Driving back from taking our pup to doggy day care, the streets were much quieter than usual. Having lived in the area called the Tri-Cities in Illinois for more than forty years, it isn’t hard to recall a time when things used to be even quieter around here. There was less traffic back then because there were less people and less stores for people to visit. So things were quieter.
I’m not here to say that is good or bad. Businesses and malls have come and gone over those four decades. Houses cropped up and lifestyle shopping took the place of wandering around inside enclosed malls. Growth exploded in the Fox Valley. But things are changing fast.
While driving home I listened to news that 70% of America’s economy is based on retail. Yet retail companies have already been struggling in the face of pressure from online sales. I’ve written marketing content and whitepapers for printing companies trying to make the transition from traditional to digital marketing. The effects of these changes are wide-ranging.
I’ve also worked for a municipality blindly trying to figure out what will happen to tax revenues as retail markets changes. That city lost $1M in annual revenue when a big box merchandiser closed up its location. Giants like Amazon are sucking up local business revenues. Downtowns across America have contracted or learned to thrive by changing their entire business mix.
State and local revenue wars
Meanwhile the debate at the state level is whether cities and towns should get a share of tax revenue from online purchases. Mayors and city managers are lobbying to make that happen. But getting a share of that money is challenging when states like Illinois and others are struggling to make their budgets work. There’s also a war over who pays more into the federal government and who takes out. That reality played out on the national stage when New York’s governor Cuomo, after asking federal assistance during the pandemic, was forced to lambast Kentucky’s Senator Mitch McConnell who complained that it was Blue States asking for bailouts. Turns out McConnell’s own state takes out $148B while Cuomo’s state pours money into the national coffers.
All this money talk clouds the reality that the wages earned by regular people have been flat for decades even while executive pay and corporate profits soar. Wealth has risen like cream to the top of the economy leaving the middle class to swim around in the toxic foam of credit card debt and mortgage payments. The Great Recession wasn’t that long ago, when millions lost their jobs and savings. President Obama at least provided a steady hand during the long recovery and handed a solid growth rate and largely employed society off to President Trump, who claimed all credit and clearly hoped to soar through the fall election by claiming the ‘greatest economy America has ever seen.’
Anger on the streets
But it turns out that Trump kicker is an illusion. The quiet streets on which I drove today are an indication that we haven’t been willing to look through the foam of mere survival to see how people are really getting along in this supposedly robust economy. The desperate plea of Make America Great Again had merit in one sense: the economy and healthcare and infrastructure all needed to be more balanced, and it was government’s job to do it. But that’s hard for Republicans who don’t believe in the merit of government to accept. So they threw more money at the wealthy with big tax cuts and hoped it would somehow paper over the cracks in the foundation of Americanism.
The disenfranchised in this country made great claims in supporting Trump, who promised to help them transition from legacy industries into good-paying jobs. Trump played front-page political games showing up at manufacturing plants where new jobs were promised. But capital still follows cheap labor out of country and overseas. They voted for a guy who promised to fix it all and it turns out that all Trump cares about is making the sure the fix turns out in his favor.
The cures that Trump promised America were even foamier than the illusion of America’s economic parity. When Trump messed around trying to clobber China with tariffs his action cost thousands of farmers their markets and livelihoods. The fix to that debacle required billions in agri-welfare to bribe farmers from revolt. Yet the true colors of the Trump philosophy were revealed when agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue had little compassion for everyday farmers. “Go big or go home” was his only advice.
The place where I live sits on the absolute spine between suburbia and farm country. I can literally throw a stone east and hit houses. Turn west and it lands in a fallow cornfield. Last year it was so wet that many farmers planted late or didn’t plant at all. Perhaps that was an omen of things to come when we consider what’s happening with the economy right now.
As I ride my bike west this year I’m watching for signs that farmers are ready to plant again. Last night we received a blanket of rain that added up to more than an inch, and I’ll bet there are farmers nervous as hell that the rains may delay things yet again.
Running out of time
I went for a run in that rain yesterday. At one point I covered a mile on a sidewalk next to a normally busy street and saw no cars. Zero. It felt like I’d gone forty years back in time.
The streets are just now drying off thanks to a steady 20 mph wind from the north. IN some rhetorical dream, it would be nice if some sort of wind would come along and blow this Coronavirus pandemic away. Right now the economy is soaked with unemployment as one in five workers has lost their jobs at least temporarily. Trump and some governors are pushing hard to open the economy back up, and I don’t blame them. He screwed this thing up pretty badly, and no matter what happens this November, the royal messup that Trump committed by ignoring and lying about the threat of a pandemic is forever sealed in the Baggie of evidence along with his “perfect” phone call to the President of Ukraine.
They would hardly admit it, but even Trump’s supporters are disgusted with his lack of honesty. They may blame anyone but Trump, and are focusing their ire on state governors issuing Stay At Home orders, but they were only following the instructions originally issued and demanded by Trump, who told them as well, “You’re on your own.” Angry citizens know we’re running out of time to get things moving again.
My personal view on how much social distancing is necessary depends on the circumstance. Common sense enters the picture at some point. I wear a mask in stores and wash my hands regularly. I respect social distancing guidelines and don’t make unnecessary trips to the grocery store or anywhere else. Even while running or riding, I moved far away from others on the trails.
Yet I stopped at a grocery story out on the edge of farm country last weekend and noticed immediately that hardly anyone inside the store was wearing masks. I think people in some cases believe their stubborn nature amounts to immunity. That and carrying guns around to prove that they won’t be bullied into doing anything they don’t like. Some pastors even tested the power of God by holding services despite strictures against such gatherings. Covid-19 hotspots immediately cropped up. That was just lack of common sense.
Can’t be bullied
The trouble our nation faces right now can’t be bullied out of the way or resisted by mere stubborn determination. That approach may be part of America’s nature and tradition, but it isn’t working when the threat we’re facing comes from within, and from the top down. This isn’t just a trickle-down effect from Trump’s selfish brand of narcissism, although that’s what cost us crucial time in responding to this pandemic. He simply made it worse. There’s no denying that.
So rather than a trickle, what we’re now dealing with is a flood of denial. Denial of the threat. Denial of responsibility. Denial of science that contradicts the politics. Denial of the difficulties in combatting a viral disease. Denial of the economic pandemic that predatory lending and high credit card interest rates imposes on the populace. Denial that the coming generation of young people is way more honest about these things than too many Boomers care to admit. Denial that the toxic flow of misinformation originating from the Religious Right depends on a legalistically corrupt version of scripture. Denial that the notion of constitutional originalism has turned the country into a festering pit of gun violence, racial conflict and false notions of liberty. All because people are too eager to live in the past. Like the past was better. And that Make America Great Again every made any sense at all.
Like I said, it used to be a lot quieter around here. But perhaps that was an illusion all along.