Adam Schlesinger, who died on Wednesday, at fifty-two, of complications from covid-19, had an unusual public profile. He was a successful musician—very successful, by any reasonable measure. He played in acclaimed bands; he composed songs and scores for movies and Broadway and television shows. He won a Grammy and three Emmys, and was nominated for an Oscar and a couple of Tonys.
But Schlesinger was not a star. You couldn’t really even call him famous. In part, this was a factor of history. He was a co-founder of two pop-rock groups, Ivy and Fountains of Wayne, which earned major label deals and boutique stardom, then faded as the cultural center of gravity shifted from rock to hip-hop. Schlesinger’s career had an old-fashioned flavor. He was a craftsman in the Brill Building and Tin Pan Alley mold: a record producer, multi-instrumentalist, and, supremely, a songwriter, who thrived behind the scenes. He was never the lead singer of any band. Onstage, he cut a diffident figure, playing the bass and stepping to the microphone every now and then to sing harmony vocals.
Schlesinger’s death will undoubtedly bring him greater renown than he knew in life. With the terrible instant clarity that tragedy confers, it’s now easy to recognize him for what he was: a modest man of immodestly lavish talent. He was one of the great songwriters of his generation, with a body of work that stands next to those of far bigger boldface names.
In the third week of February, as the covid-19 epidemic was still flaring in China, I arrived in Kolkata, India. I woke up to a sweltering morning—the black kites outside my hotel room were circling upward, lifted by the warming currents of air—and I went to visit a shrine to the goddess Shitala. Her name means “the cool one”; as the myth has it, she arose from the cold ashes of a sacrificial fire. The heat that she is supposed to diffuse is not just the fury of summer that hits the city in mid-June but also the inner heat of inflammation. She is meant to protect children from smallpox, heal the pain of those who contract it, and dampen the fury of a pox epidemic.
The shrine was a small structure within a temple a few blocks from Kolkata Medical College. Inside, there was a figurine of the goddess, sitting on a donkey and carrying her jar of cooling liquid—the way she has been depicted for a millennium. The temple was two hundred and fifty years old, the attendant informed me. That would date it to around the time when accounts first appeared of a mysterious sect of Brahmans wandering up and down the Gangetic plain to popularize the practice of tika, an early effort at inoculation. This involved taking matter from a smallpox patient’s pustule—a snake pit of live virus—and applying it to the pricked skin of an uninfected person, then covering the spot with a linen rag.
The Indian practitioners of tika had likely learned it from Arabic physicians, who had learned it from the Chinese. As early as 1100, medical healers in China had realized that those who survived smallpox did not catch the illness again (survivors of the disease were enlisted to take care of new victims), and inferred that the exposure of the body to an illness protected it from future instances of that illness. Chinese doctors would grind smallpox scabs into a powder and insufflate it into a child’s nostril with a long silver pipe.
Vaccination with live virus was a tightrope walk: if the amount of viral inoculum in the powder was too great, the child would succumb to a full-fledged version of the disease—a disaster that occurred perhaps one in a hundred times. If all went well, the child would have a mild experience of the disease, and be immunized for life. By the seventeen-hundreds, the practice had spread throughout the Arab world. In the seventeen-sixties, women in Sudan practiced tishteree el jidderee (“buying the pox”): one mother haggling with another over how many of a sick child’s ripe pustules she would buy for her own son or daughter. It was an exquisitely measured art: the most astute traditional healers recognized the lesions that were likely to yield just enough viral material, but not too much. The European name for the disease, variola, comes from the Latin for “spotted” or “pimpled.” The process of immunizing against the pox was called “variolation.”
The deserted streets will fill again, and we will leave our screen-lit burrows blinking with relief. But the world will be different from how we imagined it in what we thought were normal times. This is not a temporary rupture in an otherwise stable equilibrium: the crisis through which we are living is a turning point in history.
The era of peak globalisation is over. An economic system that relied on worldwide production and long supply chains is morphing into one that will be less interconnected. A way of life driven by unceasing mobility is shuddering to a stop. Our lives are going to be more physically constrained and more virtual than they were. A more fragmented world is coming into being that in some ways may be more resilient.
The once formidable British state is being rapidly reinvented, and on a scale not seen before. Acting with emergency powers authorised by parliament, the government has tossed economic orthodoxy to the winds. Savaged by years of imbecilic austerity, the NHS – like the armed forces, police, prisons, fire service, care workers and cleaners – has its back to the wall. But with the noble dedication of its workers, the virus will be held at bay. Our political system will survive intact. Not many countries will be so fortunate. Governments everywhere are struggling through the narrow passage between suppressing the virus and crashing the economy. Many will stumble and fall.
In the view of the future to which progressive thinkers cling, the future is an embellished version of the recent past. No doubt this helps them preserve some semblance of sanity. It also undermines what is now our most vital attribute: the ability to adapt and fashion different ways of life. The task ahead is to build economies and societies that are more durable, and more humanly habitable, than those that were exposed to the anarchy of the global market.
does not mean a shift to small-scale localism. Human numbers are too large for local self-sufficiency to be viable, and most of humankind is not willing to return to the small, closed communities of a more distant past. But the hyperglobalisation of the last few decades is not coming back either. The virus has exposed fatal weaknesses in the economic system that was patched up after the 2008 financial crisis. Liberal capitalism is bust.
With all its talk of freedom and choice, liberalism was in practice the experiment of dissolving traditional sources of social cohesion and political legitimacy and replacing them with the promise of rising material living standards. This experiment has now run its course. Suppressing the virus necessitates an economic shutdown that can only be temporary, but when the economy restarts, it will be in a world where governments act to curb the global market.
In times of crisis, radical ideas are suddenly pulled out of the hat. The same is true of universal basic income. When I wrote one of my first articles on the idea seven years ago, it was almost completely forgotten. But economists and sociologists had already shown heaps of evidence that “free money” could be more effective than traditional forms of social security and development aid.
In recent weeks, calls for a basic income have been louder than ever. In the US, Donald Trump, the president, signed a $2tn stimulus package into law, which will send a $1,200 cheque to most US Americans.
US presidential candidate Andrew Yang ran on a platform of universal basic income and qualified for the first six Democratic debates. The idea of guaranteeing all US Americans $1,000 a month was suddenly being discussed on network television. In the UK, the Conservative party, which has spent the last decade implementing austerity measures, is considering temporary basic universal income.
There’s no other choice. In normal times, politicians and policymakers like to put conditions on social security benefits – a move that usually comes from mistrust. Because don’t people get lazy from free money? And won’t they just waste their allowance on alcohol and drugs, computer games and Netflix?
But whatever you think of this discussion, the reality is that there is now no time for mistrust. Because mistrust is expensive. And bureaucratic. If the government wants to keep tabs on self-employed workers to check if they really need the assistance, the scheme will go awry.
Fortunately, there are good reasons to rely on trust.
Keeping all that in mind, here’s the chapter on universal basic income from my book Utopia for Realists. The arguments for a universal basic income may be stronger than ever.
London, May 2009. An experiment is underway. Its subjects: 13 homeless men. They are veterans of the street. Some have been sleeping on the cold pavement of the Square Mile, Europe’s financial centre, for going on 40 years. Between the police expenses, court costs, and social services, these 13 people have racked up a bill estimated at £400,000 ($650,000) or more. Per year.
The strain on city services and local charities is too great for things to go on this way. So Broadway, a London-based aid organisation, makes a radical decision: from now on, the city’s 13 consummate drifters will be getting VIP treatment. It’s adiós to the daily helpings of food stamps, soup kitchens, and shelters. They’re getting a drastic and instantaneous bailout.
From now on, these rough sleepers will receive free money.
To be exact, they’re getting £3,000 in spending money, and they don’t have to do a thing in return. How they spend it is up to them. They can opt to make use of an advisor if they’d like – or not. There are no strings attached, no questions to trip them up.
The only thing they’ve asked is: what do you think you need?