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Nothing Left to Lose (Free, Pt. 3)

— September 14, 2017

Hurricanes battering the coast. Wildfires raging out west. Stagnant wages. Political unrest. So many people with nothing left to lose. Change is coming.

In Part 2, we talked about Freedom To and Freedom From, which have different implications but still imply a choice. What happens when that choice between differing freedoms disappears, and people have nothing left to lose? Perhaps, as a country, we’re about to find out.

In recent weeks, the United States has been battered by multiple hurricanes. People in Houston and throughout Florida tangled with Harvey and Irma and are still cleaning up the aftermath, and the season isn’t over yet. The images in the news, of people living in shelters, people whose homes are destroyed, of people with nothing left to lose, are heartbreaking.

Even worse is knowing how people could have acted every step along the way to prevent or mitigate the damage. Humans don’t cause hurricanes, but anthropogenic climate change has made them more severe. And when hurricanes hit, who can people turn to? Neighbors helping neighbors is inspiring, but poor people can only do so much on their own. Across the nation and the world, people are dealing with their own wildfires, monsoons, and other disasters. And not only is Trump putting the kibosh on all kinds of environmental efforts, his administration has made it clear that we can’t count on that dreaded Big Government to save us. With drastic cuts to FEMA and HUD, the chances of recovering quickly after disasters is much smaller. Perhaps fortunately, Americans haven’t been very interested in governmental solutions anyway, despite being a decent way to reduce transaction costs at scale.

It’s not just the weather. As the economy adds more jobs, it’s not adding wages. Even many working households would have significant difficulty coming up with $400 to cover an emergency. Add that to our current spate of disasters, and it’s clear that we’re in trouble. Nobody’s coming to save us.

No, folks, we’re increasingly on our own from here on out. But as Port Arthur native Janis Joplin sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Janis Joplin; graphic by Luiz Fernando Reis, via Flickr CC BY 2.0, no changes made.
Janis Joplin; graphic by Luiz Fernando Reis, via Flickr CC BY 2.0, no changes made.

The social cost of freedom is symmetrical, but when the have-nots are expected to pay all the costs for a system of increasing inequality, something must give. Both Freedom To and Freedom From imply that choices can be made, but having neither the freedom to take effective action within the system nor the freedom from laws and regulations designed to benefit the already-prosperous means that we’re reaching a tipping point. Remember, the Arab Spring was sparked in Tunisia by an educated man who was reduced to selling fruit for a living, and then he couldn’t even do that so he set himself on fire. Change here may not come as spectacularly, but that change, like the Arab Spring, is already being co-opted by fascist and religionist forces.

Our world is changing around us. There’s a good chance that we won’t be able to afford to keep rebuilding after ever more severe hurricanes rip our coasts to bits and wildfires turn acres to ash. With nothing left to lose, though, we gain, perhaps, a deeper freedom: the ability to remake some parts of our culture into one that works for more people. Radical change may look like New Orleans after Katrina, which went to an all-charter school model, with mixed success (though Houston seems to have learned from that). It may also look like Detroit, where an underground economy has sprung up to help people get what they need and make ends meet. It’s all up in the air and could go so many different ways, but the important thing is to remember that we are living through the “interesting times” that all those fortune cookies told us about. Now we get to find out what we, and our neighbors, are made of.


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