Long before a “meme” was a picture of a cat dangling on a clothes line with the caption Hang in There, a “meme” was an underutilized word that simply meant “idea” or “concept.” A powerful new meme can change a culture, it can change political decisions; it can change the world.
Here’s a good one: The World Is Round. Think of the revolutionary effect this has had upon human thought and activity.
And here is a meme that is working toward full cultural acceptance in the United States, but has very little consequence: A Man Can Wear an Earring and Still be Masculine. Not a big deal.
The combination of the coronavirus pandemic, plus the related economic shock, has brought big new ideas — new memes — into the public arena and given new life to “old” ideas. Let’s take billionaire investor Mark Cuban. When asked by Yahoo Finance if the crisis had changed any of his ideas about the economy and the role of government, he replied “Everything. One hundred percent. I read Ayn Rand. I was a Libertarian. I thought government had a role, but smaller government was better than bigger government. And that all changed. Dogma’s out the window.” He then went on to endorse the idea of a Federal Jobs Program and a Federal Minimum Wage. One might say that Mark Cuban has been transformed into Franklin D. Roosevelt, and that the old ideas that undergirded the New Deal have been given new life.
This crisis has spawned a slew of creative ideas. Here are four memes that are growing in acceptance and which may dramatically change America:
1. Our very lives depend upon our most poorly paid and least protected workers.
2. The US Government can spend big money when it wants to.
3. We will need to create new jobs. A good way to do that is through a jobs program packaged as the Green New Deal.
4. A Universal Basic Income is also a real option to consider.
Point 1 has already become obvious. As for point 2, consider the tone of the political discussion about the “cost” of Medicare for All. Four months ago, there was no way the US Government could spend that kind of money. Then along comes the coronavirus, and the stock market gets shattered, and over 26 million Americans are suddenly unemployed, and capitalism itself may self-destruct — well then, the trillion-dollar tap is turned on.
Point 3 builds on the meme that came out of the Depression: We have to put people back to work. Roosevelt’s New Deal created millions of jobs through the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Projects Administration, and other public spending. One hopes that building Green Infrastructure through Green Jobs will make sense to a largely environmentally-friendly populace. (And by the way, Elizabeth Warren already has a blueprint for creating 10.6 million green jobs. Find it here.)
Point 4 was a fringe idea until Andrew Yang proposed the creation of a universal basic income for all Americans. This is how he explained it before the crisis:
In the next 12 years, 1 out of 3 American workers are at risk of losing their jobs to new technologies — and unlike with previous waves of automation, this time new jobs will not appear quickly enough in large enough numbers to make up for it. To avoid an unprecedented crisis, we’re going to have to find a new solution, unlike anything we’ve done before. It all begins with the Freedom Dividend, a universal basic income for all American adults, no strings attached — a foundation on which a stable, prosperous, and just society can be built.
Yang thought that a monthly payment of $1,000 would be a good place to start. At the time, this sounded wildly idealistic, yet public polling in September 2019 found that 49% of Americans already accepted the idea. UBI also sounded wildly expensive, but that was before we made the mental shift from $ millions to $ trillions. And before unemployment was headed toward 30 million people. A poll in April 2020 found that general approval had jumped to 66%, at least until the Covid-19 crisis was over. Congressional Representatives Ro Khanna (CA) and Tim Ryan (OH) even introduced a bill to this effect.
The coronavirus shutdown has dealt a staggering blow to the global economy. There are economists who feel that the virus was simply the pinprick that popped the excess debt bubble. There are economists who think that everything was just fine, and that the economy will revive when people can come out from protective shelter. But virtually no investor, banker, economist or capitalist thinks that 30 million unemployed people will get back to work by December of this year, or even December of next year. A lot of paychecks are not coming back, which means that consumer spending will be depressed, which means the economy will be depressed. As Mark Cuban said at the end of his interview, “Unless we lift up from the bottom, we’re not going to have any consumer demand, and it doesn’t matter how much liquidity is in the system, the Risk hasn’t left the system.”
By Adam Corson-Finnerty
The author and his wife live in Bucks County, PA, where they are hiding from the virus along with their four cats.