long . lines and ripples

The Economy, Essential Services, and Charity

The economy, essential services, and charity: all categories that will never be the same during–and probably after–this pandemic. I am thinking about the U.S. here.

The “economy” in this country always has been a stand-in for the life of the nation itself. America is a land defined by ceaseless work, increasing production, and the creation of privately owned but publicly measurable value. This is especially true in the now consumer-driven economy. Observe recent decades’ emphasis on capturing all activity–even the most subtle, mundane, ephemeral and otherwise “worthless” experience–into spaces of awareness, documentation and finally surveillance–where it can be defined (what was social media before social media?), captured (think Facebook and “likes”) and finally monetized (e.g., data brokerage, advertising). This has not changed with the pandemic. Our potential economy–even if it is shuttered at the moment– continues to be pretty much everything that people do.

But something strange has happened in our economy now: we are asked to weigh a “choice” between the economy and other priorities like human health, as if new terrain has suddenly been discovered outside the economy; as if the trade-offs involving money and life were not already part of markets, and doled out according to economic priorities like the assets and measurable productive capacity of the person receiving the care. Maybe this was because Covid-19 raised a new (for this time and place) prospect of mass death. This prospect was not factored into the economy at the moment the outbreak rose to worldwide prominence, and stood outside our “economy of everything” for a while.

Once the economy became just a factor weighed against the priority of life, we arrived at another new set of definitions: between work that was deemed “essential” and had to continue, sometimes at substantial risk to life, and work that could be shut down indefinitely. Some of these judgments were obvious and relatively easy to explain: infectious disease doctors who treated the sick had to keep working during a time of exceptional sickness. Utilities that are universally relied upon by everyone, working or not, had to be continued: sewage treatment, electricity and water filtration, etc. These activities all have a publicly defensible value.

But the idea of essential work does not consider how important a given form of work was to the people doing the work. Many who lived with no savings, who did low-level service or retail work, found that their capacity to acquire the necessary money to live–and a cash economy was the only one they knew–had been eliminated; their work might have been essential to them, but “essential” here is a public matter of what has recognizable value to the whole.

The issue of essential workers came down to a judgment about which work posed a newfound threat to life. Work had to meet a new standard–mainly the potential to practice social distancing–in order to continue. In the end, work could continue, no matter how trivial or superfluous to survival (as many work-from-home jobs surely are), as long as it met the evolving definition of protecting life in a pandemic. Looking back on the past several months, some work was allowed to continue not because it was essential, but because it was judged “safe enough” with respect to this newly emergent caution about health.

But what happens when large numbers of people become “inessential,” and their work disappears accordingly? In the aggregate, that is a problem recognized by the public at large, and the conversation about the economy has been reactivated to deal with it. The apparent choice between the economy and human life is now framed as a humanitarian choice: between increasingly large numbers of people rendered unable to earn money for themselves, and the health of everyone in the country. The calls to consider trade-offs, to weigh the dangers of further disease spread against the necessity of having a living, are a further sign that the new understanding of life is being brought into a reconfigured economic logic.

This brings me to the last concept I mentioned: charity. The boundaries of who deserves charity have gotten larger. The organizations that have held charitable drives for their workers (either officially sanctioned or unofficial) include much of the idled service industry–restaurant workers, hotel workers–classes of business that were already marginal and stressed before the pandemic–bookstores, independent mom-and-pop stores–and employment classes that are still occupied during the pandemic but under-resourced: for example, health care workers without protective equipment. In addition, people involved in low-paid work with a newfound “essential” status, who are widely understood to be socially invisible, underappreciated, or exploited–e.g., delivery drivers, logistics warehouse workers, home health aides–are given frequent public expressions of applause and acclaim.

The act giving of thanks to a class of workers suggests that they now work for more than the transactional benefit of the paycheck. According to some vague but widespread judgment that is displayed by all of the applause and thank-you signs, they provide a service whose value exceeds the monetary compensation received. In addition to the transaction, their work has meaning and social value. They are of service; their work is now laden with a duty undertaken for social good, and it deserves to be thanked. Behind the thanks is the recognition that not all economically productive activity has social value, that the actual constructive aspects of labor have to be assessed independent of the payment for it. Some work does not serve society yet continues to pay; other work provides service in excess of the payment.

On the boundaries of charity then, let me summarize. We have large classes or workers who are newly, involuntarily outside of the economy. Workers who are still (for the moment) inside the economy are called to transfer some cash to some of these newly unemployed, on the basis of individual moral judgments about whether these workers deserve it. We also have ever-growing numbers of people who are employed in marginal, dangerous, largely invisible labor (surely this is one of the largest-growing sectors of the economy right now), and who are regarded by the public in a way that exceeds the monetary value attached to their work. This goes as well for some better-compensated professions, like doctors and nurses at hospitals, but the principle is the same: whatever you receive in payment, you perform a service in excess of that payment. Recognition of this service has to happen outside of exchange. This aspect of their service has to be “thanked” through a gesture, not paid.

Put it all together, and we have a situation where the “the economy” and “what is valuable” are increasingly at odds with one another. When large numbers of people are forced out of the economy because their work is considered inessential, and they have no fallback, then the two-way relationship between workers and the economy has become disordered. Workers are not just contributors, giving something of themselves to the economy through labor and economically useful skills. Equally important is what the economy gives to them: the means to live. Both sides of this transaction are equally essential. What kind of system–economic or otherwise–allows workers to simply be cut off? Even if they are inessential, it is just as vital that they receive the means to live. One does not refuse to care for a sick relative because one is healthy and independent oneself. In other contexts–according to other values–a recognition of need goes beyond any possibility of exchange, even if some aspect of reciprocity (e.g., between parent and child) is still expected.

The abruptness by which many workers have been excluded from the economy, simply cut off their livelihood, has shown how dependent most workers are on narrow economic judgments about their value. If the value of your work cannot be exercised, then you have no economic value. And having no economic value puts you at risk of death; in other words, it leads to the extinction of all the other values.

Why is this allowed to happen? A capacious, pervasive, service-oriented and consumerist economy depends on the expectation that everyone and everything, no matter how marginal, will both contribute and receive. Values are supposed to find a way to be converted into economic terms that feed people. When the model works right, everyone is supposed to receive some cash to live. And in normal times, when everything is monetized, most everyone receives some cash–even if not enough to live. The ruse works well enough as long as it is possible to monetize everything. But when the range of monetizable activities is suddenly, drastically, restricted, what you have is an obvious disaster–and evidence of the model’s overall fragility.

The now-apparent ugliness of our economy inheres in the fact that, even in the best of times, an increasingly narrow range of actually valuable activity–to say nothing of “essential” activity–is actually monetizable. In effect, what we now call “essential” work is not what is valuable, but what can be monetized. When you let the stock trader continue to work from home, but you tell the waitress they have to stop, you reveal a judgment about what type of work the economy recognizes. The trader may not be labeled “essential” but that is in fact what you are saying: your life may go on more or less uninterrupted, this other person’s will not.

What do people do if they cannot translate their activities into monetized value? Or if their activity suddenly drops below the value it needs in order to live? In this vacuum we find an evolving concept of charity. In times of mass unemployment and the failure of an economic system, charity goes from being the exception to the rule. When workers of a shuttered restaurant start a GoFundMe campaign to make up their lost wages, charity becomes a signal that for many–perhaps most people–the gap between economic potential and other forms of value has reached an unbridgeable level. The restaurant workers’ appeal says that their value can still be recognized outside of labor exchange; that they are worthy of care even in the event that their activities cannot be monetized. As the crisis grows increasingly desperate, this appeal to charity is being practiced by more and more workers, from ever-more unexpected directions. The other trend I mentioned, that of “thanking” people in certain jobs, suggests that there is a recognition of a worker’s value even when monetary exchange still functions: people are struggling to make sense of a job’s importance through means other than the abstract signals (e..g, prices, wages) provided by the official economy.

These acts of charity are also, perhaps more reasonably, considered from a cynical perspective: GoFundMe campaigns for workers so management can reserve more cash for itself in a cash-crunched economic crisis, or empty “thank you” cards written by bored middle-class children for working-class Amazon drivers who bring their frivolous packages that probably shouldn’t have been ordered in the first place. But the two thoughts aren’t necessarily incompatible.