A short while ago, we were making political demands on our states, of various kinds. Some of us wanted our governments to do more to stop the spread of the virus and save lives. Some of us wanted our governments to provide more aid, more economic stimulus. But over the last few weeks, we stopped making political demands. We started looking at each other. As governments began re-opening their economies, they tried to make it our responsibility to stop the virus. You are supposed to social distance. You are supposed to wear a mask. In most places, none of this is required by law. In those jurisdictions where the advice has been incorporated into the law, it’s only nominally enforced. But you’re supposed to feel a moral obligation to do these things, and if you don’t do them people will shame you. They’ll yell at you, and maybe they’ll try to use social media to get you fired from your job. The guidelines aren’t enforced by the state–they’re enforced by the people around you. The state doesn’t take responsibility for this informal interpersonal coercion, but it tacitly encourages it. When we’re fighting with each other about whether we should wear masks, we aren’t making demands on the state. If we’re all too busy playing police officer with each other, we won’t have the bandwidth to hold the government to account.
We never seem to learn anything. The global economic crisis of 2008 should have taught us a lot about how governments cope with major economic shocks, but the level of analysis in 2020 has been abysmal. The Great Recession reduced US economic output by 4.2% and destroyed 8.7 million jobs. To counteract the loses, the federal government injected stimulus, first through the Bush administration’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and then through the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Combined, these two programs provided about $1.2 trillion. That’s about $285 billion per percentage of point of GDP. It wasn’t enough. The economy recovered very slowly, too slowly for the Obama administration to maintain public support. The Democrats lost the House decisively in 2010. Obama tried to get an additional $447 billion in 2011, but the Republicans had no interest in it. Instead, they pushed for deficit reduction. Obama tried to play nice with them, signing the Budget Control Act in August and making one last push for more stimulus in the Fall. They took his cookies. The second stimulus never happened. As the years went by, rural America continued to lose jobs, and grew more and more resentful, setting the stage for Donald Trump in 2016.
All around us, the quarantine is beginning to die. In the United States, the Southern states are slowly abandoning it and many Midwestern states are planning to follow. But it’s not just Republicans. The European states are bailing too. If you ask Democrats why states are beginning to defect, they will tell you it comes down to greed and stupidity. They’ll tell you the rich Republicans are greedy and the poor Republicans are stupid. But this policy was never a good fit for either the American or European political systems. To work, it needed a lot of economic support from regional authorities, and it never got that support.
With Bernie Sanders officially out of the 2020 presidential race, the left has no immediate prospects for taking power at the federal level. This leaves a lot of Sanders supporters wondering what, politically, they can do going forward. There is no energy or enthusiasm for Joe Biden or the national Democratic Party, and rightly so. This pushes folks back toward local politics. Local politics has a number of advantages–it takes less money and less manpower to be competitive at the local level. The two parties are less attentive to the ideological leanings of their candidates. It’s easier to use primaries to infiltrate them–they are much more permeable. But there are major limitations to this approach, too. It’s easy for oligarchs to move jobs and investment out of cities that attempt to move to the left. Many cities behave opportunistically, offering the oligarchs tax breaks and special treatment. How can we prevent the oligarchs from pitting cities against each other in an endless death struggle for investment? That’s what I want to explore here.