I’ll Take An Order Of Bread And Circuses For The Pandemic, Please.
The greatest opportunity for activism in the last 50 years could be lost to gaming and entertainment.
Endgadget and several other news outlets report that people are spending record amounts of time and money in and on gaming to while away the hours. It’s no secret that millions of unemployed people are binging on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+, and commercial-laden Peacock. Millions of people with time on their hands are turning to games and TV for relief. Millions of people are watching sports reruns. Millions of people are missing the greatest opportunity for activism we have seen in this century. And if one Federal Reserve President and scientists are heard in Congress, we might see an even greater opportunity for activism as a matter of law.
I used to marvel at the sports fans I’d seen when I went out to play pool. Way back in the 90s, I was engaged in the practice of filing Freedom of Information Act Requests as a line of business. It was fun work and I loved my job then, but all I could afford was to rent a room on that income. I’d do my customer service, file requests, answer responses, and file appeals in the morning, and take a break in the afternoon by playing a little pool for a buck an hour.
During that time playing pool, I’d see the dedicated sports fans watching the big game. If you asked them a question about the game on TV, they could regale you with facts, trivia, and stats of any player, any team, any game. They were sports fans to the core. And I wondered why these people were not more interested in how their government ran. I often mused to myself that if the typical sports fan set aside just half the effort they used for sports and redirected that effort to the vigilant observation of the government, oh, what a different country this would be.
I am pausing to notice the same thing about the current state of the nation. Millions of people are unemployed. Millions of people were getting $600 a week from the government plus a few hundred more from the state government. Millions of people got “economic impact checks” and there appears to be another round on the way. We have money and time. That to me is the greatest opportunity in the history of our nation, for activism.
The people who are out in the streets protesting, they’ve got a clue. They’re not binging Friends, or gaming until their thumbs are sore. They’re agitating for change. They’re peacefully marching in the streets, calling out injustice when they see it. But by the time you’re protesting, you’re too late. All the heavy lifting that gave us the public policy that made the conditions onerous enough to inspire protesting, is done. It was done months or years ago, in the city council meetings, the state legislatures, and in Congress long before most of us even had time to notice.
Many places around the country are still in lockdown. If there is no lockdown, millions more are voluntarily locking down — staying home, staying out of public places, keeping to themselves. I’m one of them, but I’m working from home. There are millions of people like me who have managed to luck out in a job that is already set with the infrastructure to work from home.
Now I’m married with two kids and I’m working from home. I look out upon the sea of people with days and weeks of free time and I see that with a fraction of the time available to them, they could get to know the government that claims to represent them. They could arrange a meeting with their local, state, and federal representatives and ask some pointed questions. They could use their time to file Sunshine Law requests. Every government at every level has Sunshine Laws like the federal Freedom Of Information Act and the Privacy Act. Those laws require that governments make documents and records available to anyone who asks. Reporters use those laws to pry information and documents from the bureaucracies that run our lives.
What would our nation look like with a vast part-time army of FOIA ninjas? Teamed with organizations like the ACLU, they’d be keeping the government on their toes. They’d be rooting out the corruption and the rot that gave us an economy that in turn gave us billionaires. They’d be able to document the revolving door, the money that makes the door swing and they’d be able to publish all of that, for all to see, in October. Boo!
In an opinion article published in the New York Times on August 7th, by Michael T. Osterholm and Neel Kashkari, a doctor and a banker make the case for a nationwide uniform lockdown until we can get cases of COVID-19 under control. Dr. Osterholm is director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. Mr. Kashkari is president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Both men have the experience and the resources to see that unless we get control over the virus, any economic recovery is going to be long, painful, and slow.
Here we have a president of a Federal Reserve bank and a highly respected leader in the medical community calling for mandatory lockdowns in every state for up to six weeks:
On July 30, six months later, there were 17 million cases reported worldwide, including 676,000 deaths. The United States had four million reported cases and 155,000 deaths. More than a third of all U.S. cases occurred during July alone.
To successfully drive down our case rate to less than one per 100,000 people per day, we should mandate sheltering in place for everyone but the truly essential workers. By that, we mean people must stay at home and leave only for essential reasons: food shopping and visits to doctors and pharmacies while wearing masks and washing hands frequently. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 39 percent of workers in the United States are in essential categories. The problem with the March-to-May lockdown was that it was not uniformly stringent across the country. For example, Minnesota deemed 78 percent of its workers essential. To be effective, the lockdown has to be as comprehensive and strict as possible.
In that article, I also learned about how effective lockdowns have been in other countries compared to the relatively lax lockdown we’ve had in ours. And it seems like we just sort of gave up on the lockdowns. I believe that Kashkari and Osterholm are right. They’ve seen that even with masks, cases have gone up rapidly without a strict and consistent lockdown.
I’m just musing here, I know. But if I was unemployed and my bills were being paid by the government, I’d be using at least some of that time in the service of activism from home. I think that a really great place to start is documenting what our government is doing. Sunshine Laws are perfect for the task and now every agency has devoted a portion of their website to document access. We can be activists from home now with the internet.
In the old days, Google was young, I was using Alta Vista to find PDF forms from the IRS and I did all of my requests by mail. I waited weeks while the wheels of the government turned. I spent a lot of my time poring over manuals from the agencies I studied, mostly the IRS, and I learned where to find the documents. All of my work then was on paper. Now, all that stuff is online and it’s easy to get.
Much of our work now is sort of a game. When I troubleshoot in my job at work, I’m mostly working in a browser. Often I work in remote control tools like Zoom, WebEx, Remote Desktop, and Secure Shell (ssh). I don’t handle paper at work. It’s all text files, PDFs, and email. Sometimes, I’d edit a Word document. Hunting down the cause of a problem and the solution to the same is a challenge and sometimes it feels like a game.
The human interface to the games we play now is the keyboard, mouse, and monitor. The human interface to much of our work today is through the computer. The skills required to do the work are not that far removed from the skills required for other tasks, including some rather cerebral games.
Everything we do and everything we touch requires a decision to be made. That can lead to decision fatigue. There are only so many calories we can burn in a day, and every decision we make requires calories to burn.
Whether we’re watching movies or TV, playing games, or working, we’re making decisions. When we watch a story unfold on TV, we must make decisions about how to interpret what we’re seeing. We must continually decide whether the content is entertaining enough to hold our interest or not. Watching TV is not a passive experience. Your mind must work to enjoy the content.
This decision-making process is true of gaming, too. Every game requires a decision to be made, strategies to be discovered, routines to be learned. Playing games on the couch while eating popcorn or mozzarella cheese sticks all requires energy for every decision to be made.
When we work, we’re making decisions. If we’re working on a computer all day, that can be just as taxing as digging a ditch, but I’d wager that digging a ditch doesn’t require as much mental discipline as solving a complex problem for a customer over a Zoom session. I remember the days before I got into computer work. I had room to think during work. Now when I work, I’m all rolled up into a little mental box that makes it hard for me to think of other things while I’m working.
So I see the freedom that people have during the pandemic. It’s not the most pleasant thing, for I know what it’s like to be unemployed. But all that time, especially if we’re in lockdown, means activism to me. I remember someone saying in a movie somewhere, that your worst enemy is someone who has nothing to lose. We have a growing population of people who feel just like that. People are beginning to believe that they don’t have anything left to lose, and that sentiment will be expressed unless they find something more constructive to do. That thing could be collecting documents from the government, collating them, and gaining a better understanding of how the government works. This is a worthy activity for people who have nothing better to do. And the people will be made better for it.
As the pandemic progresses, people will adapt to a new way of life. Even when the pandemic is done, it will be hard to shake the new habits to go back to the old way of life. Work is going to get more digital for a large fraction of the economy. And during that transition, as much of our productive capacity goes idle, we can use that time to redirect our attention to government and how it works. All that is required is for us to get involved.
We can use that time and space to learn about public policy decisions currently underway. We can participate in the governance of our country, for we are stakeholders, too. We can learn about pending public policy agendas and we can either thwart them or support them, but we can’t do much about them if we don’t at least know about them. This pandemic is a golden opportunity for millions of people to reclaim control of the government, by interacting with it.
Every FOIA request goes into a database. Every phone call goes into a database. Every letter to a member of Congress goes into a database. Anytime you touch the government, or it touches you, that goes into a database, too. The government is an information processor. Garbage in, garbage out. intelligence in, intelligence out. The wealthy are keenly aware of this dynamic. Sadly, most of the rest of us are not.
The pandemic will provide many of us with a break from the hustle, time for repose. We can lament the current unfolding catastrophe, or we can use it to our advantage, to restructure the economy to make the middle class great again. It may not seem like our efforts to interact with the government have a measurable effect. But if millions of people repurpose this time for activism, our work will bear fruit in the years ahead. We can reshape the government to be an advocate for the middle class by a billion paper cuts.
We can pass on the bread and circuses in favor of self-governance.