Groundhog Day

I watched my last movie in a theater in 2012, and the movie was Skyfall. I still remember turning to my wife when we left the theater and saying, “That’s it.”

“What’s it?”

“Movies. I am done with movies.”

And I was. Mostly. There have been a couple of German movies I’ve watched at the Villa Aurora, and I watched the movie American Sniper at a friend’s house. And there was the time that someone tried to snooker me into watching Pride and Prejudice. #fail

Other than the doping movie about the Sochi Olympics that a friend let me watch on her Netflix account, and my memory isn’t perfect, I’ve forsworn movies. They don’t appeal to me. They are not fun. I don’t believe them. They are uninteresting and they do not entertain me. I do not like them, Sam I am.

But however many weeks we are into the Stay At Home Polite Request But Not Really An Order quarantine, I broke down and got a 30-day free Netflix trial. As expected, there was nothing on it to see, so I watched Stepbrothers. I admit that I laughed. Maybe even a lot.

The next day I watched The Naked Gun. I laughed. Not a lot, but a bunch, and the following day I flicked on Police Academy and didn’t laugh at all or even crack a grin. Two nights ago I dug into my memory banks and typed in Groundhog Day because you know, we really are living the same day over and over and over again.

I remembered it as a comedy, but with twenty-seven years on its tread since it came out, it has not only held up well but, in addition to being a clever and sweet love story, I realized that it is a profound meditation in addition to being a writer-director’s genius way to use out-takes. And the meditation is this: Only by committing to something grueling and hard for years and years can you become someone new.

In the movie, Bill Murray becomes an amazing pianist as he has to re-live a single day over and over and over. Rather than despair, he tries to do something worthwhile with what looks like is going to be eternity. For a young person to achieve the musicality Murray attains it would take twenty years, or approximately 7,300 days. For an old guy like Murray, starting late in life, it would take twice that, easily, or almost 15,000 days doing nothing but waking up, reliving Groundhog Day in Punxatawney, PA, and going to his piano lesson. That’s a lot of piano lessons. That’s a lot of Groundhog Days.

Of course at the end, the movie scrupulously follows the final prong of the Only Law Of Hollywood Movies: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. The feminine and more true-to-life version of that law is: Girl gets boy she had designs on, girl dumps boy for better prospect, girl changes mind and lets boy come groveling back.

It’s impossible not to focus on the short term Groundhog Day horror of the full economic stop brought about by Covid-19. But for tens of millions of people semi-quarantined at home, cast adrift from work, cleaved from their habits of ALL TV SPORTS ALL DA TIME, bereft of the “entertainment” of eating out, burned out by online movies, video clips, and #socmed, and crammed up close and personal into the faces of spouses and children, for those people this really is Groundhog Day.

And the question is, what are you going to do with eternity?

The nihilistic answer is, “It doesn’t matter,” but that doesn’t work because you suspect that this really isn’t going to last forever, which takes us back to square one: If today is just like yesterday, what will you do to pass the time?

This isn’t a rhetorical question, much less a practical one, because the answer fundamentally affects how our earth is going to look once The Institutions command that the lights be plugged in again. Despite the confidence of central bankers and heads of state who say, “Whatever it takes!” and say it emphatically, and despite the markets that gulp and sweat and charge ahead as if everything will turn out fine, these assurances leave out the most critical part of the circuit when they talk about plugging the economy back in.

The part that matters most? You.

More accurately, your wants. Because no matter how blank the check is that the central banks offer, and no matter how many zeroes get stuck onto the corporate bailout bill, none of it works if the slaves don’t march back into the mines, collect their handful of dimes, and come back out ready to spend it at the mall, on a new car and gas, or on a diet of fast food and new downloads from iTunes. In other words, the economy can’t start until the slaves, who are now frightened and huddled in their apartments, terrified that their cards are now maxed out and they’ll be returning to crushing debt, simultaneously agree not only to go back to work but also to go back to their old ways.

Old ways? What old ways?

Well …

Traditional economics and nontraditional economics have a neat explanation for how markets work, and they base it on supply and demand. This is the first gargantuan lie of the modern economy, that supply and demand drive anything all. They don’t.

First of all, it’s not demand. Demand is when you tell someone to give you something or there will be hell to pay. Demand isn’t a negotiation or an offer to buy. Demand is something yelled for out of necessity with fists pounding on the counter that drives necessity. Petulant children make demands. Lawsuits make demands. Hostage-takers make demands. But consumers? They don’t demand shit. They no more have demands than they have wings, because if they had demands they wouldn’t be offering to pay for them, they’d be ripping it away by force.

They’d be demanding housing. Health care. Education. Security. Clean air. Clean water. Paid vacations. 30-hour work weeks. And if the government or industry didn’t provide those things, consumers, if they were really demanding anything, would grab them by throat and take it. So let’s dispense with the word demand in economics and call it what it really is, because words matter. Consumers have … wants. More about that it in moment.

Because now we have to look at “supply.” That’s another fiction, created to fit with the fairy tale of demand. You demand a thing and I will supply it. Sounds so rational and necessary. But what if all you have is a want? Then what happens when you get it? It’s not supplied, it’s satisfied. The true model isn’t supply and demand, it’s want and satisfaction, which, if it were described thus, would bother people because there is generally no necessity behind wanting a thing whereas demanding a thing imputes need and legitimizes it.

I demand food versus I want a hamburger …

Same with supply, which sounds like a mechanical, necessary response to a demand and therefore somehow valid. But what about when it is simply satisfying a want, which is what drives 99% or more of all modern economic transactions? Such language would expose the luxury, the volition, the excess, and the utter non-necessity of the product being produced and the spoiled brat begging for it.

Can anyone really call their eTap anything more than a want? Where is the necessity in a cafe racer or a Lamborghini or a multi-million dollar home or a super-size of fries? There is none. These are all wants, and the economic system that answers those wants is a system of satisfaction.

In this brief exclamation mark of an economic stoppage, all of this is laid bare because people are suddenly stripped of their ability to tell corporations what they want because they can’t go shop and buy and spend. Businesses are either closed down, or running on quarter-throttle at best. The vast machine that feeds and breeds on wants is suddenly deprived of those wants at the embarrassingly same time that it is forbidden to satisfy the wants anyway. And the result?

People are discovering, at least some of them, that they really didn’t want any of that crapola anyway.

It’s all anecdotal, but people are cooking at home now, and as one friend remarked, “There is much unhappiness in America right now.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because lots of people are learning that they suck at cooking.”

He was right, but he was also wrong because lots of people who suck at cooking are also learning that they can improve, and lots of others are learning they don’t suck at cooking, and virtually everyone who tries is learning that in most cases the worst home cooking is better and cheaper and more wholesome and satisfying than almost any meal out. The Washington Post has taken note of the explosion in home baking, and take it from me, home baking is the ultimate gateway drug to cooking your own food.

Each person who successfully bakes her own loaf of bread for the first time has an epiphany of “Wow that was easy and wow this is the best thing I’ve ever eaten.” This is only one example of how manufactured wants dissolve in the face of an extended economic stoppage, but it’s hardly an insignificant one because it strikes at the heart of our economic existence, the provision and consumption of food, and because it throws into question the want itself: Where did it come from?

In other words, who manufactured all these wants? Did I? Did I wake up one night demanding Thai basil cashew chicken with white onions, red bell peppers, fresh basil & chili peppers wok’d in a savory sweet and mildly spicy cashew sauce? Did I, after careful research, demand that someone supply a 6.2l V-8 engine with a 10-speed automatic transmission, 20-inch dual 7-spoke alloy wheels with chrome finish, front bucket seats with leather heating surfaces, keyless start, high-capacity aircleaner and much more for a starting price of $75,000, MORE THAN A HOME IN MANY PLACES?

Or, since these demands really just wants, and since I don’t know anything about cars anyway, was the Cadillac a mere manufactured want, dreamed up by engineers and marketers and profit-driven corporations who first made me want this rolling steel gas-guzzling house and then satisfied me by selling it for more than I could possibly afford? (*Easy financing, bad credit no problem!)

In short, the economic stop-down has made some people realize that their demands are wants and that the wants are manufactured by a corporation for the sake of profit, not for the sake of making anyone healthier or happier, and certainly not for the sake of the trees, the air, the water, the insects, the fish, the grass, and the birds. This realization, for those who’ve had it, is interesting but not much more; it’s a reflection to mull over as we pass the time waiting for the lights to be plugged back in.

The gnawing fear for the institutions that depend on the manufactured want-and-satisfaction system starting back up, though, is this: What if people no longer want? Or more realistically, what if they want a whole lot less?

What if people take control of their food, even a few million of them, and wash their hands of overpriced, non-nutritious, bland, generically packaged glop and opt instead to cook and bake? What if people realize that the asshole in the neighboring cubicle really is an asshole and hey, I’d rather work at home because, pajamas and my Garfield coffee cup? What if people working at home means less car traffic? Less car sales? Less car insurance and repairs and tires and gewgaws? Less road repairs and construction? Less air pollution? Less stress and anger and lives poured down the swirling toxic toilet of the typical urban commute?

What if, what if, what if?

Answer: No dice.

The stoppage would have to last for years for enough people to change their behavior, because behavior only changes when belief systems change. Hence Groundhog Day, where the protagonist has to go through anger, nihilism, defeatism, revenge, self-abnegation, dejection, denial, and forty years of piano lessons before he can transform into a loving man who is good enough to break the groundhog spell and get the girl. We may have to endure a month or three of no nail salons, but that isn’t enough time to realize that pretty nails are no more of a necessity than shampoo or soap or toilet paper, much less carbon rims and luxury Trump Tower condos, things that people lived without for millennia.

Contrast that with love, community, self-reliance, and altruism. No human society has existed for long without those things, and as those qualities become victims to the cycle of want-and-satisfaction that drives our modern economy, we find out that the more things we have the less we live. Here in this Someone Hit The Pause Button moment, it’s becoming brutally clear that the most important things in life aren’t things.

However, you’ll wake up tomorrow and the Please-Stay-Home-Unless-You-Don’t-Want-To order will still be in place. Groundhog Day is still in full swing.

Everyone will still be waiting for the economy to get plugged back in. And until it does? Might not be a bad time to take up the piano.


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This could be you …

14 thoughts on “Groundhog Day”

  1. Great read, Seth. I’ve been pondering some of these points, but you wrote them out. Thanks.

  2. Maybe you should hire a bodyguard. The capitalists don’t like it when you spark a movement that messes with their money.

  3. Re-post your bread recipe, you rebel you. And watch “Why him?”, and let us know you didn’t laugh. Better yet, “Tiger King”.

  4. Many of the online sources for break making items are “Out-of-Stock” on many many things. I was “wanting” to upgrade my mill, but there isn’t any place that can satisfy that want atm, so I will make do with what I have.

    Now, w.r.t. your assessment, you seem to me to be pretty spot on. Whatever it was we had, was long term unsustainable, and based on the explosive economic divide that has grown from this model, it would seem to me we are in for a very long night once we emerge from this. There just isn’t going to be any there there for a lot of people to return to.

    The small businesses that supply many of the jobs, won’t be taking people back until they see a certain level of demand, or a return to the wants, that that business is able to satisfy, and that owner will take on help only when it is clear that they need it.

    1. “There just isn’t going to be any there there for a lot of people to return to.” Damn.

  5. Where I live, bread baking is limited because there is no yeast to be had in any grocery store. It disappeared as fast as toilet paper, and unlike toilet paper, it has yet to return to store shelves.

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