Happy New Year

Well, it’s 2021. 2020 was pretty bad! it’s gonna take a lot of work to make 2021 good, but maybe we’ll all manage it together.

One positive change I’m making is that I’ve quit Twitter. I don’t currently plan to delete my account — it’s useful to have posts here automatically linked over there, and there are a lot of people there I’d hate to lose touch with, so if the account stays accessible they can at least find out why I’m not tweeting anymore — but a couple of weeks ago Twitter notified me that it was my tenth anniversary on the site and asked if I wouldn’t like to make a commemorative tweet with a special “10” graphic they’d prepared, and I thought, well, ten years is definitely too long to be here.

I have more thoughts about the ways in which “social media” as it currently exists, and Twitter in particular (I quit Facebook about ten years ago, so I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of its current state), is bad for us as individual people and as a society, and why, and what might be better; and maybe at some point I’ll organize those into a post here. I want to work on, and write about, more software projects first, though, so look for more on that soon.

Anyway although time is largely fake, there’s something nice about choosing to mark the new year a few weeks after the solstice — it’s about when we start to actually notice that the days are getting longer. It’s been a few months of it getting darker and colder, and it will stay cold, and even get a little colder yet, for another couple, but we can see it’s starting to get a little lighter, and we know it’ll get warm again, we just have to get through the hard depths of winter.

A metaphor, if you like. Happy new year, wear a mask, don’t go to restaurants or weddings or bars or generally spend time indoors with or near people you don’t live with, get the COVID vaccine as soon as you can, don’t vote for Republicans, tip servers and delivery people extra, do what you can to help other people.

COVID, “Stimulus”, “Relief”, “Survival”, and word choice

People (or more precisely, pundits, politicians, and reporters) keep talking about the CARES act and the current deliberations in Congress as being about “a stimulus” or “stimulus checks”, etc., though some in the left wing of the Democratic party (including Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) have started insisting on calling them “survival checks”, but I see hardly anyone using the term “relief”, and I wonder why that is.

On the one hand, the last time the government spent a lot of money all at once (or in a relatively short time) to try to help as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, was the ARRA under Obama, in response to the Great Recession, and that was constantly discussed as an “economic stimulus” bill, so in that way it makes some sense that the word “stimulus” would be sticky. On the other hand, “stimulus” and “relief” have different objects. You “stimulate” an economy; you give “relief” to a person. And of course you help a person “survive”.

I wonder if some politicians consider “survival” a more “marketable” word, a way to sidestep debates about moral hazard and so forth, because it implies an emergent, temporary crisis. If someone is in the path of an oncoming car, or is about to drown or fall off a roof or has been stung by a bee and needs their Epi-Pen, why, of course anyone would help them survive. If the economy — and it’s an article of faith in modern American politics, an axiom not to be questioned, that The Economy is an independent and unruly force that must be appeased at all costs — needs stimulus, why, we can pick and choose which economists we listen to about what form that stimulus should take, and decide we like the plan where it’s all tax credits and business loans.

To offer relief implies caring about people, and not just whether they’re barely existing, but whether they’re doing well. One needs relief from hardship, from suffering, from deprivation, from worry and stress. That’s an ongoing, maybe indefinite problem, and a problem of human empathy, not the abstract, imaginary machine-god of The Economy simply demanding that the numbers go up.

Right now people don’t need “stimulus”. People don’t have jobs, their bills and rents and mortages are coming due or overdue, and it’s not safe to be around other people. We’ve known since March what the right thing was to do, all along, and the government (which is to say, mainly Republicans, who control most of the veto points; maybe Democrats wouldn’t have done a good job either, but we know that many of them have at least argued for doing better, and we know the Republicans actually didn’t do the right things) has refused to. We should have had ongoing, monthly, non-means-tested, no-strings-attached relief checks to every person in the country, forgiveness of all federal student loan debt, cancellation of rents and mortgages (in the latter case, if necessary, by extending the mortgage terms by the number of months cancelled) and prohibition of eviction and foreclosure, massive federal investment into developing good practices for remote learning, even more massive investment — and worldwide collaboration — into coordinated research efforts for treatments and vaccines, federalizing production of masks and PPE if necessary, not scuppering the plan the USPS already had to deliver masks to everyone, and mobilizing the National Guard to distribute supplies, food, and medicine all over the country, to make sure everyone could safely and comfortably stay home until it was safe.

We didn’t do the right things, and a crisis became an ongoing, enormous catastrophe, and hundreds of thousands of people are needlessly dead—over 320,000 officially, but that’s well understood to be an undercount. If you look at general excess-death figures, and consider how many people died of COVID without getting diagnosed, and how many died of other causes because the health care system was overloaded, or because they didn’t seek enough care soon enough because they were afraid of COVID or because they’d lost their jobs and health coverage due to COVID, it’s hard not to conclude that the true number is probably already over 400,000. People don’t need “stimulus”, and they don’t need bare “survival”, they need relief.