April 2, 2020

Take the Money and Runif you’re not hurting, try helping

We’re not scaremongering
This is really happening, happening
Mobiles skwerking, mobiles chirping
Take the money and run
Take the money and run
Take the money

— Radiohead, “Idioteque”, Kid A, nearly twenty years ago

Part of being wealthy is having more than the next bastard. But when others aren’t just less well off, but poor, poverty limits how wealthy wealth can be.

Part of being smart is knowing more than the next bastard. But when others aren’t just less knowledgeable, but ignorant, ignorance limits how smart smarts can do.

Part of being healthy is being stronger than the next bastard. But when others aren’t just less well, but sick, sickness limits how strong anyone can be and stay.

Those of greater wealth, greater smarts, and greater health can contend with these realities in two basic ways. They can lift others up so the problems of poverty, ignorance, and sickness no longer limit quality of life for one and all. Or they can separate themselves from the poor and poor problems. They can take the money and run.

To a point.

We all know rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods, rich school districts and poor school districts, rich states and poor states, rich countries and poor countries. Driving five minutes through an unfamiliar place, we gather more or less where it stands.

Many signs are subtle. Small neglect of big buildings speaks poverty, we know. But some signs are purpose-built. This neighborhood has a gate. That house has a gate. That restaurant, club, event, or store is “exclusive”, by which we mean prohibitively expensive. We don’t need the menu to know.

Who pays a hundred bucks for a sandwich? Not necessarily the people eating them. But for a sandwich and a degree of separation, a guarantee of remove from an unwelcome class of infectious social ills? It comes as a package. And not just at the top. Some of us will buy a ten-dollar burrito when a five-dollar burrito will do. Some of us prefer ten-dollar lunch spots and the company of ten-dollar people. Mea culpa. My go-to plays more Jerry than Chente.

But in the end, there’s no seceding from the human race. Certain classes of very real problems cut clear across the walls we build to separate incidents of wealth and incidents of poverty. We don’t need a virus to teach us. The same lesson has been available, daily, in any number of venues, our whole lives.

We are likely at home. The junkies of Market Street are still scrounging, still shooting up. They have to. The campers of Oakland are still shivering, from the vans of the west side to the shanties deep east. It’s chilly outside. The battered spouse, the lonely elder, the abused child, the enslaved worker, are trapped in a new and serious way. If they had someplace else to go, they’re caught between a virus and a hard place now.

Perhaps we can’t see these people, from our couches, indoors. But we know they’re there, can imagine them easily, if we try. The knowledge and experience to do so are far more personal, more intuitive, and more broadly shared than any of the brand new unfun epidemiology facts we’ve all been cramming the past few weeks. To understand viruses, we need virus experts. We can’t see viruses. We can’t relate to viruses, or to how they spread, which is a big part of the problem. And yet here we are, locked in our homes, holding all the keys.

As we should all expect, not just COVID-19, but reactions to it and mitigations of it, fall harder on the poor than on the wealthy. But they will take some toll from nearly everyone, and not just in cents. You can rent a nice apartment, as I do. You can live in the hills. You can buy yourself a penthouse in the tallest tower around. You can drive or be driven every which way, all week long. You can’t quite escape what’s going on around you. We are all losing time, opportunity, and experience, of a kind. Few of us are doing what we’d hoped or planned, rich or poor. Some of us are dying, with or without any virus, or that virus in particular.

Fewer of us would be in trouble if more had the means, the ability, the opportunity, and the education to hear the calls from our public health professionals, understand them, and follow them, early on. The lowest common denominator we have to fall back to, in times like this, could be higher in the first place. Many rich people, in one of the richest countries of the world, are confronting this reality now, and discovering there’s no buying out of it. We can mitigate some impacts better than others. But we cannot contain them. We’re advantaged, not exempt. Not for nearly any money.

You can’t have safety delivered right now, even if someone’s still willing to walk it to your door.

No matter how much we have to call our own—money, education, health, reputation—we cherish it in large part because we expect to enjoy in circumstances we know and understand. A hundred bucks is a hundred bucks only as long as things keep going as they have been. It’s not just inflation, a question of how much. It’s also availability, a question of what’s possible. In other words, it’s a question of others, what they can do, whether they’re around to do it, and whether they will.

If you wanted to buy front-row seats to a concert, you’re out of luck. If you were looking forward to a vacation, now you’re looking forward to eating out again. There are things that cannot be bought, people that cannot be hired, things that cannot be done. Or the premium prices for doing so make hundred-dollar sandwiches look cheap.

In the end, it’s the experience of earning, winning, having, or spending a hundred bucks that hooks us. There’s nothing inherently magical about dollars, or about any stuff generally. There’s nothing intrinsically valuable in life but experience and the chance for more of it. Exclude, separate, bunker up, hunker down—do it all thoroughly enough, you’re just alone. If the wealth of unsettled land is enough for you, all by your lonesome, you can go back to nature. But that’s not what most of us have learned to want from life. That’s not the kind of experience we’re silently mourning now.

Investing in others, in the whole to which we belong—giving back, if you prefer—plays out by similar rules. It’s an experience.

Experiences vary. It is one thing to send a few dollars to a cause, to buy a tote bag, to reserve a seat at a fancy meal. If that’s what you can do, by all means do it. You know the package. A fleeting moment of satisfaction. Some good work made possible, hopefully, by others. A few less dollars. Not much in the way of experience. Like paying your power bill, but more noble in its moment.

It’s quite another to give skill, care, and time, to take responsibility for a problem, to get well and truly involved in something rough, dirty, and critically necessary. It’s another still to acknowledge and even look forward to the personal benefits of becoming mixed up in things, difficult though they may be, as a necessary motivation for staying mixed up in them. They play out differently on the lowest common denominator.

It feels a bit harder to get involved in things now, restrictions being what they are. That’s a valid feeling, but fortunately not a fact. Sure, we aren’t all medical doctors. But that’s just the front line. There’s as much to fear in the knock-on effects—financially, economically, psychologically, educationally, in taking care of the front-line health people—and a million new ways to meet those fears head-on. The less obvious, probably, the more valuable.

Go looking for one. Get found by one. If this is not a needy time for you, it could be a helping one. I recommend helping.

It struck me earlier today that doctors in plagues are one of the few examples of an affluent class—highly credentialed medical professionals—putting themselves in danger for the sake of society as a whole. It struck me a bit later that whether they’re an exception or a rule is really up to the rest of us.

If it helps to be a saint, I wouldn’t know.

I know it helps to enjoy the ride.

more posts about: COVID-19 Professions

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