Them That’s Got Shall Get. Them That’s Not Shall Lose.

Fiction writer Raymond Carver talked of an epiphanous moment he had at an automatic laundry. He was there with his kids, hung over, searching for coins to put in the machines, unsure how he’d pay his rent, how it had been the same way in the same laundry the week before and the week before that, and he suddenly realized that if something didn’t change, this was the way it would be forever. 

Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

The recent mass protests over police killings of African-Americans is precipitating such a moment. Why? It’s not as though we haven’t known about the problem for years. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Breona Taylor, and now George Floyd are a few of the many names of killed black people over the years so often at the hands of police. We’ve been properly outraged, passed it off, and made excuses: Maybe they were at the wrong place at the wrong time; maybe they were doing something they shouldn’t have been doing; I wasn’t there, so I don’t know everything; it was a fraught moment and the cops had to make a split-second decision under extreme duress. Or this: I’m so appalled over what happened, but  what am I supposed to do about it when nothing will change and politicians won’t do anything anyway?

Why is the country, even the world, realizing that if something doesn’t change, it will be this way forever, and the status quo is no  longer acceptable? Is there a context this time to make it all explode? 

It’s been out there all along, but it’s as though people are seeing it for the first time: Them that’s got, shall get, and them that’s not, shall lose.

Mega-producer Extraction Oil and Gas, strapped with $1.7 billion debt incurred well before oil demand tanked (so to speak), just filed for bankruptcy. Before filing, the company’s board approved $6.7 million in executive compensation, the questionable judgment in obligating the company to the suffocating debt apparently not an issue. A legal analyst (third party, not a company flak) said these compensation agreements are increasingly common with firms about to file bankruptcy so key staffers stay on board for the reorganization.

Extraction also secured $125 million of financing–more debt–just prior to filing. Never mind that energy giant BP is advising Wall Street that the world will need less oil in the future and wrote down $17.5 billion of its mineral holdings. Whoa! I guess that added to Extraction’s creditworthiness, but what do I know?

Not to be outdone, 24-Hour Fitness also filed for bankruptcy, a noble act which allowed it to receive $250 million in interim financing as it closed all its locations, many of them permanently, and sent their employees packing.

Meanwhile, millions of furloughed workers are facing eviction. Mortgage defaults have spiked, with the fired employees holding the empty bag the executive compensation came out of. Maybe they can declare bankruptcy and secure a few mill in interim financing and carry on as before.

But it’s more than Wall Street.

Major League Baseball’s superstar outfielder Mike Trout has a 12-year contract for $425.5 million. Pitcher Gerritt Cole’s is for a measly nine years and $329 million. Meanwhile, in city after city, local taxpayers underwrite the stadiums for teams with billion-dollar valuations. Never mind that most taxpayers don’t enjoy baseball, and of those who do, many can’t afford the tickets.

These guys are playing by the system’s rules, the statutes and practices and customs in American mercantile society that have evolved over time, and we’ve all bought into it. Or gone along with it. Or endured it. A system that rewards sports people so generously. A system that lets massive, publicly-traded corporations go tap city while raining money on executives, then borrow more dough for a do-over while sticking it to their employees.

Former National Football League coach and announcer John Madden once said that “winning covers up a lot of stink.” He was referring to the fractures within sports franchises that everyone overlooks as long as the team is winning, but so it goes with the American community writ large. Don’t like paying for billionaires’ sports stadiums? Think it’s outrageous that some no-name third stringer gets $3 million while teachers have to buy their own supplies and can’t pay rent? Shake your head when you realize some people’s restaurant tabs are more than many other peoples’ paycheck? Scowl when you learn that a lot of people pay more than half their income for housing? I think those things upset most of us. But if our own lives are humming along, the outrage doesn’t last very long. Winning–our our getting  along okay while a few other folks are not–covers up the stink.

It’s as much a question of societal values as it is one of equity. Greet a friend, and you shake hands with the enemy. And conversely.

My friend David Wagman, a journalist and editor who specializes in energy infrastructure and also writes the INFRAreport, took a side road into into equality with a recent post. I agree with him, but I’d add that our society needs a huge, systemic change, a brand new architecture.

Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty has become America’s War on Poor People, but why, suddenly, isn’t the stink covered up anymore? Why do so many seem to care? The coronavirus invasion spiked the system for sure. But the event that has shaken each of us to the very core isn’t  some pandemically-minded paramecia. It’s the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in particular, and the Black Lives Matter movement in shining a supernova klieg light on on the official sanctioning of killing black people in general. Why is it different this time?

Because we now realize that if police can come for George Floyd and kill him, they can come for us. If a quarter of the workforce can be made dust in the wind, so can we. If millions can get evicted or foreclosed on, so can we. We’ve known this for a while. Society has known this. But because of the mass outrage Black Lives Matter has inspired, we all suddenly realize that if something doesn’t change, and fast, it’s going to be this way forever.

“Don’t tell me the problems, tell me the answers,” an old boss was fond of saying. Okay, will do, but they’ll be in subsequent posts, because they’re, you know, kind of involved and nuanced and not bumper sticker worthy. Moreover, what do I know? I’m no expert and I’m not in charge of anything. But I can try, I can offer my two cents, and it will go something like this:

  1. Creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, similar to what Nelson Mandela did in South Africa. One ugly truth we need to hold a mirror to is blaming the police for society’s deficiencies. We need both national and personal uncomfortable and honest discussions on race and a common definition of what racism is. The purpose isn’t so much to assign blame as it is to develop a common set of facts, and from that to agree on accountability and redress. If South Africans can do it, so can we.
  2. Economic re-structuring, with a goal of altering the divide between the one percent and 99 percent. Staggering wealth inequality benefits no one. And part of this change must include reparations to African-Americans. The argument of who gets what and how can be resolved by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
  3. Upend and rebuild the entire education system, which may involve the elimination of charter schools. If America will provide a high-quality education in high-quality facilities to very student, the contrived issue of “choice” will be displaced.
  4. The country needs a mechanism of some kind to certify journalists. It’s not just low-information people who can’t contribute to solutions, it’s the disinformation people. Yes, we’re politically polarized, and yes, we tend to watch the “news” we want to hear, and that needs to end. I don’t know if the Fairness Doctrine that existed until 30 years ago, whereby holders of broadcast licenses had to report all sides, can be reinstated. I’m not even sure it should. But we need a way to deliver honest and trustworthy information so that people of diverse opinions at least share the same facts.
  5. We need to agree on how the police should be restructured. As with the armed forces, the police may legally commit violence and take lives on behalf of the civil authority. Yet the military is a trusted institution, while the police are not.

That’s it for now. Screed over. Get informed, get involved, care, reach out. It doesn’t have to be this way forever.