In My House, There Are Many Manchins

The clock ticks, ticks, ticks away. Somewhere in America someone is getting vaccinated, and almost everywhere else someone is not. The rules for who gets stuck are tangled and confusing. Americans have stepped up to the social-worth slot machine and checked to see where they stand in recent weeks and months. The elderly in nursing homes and front-line healthcare workers obviously require the highest priority, but after that it’s anybody’s guess as to which rungs of the ladder are next. NPR’s The Pulse recently did a great job gaming out the various scenarios for vaccine distribution — do we prioritize age, illness or disability, poverty, or give it to everyone all at once?

What’s fair? What’s effective? What’s efficient?

Lately, Americans haven’t been good at deciding what color to paint the bathroom doorknob, let alone make big decisions about who matters, who should live, who should die, when, and in what order. It’s a miracle that we’ve gotten this far without a civil war breaking out over vaccine prioritization. It’s almost like the bigger shapes and forms of inequality are so huge that this particular pecking order doesn’t seem to size up in comparison.

Maybe that sounds ridiculous. Right now, the vaccine is the first and last word on survival in a real way. Yet many people have spent the last year being reminded constantly that they don’t matter — the millions of “essential workers” in hospitals, grocery stores, classrooms, and loading docks who get paid somewhere between very little and a reasonable amount, all to risk their lives. Then there are the ultra-rich who have seen their net worth exponentially swell in what is an ocean of misery for everyone else; and the variedly comfortable middle class who can work-from-home, push a button, and have their groceries and curry brought to them.

In the shadow of this astonishingly frank inequality, maybe one’s place in the vaccine queue seems relatively small and trivial.

We have been brought, or carried ourselves, to the brink of a disaster unequaled in U.S. history, rivaled only by the Civil War and the Great Depression. As I’ve often joked to students, FDR and Joe Biden don’t it have quite as bad as each other. FDR didn’t have a plague to deal with.

The fact that this world-historically tragic moment is met by a tired but seemingly kindly old man does not instill a great deal of confidence. Joe Biden might have been good as an Andropov-esque figure, a member of the old guard who could preside over the empire’s slow and inexorable decline. Being put in the driver’s seat of five million crises does not seem like Biden’s strong suit. But hopefully Uncle Joe has the capacity to put minimally competent people in place and delegate everything to them.

Then we arrive at the utterly inscrutable politics of the moment. A freewheeling Keynesianism has gripped American politicians and policymakers in the last year, as if forty years of neoliberal dogma never happened. Spend. Spend. Spend. Spend! Have you considered spending?

The U.S. already spent 6.5 trillion dollars on COVID relief in 2020. Things that would have been considered bonkers and unthinkable when the 2008 financial crisis broke over us are now happening with the ease of choosing a beer koozie. The twin bogeymen of the deficit and the debt seem to have vanished instantly in the throes of last Spring’s crisis, as Republicans and Democrats alike were willing to push the money button. No doubt Republicans and conservatives will voice a sincere concern about the national debt now that a Democratic president is in the White House, just as they did with Obama. But the terrain of the debate has shifted dramatically.

I say “inscrutable” because the political scene at the moment stands before us blank-faced. It’s impossible to tell where we are. After Trump, the U.S. political system seems to have reset itself at exactly zero, or a perfect balance — Democrats barely hold the House and Senate, there’s an inherently vulnerable Democrat in the White House, right-wing fanatics grip the Supreme Court, and it feels like the balance of power could tip in any direction.

Behold: a man who fully represents the emptiness of current American politics, Joe Manchin, has been thrust into an emperor-like role over our destiny. A man who only got where he was because West Virginia had a vestigial Democratic political machine that could elevate any dog-brained, mouth-breathing meathead to office. Manchin’s utter vacancy as a human being is a tiny diorama of what all of American politics is at the moment: a janky weathervane, signifying nothing.

To me, the neoliberal orthodoxy of the past — about taxes, spending, inflation, social welfare and so on — appears cowed in a way I’ve never really seen in my lifetime. I don’t know if this is a hiccup, a blip, or a sign of things to come. We could be heading into a new era of big government spending, a renewed social contract, a greater commitment to economic equity and racial justice, guaranteed income and/or jobs, and a reassessment of fiscal policy along the lines of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).

We could also be swirling down the abyss of a revanchist white Christian nationalism, which instantiated itself most recently in the form of the Capitol Riot. The current moment might be a fleeting fever dream. Who knows?

What I do know is that the Pandemic has laid bare the sleeping, quiet, and shy injustices that have been here for years, in ways that make them loud and inescapable. Even some of the most ideologically blinkered people have had to recognize that the basic deal of society has been unraveling at a frightening speed.

The thing about making something loud is that you can’t not hear it; you can close your eyes and not see some dreaded or unwanted thing. But you can’t close your ears. The Pandemic has set everything that was already wrong with the U.S. screaming and howling, incessantly, in a way that won’t shut up.

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