An Embarrassment of Risk
We are living in a fugue, all of us Americans, even if there’s not a case of the novel coronavirus within hundreds of miles (although epidemiologists might know otherwise).
At this stage of the outbreak in New York City, you can’t do much but panic-buy—and even that is curtailed by available space (only so many rolls of toilet paper will fit inside an oven). Instead you take longer washing your hands while mourning the loss of an already paltry IRA. You game the subway ride between a car with more people who may have COVID-19 and one with fewer commuters but more homeless types who do things like simultaneously light a cigarette and a blunt at 8:45 in the morning because when the cars thin out, it’s their turf.
We are in this disorienting situation for the same reason that the world is—a pandemic that only guys on Wall Street are referring to as a “black swan.” They mean something you couldn’t have seen coming. But because a black swan is something that occurs in nature whereas a unicorn is not, you actually could have seen this coming.
The entwined public health and financial crises that have enveloped America have shown us what it feels like to be on the wrong side of risk. And like Donald Trump, we still won’t accept it. Hence the fugue.
The very reason that the stock market had been roaring until this virus became USDA homegrown lies in two words that never lose currency on CNBC: “consumer confidence.” Even though a lot of startups have lots of debt—and even though business investment declined over the past year and the manufacturing sector contracted—banks and other financial institutions have loaned these companies an estimated $1.1 trillion.
Banks had kept on making risky loans to corporate America because corporate America thought we should have faith in the wisdom of one-click consumers. On February 11, Americans’ total credit card debt was at all-time high: $930 billion. This month, the average American credit card had $6,194 in revolving debt and an interest rate of 16.88%.
The old saw from Wall Street is that consumers amass personal debt when they feel good about the economy. Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, wrote recently in The Atlantic about tech companies making Americans addicted to their products: “Consumers, it is assumed, are discerning and rational in the face of the market’s blandishments—an assumption that is crucial to the whole system’s ability to produce social good.”
But when was the last time American consumers were “discerning and rational”? After the 2008 financial crisis, everyone blamed everyone else. Americans who did things like take out subprime mortgages without a steady income stream were stupid, but because they suffered the consequences of their actions, they became victims. They said You hurt me! to the banks and got a few apologies but no restitution let alone financial compensation for their losses.
And then over the next 12 years they took back these abusive partners who brought them flowers in the form of awesome mobile banking apps that looked nice and frictionless alongside Apple Wallet and Google Pay. They went right back to making the banking industry’s extension of credit part of their household budgets.
After the 2016 presidential election, non-voters liked to rationalize that “my vote doesn’t count.” But now, today, each individual who failed to vote against Donald Trump has sanctioned Trump’s 2018 appointment of Robert Redfield as head of the CDC. It was under Redfield’s watch that, in January, as COVID-19 was creating panic in China, the United States passed on using the first diagnostic test for the disease that the World Health Organization had shipped to nearly 60 countries. Instead, the United States opted to go its own way . . . but without actually having a way.
Whose fault is it that Americans have not just embraced but actively cultivated in their progeny a high degree of comfort with precarity and risk? Is it the banks sending zero percent balance transfer offers in the mail? The student loans we’ll never pay off so why not live the highlife with Ubers and nightly DoorDash? The risks are not just in racking up debt and electing Donald Trump and members of his toxic party; they lie in doing nothing to mitigate against climate change and global pandemics, income equality and a growing number of “deaths of despair.”
When we have deaths of despair, what are consumers even confident of? We know that they trust their favorite brands more than they do their government. But the reason government exists is because of the precarity and risk inherent in living on this planet. You may love Apple, but the existence of Apple has nothing to do with mitigating precarity and risk. Apple exists to profit from as many of us as it can. Those who voted for Trump or failed to vote at all in 2016 essentially kneecapped our federal government. They got their tax cut at the cost of coronavirus.
Speaking at the House Oversight Committee on the federal government’s COVID-19 response, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called the situation “critical because we must be much more serious as a county about what we might expect.” We keep hearing the phrase “out of an abundance of caution” in elation to COVID-19. But it was an abundance of risk that led to this nationwide failure to be serious about what to expect in regard to both public health and our economy.
We are in this collective fugue because we cannot process that this is a monumental problem based on what we as a nation failed to do. This virus outbreak has exposed a federal government with no plan to protect public health and a stock market already sailing on wounded wing. This crisis does not seem an act of God like Superstorm Sandy or an axis of evil assault like 9/11. It seems more like some bad family business that becomes exposed in a cloud of shame.
This virus kills with no political bias. Except that it kills older humans, and that seems almost a biblical score-settling considering that Donald Trump’s and the Republican Party’s supporters skew older. The centrality of cruise ships to this global crisis is another oddly metaphorical (nod to Parasite) aspect. Bill McKibben in the New Yorker underscored this crisis’s lesson that “giant cruise ships are climate killers.”
Even if you put old people on new ships, the metaphor conjured is of ships as the end of times, from the band playing as the Titanic goes down to Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, an allegory tracing the rise of Nazism. Our fugue of imminent reckoning cannot help but suggest images of people who recognize something terrifying in the moment before it’s too late to reverse course. I’m thinking of that beer garden scene in Cabaret when the Germans join in singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”
Although we have been through the ringer fearing such fascism with a Trump autocracy, we have also been fortunate that Donald Trump’s imbecilic ways are nothing like the Nazis’ meticulous organization when it came to genocide. I remember Philip Roth commenting that George W. Bush couldn’t run a hardware store let alone a presidency. And now Donald Trump couldn’t be left alone in one for ten minutes for fear of burning it down.
This public health crisis and financial crisis are entwined double-helix-style just like Americans’ personal debt is entwined with the DNA of our corporate debt. Though as individuals we’d rather give our money to Apple (easy credit) than the government (cash only), we maintain this sense that something bigger than ourselves will always be there to bail us out. Maybe it’s because corporate America operates the same way.
Soon enough we will know what happens to a surging service economy supported by debt and fueled by the belief that the future will be the same as the present. I had often wondered who’d be left without a chair when the music finally stopped. Sadly, it’s not chairs that we may not have enough of when the music comes to a grinding halt but hospital beds and ventilators. §