No Spare Tire: Time to Design Anew

New cars these days don’t come with a spare tire. What little that may reduce the price of the car, if any, just doesn’t seem worth it when a flat strands you on the side of the road. That’s the analogy Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz [1] uses to critique the old economic and political logic the new pandemic has laid bare. Breaking out of metaphor and into reality, why has our system left us stranded, anxious, and unprepared? One explanation is that it’s been designed that way. “We design and design designs us back.” This axiom isn’t a word play. Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic and the economic misery that’s coming with it.

Clearly the United States has been caught flat footed when you can’t get a roll of toilet paper let alone a coronavirus test, and we still can’t imagine what suffering lies ahead. Insanely, we don’t even have a unified national response, and “the market” as if it were a deity, isn’t going to fix this emergency. But if we’re looking for root cause deeper within the system, we could also say that the moral wiring is missing [2]. It wasn’t designed into the system. So whether it’s pandemic, economic calamity, empty shelves at the grocery store, unemployment, climate emergency, or utility disconnects, moral wiring is the common circuit that’s missing. Of course, I see community-owned renewable energy as being one component of that moral wiring, so if we can redesign the system we can expand our energy choices in ways that benefit people and communities. How do we change our flawed but normalized worldview, the one lacking moral wiring, from the ground up?

One example of how we go about that is the Poor Handmaids for Jesus Christ, a community that’s done so much and is now inventing what’s next. If their good works could spread like a virus, we’d all be better off. Their village wiring vision has produced very impressive amounts of solar power on their campus. Now, their Moontree Studios is building community by doing things like experimental “social distancing” art with the guiding principle:

Love & belonging
Will heal our nation
Build community
Not corporation

The tireless, selfless and wise Sister Mary is at the center of things, though she’d be the first to humbly deflect any attention at all from herself and instead, toward her community. With good reason too since she’s part of an amazing group there in northern Indiana. This time of crisis is also a time of profound change and with that comes opportunity. We need new experimental designs for our communities, society, and ways of communicating. The present system has given us all these dire consequences that coronavirus has revealed, yes, but we should understand that better worlds are equally possible now. The author Naomi Klein reminds us that while the old system, which has worked very well for it’s few intended beneficiaries, was intentionally designed from “ideas lying around” and deployed when shocks and crises (i.e. “opportunities”) permit. We have good ideas of our own that have been lying around.

It shouldn’t be taboo to discuss these things now, after all we’re looking at an economic downturn that’s going to make the 2008 “Great Recession” look like cupcakes. For most Americans, economic anxiety and suffering have already begun. Furthermore, this crisis is already having life and death consequences, so it’s way more than job losses for the working class or the stock market losses that the elite will “suffer” from the comfort of their considerable fortresses. When risks common to all have been offloaded to others less powerful, that’s a bad idea. It’s time for new designs. Now.


[1] Stiglitz is no shrinking violet in the field of economics. Besides his Nobel Prize, he teaches at Columbia University, has been the chief economist at the World Bank, and the accolades go on. His new book People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism in an Age of Discontent introduces what he calls “progressive capitalism,” which may be a perfectly appropriate synonym for social democracy, given the mainstream media’s recent crucifiction of that term combined with the massive needs in response to the pandemic that are going to require radical measures. Pick your preferred term, but clearly humanity has serious needs, many of which have come into stark focus thanks to a fast moving microscopic virus.

[2] Besides the growing suffering coronavirus is imposing on us, look no further than our politicians using their positions for self enrichment, while excluding the public from benefiting from the same inside knowledge, and that’s the crime. Senator Richard Burr and the others like him always have an excuse. If these allegations are true, and they probably are because that’s the way politics works nowadays, this is but one mere symptom of the deeper rot in the existing system.

Leave a Reply