Covid Metamorphoses #38 – Finance

From November 2018 to January 2020, I worked at a business in Athens that provides transcription service. The pay was decent for Athens. Starting pay was $8.25 ($1 above minimum), but there were efficiency and tenure-based bonuses that got me around $10.50 an hour after a few months. Plus you could basically set your own schedule, which is a pretty good bonus when you have a small child at home and a wife pursuing her doctorate.

Nearly all of the dictations were from financial advisors and insurance agents documenting conversations they just had with their clients. Because of the confidential nature of the job, I’ve had to sign all kinds of privacy contracts. So I’m going to type more carefully as usual as I tell this story. Be patient. I assure you it’s relevant to the subject of this blog.

I had taken time off in January for a lot of reasons The big one was burnout after working 30+ hours a week from August through November while writing and submitting a manuscript that was due November 1st (it was a week late, first deadline I’ve ever missed–I’m still mad). But mostly I took the time off because I was able to. My wife had started a decent-paying job in November, and by January we were starting to climb on top of the debt we had piled up while she was out of work for five months.

I was supposed to go back some time in March, and towards the end of February, I got in touch and we all agreed that March 16th sounded perfect. On March 13th, they cancelled schools here in Athens, GA (about a month before NYC and Boston btw), and the idea of working became impossible–not that I was super excited about the idea of sitting in an enclosed room with 20-ish people during a pandemic. It was kind of a relief actually. I wondered if they would even stay open, or who how many people who would want to come in.

Well the answer must have been: not as many people as there used to be, because five weeks ago I got an e-mail asking if I would be interested in working remotely from home. This was unprecedented, especially given the privacy concerns. There would also be bonus pay. I’d be making $11 an hour, with all kinds of performance-based leeway given the occasional delays in working remotely.

We were doing okay money-wise, but I had watched the end-of-March stock market implosion with a deep longing to be at work so I could hear what the financial advisors were saying. Even in the worst of times, they exude a kind of smug certainty that the market is always going to go up. And in case you’re wondering, no I don’t think they realize where this money actually comes from, i.e. the underpaid labor of workers, or in the case of prisons–the slave labor of inmates. I also don’t think they care.

Unfortunately, by the time I got set up with my own remote work station from home, the economy had stabilized. So now I get to listen to the same smug certainty, only this time while a pandemic rages all around me and the news is filled with stories of suffering. Hearing people talk about the stock market going up, about (very legal) tax avoidance schemes and being “out of the woods” with the virus, about investing in the health care industry or in tech stocks, is hard. It’s especially hard after reading in the news about unemployment numbers going up, and thinking about who has to work in dangerous places (disproportionately people of color and women) and who doesn’t (financial advisors and their clients). There’s always been a lack of, shall we say, social empathy in the calls I’ve transcribed over the past couple of years. But to hear people talk about money, about maximizing their clients’ rate of return, when 80,000 people have died in the past six weeks makes me feel sick. It’s like listening to sociopaths for 18 hours a week, and sometimes it hurts. Most of the calls don’t even mention the virus anymore, except as a thing that happened back in March that affected the market. Because to be a financial advisor is to be an eternal optimist, or at least to sell optimism to others.

Again, I don’t want to go too in-depth here. But let’s just say that there are some people who have made a lot of money off this pandemic, most of them with stock in Amazon, or Publix, or Walmart. And every single one of them is paying someone 1% of their money to make sure it grows, and to make sure they pay as little taxes on it as possible at a time when governments are going to need every penny they can get. When schools are already terminating and furloughing employees because of shrinking budgets in the face of the pandemic.

The coming austerity measures that will be forced on us are going to be cruel and unnecessary, and we most definitely are not all in this together.

And if I’ve learned anything over the past couple of years it’s that giving people IRAs and 401(k)s has been awful for working people in this country. Because it gave what’s left of the middle-class a stake in the stock market, an incentive to see it grow (and it always needs to grow). And so even as workers generate that wealth, historically unprecedented amounts of wealth, all of that money needs to go to the investing class. And in the 21st century, every teacher, every professor, every baby boomer who lucked into a union job that has a retirement plan, all of them are part of the investing class. And they’d rather you eat dog food for dinner than see their rate of return drop from 5% to 2%.  And if you want to know why so many people in the Democratic party were terrified of Bernie Sanders becoming the nominee, there’s one of your answers right there. Because it isn’t just the 1% who own this country.

If you’re not in the market, the system is rigged against you. If you’re in the market, especially in equities, you’re a greedy nihilistic sociopath who is destroying what’s left of our society. Sorry your vacation got ruined by the virus.

About ScottCreney

Scott Creney lives in Athens, Georgia. He is the author of "Dear Al-Qaeda: Letters to the World’s Most Notorious Terror Organiztion".
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