America’s New Feudalism
Every state now has one form or another of a “stay home” rule.
In some places, it’s a hard lockup if you defy the rule. In others, you can go out if you keep a wide berth from other people; you can jog or ride a bike.
In general, though, you better have a valid reason to set foot on the public square.
So the new social model for American life is to stay where you are, remain calm and just await your check from the government…
But what’s really taking hold in these United States is a modern form of feudalism.
And it may linger long after schools and whatever businesses are left finally receive permission to reopen their doors.
Let’s drill into this.
In Baltimore, home of Agora Financial, police will arrest you if you leave your abode without justification, such as a “life-essential” job at a hospital or delivering food. At least you can still exit to go to a doctor or the grocery store (for now).
But don’t stretch those rules. “We’re not playing around,” said a Baltimore city spokesman. Cops will bust you if you’re out and about without good cause.
“The hope is,” said the city representative, “that people understand the seriousness of this and will comply and we won’t have to use enforcement measures. But we’re more than willing to do that.”
Helpfully, Baltimore’s mayor pointed out — or perhaps “warned” is a better word — that city residents must simply “adjust to this new reality.”
Not far from Baltimore, the latest new reality is that “Now is not the time to visit Delaware,” per a press release by the state police. Delaware cops have the authority “to pull over out-of-state drivers during the coronavirus pandemic,” according to CBS News.
In a grudging bow to interstate commerce and the U.S. Constitution, Delaware’s pull-over policy doesn’t apply to drivers on interstate highways. That is, out-of-staters can pass through Delaware while traveling to another state. Pedal to the metal, one presumes.
It’s a nationwide phenomenon. Boston is considering a hard evening curfew. In Rhode Island, police track dog-walkers with drones. Gunnison County, Colorado offers a $5,000 fine and 18-month jail sentence to virus scofflaws. In Los Angeles, cops have cited joggers on the beach and swimmers in the ocean.
Then again, many people have already loaded up and headed for the hills, where they’re often not welcome. Some communities have experienced what’s called “disaster gentrification” as well-off virus refugees from afflicted cities, such as New York, flee to the supposed safety of out-of-the-way resort towns.
According to the Daily Mail, “In Blaine County, Idaho, home to Sun Valley ski resort, more than half of the houses are rental properties. As of last week, 228 had tested positive for the disease, around 10 percent of its population.”
People are not just hiding out in mountain ski resorts. Many seaside towns are undergoing a small-scale invasion by elite urban dwellers. The carpetbaggers roll in with their high-end SUVs to seek escape and sanctuary from big-city quarantines.
The problem is, though, that these newcomers descend like locusts on local supermarkets and strip the shelves bare.
Empty shelves at Long Island supermarket.
Then it’s off to high-end rental properties, where monthly rates have trebled, quadrupled and more. Hey, it’s only money… And these newcomers have it.
In case any locals get incensed about the freshly arrived out-of-towners, some well-off transients have hired armed security guards to protect the premises.
The situation recalls the scenes in the movie Titanic, when rich passengers tried to buy their way to the lifeboats. And some actually made it…
Then again, the situation also recalls another tale, The Great Gatsby.
“Let me tell you about the very rich,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in his iconic literary masterwork. “They are different from you and me.”
There’s a paragraph in The Great Gatsby describing how one wealthy fellow built a mansion that resembled a castle. He offered to pay his neighbors to install thatched roofs on their houses. He wanted to look out from his windows and feel like a true lord of the manor.
Fitzgerald was using imagery straight out of the days of feudalism, the dominant social system in medieval Europe. Back then, kings, nobility and the Church held land. Further down the hierarchy were vassals who were tenants of the nobles. And of course, there were peasants who lived on their lord’s land.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote the story such that those neighbors of the rich guy refused to thatch their roofs. They had enough pride not to want to portray themselves as peasants, beholden to some snooty money bag.
Of course, Gatsby is fiction, and we’re now many centuries past the Middle Ages. Or are we?
It seems that over the past month a lot of Americans have traveled back in time to the days of feudalism.
Stay at home, or at best don’t go too far away from your assigned plot. Plant a garden, perhaps, if you have some soil. And hope that the knights of medicine and the political nobility who hold government power will somehow save us from the viral scourge that afflicts the land.
It’s worth noting that feudalism died out due to a series of plagues and wars that started flaring up across Europe a thousand years ago. Entire families and generations perished. Nobility were not spared, and many lands became forfeit when there was no one left to inherit title.
Over time, peasants realized that their labor was valuable if they could move away from the old homestead and go where others would pay wages for their effort.
I’ll skip most of the history, except to say that the modern world developed along with mobile labor. People went where there were jobs, and traded time for money.
Today, our economy is — at least, it was — built on a foundation of employers employing people, and workers working for wages.
Then not long ago, that vicious virus showed up from China; one too many Chinese imports, as I’ve noted before.
In short order we’ve had dictates from government authorities — mayors, governors and even the U.S. President — for people to stay home.
“On the advice of experts,” they said…
“Flatten the curve,” they said…
Ok, I get it. There’s enough information about that virus that I sure don’t want to catch it. Neither do you. It’s an awful bug that can kill you, or merely wreck your lungs. No denying that we’re up against a serious challenge.
But the side effects of these national-scale “stay home” lockdowns have been just as serious. Entire industries are at a standstill, accompanied by record-breaking layoffs. Here’s an eye-popping chart of new unemployment claims, covering over half a century, put out by the St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve.
St. Louis Fed, 4-Week Average of Unemployment Claims.
Note that vertical line on the far right. It’s not a typo. That line represents well over two million new jobless claims in about a week, with 10 million and more soon to come. It’s historic.
It’s like a car going down the highway at 60 miles per hour and not just blowing out a tire or two, but hitting a concrete wall. Slam, bam…
But wait, it’s even worse…
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, upwards of 70% of U.S. jobs cannot be transferred to perform at “home.” So now we have armies of people out of work, many with little or no savings. They can’t work at home, because that’s not the nature of their skill set. Thus, for many newly displaced, it’s farewell to wages.
Let’s go back to the Middle Ages for a moment, when peasants were bound to the land. They almost never left their assigned space and simply worked a lifetime for their master.
In a macabre way, today we have millions of newly unemployed people under order to stay at home, awaiting their unemployment comp or another kind of government check. Mobility is highly restricted, and in many cases — most cases — people can no longer sell their time for wages.
The newly laid-off workers are not quite peasants of old; more like what’s called a “stranded asset,” because they may have valuable skills but are unable physically to join into the wage-earning economy.
According to economist Jared Bernstein, of the Center on Budget and policy Priorities, “What we know is when you put an economy in deep freeze, you get massive cascading layoffs. What we don’t know is when we can thaw out and what will happen when we do.”
Where do things go from here? Has the country reverted into a land of new feudalism?
It’s temporary, the politicians and media tell us. Suck it up. Gut it out. Stay home, don’t whine and… “Flatten that curve!”
Well, let’s be positive… Sooner or later the coronavirus will begin to resolve, and eventually it will pass, if not go away. On the slightly downer-side, maybe we’ll have “waves” of the bug every year or so, until whenever. But we’ll cope.
This virus is a disease, of course. And all diseases (well, most of them) burn themselves out over time, in a biological sense. But I regret to note that it’ll probably take longer than we’d like to see for it all to unfold.
Post-virus, the new feudalism will begin to go away… People can leave their homes and get out and about. We hope, but…
Will all those millions of newly unemployed and displaced people really find their way back?
It’s a safe bet that neither the U.S. nor the world will simply revert to the way things were even as recently as early March. That won’t happen. We’re too far down the slippery slope already.
Plus, it’s a slam-dunk forecast to say that when this mess begins to resolve, a lot of people will be both broke and indebted, while many businesses will be gone.
Then again, something else will come along, right? We hope so… New ideas, new businesses and new jobs. We’re talking about what economists call “creative destruction” in an economy.
But wait… There’s also what some of us just call “destruction.” Somethings go away and never come back. Put another way, “The past is a foreign country;” an insightful quip by British author L.P. Hartley (and not F. Scott Fitzgerald, as it is often misattributed).
As days and weeks unfold, we must work to stay upbeat and hopeful, if not creative. Think along the lines of how to rebuild something from whatever is left of the U.S. economy. What’s the “next” job? The “next” business?
Who will staff the “next” government we install in seats of political power? It’s not as if the players over the past 30 years or so did much of a good job.
Looking ahead, I suspect that we’ll see at least a partial reindustrialization of the U.S. and Canada. We won’t be importing medical masks, and much else, from China anymore. Many other items, too, will sport “Made In USA” labels.
Even more importantly, the future will unfold atop a landscape of revalued assets. Many current assets will be revalued downwards (cruise ships, shopping malls), but others will revalue upwards (like gold).
In fact, I expect to see a great renaissance across the nation. It can happen, if only the politicians and banksters refrain from strangling people’s ambitions. That last one is a big “ask,” I know.
In the end, this virus ordeal will be a true and long-lasting lesson. In the first instance, the casualty list will be long; over 100,000 dead, per the low estimates, and far higher if things don’t work out well. Those are wartime numbers. We’ll have many new tombstones in the cemeteries.
And still, consider our relative good fortune. We’re confronted with a virus and not a fleet of bombers or missiles.
Still, after just a couple of months of battle, we are already touched with fire. Life as we lived it even a month ago has ended. And the future is more than uncertain. Coming out of this mess, one of these days, we’ll have scars that last for the rest of our days.
There’s one thing we know now, however, and know it well. We can feel it, deep down. We’re in a brush with mass feudalism. We’re locked away from pursuing our dreams and freedoms. When we step outside, we feel the iron hand of government control. And it’s not what we want.
On that note, I rest my case.
That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder