The Era of Big Ideas is Among Us

It takes a crisis.

That’s when the big ideas, the radical ideas that seemed too fringe for the status quo just prior, all of a sudden seem not only plausible but inevitable. “Never let a serious crisis go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel told the Wall St. Journal at the peak of the 2008 financial crisis. Milton Friedman, one of history’s most zealous advocates of laissez-faire capitalism, was wrong about many things- but about crises turning the impossible into the possible, he was most absolutely correct.

Every stable status quo has an equilibrium, an Overton Window of acceptable policies that keep in check any ideological move too far in either direction. In those times, purists and radicals on all sides are confined to the fringes, deemed “unrealistic” by the mainstream. Then, the crisis hits, and everything is up for grabs. This is the highest stakes game of all because a swing in one radical direction is diametrically opposed to a swing in the opposite direction. It becomes a game of the wills. Whose ideas will win?

The crisis is here. The henchmen of the plutocracy are jumping to implement the crisis playbook to finally get what they’ve always wanted- a total consolidation of their wealth and power. Trump is already pushing to suspend the payroll tax, which would undermine Social Security and give the pretext to cut and privatize it- a radical neoliberal idea that was waiting on the fringes for a moment like this to strike.

Then there are the proposals to bail out large corporations, many of which are some of the biggest polluters in our economy, including fracking companies, and companies like airlines who binged on casino-capitalist stock-buybacks during boom times only to now stand like Oliver, hand out to the taxpayers, asking for some more. The environmental crisis long predated the virus, and this shock is exactly the opportunity the planet needs to fully restructure our economy into a sustainable model.

Instead, these short-sighted bailouts, which could be used so much more wisely, are rescuing the old polluters while doing nothing to develop green alternatives. Also, the very private health insurers who ensured that many Americans can’t afford the very healthcare they now most desperately need are meeting with Trump. Do you think they won’t have their hands out too?

The Federal Reserve pumped $1.5 trillion into the financial markets, and we can be sure that’s the first of more. $1.5 trillion, by the way, is incidentally almost the same amount required to eliminate student debt, but of course, “we can’t afford it.”

Regular workers have been left dry, and gig workers have it even worse right now. According to the American Payroll Association, 74% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. With ongoing mass-layoffs, that’s a shocking number of people who are scarily insecure. What's worse, if they want to observe the public health warnings by staying quarantined, they will need to avoid working and hence getting paid, or they will work anyways out of desperation, and increase the likelihood of getting ill and spreading the virus. With rents, medical debts, student debts, credit card debts potentially defaulting en masse, we have a major crisis on Main St. on our hands. This is the time for comprehensive bailouts for the People. Without them, bankruptcies and homelessness will skyrocket.

We’ve seen this playbook before. During the 2008 financial crisis, the government handed no-strings-attached bailouts to the perpetrators on Wall St. while the people on Main St. were left to suffer from foreclosures and unemployment. ‘Radical’ ideas like medicare for all, the Green New Deal, free education and jobs programs weren’t as ripe then. This time, they are. This isn’t a time for compromise. This is a time to win.

The 2007 book The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein describes a merciless and repeated strategy; after a shock like a natural disaster, market crash, or terrorist attack, public panic and disorientation are exploited by the powers-that-be to institute radical neoliberal policies while citizens are too panicked to effectively respond.

Luckily, it can go both ways. It’s also possible for a crisis to spark a great evolutionary leap for society. The New Deal brought about investments in infrastructure like roads, dams, and rural electrification, a progressive taxation system, collective bargaining rights, banking regulations, consumer protection policies, Social Security, and a host of other sweeping developments that underpin a modern society and sane economy. The New Deal could never have happened without the Great Depression.

So here we are, with a crisis in full swing. Trump’s agenda will clearly reflect the shock doctrine of the moneyed interests. This is no time to sit back and watch. It’s all up for grabs and anything can happen. The good news is that there is a mobilized undercurrent of social movements and radical elected officials with New Deal style policy ideas, as Milton Friedman put it, laying around. We’ve seen a relentless rightward drift of the Overton Window in the generations since Roosevelt, so just before the crisis these ideas were deemed “radical.” But now, it is becoming clear that they’re the only rational and humane ways out of this crisis and into a great evolutionary leap for our system as a whole once the crisis is over.

One way or the other, the era of big government stimulus spending is here, whether it’s used to resuscitate late-stage capitalism or whether its used to bail out and invest in the people and planet. Now is the perfect opportunity to demand and fight for the latter. The Green New Deal is exactly the kind of 21st century upgrade to Rooseveltean economic policy, tailored for the needs of our era. Forget bringing back dirty industries from the dead. Instead, now is the time to create the new, clean industries of the future, and to see the proliferation of transparent and publicly accountable state and municipal banks to finance this revolutionary transformation.

The gravity of this situation cannot be overstated. It is simultaneously the greatest threat and the greatest opportunity in modern history, with the highest stakes for the future of human civilization. Future generations will remember this moment as either the beginning of the end or as the beginning of something new and glorious. Which one, is up to all of us.

The iron is hot. They will not let this crisis go to waste. We better not either.

Idealist. Optimist. For a new renaissance. Rethink everything. www.phoenixgoodman.com

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