Do Better Better #14: A Safety Net for America

Quinn Emmett
January 28, 2021
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There’s a popular Martin Luther King Jr. quote that lays bare the false promise of the American Dream:

“It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

Because it was MLK’s birthday recently, and because we the people seem to have elected policymakers who care that our growing inequality is quite literally killing us, I thought it prudent to talk about safety nets for bootless Americans.

A safety net provides a margin of protection against the fluctuations of everyday life, the highs and the lows. It allows for room for error. It helps you endure. And designed purposefully, it lets you succeed.

Safety nets come in a variety of literal and figurative flavors: if you’re a trapeze artist, we’re talking about actual rope. You can fly higher knowing you won’t die if you slip. If you’re an investor, a percentage of capital that remains fluid in cash or bonds, so you can make other bets on crazy biotech companies or I guess Gamestop? If you’re a prepper who’s pretty convinced it’s the end times, it’s an underground bunker in your backyard packed with canned pears and dynamite.

Safety nets are a complicated, systemic concept, but the first principles are easy to understand: if millions of Americans are hungry, without water, without health care, without childcare, without livable wages, whatever we’re doing isn’t working. 

And because we live in a society, not a spaceship-made-for-one, the unequal distribution of safety nets affects everyone.

***

As America continues along in K shaped recovery, our enormous wealth gap continues to grow. Thus, many Americans haven’t had to think about a proper “can I buy food this week” safety net for some time now, while others are further away from one than ever before.

White people are, for the most part, born with a safety net -- the color of their skin. This simple, unearned genetic inheritance provides a set of “boots” enabling most white people to simultaneously feel protected from sudden life changes, and to take risks and embrace opportunities. 

White people like me can stuff away a bunch of cash and then take advantage of opportunities like non-existent interest rates and skyrocketing market values to remortgage houses and buy Tesla and Bitcoin, because the goal is growth through compounding interest, not figuring out how to pick up free school lunches during your 12 hour on-site work shift, during a pandemic.

In a world that is more volatile than ever, with a list of externalities that includes invisible novel viruses in your living room and actual oceans making their way into your kitchen, it’s more important than ever that we think through what it means for everyone to have a safety net.

***

As Morgan Housel will tell you, a functionable, reliable margin of safety means not having to sell your stocks and interrupt compounding interest when shit hits the fan. 

And compound interest is incredible, and everywhere. The Ice Age didn’t happen because it suddenly got super cold. It happened because the summers were gradually and consistently more tepid, and the ice eventually didn’t melt. But compound interest goes both ways. See: the climate crisis, or the continued state of Black housing, land ownership, food, college debt, and education.

Positive compound interest means not having to choose between food and rent. When you don’t have to worry about rent and food, you can do so much more.

It means building an infrastructure and culture of wellness and prevention, not just going to the emergency room with no idea why your chest hurts. Because -- and this is vital to understand -- it’s not usually the suddenly sick person paying the bill. Ambulance rides and emergency room visits that are unable to be paid for by the patient are often paid for by the hospital with “charity care”, and thus subsidized by state grants, e.g. your tax dollars. And 60% of the time, that sick person isn't white. This is the system we've designed.

A safety net means paying wages that allow for less-congested three-generation living conditions that viruses can’t thrive in; that allow for healthy-plant based foods and building a strong microbiome; that allow for not living next to fucking fossil fuel facilities and uncapped wells, so kids can grow, and learn, and breathe. 

You’d be amazed at what kids can do when they can grow, and learn, and breathe.

It means paid sick leave for the days you just can’t do it, whether you’re suffering physically or mentally, so you can do your best work on the other days.

A safety net is paid parental leave for welcoming a child into your family, it’s child care once you go back to work, and preschool after that -- for your mental health, for your performance at work, for your child’s future.

It means giving every American child a few thousand bucks every year starting at birth, to be spent and/or invested however the parents see fit -- for food now, and for turning on fiscal compound interest for the rest of their lives.

We can do better. We can make sure people land on their feet, and that the entire society benefits.

A society that decides that safety nets of every kind should be universal, will find her citizens able to reach further and faster, and will suffer far less when faced with, say, a pandemic.

Your challenge is to consider the safety nets available to you today, and to manifest ways you can extend those to your business and your community, to lift all boats.

***

They say life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable. But I tell you this -- a hungry person has no liberty, has no freedom. Millions of Americans have no liberty to speak of. 

Martin Luther King said in Washington: 

“Ever since the Founding Fathers of our nation dreamed this dream, America has been something of a schizophrenic personality. On the one hand, we have proudly professed the noble principles of democracy. [...] On the other hand, we have sadly practiced the very antithesis of those principles. [...] Now more than ever before, America is challenged to realize its noble dream, for the shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of an anemic democracy. [...] Our hour is late, and the clock of destiny is ticking out.”

We can’t expect people to solve existential crises like climate change when they can’t keep their water turned on. Look to your own safety nets and find ways to extend them to your neighbors.

— Quinn

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