Americans are out of work. The average household is 2.52 people, which means that tens of millions of our population now face those environmental contributors to poor health. COVID is a real threat, but so is this collateral healthcare crisis. In this light the statement "stay home and stay safe" ignores the suffering of tens of millions of fellow citizens who stand to benefit from a reopened economy. We have to look at the total public health picture in balance, and COVID is only one element of that picture.

How bad could the economic picture get, really?

Unfortunately, the notion of keeping the economy shut down indefinitely until COVID somehow goes away is a form of magical thinking. We have every reason to expect that COVID will be with us for a while and future outbreaks could come in waves. So, one can understand the desire to hunker down long enough to outlast that risk. However, this is at odds with the interconnected nature of the economy.

Consider rent and mortgages. Think about how many rents and mortgages are not getting paid by people and businesses as a result of the shutdown. Who should absorb those losses and how? Behind every rent or mortgage payment stands a bank or investment fund. Banks and investment funds do not have unlimited money. Rather, they have the money their customers invest for safe keeping, which they in turn invest. At the end of the day, your savings and investments are tied up in institutions that have lent those funds out to the market.

Consider the many industries that have been crushed by the shutdown: travel, airlines, aerospace, hospitality, brick and mortar retail, automotive, etc. Just the obvious ones are about 20-30% of the economy. But nearly every kind of business is suffering to one degree or another. As firms cut back or go out of business, as other firms lose business accordingly and don't get paid, imagine all of the dominos that will fall.

There is no government program large enough to bail everything out. In a worst case scenario, we'd see massive failures across supply chains, financial institutions, and within the basic systems that keep our society functioning. So much so that there would be little safety for anyone.

What about risk and human nature?

Experts have projected two million deaths in America from COVID-19. The World Health Organization states that globally, about 3.4% of reported COVID-19 cases have died. Studies by Stanford University and the State of New York indicate that actual mortality could be 0.05% or less. We don't know absolutely and it is critical to find out, but at this point the actual mortality seems to run below the worst case scenario.

This is not to say that a small percent of a big number is not a lot of people, nor to say that we shouldn't care about those who are at risk. However, as the risk becomes more knowable, it can be evaluated on a personal basis.

For example, we know that there's elevated risk based on age and comorbidity. Wouldn't it make sense to manage that risk in a focused way to assist the most at-risk and vulnerable? Especially since nearly everyone seems to agree that COVID is not going away and is highly contagious?

Further, risk is part of life. We live with risk every day and innately evaluate it to make decisions. Individuals left to their own devices will make their own decisions as to what risk they'll tolerate with regard to COVID, based on their own profile. A true understanding of the intersection of risk and human nature entails disseminating accurate information regarding actual risk levels and letting people make their own decisions.

Undoubtedly, that will affect the economy and change behavior, but it needs to be efficient, effective, and driven by choice rather than by government mandate.

The definitive death rate of being alive is 100%

None of us get out of here alive. Life remains inherently unsafe and no amount of "lock down" will change that. On the contrary, a lock down shifts from one risk to a different kind of risk, both of which cause real suffering and real health concerns. Based on individual circumstances and profiles, each approach has different winners and losers. But, guaranteeing safety is just not possible. We should understand that one is not for or against "safety" based on looking to balance different kinds of risk.

It's easy to be angry about this entire situation. It's easy to blame others. It's easy to feel that you know how people ought to behave. That said, there is no "safe" answer between a rock and a hard place. No matter what we do, we can't "stay safe".

In closing, I want to add this observation: the "war metaphor" has been used time and again during this pandemic, and it doesn't make sense. After the Twin Towers fell, New Yorkers bound together and felt aligned against the awful threat of terrorism spawned by a militant group who killed thousands of innocent people. And every American became a New Yorker.

In many ways, the government's handling of COVID-19 has had the opposite effect. People are running away from each other, unwilling to ride in the same elevator, or say hello on the street. It's pitting neighbor against neighbor.

The governmental mismanagement of testing and quarantine status and tracing has hurt the culture and the global economy in ways that will wreak untold havoc for years to come. And it has exacerbated the already polarized politics in an America that is starting to feel positively "un-American".

It's time for a change.

Margaret Caliente is a professional athlete turned internet entrepreneur and Manhattan-based journalist.

The Upside of Stopping the World

Easter weekend reflections on the impact of COVID-19 and the global economic shutdown

Being Irish and growing up Catholic, Good Friday has lots of significance, a day of crucifixion, death, which then gives rise to the resurrection - victory over death! Love and hope conquering fear and dismay!

Let's not forget the Good Friday Peace agreement between Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Ireland where arms were put aside after years of hate and warfare finally returned to a relatively stable existence. Ironically, Good Friday 2020 is touted as the day our death toll will peak, and not Easter Sunday as currently projected from the Washington State model.


As Dr. Fauci, the nation's leading expert on infectious diseases, said on Friday, this is "the end of the famous week". The death toll worldwide has surpassed 100,000. With 18,000 in the US - up 11,000 since last week.

These are not merely numbers, but lives - fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends, neighbors, our aged community, our most vulnerable. Such loss has shattered our communities as we struggle to find a dignified way to lay them to rest forever.

However, after such a devastating week we have seen progress. As a result of our concerted efforts to slow down the spread, a flattening of the curve is now visible. Fauci said that despite these small advancements, it's "not time to be pulling back." We must continue to wash our hands and maintain social distancing by wearing masks and keeping 6 feet between us when in public.

The decision to reopen the economy will be President Trump's biggest decision of his life. Asked what metrics he will use, he pointed to his head, which indicates that he'll be the one making this decision. He is hoping for a May 1st reopening, which gives rise to a difference between economic advisors and health advisors.

Trump aims to achieve this soon by creating an "Opening Our Country Taskforce" which he'll announce on Tuesday, April 14. It will be composed of prominent medical professionals and business leaders from across the US who will forge a bipartisan, united front to get the nation back on its feet.

Today the war rages against the "invisible enemy." Is Trump the Churchill of our time, rallying us to beat the enemy not by his rhetoric but by the things he is doing behind the scenes? Who are our enemies? Is it a microscopic virus? Is it our trusted organizations that were created by the US to protect us?

The Pandemic stopped the world. It stopped travel, shut down borders, and drove everyone off the streets into the enclaves of their homes. It caused a monumental shift in how business is done daily. Not to mention an upsurge in technology by students being taught online and employees working from home.

Some of these new mechanisms will remain long after the virus is gone. We may see a more self sufficient America with its own energy supply and a less reliance on China for production of our household items.

Another beneficial change is that great American corporations such as GM and Abbott Labs, are manufacturing needed supplies. Many companies large and small are bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. "Made in America" has a deeper resonance during this unsettling time.

The Pandemic has highlighted health disparities and exposed a wealth divide. Particularly hard hit is the African American community living in low income communities across New York, Milwaukee, Chicago, and New Orleans.

Black patients are disproportionately dying from COVID-19 which illuminates lack of resources and the medical challenges that black communities face every day. Now that this is highlighted America must funnel more funds and resources to support these vulnerable communities.

Black people seeking treatment for Coronavirus in ChicagoJoshua Lott/Reuters

There are numerous proposed roadmaps for reopening the economy, but antibody testing is getting the most attention. This past week, people who tested positive to COVID-19 are being asked to donate their plasma in order to help those with the disease. If we can get these tests out in plentiful supply we can see who may have been exposed to the virus but has resistance.

There's more availability of medical supplies and medications such as hydroxychloroquine. Two companies now have the go ahead to sterilize critical PPE such as masks and gowns that will be provided to critical areas very soon.

We are in uncharted water, no one knows what will happen when we return to work. Will there be a spike, a second wave? We can only rely on the data from the countries who have reopened before us and use this to create the models we have all become so familiar with over the past few weeks.

All this is to slow the spread and see the curve bending toward a hopeful May 1st opening of the economy.

Trump Refuses to Sign G20 Statement on Climate Change

Trump continues to alienate the U.S. from the global community by panning diplomacy for his own agendas.

Donald Trump singled out the United States before the entire international community at the G20 summit over the weekend. He was the only leader in attendance to refuse to sign a joint statement pledging a non-binding commitment to continue combating climate change.

After a strenuous, all-night negotiation in Buenos Aires, the world leaders issued a communiqué re-affirming that the Paris climate agreement "is irreversible" and vowing "full implementation" of its policies to "continue to tackle climate change, while promoting sustainable development and economic growth."


However, the summit was fraught with tensions over various countries' objections and demands, including Trump's refusal to budge on climate change or trade agreements. As such, world leaders struggled to pen a separate clause to account for Trump's "America First" stance. The communiqué reads: "The United States reiterates its decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and affirms its strong commitment to economic growth and energy access and security, utilizing all energy sources and technologies, while protecting the environment."

In another compromise forced by Trump's intransigence, this year's G20 statement also shirked its usual promises to fight protectionism and uphold multilateral trading rules. The summit weakly acknowledged the "contribution" of the "multilateral trading system," despite the fact that it's "falling short" of its goals in trade growth and job creation. One European official present at the weekend's negotiations told NBC News, "There were moments when we thought all was lost."

At last year's summit, Trump shocked world leaders with his first refusal to join the consensus on climate and trade issues. He continued to alienate the U.S. from the international community over the summer. In June, the president refused to sign a joint statement on global economic policies from the G7 summit, even taking to Twitter to deride Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over the policies.

Newsweek - Getty Images

As a final act of belligerence, Trump stormed off the stage as the rest of the world leaders gathered for a photo to commemorate the end of a two-day effort in global solidarity. After shaking hands with Argentine President Mauricio Macri, Trump left Macri visibly confused on stage as he hastily left. Trump was audibly recorded telling an aide, "Get me out of here."

Reluctantly, he returned to the stage moments later to pose for group photos.

Hilarious moment Trump caught saying "get me out of here" at G20

Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.

Contextless Nostalgia and the Neo-Fascist Urge

In the wake of the Tree of Life shooting we're left wondering: how did we get here?

Is Robert Bowers a Fascist?

Pittsburgh Gazette

If Umberto Eco is to be taken at face value when he describes his Ur-fascist as "impatient for death,"¹ the question we're left with in the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting is this: Why now, in 21st century America, has this distinctly 20th century urge, this death drive, suddenly rematerialized? The other questions–ones concerning motive, logistics, and cultural response–while meaningful in their own right, only explain the symptoms, not the disease.

Fascism in its truest sense is a type of suicide, one committed not by an individual but by an entire society. Still, the important conversation (as with an individual suicide) doesn't concern method. When a man takes his own life, the why is a far more incisive question than the how. If we're to extrapolate this metaphor, to argue about gun control, anti-semitism, and President Trump's brusque response to this tragedy is tantamount to debating the meaning of using rope over a straight razor. In the interest of being thorough, however, let's briefly explore these symptoms:

Immediately following the attack, Robert Bowers' social media posts went loud, his comments regarding Jewish conspiracies sitting somewhere between Alex Jones' InfoWars and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. "Jews are the children of satan," he shouted into the Internet void. What the public was given were echoes, reverberations after the fact. The shooter's motive was never in question.

The issue then splintered, its fragments taking familiar trajectories. Pragmatists argued for tighter gun control, in this case perhaps an antihistamine, but one that could at least theoretically prevent another maniac from gunning down a room full of unarmed civilians. Others blamed the increasingly volatile rhetoric of the Trump regime for galvanizing a new generation of angry white men. When looking at the recent rise of extremist provocateurs,² this second point can feel the more crucial (though it goes without saying that these views are far from mutually exclusive), but in reality, it's closer to a half truth. Barack Obama's assessment of Trump (and by extension his rhetoric and the hate it inspires) as the "symptom not cause" of our present spiritual crisis mirrors this opinion, whether he meant it to or not. Still, we're left wondering: if Trump, Bowers, Cesar Sayoc, Richard Spencer, the alt-right, et al. are symptoms, what's the cause?

Contextless Nostalgia

It's been stated time and time again that we're becoming increasingly obsessed with nostalgia, cripplingly so. Whether or not it's true, again, is not so important. The why, however, remains.

Nostalgia, in the classic sense, is a wistful remembrance, a pained recalling of a time where things were better. It's a belief, however erroneous, that the past contains more happiness than the present. A fitting example of nostalgic art is Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, a film so nostalgic it feels documental, produced for the former rebels/present yuppies of Gen X as a glimmering look at their past, a reassurance that they were indeed once cool. Saccharine or not (depends on who you ask), the film certainly comports to this traditional definition.

Today's televisual/cinematic nostalgia, if one can really call it that, has a distinctly different flavor. Instead of being a monument to the past, a shared generational experience, nostalgia has been co-opted as an aesthetic, a mood. Stranger Things, a show decidedly millennial in both content and attitude, is a perfect example of this. The outfits, the lingo, the references, and the sets all feel nostalgic, but a look at the show's viewership demographics quickly reveal this feeling doesn't fit nostalgia's true definition. 18-39 year-olds aren't old enough to have memories from the early 80s.

The television producer's argument that Stranger Things and other period dramas give a younger audience access to the past (which is new to them) while also capturing an older demographic who experienced the events on the show first hand doesn't hold water, especially when you consider that the Duffer Brothers are only 34-years-old. The nostalgia they're capturing isn't genuine. It's a fractal cobbling of present day ideals and past aesthetics–not nostalgia, but mutation, a rehashing and reliving of history with no frame of reference. It's time travel to a non-existent past.

One look around–bell bottom jeans, Mad Men, 90s-inspired music videos, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin songs playing on truck commercials–and it's impossible not to see this frantic pawing as the defining mark of our culture. It's not the end of history; it's a fraught and dizzying attempt to reimagine it and a cultural impetus to live in the mangled architecture of this imagined past.

Nostalgia for Stakes

To return to Eco for a moment, the Ur-Fascist is also marked by the fact that he's "deprived of a clear social identity." Eco goes on to say that fascism takes this lack of identity and fills the void with nationalism. While this is certainly true, from average Trump supporters all the way down to Cesar Sayoc and Robert Bowers, Eco never identifies the cause of this deprivation.³ The contextless nostalgia of our present offers an entrée into diagnosis–Bowers and others like him, while certainly insane, aren't so far removed from society as to be immune to its mores.

This new form of nostalgia, this amalgam of distorted realities, functions as both an escape hatch from our present existential void–a void of unmeaning, a loss of stakes–and one of its root causes. This new, fundamentally false, cultural memory is a product of our present zeitgeist. It's born of an influx of information and static confusion, one created by a society so materially comfortable that it's primarily concerned with artistic and aesthetic trends, with manufacturing meaning. The loss of stakes, however, can be traced back to the 1970s.

Following the Vietnam War and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), the U.S. found itself in a peculiar position. After nearly 40 years of perpetual war, we lacked an enemy to align ourselves against. A malaise set in, one that would typify the 1970s. Then, in 1983, Ronald Reagan offered the American people a respite from having to define themselves by anything other than what they are not. He declared the Soviet Union an "evil empire," rekindling Cold War rhetoric which had long since burnt out. Announcing this a few years after signing a non-proliferation treaty with the Soviets probably felt strange to anyone paying attention, but it didn't matter. We had an enemy again.

But was the Soviet Union truly our enemy or one recreated by spiritual necessity? Manufactured animosity and organic threats converged at a single point. For Reagan's part, all he did was stir up past resentments, but his demagoguery wasn't feeding some Weimar-esque yearning for a return to greatness, but a nostalgia for dire consequences. Because the method and end result are similar—a monolith enemy is created onto which a society can project its fears—this distinction can feel unimportant. But, this marked a significant change.

America's enemies were no longer an existential threat. They were created as convenient scapegoats for economic and political turmoil. The recession of 1973, the OPEC oil embargo, and the 1979 energy crisis, while not unserious, paled in comparison to the socio-economic climates that spawned the original iterations of fascism. The U.S. economy was down, sure, but there was no question as to where the seat of global power resided. Still, at the quotidian level, lines at the pump and the rapid decrease in factory jobs were panic-inducing. If we take this moment to be the birth of American fascism, the moment in which we became "constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of [our enemies],"⁴ then it represents a reversal of what happened in the Weimar Republic. Instead of a fascism born out of economic powerlessness and spiritual fervor, ours is the result of a spiritual drought created by material excess.


On an individual level, it's hard to even differentiate Robert Bowers from the likes of Steven Paddock. Sure, Bowers is racist and anti-Semitic, but this is just a variation on the theme of the deranged lone gunman. If one steps back and looks at the furor in the stands at Donald Trump's rallies or at the violence in Charlottesville last year, however, it becomes impossible to miss this creeping trend, conservatism fading in the rearview as our society pushes ever rightward. But why?

If an individual suicide is an escape from life, an assertion that death is preferable to the anguish of everyday existence, then fascism, the societal suicide, must be an escape of the same order. At this point, it's clear that our sprint towards authoritarianism comes from our society's collective yearning for stakes, for meaning. There's no great existential threat, so we look to our leaders to manufacture one. But fascism is European. Its great figures have been dead for nearly a century. It's foreign, an anachronism. It doesn't make sense until one considers our present infatuation with nostalgia. Not nostalgia as feeling but as concept, as aesthetic. American neo-fascism is the point at which nostalgia for stakes and loss of context converge. Today's fascist is one who rifles through an ephemeral past, one he never really experienced, searching for an enemy that he's not only ill-equipped to assess, but that doesn't exist in any meaningful sense.

For those who feel disenfranchised by the end of history (or late capitalism or neoliberalism, whichever buzzword one assigns it), the options are limited. For reasonable people, it's a choice between participating in society or being forced to its margins. The neo-fascist avoids both options entirely, shirking nihilism and resignation. Instead, he dives head first into the shallow pool of contextless nostalgia, attempting to plumb the depths of history without realizing he's splashing around in a puddle. It's a frenetic and palsied search for a transgressive idea with which to define his world and by extension, himself. Robert Bowers is insane, yes. But the massacre he committed is simply a fringe response to a mainstream problem.

Donald Trump and the Fascist Urge


If Robert Bowers is a fascist, then what do we make of Donald Trump, whose rallies and policies embolden Bowers and those like him? This question has been on the tip of the media's tongue for three years, a veritable op-ed monsoon raging on both sides of the political aisle. It's here where Jean Baudrillard's idea of media as Möbius strip⁵ becomes relevant. Is Donald Trump a fascist? In this age of constant transmission, of signs and symbols ad infinitum, the answer and question morph into one. The answer is yes because we're asking. The harder pill to swallow is that we're asking because we want it to be true.

If a contextless nostalgia for stakes is the spiritual issue of our time, then it's preposterous to assume that it only affects the 42% of Americans who support Donald Trump. The other 58%, (liberals, socialists, some civility-obsessed conservatives) just manifest their yearning in a different way. The media frenzy surrounding Trump's campaign–the comparisons to Hitler, the endless, dizzying video coverage of his rallies and speeches–serves this latent desire. The mainstream media's posturing against Trump, their denouncing him as fascist, served only to legitimize him as such.

The #Resistance, the anti-fascists, the op-eds from supposed Trump staffers quietly opposing him from inside the White House, all work in service of the neo-fascistic lunge. The liberal outrage at Trump simply fulfills the desire for stakes in reverse. Instead of supporting Trump and accepting a manufactured enemy (immigrants, Jews, whomever), the anti-fascist (even linguistically the term anti-fascist, by virtue of its existence, seeks to build Trump into that enemy) wills him into being that thing by virtue of the anti-fascist's constitutional need for something to define himself against. Thus, simultaneity is achieved. Trump is a fascist not because of his racism or demonstrative hand gestures, but because both his supporters and detractors alike have willed him into the role.

Unfortunately, we're rapidly approaching a time in which the hows and whys lose their importance. Acts of terror, like Robert Bowers' attack, cut through the mediated blur and give us an honest glimpse at the stakes we're clamoring for, that we claim, by virtue of our actions, to need. In those moments the romance of crisis fades. With the rise of a Neo-American Bund, the regularity of racist and xenophobic sentiments and policy decisions, and the attempted suppression of the press, this once contextless urge is transformed into a frightening reality. Still, considering the The Tree of Life massacre already feels old, tired, like a relic of the past, it seems unlikely that this, or any one moment, will be enough to snap us from our nostalgic impulse and back into the present. It feels as though we're stuck in circumlocution, doomed to grasp for stakes until we conjure them in some perverse alchemical procedure.


1. While a more accurate representation of Eco's point would include in it the idea of "heroic death," it feels safe to call this a death drive nonetheless. Suicidal ideation, however sublimated, is still suicidal ideation.

2. One that immediately comes to mind is Gavin McInnes, the leader of the Proud Boys, a far right group that was recently videotaped mercilessly beating protesters on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

3. He also never attempts to. His piece on Ur fascism was written in 1995 and would have had to have been incredibly prescient to stay entirely relevant today.

4. Ur-Fascism, Umberto Eco, 1995

5. The Möbius strip, while constantly turning over itself, only has one side. In Baudrillard's view it's a perfect metaphor for binary or dichotomy (of ideals, information what have you), of which he believes(ed) no longer exist in modern society. It's a means of illustrating how information is constantly conflated.

Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. He currently serves as Lead Editor for Gramercy Media. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, Pop Dust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff

Automation and the Post-Labor Economy

Automation is set to replace a large portion of the American workforce. What do we do once it happens?

In his 1984 essay Is it O.K. to be a Luddite?, Thomas Pynchon predicted that "the next great challenge to watch out for will come when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge." Nearly 35 years later, that convergence is upon us. Barring some sort of federally enforced halt on technological progress, automation of most basic services is inevitable.

Self-driving cars are continuing to improve. Automated checkout lines are being implemented all over the American retail space. There are even programs being written that may be doing the majority of our accounting work in the future. Sadly, the common claim that technological advances and economic growth go hand in hand with job creation is spurious at best. In 1964, AT&T was worth $267 billion (adjusted for inflation) and employed upwards of 700,000 people. Today, Google, which is worth roughly twice as much as 1960s AT&T, only employs about 88,000. According to the McKinsey Global Institute up to 375 million people could be out of work by 2030. Unlike the second industrial revolution, which gave us cars and airplanes in the 20th century, the third industrial revolution probably won't create many new jobs. In fact, by that same 2030 mark, the U.S. could be staring down the barrel of 35% unemployment.

The specific numbers, which I've thoroughly explored here, aren't nearly as important as how the U.S. government chooses to address the issue. Mass unemployment is coming, and it's hard to even imagine what it might look like, let alone how we're going to deal with it. In his piece A World Without Work, Derek Thompson attempts to tackle this issue, comparing the future United States to the present Youngstown, Ohio, a once prosperous steel town that lost 50,000 jobs to overseas manufacturing in the late seventies. In the years following the steel industry's evaporation, the rates of depression, suicide, and spousal abuse all jumped up radically. According to professor Jonathan Russo, "Youngstown's story is America's story, because it shows that when jobs go away, the cultural cohesion of a place is destroy." Thompson's thesis is that work is so ingrained in the American psyche that regardless of whether or not we end up with a welfare state to take care of the millions of jobless, there will be civil unrest. Kurt Vonnegut came to a similar conclusion 63 years earlier in his book Player Piano, in which the government was forced to not only provide complete welfare for the unemployed masses, but fake jobs as well.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. "Player Piano"

With regard to the impending employment drought, the government is left with a few options. They can ignore the issue, allowing millions to slip into grinding poverty, turning Youngstown, Ohio into the norm. This type of laissez-faire capitalism would have made Ronald Reagan blush but the problem is, with no money, there are no consumers. Another solution that's been popularized in recent years is Universal Basic Income, a program in which the government pays all of its citizens enough money to live, regardless of whether or not they're employed. Plenty of tech moguls, from Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg, have embraced the idea that the money made from technological advances should be, at least partially, given back to the people. On paper, it's a no-brainer. People need money to live, and companies need people to have money or else no one would buy anything. This would, as it were, keep the trains running on time. The problem is, this plan ignores Thompson's point about the vacancy of purpose left by a post-labor economy. There's a feeling of despair attached to having nothing to do. Anyone who's ever spent a teenage summer vacation not working can attest to this, and as evidenced by Youngtown, this listlessness can be destructive, both physically and psychologically.

Sign: "Welcome to Downtown Youngstown"

There is a third option however, one that's helped Germany lower its unemployment rate, called work-sharing. Essentially, the program cuts hours rather than employees. For example, if a company needs to cut 30% of its low level accounting staff, instead of firing 30% of its workers, it cuts everyone's hours by 30%. Conventional wisdom says that inoculating less efficient workers from layoffs while cutting the best workers' hours is a recipe for disaster, but we are entering a distinctly unconventional time. If employees are losing their jobs to hyper-efficient automation, the potential dip in productivity should be more than mitigated. That said, work-sharing doesn't completely fix the problem either. Unless major corporations suddenly start valuing benevolence over higher profit margins, less hours means less pay. Trim the hours enough and the results of work-sharing and the results of ignoring the problem altogether start looking eerily similar.

Maybe Vonnegut had it right in 1952. Maybe the only way to simultaneously combat mass unemployment and the moral corrosion that takes place when people feel they have no purpose is for the government to manufacture meaningless tasks for the millions of unemployed. It's possible that it doesn't have to be quite that bleak. American infrastructure is due for a massive overhaul, and construction workers aren't at particularly high risk of losing their jobs to robots any time soon. Some have suggested that the best way to address the automation problem is through a new New Deal, allowing people to find work rebuilding roads and bridges. But this is only a temporary fix. There's only so much infrastructure to rebuild. And, there's only so long before construction jobs in unpredictable conditions are automated out with the rest of the workforce. Of course, it's possible by then that American society will have found a way to define individual purpose as separate from occupation. If not, Youngstown may be a snapshot of the future.

Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, Pop Dust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff