A Journal of the Plague Year 2023–chapter 283

Elon Musk’s company town for Tesla and the Boring Co.
Getty Images

May 12

Migration, homelessness, and a restive population—the U.S. is experiencing a doom loop of interrelated, overlapping events all involving shelter.

U.S. cities face a growing population of the unhoused, estimated nationally to be at a half-million, with New York and California particularly affected. At this moment, there are over 78,000 people in New York City’s shelter system.

There’s also a “housing shortage”—meaning an undersupply of residences in desirable places for those who can afford to buy or rent. Just to keep up with projected household formation, the U.S. requires an additional 3.8 million housing units,  according to mortgage fund overseer Freddie Mac. The problem is no longer limited to the coasts, as supply has worsened in 47 states and the District of Columbia, according to research group Up For Growth. Last year, the national median asking price for a home was more than $400,000, according to Realtor.com.

Then there’s the “work-from-home” phenomenon: an increasing number of employed people no longer wish to commute five days a week, leading to an oversupply of office space in big cities and possible efforts to turn offices into residences.

Add to these the border crisis: record numbers of refugees are pressing to get into the USA, where they too will require housing. Columbians, Venezuelans, Brazilians, and others have been assaulted by economic and political upheaval. Millions of lives have been upended.

And now we’re seeing the emergence of new company towns. Facebook, Google, and Elon Musk’s Space X, Boring Co., and Tesla are all building new municipalities—housing for their employees and not for anyone else. While Facebook and Google are situated in the overpopulated greater Bay Area, Musk has chosen to build in undeveloped areas of Texas—largely so that he can avoid paying taxes or otherwise contributing to social spending. 

At bottom, we’re seeing a vanishing of the last vestiges of a social contract. Governments, hamstrung by right-wing movements and megabucks funders, no longer step in to fill voids with, for example, government-funded housing. Employers slash worker benefits, rearrange schedules wantonly, and squeeze every extra working minute out of their employees. Accordingly, people figure that life (especially during a pandemic) is short and layoffs can happen at any time—so why should anyone feel especially committed to a job? In Latin America, the severe effects of global economic crisis, gang violence, and authoritarian government has pushed thousands to abandon their countries. Even many capitalists are withdrawing from life-as-we-knew-it, placing their wealth in tax havens across the planet and their productive facilities in low-wage, undemocratic, little-regulated zones from Texas to Shenzhen. Billionaires are relocating themselves to gated communities, private islands, and yachts at sea.

This latter phenomenon is frighteningly described in Wellesley College professor Quinn Slobodan’s book Crack-Up Capitalism. He tells how the “bloom” of new nations—including those resulting from the break-up of the U.S.S.R.—was greeted as a windfall by capitalists. Each new state represented “a start-up territory that might offer itself as a refuge for flight capital or a site of unregulated business or research.” 

Backed by a cadre of libertarian ideologues from Milton Friedman to Peter Thiel, a class of capitalists who never accepted even modest reform platforms (such as FDR’s New Deal or LBJ’s Great Society) drew inspiration from such regulation-free enclaves as Hong Kong and Singapore. “The great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms,” wrote Thiel. And this is the world they have created, says Slobodan: “The world of nations is riddled with zones,” he notes, from free ports and high-tech parks to city states, duty-free districts, and innovation hubs. There are over 5,400 such zones across the globe, represented in a bewildering variety of forms.

You might ask why Musk and Facebook have bothered creating throwback company towns. Surely the answer to all corporations’ problems is already out there in the form of the regulation- and tax-free zone. But maybe the skilled high-tech laborers required at Facebook, Tesla, and SpaceX don’t wish to move to such a zone. In time, they may have little choice.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 262

Way out west…in another lifetime.

Monday, April 25

Hanging around this house like some aging truant has been a dog-eared copy of Wallace Stegner’s once-celebrated novel Angle of Repose. I’m reading it now. A tale of surprising people who reluctantly made their home in the wild American west, the novel won a Pulitzer in 1972—and immediately became the subject of controversy. 

Was the novel mediocre as some charged or, worst of all, middlebrow—unworthy of high honors? Some of its characters are renamed and fictionalized versions of true-life people. Did Stegner’s use of the real person’s actual words—Wikipedia says “the novel is directly based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote, later published as A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West”—represent plagiarism…or an infringement on History?

Food for thought…maybe. In fact, lots of novels have trod on similar ground. Two that randomly come to mind are Don DeLillo’s 1988 Libra, which unhesitatingly dug around in the life of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald; and Philip Roth’s 2004 The Plot Against America, which offered an alternative past in which aviation hero and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindberg ran against and defeated President Franklin Roosevelt. Did these novels not commit unpardonable sins—and pander to the kind of people who find actual history books boring?

(Roth attached a “true chronology of major figures” as a postscript to his alternate history lest any reader get carried away into fantasyland. QAnon is far from the only evidence that many citizens of our age are drawn toward Pizzagate delusions.)

However, rather than distorting the past in the manner of many cowboy movies or openly mythologizing it as in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Stegner’s tale often works as a corrective to wide-eyed, heroic cowboys-vs.-Indians stories. The West, he tells us, was exploited and “developed” by the same sort of people who are today destroying the Amazon rain forest and leaning on workers from the corner Starbucks to sweatshops in Southeast Asia. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but many people would prefer a different version of the Old West.

One of Stegner’s main characters, Oliver Ward, works as a mining engineer in an 1870s California mining camp, where his wife Susan joins him. For a time, his life seems pleasant and productive. Then Susan realizes that he has been concealing from her the true sentiment among the camp’s workers. “The whole place is wormy with fear and hate,” he at last reveals, adding that the manager’s “way of handling that is to fire anybody who opens his mouth or gets the slightest out of line,” including one 14-year veteran discharged for breaking the rule that all purchases must be made at the company store. The man is fired and blacklisted—as are any others who would stand up for him.

Such company-town life was all too common in the U.S.A.—in fact, it IS common in the contemporary United States. You can say or do whatever you like—just not on company time. Just wait until self-described “free-speech absolutist” Elon Musk takes over Twitter. The Trumpist berserkers will have a field day, but truly interesting commentators on such subjects as Russian aggression in Ukraine, or on Musk himself, will find little place for expression.

Dinner: stuffed bell peppers, made in an instant via our new Instant Pot.

Entertainment: Having just watched the fascinating Kurosawa revenge flick The Bad Sleep Well, we will likely see another Japanese flick, Stray Dog.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 67

Scallions rooting around in my kitchen.

Friday, May 15

Life goes on. I began writing this blog with the idea that an accounting of daily life during the pandemic could be of interest to our friends and to people in the future. But, for those not on the front lines, daily life is monotonous—that’s how it’s supposed to be. We’re isolated and avoiding social contact—and in this world, social contact is what’s interesting.

Anyway, today I’ll have breakfast, read the newspaper and various news reports, write this post and figure out what photo to include with it (the photo question provides one of the most interesting issues each day), have a little lunch, read some more, maybe take a walk, then make dinner, and watch a video.

The photo above is of scallions that I am rooting in my kitchen. I learned to do this online, from someone who claims never to buy scallions. I’m not sure that my efforts will really produce enough to serve in a recipe—but they’re cute and fun.

Yesterday, I learned in an e-mail that my work has been quoted in the Michigan State Law Review, in an article entitled “Janus v. AFSCME: Triumph of Free Speech or Doom for Unions?” by George Washington University law professor Marc Klock.

The author several times cites my book on U.S. company towns, as he dissects the harsh conditions that once faced miners and other private-sector workers. But that serves largely as a prologue to an attack on public employee unions. He accuses Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan of entertaining “a laughable idea that could only be formed inside an ivory tower perspective.” After that coup de grace and near the end of a 52-page article, he asserts: “Public-sector unions are not working for the public interest. They are working for the self-interest of public-sector employees.” Was I surprised!

Emily was due to have a Zoom teleconference with her doctor yesterday. She downloaded the Zoom app on her Android phone. Then, for some mysterious reason, they just had a phone call instead. So we remain among the non-Zoomers.

Spring has arrived. After nighttime showers, it’s partly sunny today with a high near 68. Next door, some maintenance guys are getting the swimming pool ready for action. Imagine doing laps while wearing both swim goggles and a face mask.

During my afternoon constitutional, I see lots of folks out walking the dogs. The pooches seem a bit weirded out, too—they want to play with each other but aren’t sure that they should, canine social distancing and all.

The wild dogwoods are blossoming like mad. From now on, it’s going to be very hard to keep everyone indoors. 

News flash: Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced that state beaches can open next Friday, provided there are no group activities such as volleyball, no concessions stands open, that there is social distancing, and there are masks worn when social distancing isn’t possible.

Dinner: leftover stuffed green peppers, Asian green beans, salad.

Entertainment: Jazz musicians Arturo O’Farrill and Adam O’Farrill streaming live from WNYC’s The Green Space, one episode of Secret City, and Kon Tiki, a short movie about the cross-Pacific trek of explorer Thor Heyerdahl.