The humanity wall: distance learning, voluntary heroism, and the longstanding American plague

You’ll find something called a “data wall” inside basically every public school in Polk County — and most likely all of Florida and most of America, too.

The form I’ve seen most commonly is a large pegboard with colored-coded cards or stickies. Each colored card represents an individual child; and the specific color defines a child entirely by his or her test or assessment scores. It is the ongoing “achievement” scoreboard for every school, pointing to the fraudulent school grade it’s likely to generate at the end of the year.

Until three weeks ago, it was all that truly mattered to Florida public education governance and rules and punishments. All other platitudes were nonsense.

“We don’t have humanity walls”

Data walls terrorize child, parent, and staff alike, especially at schools that serve kids who don’t have much personal capital to cushion and support them. Data walls tell no human story beyond this toxic fake data race.

Indeed, they often lead otherwise kind and decent human beings to refer to kids solely by their so-called “achievement levels” in conversation. “We lost two level 4s to a choice school today…”; “If I can get that Level 2 to Level 3, I get a proficiency point;” “That’s mid-Level 3, you don’t need to pay him much attention, there’s no school grade data payoff for it. Spend your time with that high Level 1.”

I spoke briefly about data walls during my speech at the giant Jan. 28 School Board meeting that followed the Red Weekend.

What innocent days those were, when our problems revolved around whether the same dingbats leading Florida’s COVID-19 response would summarily fire 1,200 Polk teachers over a work stoppage that did not exist. Here’s a brief clip of what I said. It’s focused on education, but if you listen, I think you’ll hear powerful echoes of the pathologies that underlie what’s happening in America now.

Key quote: “Every time we talk about a “B” [Polk district] grade, we endorse the evaluation of leaders by numbers, not by humanity. We don’t have humanity walls; we have data walls. What’s different in Polk County a little bit is that starting in 2016 and again in 2018, you had a public that demanded our children — and our teachers and staff — begin to be treated like human beings that can be developed and not treated like pieces of data to sell.” 

I am the least cynical person you will ever meet, to the point of annoying literally everyone I meet with my tendency to intensely discuss the public good I care about.

I want to emphasize my lack of cynicism because much of what you’re about to read may sound cynical. But it’s not. It’s a confrontation with scale. I’m describing a cynical and vast leadership and governance structure. I ran for office to fight and improve that structure, in whatever small way I can. Nothing described in what you’re about to read has surprised me. I knew full well when I sought official power that almost all of the cynical pathologies involved in public education governance are symptomatic of the same pathologies in the larger American power structure and society.

Paralysis and denial in the face of a pandemic is panic; and lying to ourselves about the nature and intent of power in our society in the name of fake civility is cynicism. I intend to combat that cynicism for the rest of my useful life. I find that a great purpose for living, even if I actually accomplish nothing and die broke.

Now let’s talk about you.

The distance learning “plan” is just silly written compliance with dead authority

If you want to understand why Florida rushed to pretend to do organized “distance learning” far faster than closing its beaches or non-essential workplaces, here’s your answer. The governor and Education Commissioner wanted to be able to tweet this.

Mission accomplished. More fake data to sell. Other than me, I don’t think anyone else even noticed this soul-filling vote of confidence from Betsy DeVos and Mike Pence. COVID-19 world disgorges irrelevancies as quickly as it does new cases. The Florida Department of Education is one such irrelevancy now. As is compliance with it.

Polk’s written distance learning plan, like every other district’s, is a lagging indicator — an artifact of the priorities and capacities of an era that still existed three weeks ago. This story from the Tampa Bay Times provides a glimpse into this psychology and what a silly, platitude-spouting nothing Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran is.  

If Florida were to see a significant “flattening of the curve” of the virus’ spread, he said, it could make sense to reopen schools in time to finish the academic year in actual classrooms. The next review is scheduled for April 15.

He hinted that a return isn’t out of the question, stating that Singapore didn’t send its students home, its leaders deciding the action would do more harm than good. Some people need to be isolated, and everyone should protect themselves, he said, but the rest of the population should be able to “go about living your life.”

Meanwhile, from Singapore, where they actually have masks and testing and the capability to isolate, unlike Florida or the US:

SINGAPORE – Starting April 1 next week, all schools will conduct one day of home-based learning a week, in the light of the recent spike of Covid-19 cases in Singapore.

Primary schools will do so on Wednesdays, secondary schools on Thursdays, and junior colleges and centralised institutes on Fridays.

It won’t be long before Singapore shuts its schools full-time, too. I’ve said this publicly elsewhere; but let me reiterate. I will never vote to reopen Polk schools as mass gathering places until events and circumstances make it obvious that we can and should safely reopen them. I am fully content to endure whatever state consequence — up to and including arrest/removal from office — that might entail. But I doubt it will come to that.

Florida is led by small, inattentive, floundering people, who don’t know what else to say or do in this moment.

And DoE’s authority was always a tissue-thin abstraction, as the Red Weekend showed. Now it’s dead. For that matter, in any meaningful sense, so is the authority of the Polk School District. We’ve shifted from “authority” to “community and humanity resource.” [More on that later in this article.]

Much to their credit, I think Sup. Byrd and her senior staff see the reality of this moment and the distance learning plan with clear eyes. Our “plan” is flexible. I’ve spoken with teacher union leader Stephanie Yocum; and she considers our “memorandum of understanding” the most flexible and least compliance-obsessed of any of the at least 10 that she’s observed.

So let’s run down some practical points, as I understand them, about what happens with the ICP on Monday (March 30). Here is a link to Polk’s  actual “Instructional Continuity Plan (ICP);” and there have been a number of clarifying updates.

The safety of device distribution

I want to tell you my biggest concern first. The original overview of the plan said:

“To facilitate online learning, PCPS will be deploying 60,000 devices to students after spring break. High school seniors and eighth-graders — who need credits to graduate and be promoted to high school, respectively — will be given first priority. Only one device will be issued per family.”

I envisioned that as kind of a mass drive-by handout, the idea of which became increasingly worrisome to me over the last week. I have communicated those worries to senior leadership. I still haven’t seen a formal operational plan for device distribution (more on board/staff communication in a second); but the communications and content I have received have changed my understanding.

Like the ICP itself, as I understand it, distribution of devices will be a school-level exercise, seemingly on an as-needed/appointment basis. If you’re a parent reading this — or you know a parent with kids that need a device — you need to contact your school, as I understand it. Frankly, a slow, piecemeal handout is better and safer than a mass handout. A rushed mass handout to serve Corcoran’s vanity and spread the virus with a mass gathering should be a non-starter.

However, I remain unclear about the safety/distancing/virus precautions we are taking in even this less intensive distribution approach. And I would say this to any employee: the quite reasonable memorandum of understanding that the teachers union struck with our district allows you to opt out of an assignment that makes your health vulnerable in exchange for a virtual assignment. I would expect the spirit of that agreement to apply to everyone.

Now, to some extent, everyone’s health is vulnerable in this moment. So consider that in your thinking. But if your school does not have safety equipment/protective gear and/or strong distancing procedures in place for device distribution, I would simply refuse to take part until it does.

The value of getting a device in a child’s hands is far inferior to the value of not spreading the virus into sometimes crowded households that don’t have a lot of resources or capital to begin with. That’s just common sense. We, as an organization, must understand it. And households have to reckon with the health realities of all the fingers that touch shared devices. Clean your keyboards and touch screens. Please.

Key points about Polk distance learning

Some other basic points about the ICP — and how I intend to exercise my school board role within it:

— As I said above, this is an exercise built around schools more than technology platforms. It will radiate out from school communities re-organized as virtual structures. A lot of this is already happening. I see a ton from Spessard Holland Elementary, for example. I like this organic, bottom up model.

— The first three days of this effort, starting Monday, are somewhat akin to teacher work days. This will ramp up. In a sense, I don’t think it really begins until Thursday.

— There has been some confusion about who has to report to physical school buildings Monday. It is my understanding and expectation that no “gathering” at a school building can number more than 10 people. Moreover, to repeat what I said above, to any employee: the quite reasonable memorandum of understanding that the teachers union struck with our district allows you to opt out of an assignment that makes your health vulnerable in exchange for a virtual assignment. I would expect the spirit of that agreement to apply to everyone. I want you to be voluntary heroes.

— There are nominal “accountability” requirements built around attendance and grades. They are, themselves, acts of compliance with pretty meaningless legal authority. But we have to pay lip-service to them, I guess. Here is what HR director Teddra Porteous wrote in one of several very helpful recent email communications to staff. ALL staff should be reading these closely.

Attendance records are a legal requirement, that may be audited, even in a distance learning setting. It is important that records are maintained and accurate. Teachers will continue to take student attendance in Focus. The attendance system will default to “Present”; however, teachers will still need to go into Focus and check that they have taken attendance. Students can demonstrate attendance in a number of ways including, but not limited to, the examples listed below:

  • Logging into an online platform
  • Sending an email or a message via Teams or other applications
  • Engaging in a phone call with a teacher or other school employee
  • Participating in an online forum or web thread conversation
  • Connecting with students during meal delivery

For elementary students working on paper-based lessons, please verify with the student or parent/guardian through email, meal delivery, or phone that the student is engaged and working. If students check in at least once over a three-day period, they should be considered “Present.” Please notify your school counselor and/or administrator if you are unable to get in contact with a student for three consecutive days, so they can follow up with families.

I chuckle at the thought of some state auditor with nothing more useful to do than “audit” online education attendance records during a simultaneous pandemic and economic collapse. That’s a very Florida and America thing, especially when it’s completely unclear when and how schools will reopen given the health and financial realities we face.

It’s hard to impose a lasting participation consequence on a child or family for what happens “now” when the idea of “next school year” is so nebulous. But Florida, being Florida, wants to convince you that it will try. Again, read the Tampa Bay Times article.

At the same time, try not to sweat what might happen in a vague future. As a parent, use school pressure only as much as it’s structurally helpful to your household. And I can assure you, as one elected local school board member, I will vote against and ferociously fight any effort to impose any future life consequences on a child or family based on anything that happens between now and the official end of the school year.

Part of that dovetails into fighting for radical changes to the Florida Model. That starts with repurposing all public money spent on standardized testing/”fake accountability” into sustaining the human-to-human service of education. Much more to come on that in the future.

Again, if you’re a parent, you should spend some time with the Polk District’s website. It’s quite good, with a lot of helpfully deployed information. And stay closely in contact with your school. That’s where the further direction and structure will emerge.

The district’s transition from “authority” to “resource”

With the “compliance” stuff out of the way, let’s return to this structural transition from “authority” to “resource” — and what I mean by that.

On the “resource” side of the ledger, the Polk School District has already been feeding kids from drive-through school sites. See the list here. We started a statewide trend of donating medical academy supplies to hospitals and health care workers because of an idea that emerged from our teachers. Now the whole state is doing it, K-12 and colleges alike. It’s about the only good thing going viral in this state.

Our teachers and staff have already been connecting with many of their kids, letting children who miss each other see each other on Zoom or whatever platform works for them. A rigorous and tough high school English teacher has been in contact with assignments for the two teenagers I have personal responsibility for; a piano teacher for one of them has told him to get his piece ready for concert. And that’s before the distance learning plan officially kicks off. This kind of person-to-person connection and expectation provides a helpful kind of structure and expectation that will benefit kids, even without official “accountability” as an unnecessary hammer.

In short, the people of the Polk County School System have made themselves our community’s resource, mostly without being told to. Thank you.

Education pay lasts until June 30 for everybody. Then ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

On the authority side, I think our local district operational leaders know, like I do, that this is really all that matters. It’s from an update sent out by the district on Thursday:

Paying Staff: Staff will be paid through June 30. All salaried staff will be paid their normal rate of pay. We will send out more information on this later, but I wanted to calm everyone’s anxiety on this issue. The new pay date for April is April 24th, instead of April 30th. Again, more details on this later.

And I got this from HR director Teddra Porteous in prompt response to a question I had about hourly workers:

Most hourly employees have a base number of hours. For example, bus drivers have a “5 hour a day” guarantee and so does food service. They will get paid for the 5 hours a day even though they may not be working 5 hours a day or 25 hour per week.

The superintendent also chimed in promptly to add:

We are committed to paying all our employees through June 30th.

Thus, all basic, normal pay, to my knowledge, continues for education employees continues until June 30. Teacher “holdback” pay goes beyond that, as I understand it.

But all parents, community members, and public school employees should understand that paid “learning” operations, distance or in-person, end on June 30, as far as I know. What happens after that? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Your school board needs to start talking about the present and the future

And that’s where board/staff communications come in.

I’ve been pushing for regular weekly School Board conference calls (really think we should do twice per week), based on Gov. DeSantis’ executive order allowing virtual meetings that the public can access. No luck yet; but I’m told they’re working on it.

In the meantime, virtually all decisions are operational staff decisions. Your elected School Board has very little direct influence. This is not a terrible thing in the short term; and when I deem it necessary, I send emails and texts to operational leadership to ask questions and express concerns or priorities. In many cases, I’m doing this because of questions or points you’ve contacted me about.

I try not to overwhelm staff leadership with questions, knowing how much they have to do; and they’ve done a pretty good job responding and communicating. We’ve received useful updates and communications as a board. But we don’t have a regular forum for discussion yet. And we need one.

To me, the biggest information and discussion hole remains the device-distribution plan/safety measure issues, for the reasons I stated above.

The value of creative tension and honest public debate

For the handful of you who obsess about this; I think the superintendent and I have worked quite well together during this time. At times, I’ve put a lot of pressure on her about a couple of things — mostly closing the schools in the first place. I was pretty assertive. She always responded and engaged productively until we got to the decision that had to be made.

I think the creative tensions of the last few years helped lay the groundwork for productive action and collaboration now. Mrs. Byrd knows what to expect from me. I am very predictable. She knows I’ll be honest and direct with her. And I think the contours of operational decision-making and structure-building so far reflect the priorities the new board has hammered out in frank public discussion leading up to this moment. We’ve been through some crucibles together in the Polk District; and I think we were as prepared for the stress of this, organizationally, as any district could be. We weren’t paralyzed. We’ve acted.

Now we need to reinsert the public’s elected voice into discussions of the future — so we can help shape it politically. Politics — and clear school board positions — will matter a great deal to whether and how we reopen physical schools or even continue distance learning.

Too big to fail

Most education costs are human costs — personnel costs — whether we do it online, or in-person. And that is expensive, even in Florida, which does it as cheaply, abusively, and unsuccessfully as possible. (See this article if you get bored and need a deep dive on the failures and frauds of the dead Florida model.) 

With commerce and tourism largely halted in a state that funds its government functions almost exclusively by sales and property taxes, I do not see how Florida schools can reopen financially in August or September, assuming the pandemic allows us to physically. (And that’s a big assumption.)

There will be a massive Federal Reserve-funded bailout of state school systems; or there likely won’t be state school systems. Think of schools as banking institutions. The FED props up “markets” continually with “loans” to banks that amount to printing money and handing it over to them as guaranteed income. It can do the same with schools, which are also institutions. State governments cannot bail out their school systems because most — if not all — require balanced budgets; and none have their own currency and bank to “print” and distribute it.

And why would the FED, the personal welfare system of the powerful, bail out schools?

Other than the military, public school systems are likely the only America public support institutions that are “too big too fail” in the structure of American capitalism. Forget “education” and “human development” for a second. Public education provides too much free child care, too much unpaid social service, and too many paying customers for American vulture capitalism to really stamp it out.

Schools and teachers and bus drivers, etc. are also popular. They are the centerpiece of a real, regenerated American capitalism, as if that word has any meaning. That gives us real practical and political leverage. Remember it and use it when the time comes. I certainly will, however I can.

So, ultimately, yes, I think there will be a national bailout of schools funded by the Federal Reserve at some point in the future; and I think schools will reopen at something close to their current funding and capacity. But I don’t know that, at all. And we may have to fight very hard for it — or at least for something that is built on humanity walls, not data walls. Elected school boards have an important role to play now in articulating this future and building pressure on power for it.

You can choose to build a humanity wall for your kids

Education workers also have an important role that far transcends any fake notion of “accountability.”

Think about it: if you’re an education worker, and the function you’re being “held accountable” for goes away at the end of June, what real accountability is there now from any governing authority? Very little, if any. If there is a bailout, obvious shirkers in this time might find some vague consequence in the future version of the school system. But I can’t articulate the form it might take.

Instead, the only real mass accountability now is positive accountability. It comes from where it has always come: You.

Accountability now comes mostly from hearts and souls; your commitment and loyalty to the children who need you; your patriotism and empathy for a country whose powerful people are blackmailing brave and suffering and dying health care workers — and warehouse/grocery workers — with their own decency or insecurity. Does that sound familiar?

We can help the kids and the families of the blackmailed. In fact, many of you already are. I know that. You can continue. And I will do whatever I can — whatever you tell me I need to do — to help you do that.

As a nation, we have no meaningful moral or “common good” political or business or religious institutional leadership with power.

If we did, the truly awful and extortive billionaire bailout and welfare bill just created in Washington D.C. would not look like it does; and those insider-virus trading, stock-dumping Senate cowards would not be skipping town for a month to protect themselves. Of course, Florida, as a specific state, has no meaningful moral or common good leadership with power either. But we’ve known that for a long time.

So we need your personal leadership example, teachers and staff.

We-the-people need your personal commitment, more than we have ever needed it. You are the tether between children and whatever resources the world of decent people can provide them. As a board member with no direct authority to tell you to do anything, I’m asking you to create the humanity wall of your kids that the dead Jeb Bush Florida Model has never allowed. This can be literal; or in your head.

Be the keepers and monitors of our children’s human stories. Engage them however you can, by phone, computer, or whatever else you’re willing to do while keeping your families safe. Color code kids if you’re able: safe; struggling; in desperate need of help. Green, yellow, red. Identify who you’re not in contact with so we can find and help them if we can. You are the community resource best positioned to do this; and you’ve always done it. Tell me what I can do to help you.

I don’t want this to happen to any of our families. Or to happen to as few as humanly possible.

A 42-year-old hospital worker in Georgia who had coronavirus was found dead in her home with her 4-year-old child by her body.

I don’t want this to happen to any of our kids and their families. Or happen to as few as humanly possible in a deeply strained health care system. 

A 17-year-old boy in Los Angeles who died of septic shock and was found to have coronavirus after his death was turned away from urgent care because he didn’t have insurance.

Ideally, as a district, we could create a giant humanity wall of all 105,000 Polk kids by name and need. That would be the first good spreadsheet in the history of public education policy. And again, I will do whatever I can — whatever you tell me I need to do — to help you do that.

It should be World War II right now; instead, it’s just accelerated pillage by the powerful

I’m not an expert on the economics of World War II; but I know generally that the country mobilized every potential economic and human resource for endless production of equipment designed for its own destruction in foreign lands.

The national mobilization funded direct provision and vast support for mass industrial war fighting — history’s most economically non-productive human product or service. Economically speaking, purely, it was the ultimate moment of paying people to dig holes and then paying them to fill them. It was also absolutely vital for humanity.

WWII economics harnessed all resources of the country in the service of work that in any other moment would be an insane waste. It sustained the human beings in this country in that debt-driven economy for four years and still had the capacity to rebuild Europe and Japan afterward. And it did so in the context of the Roosevelt New Deal response to the Great Depression, which today’s most powerful people denounce as “socialism,” as if such words have any meaning.

My point is that the powerful people of the day in WWII — venal and racist though many of them were — knew it was important to sustain the human needs of the country in its pursuit of endlessly wasteful death and destruction in other places. The alternative was death and destruction and subjugation at home.

We are in a similar moment against a very different enemy. But the economics are largely the same.

Normal commerce has largely ceased, replaced by economically wasteful and non-productive activity we call “social distancing.” And like in World War II, this forced wastefulness and non-productivity is absolutely crucial to survival for many, many people and to an American economic future. But the reaction of the American powerful has been very different to what should be an intensely patriotic and unifying moment.

In WWII, we replaced normal commerce with paying for hyper productivity of wasteful material and activity for four years. Today, we could replace normal commerce and economic activity with inherently wasteful inactivity for a hopefully much shorter period of time.

But that’s not what’s happening. The powerful just see another opportunity to pillage and extort.

Life-altering power in the hands of a predatory few

The people who truly wield macro-level power in today’s America and Florida (and maybe Lakeland if we’re honest) dwell in a tiny little overlap in the vast Venn diagram of political and business interests. If you’re outside that overlap, you’re on the outside looking in of the truly important decisions today. The “leaders” in that overlap leverage their special position to extort a massive and venal commission on any general good that either interest tries to do, especially when both of those interests are panicked or stressed.

If they did not, the absolutely disgusting “stimulus” bill just approved would look like a World War II mobilization.

Instead, it’s a $4.5 trillion blackmail socialism payment to the most powerful Americans. That’s far more “socialism,” as if words like that have any meaning, than anything Venezuela can muster in whatever deep Marxist fantasy one attributes to Nicolas Maduro.

Here’s a rundown on how bad it is. The key point is that it’s actually a $6 trillion bill.

$454 billion of the package goes toward backing up a new Federal Reserve program that largely benefits big business. And since banks tend to maintain a 10-to-1 ratio between loans disbursed and capital on hand, that amount is “sufficient to supply corporate America with more than $4 trillion in subsidized financing,” reports New York magazine, noting acidly that it makes the bill a “plutocracy-stabilization fund.”

But that’s the cost — the toll, the gratuity, the fee, the payoff, the socialism blackmail for a handful — that American power demands of you for your existence.

It costs the humans and non-powerful businesses of the country $4.5 trillion to buy access to a convoluted grab bag of $1.5 trillion to barely stave off mass death and privation for just a little while. And that’s only if the $1.5 trillion money can be sent through the administrative structures of support that the same powerful extortionists have decimated with intention for a generation.

Here’s a video from the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association trying to explain to members how they can apply to access the $350 billion in small business money. It gives me a headache to listen to it. But if you have a restaurant or bar that has been crushed, you need to listen.

Meanwhile, the powerful will avoid all that messy “process.” They will fire money at each other anonymously, with no restrictions, from their $4.5 trillion fund, like a solvency version of FASTPASS at an amusement park. A lot of giant bonuses are going to get paid — at the same time that a lot people lose their livelihoods.

And remember, those busy signals and crashed servers and tangles at the Small Business Administration and relief organizations are not the fault of the SBA and relief organizations any more than teacher shortages are the fault of teachers. A decision to destroy capacity of public services is a governing decision, a governing choice, made by the powerful and endorsed by the people through their votes. The chickens are now home.

The very few truly powerful people in this country have had us all on a data wall for a very long time. Rather than judge us by our “achievement level,” they judge us by our potential to provide them resource extraction opportunities. What are we going to do about that?

Well, I’m going to start by trying to destroy the test-and-punish model and rebuilding our society around an education system supported by humanity walls. I hope you’ll help however you can.

The president is cosplaying a warlord

You might ask about the president’s role in this.

As I was thinking about how to articulate Trump’s performance in this moment, I started by saying to myself: we need a World War II president, when we have a civil war president. But honestly, I think that credits him with far greater intention, thought process, and vision than he has.

Instead, what you watch on TV these days is the president cosplaying a tribal warlord during a famine in a failed state. But he’s doing this inside the country with the greatest financial capacity in the history of the world. He’s cosplaying a less competent version of Immortan Joe from “Mad Max: Fury Road.”


I do not care if stating the patently obvious costs me an election, which might not even occur. I do not care if this hurts any snowflake’s tender feelings. So let’s not argue about it. I’m not going to convince you if your lying eyes and ears don’t. So let’s just be honest with each other.

I have always said that I respect everyone I serve far too much to lie to them. Moreover, as an elected official with some local governing responsibility, I cannot afford any local delusions about the help or competence one can expect from a cosplaying warlord at the head of the federal response.

Any such delusion harms my ability to help the children of people who voted for the president; and I swore an oath to serve all the people of my community. I take that oath seriously. If that’s a problem for you; if the president is such a personal totem to you that you can’t be honest with yourself, then you should write me off. There is an alternative to me.

Otherwise, let’s work together on what’s real. Fantasy and lies have been killing people in this country for a long time.

Your lives and heroism aren’t even a sacrifice to American power

In a World War II-style patriotic mobilization, America would recognize the danger that health care and hourly warehouse workers face.

We would recognize that their heroism is essentially voluntary. And we would be using that $4.5 trillion blackmail socialism fund to double and triple the pay of the lowest paid workers — and do whatever we possibly can to protect and serve and equip everybody else. To some extent, the $1.5 trillion scraps that we get will do some of the equipping, hopefully.

And it better.

The supply of health care and other stuff we need depends on the continued heroic willingness to work in common spaces where social distancing may not be possible, with all the dangers to multiple people — including their families — that entails.

Interestingly, a handful of Republican senators, including Rick Scott, seem to recognize this the same way I do. They almost scuttled the blackmail socialism bill because it was too generous to people who lose their jobs and might discourage them from risking their lives for $10/hour to stock a warehouse or grocery store or a meat packing plant.

This statement that follows from the senators is intellectual gibberish; but you can hear what they actually fear, what they’re trying to say without saying it: who’s going to stock my grocery store if we can’t coerce poor, vulnerable, desperate people to do it?  

Claiming the relief package will encourage people to stay out of the workforce, Graham told reporters that the bill “pays you more not to work than if you were working,” noting that it would provide the equivalent of $24.07 an hour in South Carolina versus the state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. “If the federal government accidentally incentivizes layoffs, we risk life-threatening shortages in sectors where doctors, nurses, and pharmacists are trying to care for the sick, and where growers and grocers, truckers and cooks are trying to get food to families’ tables,” Graham, Sasse, and Scott said in a statement.

When this came out, a lot of people chalked it up to run-of-the-mill rightwing poor people hatred. But I don’t think so. I think the hidden premise is correct. I think they looked at legitimate supply chain and capacity logic and came up with a ghoulish remedy that they really didn’t want to say explicitly. And, of course, they lacked the courage of any ghoulish conviction to vote on it.

By contrast, I will say explicitly the non-ghoulish remedy to the need for voluntary heroism: fucking pay and equip the voluntary heroes. Pay them a lot. And then keep paying them when it’s done, like a war pension. And thank them, from your goddamn knees. I do.

Absent that, I think you may see truly titanic confrontations between labor (not unions, labor) and capital in the coming weeks. That’s what happens when a warlord pillages rather than a president lead.

What’s real

As I write this, a nursing supervisor at Mt. Sinai has already died. Read this brutal excerpt and think about that $4.5 trillion blackmail socialism fund for paying corporate bonuses.

On March 17, a photo of three nurses wearing literal garbage bags for their PPE while caring for patients infected with coronavirus at Mt. Sinai Hospital West in New York City went viral. A week later, Kious Jordan Kelly, RN, at the same hospital, was dead from COVID-19 disease.

That’s real. The president does not care. Does. Not. Care. Is incapable of caring, in fairness to him. He’s emotionally disabled. He wouldn’t recognize the concept of “care” as a concept. So don’t expect him to care when it’s a nurse or doctor you know at LRH, either. Or your child.

Here’s some personal math on this for me:

My one sibling and my first cousins and their spouses number five public school teachers/educators; three health care professionals (and an aunt); one sheriff’s deputy, and one recent military officer married to one of the nurses. I love all of them, obviously. Powerfully. My daughter’s dear friend, a doctor and recent graduate of Polk schools who spent much time in my home, just delivered a baby from a COVID-infected mother in New York.

Perhaps you can do your own math and come up with similar tallies.

And I can hear what Cosplaying Immortan Joe or Ron DeSantis or former Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo executives are saying when they start to get impatient with this inconvenient kink in their version of the American capitalism hose and talk about forcing schools open and everybody to work by Easter.

“Some of them will get sick,” former Wells Fargo CEO Dick Kovacevich told Bloomberg News. “Some may even die, I don’t know.”

Here’s Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran again:

If Florida were to see a significant “flattening of the curve” of the virus’ spread, he said, it could make sense to reopen schools in time to finish the academic year in actual classrooms. The next review is scheduled for April 15.

He hinted that a return isn’t out of the question, stating that Singapore didn’t send its students home, its leaders deciding the action would do more harm than good. Some people need to be isolated, and everyone should protect themselves, he said, but the rest of the population should be able to “go about living your life.”

Here’s what’s Corcoran is saying there, translated: “I want to get back to living my life — of pretending to be powerful so I can try to kill and pillage the public school system for my cronies like Ralph Arza. Is your hardship — and maybe death — too much to ask for that? I don’t think so.” 

The words and deeds of the American powerful in the last week, if you just listen, communicate clearly the value of the people we all love and respect and admire on the data wall of American power.

Obviously, the president would happily sacrifice all of my cousins and siblings for the continued personal benefit of his office-holding — and to restore an essentially criminal version of capitalism. Obviously, he would not even imagine their lives to be a sacrifice. The president would happily sacrifice me and my family — and you and yours — for the same reasons. Again, he would not even recognize our shared death or ruin as a sacrifice.

But he is not the only one — just the most comically and pathetically open about it.

The hollowing of American human capacity was a bipartisan, generational project of the powerful

After all, it isn’t Donald Trump who destroyed the capacity of teaching profession in Florida and sat on the board of Lehman Brothers when it was causing the now quaint 2008 crash. That was Jeb Bush.

It wasn’t Donald Trump who squandered American lives, prestige, and $1 – $2 trillion in waste in the Iraq invasion and occupation (not to mention thousands and thousands of Iraqi human beings). That was George W. Bush. 

It wasn’t Donald Trump that had a massive 2009 publicly-funded program to help homeowners at his complete disposal that helped banks instead — and drove mass foreclosures and extended human misery. That was Barack Obama. And it wasn’t Donald Trump that agreed with Jeb Bush about teachers and education; that was Obama, too. 

It wasn’t Donald Trump who became the California “Foreclosure King” under that failed homeowner plan, known as the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), that was current U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Oh wait, the president appointed Mnuchin and deputized him to negotiate the new  “stimulus” bill. So I guess that was Donald Trump. He gave Mnuchin complete control of that $4.5 trillion blackmail socialism fund. This is the kind of guy Mnuchin is:

During his time running mortgage lender OneWest, which he bought with a group of investors for pennies on the dollar before selling it for a personal profit of many millions, Steven Mnuchin & Co. foreclosed on more than 36,000 homeowners. Because (1) that’s a lot of people kicked out of a lot houses and (2) everyone loves a good nickname, Mnuchin has earned the moniker, in some circles, “Foreclosure King,” or ”Foreclosure King of California,” if you’re not one for brevity.

Perhaps even worse, he was the movie producer of “Suicide Squad.” I kid; but if you want a sense of who Americans just turned a $4.5 trillion financial weapon over to, just do some googling of “Mnuchin”, “Louise Linton,” and “Hermes bags.”

Indeed, Mnuchin and Trump just agreed that Trump isn’t going to abide by any of the silly “oversight rules” Democrats pretended to slap on the blackmail socialism fund.

President Donald Trump intends to ignore provisions in the newly passed $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill intended to shore up Congress’ oversight of the massive rescue program.

The legislation establishes a “special inspector general” to review and investigate loan decisions made by the treasury secretary as part of the coronavirus relief effort, an accountability measure that was a central part of Democrats’ demands to shore up transparency in the bill. The provision requires the inspector general to notify Congress if he or she is “unreasonably refused or not provided” any information.

But in a signing statement issued shortly after he approved the bill, Trump says he’ll be the last word on whether this provision is followed.

“I do not understand, and my Administration will not treat, this provision as permitting the [inspector general] to issue reports to the Congress without the presidential supervision required” by Article II of the Constitution, Trump said in the signing statement.

Trump also indicated he would treat as optional a requirement in the bill that key congressional committees be consulted before Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of State or U.S. Agency for International Development spends or reallocates certain funds.

LOL. That’s what you voted for. He’s just going to bail himself out. When Trump said “Drain the swamp,” you missed the back half of the sentence: “so the truly powerful can hoard the water and give me a tiny cut.” I have live footage from that. See below.

I should make clear here that some tiny drops of that $4.5 trillion in hoarded water will probably slosh their way to me eventually. The company I work for serves corporate America; and it has been a great place for me to work filled with people I like very much, many of whom are suffering right now in New York.

I know I am a relative winner in the world of diminished human capacity for care. And honestly, I don’t know how I would have voted on the big bailout bill. Do you sacrifice time and $1.5 trillion for the sake of rejecting the blackmail?

And thus power secures complicity, even from its critics.

I am certainly complicit; because I’m not going to sacrifice my family’s well-being to reject what power is willing to offer. Not today. I’m not sure how I could ever account for it anyway. I’d have to just quit. I’m not going to do that. I’ll do the best I can short of that to be moral.

We need new institutions and new leaders

Of those “executive leaders” I mentioned before, I would far far far prefer Barack Obama serve as president right now. In fact, the order would be: Obama, Jeb, and W.

Trump would be in a different category, wherever we put cosplaying warlords, even though W. was a far worse president than Trump, in terms of failed policy initiatives and consequences. Cosplaying warlords don’t have policies, just impulses, which limits their creative damage to some degree. W’s lasting damage…is hard to even quantify if you study honestly and closely.

Anyway, I admire Obama very much as a person.

I watched him in crises, including his truly outstanding leadership during the Ebola outbreak of 2014, for which he received nothing but trash talk and trolling from people like Donald Trump. He left structures in place that would have made the COVID response and conditions better. But our hollowed-out institutions, so poorly and yet so self-congratulatorily led, still would have failed to meet this moment.

Indeed, for all his personal decency and competence, Obama was and is an institutionalist who failed to tame and/or demand any meaningful accountability from institutional leadership. He did bring some better people, with personal accountability, into the same hideous model, which tempered the horrors of the model, a bit. For a time.

He played a great president, a Morgan Freeman-level president, on TV. But he did nothing about the reality that a tiny handful of people wield incredibly selfish power from the tiny overlap of political and business institutions. He let those people run wild. Did he want to? Or just lack the power to change it? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ His silence either way is pretty damning.

As the blackmail socialism bill shows, those people are still running wild and demanding our civility as they dismember the country, leave garbage-bag-wearing nurses to die, and demand payment. They don’t even wait until it’s done. Hell, they barely even waited for it begin.

The Plague and a new America built on humanity walls

This is, of course, a little on the nose.

But if I were a distance-learning English teacher with an advanced class, or at least some advanced, emotionally mature students, I’d consider assigning The Plague, by Albert Camus, the great French-Algerian existential novelist and philosopher. If somebody needs a copy, they can have mine. It looks like this.

I first read The Plague in college; and I’ve re-read it a couple times since then. I revisit certain scenes more often than that. It was probably my favorite book before all of this happened. In large part, that’s because it’s not depressing. Don’t get me wrong: it is certainly heavy; but to thumb through it now is deeply comforting to me.

As the title suggests, The Plague, chronicles the human history of a plague in a fictional small town in Algeria during the 1940s. It’s a much deadlier plague than COVID. Teenage readers might actually find it comforting to read about something worse. It also has the most beautiful, useful, and honest ongoing dialogue between religious belief and non-belief that I’ve ever read.

Indeed, while the medical grounding is meticulous; this isn’t Contagion. It’s really about the nature of authority versus the nature of living. It’s about why we choose to live and believe and act — and what drives us when formal authority and “accountability” is stripped away.

It knows that some of us choose to extort the rest of us into creating a $4.5 trillion blackmail fund; and some of us choose to treat the sick — and to die — while wearing garbage bags. Why? It dives into that question with gorgeous abandon and honesty.

There are so many passages worth quoting. But I think this one, from the thinking of one of the main characters, fits well into what I’m trying to say in this article:

In fact, it comes to this, “Nobody is capable of really thinking about anyone, even in the worst calamity. For really to think about someone means thinking about that person every minute of the day, without letting one’s thoughts be diverted by anything–by meals, by a fly that settles on one’s cheek, by household duties, or by a sudden itch somewhere. But there are always flies and itches. That’s why life is difficult to live. And these people know it only too well.”

The data walls of American society — in education and beyond — have worsened this natural human condition for so long. Indeed, they are not walls at all, just illusions computed in sand, stood up so we can pretend like we have a national architecture until the tide comes in and washes them away.

If we’re going to build a new Florida and a new America after this, one that stops squandering the vast human potential of all its citizens, that stops coercing heroism with pain, it will have to be with humanity walls. It will have to be with tools that allow us to see each other in ways beyond “Level 4” or your tax return.

We can choose in this moment of plague to build those humanity walls wherever we can, however we can. And they can gradually form structures and safe havens and foundations for the better country and world we need.

I want to build all of that with you; with any voluntary hero who chooses not extort; but to serve and to build, today and for the rest of our shared lives.