Moving past the pandemic isn't a science problem
There’s a story, probably apocryphal, about Margaret Mead, likely the most well-known American anthropologist outside of academic circles and a public figure in the 1960s and 70s. According to the story, a student once asked her: “What is the earliest sign of civilization?” The story continues: “The student expected her to say a clay pot, a grinding stone, or maybe a weapon. Mead thought for a moment, then she said, ‘A healed femur.’”
As an animal, a human wouldn’t have survived long on their own with a broken thigh bone, the longest bone in the body, because they would have been unable to hunt or run or fight. A broken femur takes a long while to heal, weeks and maybe months without modern medicine. A healed femur means that another human spent all that time caring for their injured loved one at a potentially great cost to themselves, one that could have involved danger. A healed femur doesn’t indicate a scientific advancement but a cultural one, a sign of cooperation, a sign of advancing society, a sign of sacrifice to a common good. Whether Mead actually ever said this or not, it’s true. From an anthropological standpoint, the thing that makes us modern humans is this ability to cooperate. That cooperation launched societies and spurred the agricultural revolution and allowed us to spread, for better and worse, across the Earth.
This is a roundabout way of coming to employment, the economy, and what’s being dubbed The Great Resignation. This month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 4.3 million people quit their jobs in August. That bested a high of 4 million set in April. The resignations are found in every industry, but they’re especially high in low-wage jobs like service and retail. Many of those quitting their jobs are probably finding new ones because they’re in a tight labor market—more jobs than workers—which gives them more power, but by and large, they’re leaving jobs where the pay is too low and they’re treated like crap. The federal restaurant minimum cash wage is $2.13 an hour, and many of those workers have born he brunt of the anti-mask, anti-vaccine jerks who demand service while refusing to follow rules.
None of the people resigning now were on unemployment at the time of their resignation—you can’t quit a job if you don’t have one—but they might have been early on in the pandemic and used the federal enhancements to retrain or enroll in a course that would help them transition. Last summer, I spoke with someone who lives in my town, Lee Yette, who had been a manager at a Taco Bell, where he’d worked since 2013. Early in the pandemic, the company instituted strict cleaning and staffing procedures, which they were trying to enact with two few people on any shift. It was stressful, and Yette was working at least six days a week at the height of the Covid-19 scare. Moreover, he and the other employees received no benefits, not even a free lunch. When he took his mask off in his office, while he was alone, Taco Bell fired him and claimed he’d violated procedure, but he fought it in court because he said he and others had been allowed to unmask while alone. Yette suspected he was fired for other reasons: He said he’d advocated for his staff, and also was paid more than almost anyone there. After he won his court case, he received unemployment back pay in a lump of more than $10,000. He used it to enroll in an EMT course. “I”m like, I’m not going to blow this money,” he said. “I’m going to spend it on something that helps me. I wouldn’t change it for the world now. I’m honestly kind of glad they fired me at this point.” He works with a fire department in another, larger town.
I’m sure some people have done what Lee did, but others are likely living off savings while they hold out for better wages, or are mothers with young children who decided the $15,000 or so they earned a year at their part-time jobs wasn’t worth it any more. Worker power has been ever so slightly enhanced by the more generous government programs enacted during the past two years: unemployment that fully replaced wages and, in a few cases, replaced more than wages; the stimulus payments; and the child care tax credit monthly payments. It’s only taken a few hundred extra a month to give people a breather and allowed them to re-evaluate their lives. The end of unemployment didn’t drive people back to work. They are still seeking fair compensation for their time, both monetarily and in the value of what they’re doing. It’s unorganized, but it’s a wage strike. People seem to realize they can withhold their labor until they get what they want.
What we’re seeing now is a kind of Great Awakening to the conditions that actually do create success: fairness, value, happiness, time. Employees everywhere had a forced slow down which inspired a reassessment of what they want and why. Add to the historically high resignations the surge in strikes across the country. The pandemic made clear that the country’s wealthiest people, i.e. the kinds of people who hold lots of stocks, often do well despite how badly workers are doing. Sometimes, they do well *because* workers are doing badly.
These are the kinds of issues that are still being pushed and tested in the Democrats’ reconciliation and infrastructure bills. On one side is the idea that we should spend our vast resources as a nation, still one of the wealthiest societies the Earth as ever seen, to help support people and broaden the social safety net in ways that enable them to live safe, healthy, worthwhile lives. On the other is the old idea West Virginia Joe Manchin keeps echoing in his objections to the his party’s agenda. “I cannot accept our economy or basically our society moving towards an entitlement mentality,” Manchin told HuffPo in September. “Because I’m more of a rewarding ― because I can help those who really need help if those who can help themselves do so.” That every ounce of support we provide must be tested by measuring the worth of someone’s effort and labor is what we have in place now, a wedge that creates space for all of our ethical and moral shortcomings as a nation to pour through.
The pandemic and the explosion of the labor market are of a piece. It’s like the disasters of the past year have cracked open some policy-making myths; the idea that everything can be subject to a cost-benefit analysis, the idea that a growing economy means everything is going great, and the idea that scientific and technocratic advances will always make the world a better place. Science didn’t let us down with Covid-19. The vaccines are a modern miracle, developed quickly and shockingly effective. What’s let us down, what’s kept us from blasting this virus into oblivion and has required us, instead, to accept an endemic level of Covid-19 circulating every year, along with a certain amount of avoidable death and suffering, has been political, cultural, and social. Our challenge is to innovate our relationships, our morals, and our politics. The solution to every big problem we face now and going forward—inequality, poverty, climate change—won’t be a magic pill or a new robot performing a task once done by human hands. It will be whether and how we decide to take care of each other.
What I’m Recommending:
Everyone should have at least one dish they make without a recipe. One of mine is chicken and dumplings. I don’t make it often, but as soon as it’s remotely cold outside, that’s all I want.
What I’m Reading:
In book news from four years ago, I read Little Fires Everywhere. I can’t stop thinking about it.
Cute Animal Pic of the Week:
My sister’s friend got a corgi puppy and I’m dead now.