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Are We Better Off in an “Essential Business” Economy?

Christian Alexander
May 3 · 16 min read

Working is essential. The way we do it is not. We can do better.

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My aunt owns a bead store in a small town not far from where her father, my grandfather, grew up. She started her business herself over 30 years ago from scratch, an outgrowth of her life-long passion as an artist working in traditional crafts. Her work has provided independence and a clear sense of purpose, pride and identity, not to mention fiercely loyal customers who rely on her business to express themselves through their own beaded creations. Now, under the current stay-at-home and essential business orders, her store is closed. My aunt and her store have joined a gigantic swath of businesses deemed “non-essential”, shuttered in order to prevent the contagious spread of the COVID-19 disease, about which we still know relatively little.

Essential business orders are fascinating indicators of the admissions, assumptions, and priorities of their implementing institutions, and a window into how we conceive of work and the role of the economy in our lives. The purpose thus far of the essential business orders in the COVID-19 era is ostensibly clear and narrow — minimize human physical interaction in the short-term while maintaining access to basic things such as food and shelter, and avoiding catastrophic failures in the healthcare system. But these decrees expose a whole range of calculations, unspoken assertions, and imperatives, the unveiling of which offers a unique opportunity for reflection.

As the days and weeks under stay-at-home and essential business orders tick by, the perceived pressure to get people back to work, and back to spending, grows. There is no doubt that the cascading shutdowns established at various levels of government are wreaking havoc on economies globally. Most people, particularly small retail and hospitality businesses, seasonal workers, informal workers, the poor, and marginalized groups, are suffering as a result. The less obvious, more heretical questions are whether our economies are properly geared to serve us even in normal times, and whether, in the face of this sort of pandemic, our response should be a knee jerk reaction to get back to “normal” as fast as possible. These questions are not distractions. The pandemic, and more specifically our response to it, has temporarily halted the inertia of an off-kilter economy that marches out of step with real societal and human needs. Amid the crisis, we are exposed to the existing blind spots in our economic system, and are thereby offered an opportunity to imagine a different, and hopefully better, future.

Lives and Deaths, Dollars and Cents

It was with remarkable candor that Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick floated the proposition last month that elderly people, including himself, would willingly risk sacrificing their lives in order to re-open the economy. “I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me. . . I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed, and that’s what I see. . . . My message is that let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living.” His voice is part of a broader chorus suggesting this is the path forward.

The Lieutenant Governor’s audacious suggestion, which has been met with mocking appeals on twitter to #DieForTheDow, expresses an often-overlooked and unstated calculus regarding the costs and benefits considered in public policy-making. The trade-offs and synergies between public health, social well-being, the environment, and the economy are always and constantly lurking in our policy choices. What is the cost, in lives and deaths, dollars and cents, trees and rivers, of increasing oil production or expanding highways, in boosting or cutting foreign aid, in the decision to regulate or not regulate food labels? The non-economic costs are often vague and uncertain, or at least distant enough in terms of time and causality to cede to more immediate and quantifiable financial interests, which, after all, also indirectly determine health and well-being.

The pandemic instigated a momentary reshuffling, temporarily shifting the often complex and ambiguous assessment of the trade-offs between purely economic interests and other policy concerns — in this case, public health — unambiguously in favor of the latter. The decision by many affected governments to act so radically and unequivocally in the name of public health reversed the standard decision-making status quo that often favors narrowly defined economic factors over other factors, including public health, social well-being, and the environment. In the context of COVID-19, the stark conclusions of expert models tabulating lives saved in the ensuing days, weeks, and months, versus the damage — to the economy and to normalcy — slapped us in the face, demanding an earnest and up-front accounting of health impacts that are harder to calculate but no less real.

The choice to shut down, to de-prioritize financial considerations so clearly and unequivocally and on such a scale in the face of probable human catastrophe, raises the hopes of many social and environmental advocates whose causes have long sat backseat to financial concerns. The pandemic response is the type of largescale, urgent, institution-led change in social behavior that might be leveraged to alter course on climate change or coordinate a response to food insecurity — in fact, the pandemic response touches on both. (Whether particular governmental responses themselves are valid or appropriate is another matter.) In its own awful way, COVID-19 demonstrated that it is tantalizingly possible to galvanize politicians and officials to reconsider priorities and move quickly towards achieving collective existential goals.

But already, the tide is ebbing, and the swirls of action and consequence are unfurling into choppy waters. The clear line demarcating the public health interest in closing non-essential businesses is muddied by the loss of income and jobs, and with it hunger, homelessness, depression, anxiety, domestic violence. The fear of contracting the disease gives way to the fear of losing one’s job, paying the rent, and buying food. It becomes clear just how much the economy protects and provides, though it may threaten us as well.

As the momentary reorienting of public policy concerns slips away and we seek to redress our anxiety and fear about the future, the defaulting position of equating the economy with well-being rises again. Many advocates of the economic status quo, who previously bet that short-term economic pain would be better than a long-term downturn, now urge us to revoke the bans, or else defect from the short-lived consensus. The rallying cry of public health becomes increasingly easy to contest and politicize. In the U.S., the mocking appeal to #DieForTheDow competes with incendiary calls to #LiberateMichigan and other states. Dire economic figures supersede pandemic death counts in the papers. We increasingly ask each other how and when we can get back to before.

The economy is important to our well-being, and we are not well when it is not well, but are we well with the one we have? What might we learn if, for a moment longer, we hold on to the reorientation in priorities, if we take this challenge as an opportunity to question ingrained assumptions about who or what the economy represents and serves, rather than defaulting to business as usual?

Heroes and Robots

It’s tempting, but wrong, to extract from essential business orders a more robust and substantive cataloguing of truly “essential” work — as if this were a means of cutting the chafe from the wheat, boiling the economy down to what really mattered. Of course, the term “essential” is somewhat of a misnomer. Essential business orders co-mingle jobs deemed critical with those that can continue, remotely or otherwise, without risking physical interaction. They focus on near-term needs that rely on external systems, not longer-term needs or ones we provide ourselves. They are inherently political and based in circumstance, as revealed by the varying designations, and debates over, the status of liquor stores, gun shops, and bicycle repair services under these types of restrictions. Even the value of basic services such as public transportation may be objectively identified in places like New York City as essential, while being among the first services shut down in other parts of the country.

Rather than helping us identify “essential work”, the COVID-19 essential business orders instead highlight our very definition of work itself, and with it the skewed system of reward we have built to justify and promote work, essential or otherwise. This is revealed, for instance, in the high proportion of “essential” activities supported by work performed in lowly-paid and marginalized positions. Previously underappreciated work, such as childcare, teaching, and janitorial duties, have rightfully taken on a new hero status. One-third of jobs held by women in the U.S. are considered essential, yet women are still underpaid compared to men. Workers finding themselves required to work in the pandemic are not just overwhelmed doctors and nurses, but a much broader group of lower paid delivery people, grocery clerks, security guards, and trash pickers, who ensure forgotten but critical services continue despite risks that they did not sign up to undertake.

In line with economic trends over the past century, many critically important functions performed under essential business orders, like so many other jobs in today’s economy, have been whittled down through deskilling, automation, outsourcing, and specialization. It is important to recognize what we have gained from this — these trends have resulted in some impressive advances in technologies, lower consumer costs, more convenience, and a great amount of material wealth for some. They have provided opportunities and freedom for some to pursue great personal and societal achievements in a wide range of fields and endeavors. At the same time, these trends have created an increasing number of jobs filled with often thankless and monotonous tasks whose value is commodified and whose fundamental purpose is alienated from its performance. The resulting economic “efficiency” in terms of lower labor costs and streamlined functions comes at the expense of less tangible rewards to the worker, including community, autonomy, skillfulness, and purpose. For the consumer, it allows a detachment from the recognition or appreciation of work performed on our behalf. The result allows society to undervalue those who perform critical work. The pandemic and its response peal back these assumptions, repositioning their value both to the economy and to our more fundamental needs.

The essential business orders remind us that, for now, we still need actual warm bodies to do things for us. Not everything can be outsourced or automated, though Lord knows not for lack of trying. At the same time, one could imagine many of these jobs — deliveries, chauffeurs, clerks, doctors — being automated or outsourced through technology. The endgames of many corporate and start-up strategies is deskilling, specialization, and automation — more robots, less humans! — a strategy that fits in nicely with the imperatives of social distancing and contact avoidance during the pandemic response. If we can’t accomplish the task with social distancing through Zoom, perhaps we can automate it with a drone. The logical extension is the complete replacement of human interaction, but is this a world that we need or want?

The broad economic trends affecting “essential” functions also apply to “non-essential” work, the difference being that those that are now out of work are victims, not heroes, of the pandemic. Here, the pandemic highlights in starker terms not just the ways in which our economy silos and commodifies “work”, but also the increasingly unequal access to and allocation of financial and non-financial resources made available by that work. A large proportion of the workforce put out of work by COVID-19 responses are low-wage, low-productivity, and low-hours jobs in service industries. Workers in leisure and hospitality industries are currently the least likely to be able to work remotely, while those in financial, professional, and business services are most able to do so. White-collar workers are able to more easily accommodate the change, and perhaps even increase their performance, from home using broader infrastructures whose developmental trajectories are being accelerated by the pandemic. Desk jockeys can ride out the pandemic from home, put out by full-time childcare responsibilities and the lack of personal space, but ably equipped with wifi and the Cloud, connected with Zoom, fully supplied by Amazon Prime, satiated by Uber Eats, and entertained by Netflix. Space is collapsed for the desk worker, while space is made untraversable or dangerous for those who must be physically present to do their work.

Fundamentally, the designation of “essential business” overlooks the broader significance of work to our lives, even while the human responses to the pandemic itself hint at this importance. Yes, the pandemic response is making us acutely aware of the critical financial impact of being kept from work — the lifeline that pays for basic needs that must be addressed before all else. But the value of work is also reflected when we see a surge in volunteering under the pandemic, when people get out their sewing kits to sew masks for healthcare workers, even when people turn to home improvement or gardening or baking. The deeper value of work is why various diversions and passive entertainment in too great a proportion make us feel lethargic and ill after a while. Beyond the final rewards, we humans like to feel the satisfaction of the breeze as we move towards goals, when we exercise our brains and bodies to create and interact with the world around us with a purpose.

During the pandemic, those of us not burdened with continually scrambling to meet basic needs are discovering (or rediscovering) new forms of work less recognized as such in the current economy. We find these forms of work in our gardens, kitchens, and neighborhoods. We are working to meet both basic and less tangible needs through planting, cooking, making and re-purposing. We are working out our expressions and feelings with needle and thread, paint and canvas, camera and voice-note. We are working harder at maintaining connections with family, friends, and even strangers. We work our legs and feet to maneuver our neighborhood block like never before, to feel more grounded in our communities. These are the sorts of work that directly fulfill a broad range of deeply rooted human needs for sustenance, security, participation, community, activity, creativity and expression, identity, freedom. They connect us to each other and to the Earth in a manner not easily substituted through money or monotonous jobs. It is work that is often largely relegated, even demeaned by our current economic hierarchy — better to bill and charge, spend and consume.

Workers, essential or otherwise, cannot be blamed for their predicament or privilege, or for wanting the benefits of “normalcy” back. But our concept of work is based on decisions taken, consciously or not, collectively or individually, that undergird our current economy. If we are discontented with the inequality, vulnerability, waste, and lack of direction that it brings, it behooves us to take a hard look at what the system demands of us, and what we demand of it. The pandemic can’t and doesn’t tell us what to do, but it can make apparent what we might want to prioritize.

I Would Like an Introduction

If we are to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of the economy, I should first like to be properly introduced to who or what it is. Is it the big banks and financial lenders, the essential businesses of the 2008 Great Recession that were too big to fail, whose resuscitation supposedly avoided something worse? Is it the GDP, stock market indexes, jobless rates, oil futures, consumer confidence indices, and a handful of other macroeconomic figures habitually cycled through in newspaper headlines and economic assessments? Is it corporations writ large, the sentinels of the shareholder, already granted personhood by U.S. courts? Is it the interests of multilateral development lenders and other international financial institutions driving growth and development around the world? Is it my neighborhood bookstore owner or grocery clerk, or my credit score?

When these symbols will not suffice, we are told that economics, broadly speaking, “is about supply and demand, production and consumption,” and that “[t]he question for the post-pandemic economy is whether that balance, once lost, can be quickly restored.” Left completely out of this discussion, assumed away, is whether real benefit or value is maintained or created through these flows. These assertions constantly ignore accounting for the massive inefficiencies that are externalized, the voracious devouring of the Earth’s finite resources, the cavernous divides between economically favored and unfavored, the insatiable whetted appetites that create expectation and misery. Is all this necessarily intertwined, the good and the bad? Is it simply a take-it-or-leave it proposition?

The roots of the term economy come from the Ancient Greek words for home or dwelling (oikos) and laws or management (nomos). These roots suggest a meaning both broader and narrower than what we are taught to cherish. To take care of one’s home requires a focus on management of a range of resources and concerns beyond money and property. It infers a sense of purpose — supporting one’s family and community — that expands beyond the individual, yet is concerned with local and tangible matters. It suggests attention to and maintenance of the things and connections that sustain our lives. It endows a sense of responsibility for our relationships with ourselves, other humans, other beings, and our shared home, Earth. Production and consumption are of course a critical element of all this, but they are only one part of an integrated whole, and certainly not the primary objective.

In their own way, “essential business” orders momentarily reframe priorities in terms of functionality, revealing the wobbly premise of our current economic principles. What does it say that so much economic activity is not “essential” to our basic needs, yet is so responsible for so much of our supposed wealth and economic value, our security and our health? What does it say about many of the widgets produced and services rendered on a normal basis, that we can live without them but for the fact that the very activity fuels our economic survival? Shouldn’t we have an economy more geared towards meeting a broader set of “essential” needs on a regular basis, one that doesn’t generate so many insatiable desires and avoidable waste? Surely we don’t need superfluous production and consumption for their own sake in order to live healthy, wealthy, fulfilling lives.

Money is one of the greatest inventions that humans have ever produced, but like all tools it is a means to an end. We lose sight of this, even now, in the face of a pandemic that reflects back at us what really matters — life. Our over-dependence on the idea of money as well-being has damaged our ability to meet basic needs and adapt and respond to a changing planet. Its ideology entraps us, sapping our propensity for greater achievements. To say that we need money and the system built to accommodate it should not mean that we cannot use other tools as well. Many benefits of “producing” for money — and many more benefits still — may be achieved more efficiently and directly by building, planting, rearing, growing, creating, fostering. The calculus of “consuming” blurs the real objectives of seeing, tasting, hearing, smelling, touching, breathing, and blinds us to alternatives like recycling, reusing, recreating, and reimagining. The universe of transactions is broader than merely financial, and include sharing, exchanging, pooling, and gifting. The dexterity of human existence and our social relationships demand a more diverse and imaginative economy than the one we are told to value and maintain. This is not fantasy. This is how we have always existed.

If we are to believe the descriptions of our growth-dependent economy, we would be accurate in envisioning ourselves on a supposedly never-ending, always accelerating rocket to outer space, where the promised voyage is the horizon but the ultimate destination is inevitably the ground as we free-fall back to earth, unable to sustain our propulsion. Each time we crash land, we are told to get back in and buckle our seat belts, because the last earth-bound detour was an aberration, that we will learn to fly properly this time around. To stay landed is not an option, not just because we all want to see beyond the horizon, but increasingly because our fates are tied to the fate of our ride. We are all either employed in the business of flying crashing spacecraft, or have invested in such ventures. Meanwhile, the contraption we board gets bigger, faster, more complicated, and harder to maneuver. We passengers become less willing or able to withstand the next plummet — excepting those few with golden parachutes, the first in line to board again.

The debate around reopening the economy, and the pandemic itself, requires considering what we are reopening. The vagueness of the term “economy” veils who benefits and who, or what, is burdened. Not all arrows point the same way, and there is no easy divining of what should come next, but we owe it to ourselves to at least understand the story we are telling ourselves, to understand its consequences, consider its benefits and limitations, and choose, if we want, something different. The act of defining shifts both the diagnosis and the prescription for recovery.

The Essential Core

What to make of all this. What to do in the face of the desire for normalcy, for a return to before? Can we build a better, faster airship? Will we get, this time, beyond the horizon, beyond the stratosphere? Deep down, we know better.

There certainly might be a good many things worth dying for, including securing the health and well-being of our children or grandchildren. But sacrificing our elders, our children, or anyone else, for a mythical economy that requires us to blindly produce and consume, that devalues important and fulfilling work, that strips us of autonomy and distributes wealth unfairly, and that teaches us to steal from our own planet, is not one of these things. The purpose of the economy is to serve its people, not the other way around.

Better to use this time to rebuild an “essential business” economy in a truer sense: one that responds to and fulfills real human needs through systems that honor a more robust and meaningful definition of work. We need a system that completes and complements us more, celebrates the diversity and abundance of life, that keeps our home, Earth, in a better condition. Our basic human needs and capabilities are both more fundamental and more expansive than what the current economy — essential or otherwise — values. Let’s allow, even demand, that our work be more connected to our needs and to each other. It is worth it now to take this opportunity to reframe our priorities and expectations, as well as our institutions and infrastructures, to more accurately meet our needs.

There is potentially a long path towards reorienting our economies to better suit us, but let’s start where we are, with what we have. My aunt’s store is on no government’s “essential business” list, but it’s clearly essential to her, and in a way beyond allowing her to buy food and shelter. It may not always be easy or fun, but overall it provides her with satisfaction, joy, and a connection to her artistic and cultural identity. It enables her and her customers to create and imagine and express themselves in a manner of their own choosing, without commodifying that experience. It connects her to her local neighbors and a global community of artists. Its management entails a diversity of tasks and skills, its footprint is small, and its focus is primarily local. It provides independence and autonomy as a self-employed business owner and a venerated member of her community. It’s not focused on scaling or franchising, automating or outsourcing — flying to the stratosphere. It may be the type of business that must pause for a moment for us to surmount the curve of the pandemic — to temporarily give way to a changing tangle of priorities — but it’s also one of the many variations of business and work we need to recognize and celebrate, and prioritize as we face our new reality. This is the new calculus we need. We can choose to start here if we want.

Christian Alexander

Written by

Christian Alexander is a lawyer and spatial planner who works in the U.S. and Cape Town, South Africa. He writes about cities and sustainability.

Christian Alexander

Written by

Christian Alexander is a lawyer and spatial planner who works in the U.S. and Cape Town, South Africa. He writes about cities and sustainability.

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