“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those that falsely believe they are free.”
-Johann Von Goethe Wolfgang
When I say the word, homelessness…I also mean to say gentrification, fundamental human neglection and an enormous dearth of empathy. However the biggest reason is the familiar crepitaculum of the income inequality skeletons stuffed in Uncle Sam’s closet. I feel the problem of homelessness is a remarkable and aposematic precursor portending an upcoming major economic perturbation.
The last big swelling of homelessness here in Eugene and most other large principalities was the Occupy Wall Street movement that started in September of 2011.
It was a semi organized and national response to the prodigious excess of capital and abject rapaciousness of banks and multinationals. The apex of this wonton greed was evinced in one of the highest CEO-to-worker ratios at the time in American history at a whopping 230 to 1. To give you a sense of scale, the CEO-to-worker ratio In the 1950’s was around 20 to 1. Nowadays there are some CEOs making over 1000 to 1. This movement consisted largely of students and protestors. Before that there were some homelessness spikes in the 1980’s.
However it was during the Great Depression that the US experienced its biggest and most prolonged period of homelessness and that is what we are starting to see now. Or at least what I see when I ride my bike to work everyday in Eugene. There have always been unhoused people around. Often times, they will set up for a day or two and then the police or parks and recreation personnel will get them to move along. These days instead of seeing a handful of encampments, I am seeing at least five or six times the amount of tents, tarps, pallets, scrap wood, and whatever spavined raw materials they can turn into makeshift ensconings. To deal with the influx of unhoused individuals, the city of Eugene is not currently fining unhoused people. I have also noticed certain areas are allowed to stay around for longer amounts of time. However, it typically takes just one police call due to an oftentimes petty criminal behavior before the spot is forcibly removed. Then the unhoused end up finding a new spot for a week or two before the same thing happens. So instead of just one big area that could be better monitored and secured with more basic sanitary infrastructure like portable toilets, we are seeing multiple areas being utilized. The abandoned areas after the unhoused leave are often contaminated with litter, trash, detritus, and sometimes used syringes. It would seem to me a better and more environmentally friendly idea to utilize one large, secured area. Perhaps if it was just one area certain rules like, cleaning up your messes and being good to each other could be implemented. If the area could reach a modicum of stability then social services and food provided along with basic sanitation and medical care could be introduced. It was recently announced in the Register Guard that a real estate developer out of Portland is going to build a large residential park along the Willamette river near downtown Eugene. From the Register Guard article, “The project, to be built in phases, features at least 215 apartments, 70 or so market-rate townhouses, a hotel with at least 125 rooms, a restaurant, retail space and an affordable housing complex with at least 75 units.” The article goes on to mention that it is costing the city of Eugene 12M and that the developer’s cost will exceed 100M. My thinking is this, imagine what the city could do with 12 million dollars if it directed it to setting up the same area for the unhoused? Imagine if the unhoused had a tent spot or a yurt or some alternative basic domicile with access to food, human services, and sanitation? At some point the critical mass’ tipping point of homelessness will have to be addressed like in the Great Depression.
The Great Depression was a decade of economic cachexia marked by the sudden degringolade of the Stock Market and the tragic failures of the American banking system. Before Black Thursday on October 29th 1929 ever happened, there were already signs of danger. One was the debt accrued during the roaring 1920’s. Most individuals had to take out loans to purchase all the newest and glistery luxury items like refrigerators, washing machines, and one of the most evil inventions ever created in my opinion, the automobile. (I’ll save that topic for another day). The wild speculation and purchasing of items on credit well above everybody’s means, plus a meteoric rise in unemployment and large cuts to production caught the market off guard. Stocks had far exceeded their value. In the first couple weeks preceding Black Tuesday when the markets got rattled, banks were able to buy up the massive sell offs in the market. But eventually consumer confidence had waned to apocalyptic levels and hence Black Tuesday. By 1933 unemployment was around 25%. Are we not starting to see the same kinds of problems in today’s world? Unemployment today is around 16% and going up. The hysteria and fervor surrounding the coronavirus has all the makings of an over bloated stock market, boatloads of items purchased on credit, high unemployment, and a the true misery indicator, markedly increased homelessness. Hoovervilles soon spread throughout almost every American city in the Great Depression. Hoovervilles were communities of unhoused and unemployed people living often in squalid conditions that sprung up around the fringes of metropolitan areas. Most were laid out near rivers and sources of water. Hoovervilles received that name due to the POTUS at the time, Herbert Hoover who was widely blamed for his inaction to the economic tragedy. If I was more of a gambler, I’d predict we will see a similiar pattern of Trumpvilles or Bidenvilles in our lifetimes. We can see the similarities between the feds buying up most of the market. The Trump administration continues to add to the wedge of inequality by funneling most of their stimulus money to banks, large multinational corporations, and creditors instead of to the people most in need of the capital. The US dollar is increasingly become less valuable and if the stability of it begins to shake we could start to see a Wall Street panic akin to the same mania associated before Black Friday in 1929 occurred.
So what are some possible solutions to this lacuna of income? Before I delve into that let’s look at one of the reasons why there is so little affordable housing. Gentrification is the process of renovating or improving an area so that it conforms to the taste of the middle class. This in turn drives up the prices of rent and real estate prices in that area or district. To me that definition is flawed because I’d argue the middle class doesn’t even exist. I typically only see the haves and have nots or the 99% and the 1%. In my own personal life my landlord has raised the rent on us three times in three years without any upgrades. This came despite a cap on rent increases in Eugene to under 10%. But this does little good over the long haul. I understand that oftentimes these neighborhoods where the developers and gentrifiers come in are fraught with drug addiction, gangs, and poverty. However those are all issues that need to be addressed individually and not just kicked down the road as the process of gentrification does. So keeping developers and the circling sharks at arm’s length would be one way of staving off gentrification and thus homelessness.
Another solution to the unhoused quandary that jumps to mind is the tried and true Robin Hood approach. Jeff Bezos, the wildly successful CEO of Amazon has recently been reported as making 275 million a day! That is more than the GDP of countries like the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and Nauru. Jeff Bezos makes more money in a day than some countries will make in a year. This should offend you. So the answer is pretty easy, what if we enacted a maximum wage law like the one proposed by Jello Biafra and put the money created over the limit back into a community fund? The community funds could be used for the unhoused, organic gardening areas, community services and facilities that the most vulnerable of the population depend on. I know it is unamerikan and anathema to think in terms of empathy and the benefit for all. But maybe after Bezos becomes a trillionaire the rest of his profit could start being allocated to a basic universal income? When you buy things off Amazon do you ever feel guilty? What if the money you spent there was going to pay the workers more and to those less fortunate? Would you feel better about buying a pair of socks from Amazon then? Or does that matter to you? Another way of combating the super rich and the problem of capital hoarding would be to levy a demurrage tax on the uber rich. From Wikipedia, German-Argentine economist Silvio Gisell proposed demurrage as a means of increasing both the rate of money and overall economic activity. So if the Uber rich hoarders just stash their money away into generational coffers then a demurrage tax could be placed on it until it became worthless. This would motivate the rich to eventually put their wealth back into the effects of the market. Reading up on the Great Depression a scrip system was actually codified into law. Again from Wikipedia, “Local scrip systems, many of which incorporated demurrage fees, were also used across the United States during the Great Depression and the Bankhead–Pettengill bill of 17 February 1933 was introduced in Congress to institutionalize such a system at the national level under the US Treasury.” My thinking is that would be a fantastic way of holding these 1% companies accountable. They would be issued a digitized currency equivalence of a prosperity certificate. So in order to keep them valid the company or individual would have to pay a demurrage or validity fee each week/month/year to keep its value. This would stop usury and emphasize a larger value on goods and services. My suggestion would be a sliding scale of demurrage from barely any fees for low income people to progressively higher fees for elite companies. It would have a couple effects. One would be that companies would undoubtedly skirt the certificate by stashing the money in assets and non monetary shelters. But if these transactions were traced by a mechanism like blockchain I could see the demurrage currency working. There is already a cryptocurrency called Freicoin that utilizes demurrage fees and in essence does what I am talking about. Here is a great article on Freicoin by Danny Bradbury. And the other effect would be more value placed on goods and services since the motivation to hoard would be attenuated.
Another possible but crazy solution is the ZenVow Project. Also from Wikipedia, “The ZenVow Project implements a human generated Global Basic Income system using time dependent digital currency that derives from the demurrage system. Where the human average world life expectancy is used as the currencies lifespan and respective derived burn rate.” I was quite excited about this concept when I read it but then got turned off by the pure cheesiness of this promo I found for it. Just listen to the background music. Eek!!! But why not? A civilization based on currency and a universal income that can only be obtained or mined by mediation and yoga? Sounds pretty awesome. I’d also add other activities like hiking, cycling, and walking to the mix. How different the world would be if instead of banks and credit unions we had packed mediation centers at the heart of our financial districts?
The problem of inequality has been around for a very long time and I don’t expect any magic bullets. However, I do think a huge investment in empathy and basic human respect would go a long way to helping the unhoused and misbegotten. If ya don’t have empathy then I’d offer a suggestion to keep you all “occupied”, learn to build. Or work on developing carpentry know how and basic plumbing and electrical building skills. Maybe now is a good time to take up organic gardening?
Trumpvilles aren’t going to build themselves.