We now live in one of those eras you'd read about in school and think, "Wow, glad I wasn't around for that one." The Bubonic Plague? No thanks, I'm a '90s kid. In fairness, the 21st century has long been a consistently traumatic time in human history: we kicked off with 9/11, soon hit the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and careened towards installing a deranged game-show host as the world's most powerful man. So much for The End of History. Things were bad enough—rampant inequality that destabilized our society and our politics, pitiful inaction in response to an existential threat to human civilization as we know it—before a Biblical pestilence swept across the world and plunged our lives into disorder. And now we're staring down another economic cataclysm.
On Thursday, March 26, the United States Department of Labor announced that nearly 3.3 million people applied for unemployment benefits last week. That is the largest spike in modern American history—larger than any week in 2008, larger than the previous record of 695,000 new jobless claims in 1982—and it almost certainly does not represent the full number of jobs lost already. There have been widespread reports that state systems for unemployment applications are overloaded; some people may have tried and failed to join those 3.3 million. Others will not be eligible for these unemployment benefits, but have lost their income all the same.
On the horizon is the prospect of nothing short of an economic meltdown. Many economists, according to the Washington Post, can see as many as 40 million Americans losing their jobs by next month. Of all the things we often fail to appreciate, our proximity to the abyss—the precariousness of our modern, comfortable lives—is surely one.
That is totally, utterly nuts pic.twitter.com/PoMnkhwo4R— Carl Miller (@carljackmiller) March 26, 2020
They used to call it the Great War, until another one came along and put that title into dispute. We're probably too far along to see any naming revisions for the Great Depression, but it looks like those of us so blessed to live in the 21st century could soon have one of our own. We have the incredible experience of watching the entire world economy grind to a halt, of a civilization collectively put on pause so that as many of us as possible might survive. We know there's nothing going on outside our homes that we're missing out on, and yet we know the clock is ticking, too. At the end of these 18 months it will require to develop a vaccine, we will all be 18 months older, even if we spent those many days in a holding pattern. The closed loop of our domiciled lives is an illusion. It's as much as 18 months without so much of what makes life worth living—a roaring sports arena, a party with old friends, a chance encounter with a stranger who might just become something else. It is a human tragedy.
It's enough to drive you a bit mad, to start questioning all the public-health experts and the political leaders who insist the lockdowns must continue. The president and his allies certainly have lost what marbles they had, as some call for grandparents to lay down their lives for The Economy—whatever that means—and Donald Trump muses about re-opening the country by Easter, a holiday that's so dear to his heart as a devout follower of Jesus Christ. Perhaps, as the president suggests, "the cure is worse than the disease." It's worth remembering what this disease is actually doing to people, though. Nobody can tell you more about that—or will do so more forcefully—than the Italians. They have seen the very worst of it, though the United States of America seems poised to seize the mantle.
There really is no choice, you see, not for a moral people. We could not sacrifice our fellow citizens on the altar of the Dow Jones Industrial Average even if it would help, which it wouldn't. Hundreds of thousands more Americans dying as the hospital system goes into free fall is not going to be good for the economy. There is no good economy on the near horizon—only survival, and intervention by the federal government to keep our system afloat.
The Senate passed a bill, thankfully, but now they've gone running for the hills. A month recess is a fit of delusion. They will be back soon enough. With each passing week, we lurch further towards a true rupture in the fabric of our society. Members of the United States Congress would do well to sense how dangerous this state of things could prove to be. The 11th-hour campaign by Republican senators to strip unemployment benefits from the relief bill they deemed too generous will look like a spasm of psychosis soon enough. So will this week's calls to "re-open the country" when, in a week or less, the nation's hospitals are truly plunged into hell.
"May you live in interesting times," goes the apocryphal curse, and our grasp of that gallows humor has been refreshed now. It is a frightening and confusing time to live in the world. We are simultaneously made aware of all the things we took for granted and paralyzed in our attempts to act on what we've learned. You realized you don't see your parents enough? Well you can't see them now, for fear you might bring them the contagion along with all your love and good will. Give them a call, then. Do what you can. If you are lucky enough to still have a job and a salary, give some of it away to those who have nothing, or soon will, through no fault of their own. For whatever reason, we can never seem to see over the cliff, even when we're standing right up against it. Maybe to look down would be to allow yourself to be swallowed by it. But know that it's there, and we're inching towards it, and we will need all the best in our species to weather what comes.
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