The younger, Black nurse draws my blood, like she has done every Tuesday for the past five weeks. She looks at me. I’m looking down. I’ve been having a hard time looking people in the eyes since my diagnosis. Call it shame. Call it guilt. Call it shock from a sickness that hits more like a car accident than a time-lapsing condition.
She wants me to look up. I can feel it. “Oh, we aren’t friends anymore?” she asks. I nod. But I don’t look up. She relents and pulls the needle out, then tapes the cotton ball I am holding to stall the blood. “Alright, you’re set. See you next week.” I nod again. She then prepares to drain another. We are an assembly line of broken figures. Part of what’s called the “knowledge economy.”
I leave the nurse’s station and enter into the waiting room of the outpatient lab at the cancer center in the City of Cleveland. The Rust Belt. People are all around. Mostly older. Majority Black. Universally struggling. Unanimously with cancer cells living in the rivers of their body, carried in there through the effect of living in a world that is constantly falling on you and in you. Not unlike a game of Plinko, but with the pegs bent severely toward the opposite side of winning; the deck stacked even worse than in the gameshow.
In his 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine, Arthur Koestler introduced the concept of a holon, described as a “whole part.” Nothing is separate and nothing is together. Everything is contextualized, nested. Everything flows into everything else, then exits the same way it enters. An atom is part of a molecule, a molecule part of a cell, a cell part of an organ, an organ part of a body, a body part of a household, a household part of a neighborhood, a neighborhood part of a city, a city part of a state which, in turn, is part of a nation-state which, in turn, is part of the geopolitical body politic we call “globalization.”
Up top, there sit the overachievers, the go-getters, the Ivy Leaguers, or those born into it: the Jared’s, Ivanka’s, and the like. Yet what goes up must come down. That’s the essence of power. Decisions are made by the few that trickle down through the many, doing so across geographic scales that hierarchically drift from international edicts to federal laws to state and local ordinances to street wisdom to hate and love in the household, where it all ultimately lands with a thud into the geography of the body.
It’s the ultimate proving ground of how we are doing.
A tumor. A murmur. An infection. A wheeze. A rash. A bullet. A syringe. A voice in the head. No voice. A feeling of hope. Not the feeling of hope. A whimper. A wail. A laugh. An inspiration. A concussion. A deep breath. An asphyxiation. These are the outcomes that matter. We can talk innovation, creative destruction, artificial intelligence, “big” government v. “small” government, Gross Domestic Product, secular stagnation, labor market bifurcation, income inequality, workforce readiness, Wall Street nonsense, real estate nonsense, etc. until we are blue in the face. And we do. America is one big blue avatar that’s bloated in its delusion and uncatchable in its breath, a choking made possible by the fact that we refuse to acknowledge that the term “late capitalism” is just a proxy for the fact that we’ve been making shit up for some time.
A COVID-era New York Times headline concedes: “Too Big to Fail: The Entire Private Sector.”
Matter of fact, the discipline of economics may be the most foolhardy endeavor we have ever pretended so hard upon, if only because economists aren’t too good at doing the “science” part of the social science discipline. An International Monetary Fund (IMF) study, for instance, analyzed economists’ ability to forecast recessions, which is the meteorologist equivalent of predicting hurricanes or the epidemiologist equivalent of predicting pandemics. The IMF researchers appeared to linguistically turn themselves into knots by what they found, concluding that the “forecasts by the private sector and the official sector are virtually identical…both are equally good at missing recessions.” So, tied for first in being bad. The IMF study ends by noting “strong booms are also missed, providing suggestive evidence for…the view that behavioral factors—the reluctance to absorb either good or bad news—play a role in the evolution of forecasts.”
This “reluctance to absorb either good or bad news” is the opposite of what’s supposed to happen. The scientific method is what it is because it privileges the analysts’ ability to objectively observe whatever it is that is being considered. No a priori normative judgements are needed. You check your baggage at the door and coolly observe the phenomena as it unfolds in front of you. A hunch takes place. A light bulb goes off. A theory may develop, which is nothing more than an abstraction—a mental model—of a given reality you’re paying mind to. Evidence may build to bloom the theory, or it may build so it dies on the vine. Regardless, a body of knowledge is born in either the presence or absence of proof, with neither being privileged over the other.
But that’s not how discovery happens in practice. Humans are less robotic than animalistic. We wake up, eat oatmeal, and dream big and fear big, and so the mental models we go to work with—and the algorithms that become brick-layered to give them heft—are guard-railed by the hopes and fears that make the human human. And while that’s true of all disciplines, there’s arguably no vocational calling more intertwined with the powers that pre-exist than economics, in which the economist is far less an objective discerner of the invisibly-handed market than a salivating participant in the wild kingdom of cash money wherein all partakers are so ravenously engaged in what’s happening that they fall limp in the ability to figure out why it’s happening. Let alone whether it should be happening at all. That’s not to mention the fact that a founding presumption of the field, homo economicus—which asserts that the agent of the market is the “rational man”— is trash.
The world is sick so often. Go look out the window and tell me what you see. Greed is good is more right. This is arguably why economists are so lionized. Not because of their goddamn utility functions. But for the insinuation, or the allusion, (or want), that they hold the keys to the castle. Economists are reputed to know where the loot is. Or more exactly, where the looting is.
The danger, here, is not that economists make money selling bullshit transactionally. All disciplines do that. A plumber does that. The danger is that economists influence powerful people, and they are influenced by powerful people . Moreover, Americans trust economists. They are the high priests of the other religion that Jesus warned us about: “For you say, I am rich,” notes Revelation 3:17 “I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” That’s fine. But this is America, 2021. Billionaires are making space forces. Kardashians are made into billionaires. So, you are not naked, blind, poor, pitiable, or wretched. You are just rich. And if you are so then you are so because you fell on the right side of a story that was told, and you believed how it ended. Which is never.
It’s 8:45 in the morning. I leave the carousel sliding doors of the hospital and walk out to the street. There, we sit. Sponges below a broken, glass ceiling. Dying the death of a million cuts. I sit on a bench by the Survivor’s Garden. It’s got a walking path and a bell but never any people in it. It’s early Springtime. It looks lamb but feels lion. Sunny and cold. I am waiting for my ride. I need to get home to my wife and three kids, but I can’t drive any more. My visual field is cut on my left side from a craniotomy. I could fake it and drive. But that’s how we got here in the first place. Everyone skirting their personal responsibility because it’s been drilled into their head that they, the individual, have all the say when in fact they have none. Everyone and their phony liberty. The mass shootings and the 2nd Amendment. The mask freak outs and whatever amendment that is.
What a mess. What a tale.
In the 2017 paper “Narrative Economics” that would go on to be a best-selling book of the same name, Nobel Laureate economist Richard Shiller speculates on the causative factors of major economic events, such as recessions, as well as dominant ideologies, like deregulation and privatization: that backbone of neoliberalism. Shiller breaks pedagogy with his notion that economics is less formed by logic and numbers than emotions and stories. “We have to consider the possibility that sometimes the dominant reason why a recession is severe is related to the prevalence and vividness of certain stories,” Schiller writes, “not the purely economic feedback or multipliers that economists love to model.” He goes on to note that “new narratives may be regarded often as causative innovations” that subsequently change the world order. These narratives aren’t birthed by QAnon antagonists, but rather “originate in the mind of a single individual (or a collaboration among a few).” Shiller references fellow economist Joel Mokyr who called such individuals the “cultural entrepreneur”.
Milton Friedman, a godfather of neoliberalism, was one such cultural entrepreneur. His 1970 New York Times essay aptly titled “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits” was the shot heard around the world. The message was deceptively simple, or that CEOs have one master to serve, the shareholders, and they do so by maximizing corporate welfare with little-to-no regard for societal welfare. “The businessmen believe that they are defending free enterprise when they claim that business is not concerned ‘merely’ with profit but also with promoting desirable ‘social’ ends”, Friedman lashes out, “that business has a ‘social conscience’ and takes seriously its responsibilities for providing employment, eliminating discrimination, avoiding pollution and whatever else may be the catchwords of the contemporary crop of reformers… Businessmen who talk this way are unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.”
Friedman’s strawmen of “businessmen who talk this way” was never clarified in his essay, but it didn’t matter. The executive class loved the message, for it absolved them of every responsibility absent hoarding money and not acknowledging they went against God re: Revelation 3:17. Nor did it matter that Friedman’s ideological stance that profit was purity in a free enterprise system was without evidential merit. Laissez-faire capitalism, the most dominant geopolitical ideology of our time, wasn’t modeled in as much as told in. Think of history, then, as not written by victors but by the policymakers who are the best storytellers, or alternatively: by the actors standing in for policymakers who are the best storytellers.
“Viral narratives need some personality and story,” Shiller continues. “One such narrative involved movie star Ronald Reagan, who became a household name as the witty and charming character of the highly popular US television show General Electric Theater from 1953 to 1962…Reagan used his celebrity to launch a massive free-markets revolution whose effects…are still with us today.”
In his first inaugural address Reagan declared, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would echo his sentiment in more controversial terms: “Who is society? There is no such thing! [N]o government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.”
So came decades worth of policies that’d belittle the whole-part of the government, or the public good, for the whole-part of individual, or the private good. Those decisions that were made would carve the country up, selling off its parts like a butcher would lamb, pig, or beef. Importantly, it was a social science “consensus” that provided for the okay to such a hardline ideological stance, one greased into existence through a network of economic consultants who entered boardrooms to present on findings that they pretended were coming from them rather than into them. You’ve heard the terms. Efficiency as a means and profit as an end. Privatization and deregulation. Automation and off-shoring. You also know the industries: transportation, utilities, manufacturing, corrections, education, healthcare…
The effect in my hometown, Cleveland, was exemplar: In 1969, 74% of city’s income came from salaries and wages. It came from work. By 2018 that number decreased to 54%! The percent of Clevelanders’ income that came from dividends, interest, and rent, however, or money paid to stockholders, lenders, and landowners, went from 14% to 20%. Dubbed “financialization,” this is essentially the process of money making money. The scholar Gerald Epstein defines financialization as “the increasing role of financial motives, financial markets, financial actors and financial institutions in the operation of the domestic and international economies.” Epstein explains that the financialization of an economy—historically symptomatic of a declining hegemonic power—is part and parcel with a shift in money “between capital and labor on the one hand, and between management and workers on the other hand.” And while I could go on with the finger-wagging statistics, like the top 1% of earners in America now take home 20.5% of the national income, up from 10.7% in 1980, it’s akin to beating a dead horse back to life. That’s because stories matter, not stats. Civilization was built around a campfire. Not a spreadsheet.
Thus, the neoliberal narrative remains, entrenched in the mythos of America as much as the image of a pre-cancerous Marlboro Man. That legend of a hyper-individualistic American Dream persisting like some motionless North Star that offers guidance to life’s passersby. Us hitchhikers of the galaxy. Everyone magnetized but fewer admitting the precarity and terror of the direction.
But the body don’t lie. Life expectancy in the U.S. has not only plateaued, it’s declined for three consecutive years recently, veering into a trajectory of stalled longevity that’s not even close to the paths of other Western nations. In their recent study “Life Expectancy and Mortality Rates in the United States, 1959-2017”, the authors find that American’s life expectancy decline was a function of Americans aged 25 to 64 dying early. “The notion that U.S. death rates are increasing for working-age adults is particularly disturbing because it is not happening like this in other countries,” said Steven Woolf, the lead author. “This is a distinctly American phenomenon.”
Then there’s COVID. America has the most COVID deaths worldwide, nearly double that of second-place Brazil. This is not because we don’t have good healthcare. We have the best. It’s because what’s been sewn has been reaped. “[I]f there is a single economic policy lesson to learn from the coronavirus pandemic,” notes management theorist Roger Martin, “it is that the United States’ obsession with efficiency over the last half century has brutally undermined its capacity to deal with such a catastrophic event. The virus shows that making our companies efficient also made our country weak.”
I’m sick, but I don’t yet feel weak. I am in the car. My mom is driving, and I can’t help but feel like a child. I leave the part of Cleveland attached to its upswing, or it’s medical and cultural district, and I enter into its other parts. Houses tilted. Roofs pushed in. Windows with little light on inside. Those rooms part of a house, the house part of a neighborhood, the neighborhood part of a citiy, the city part of a State which, in turn, is part of a nation-state which, in turn, is part of the geopolitical body politic.
Up there, stories are told. These tales are tall and invariably trickle down, eventually stilling into the geography of our body. Into organs. Into cells. Into molecules. Into atoms. Into whatever it is that breaks down into the barrenness that scientists can’t find. We have a galaxy within us. Shooting stars that could shoot out if they were allowed to.
I think about these things as I ride shotgun through the city, moving toward the holon that is my home.
Richey Piiparinen is an academic that studies the life and death of Rust Belt cities. He lives and writes in Cleveland.