The Case For Amnesty

We absolutely need to think of amnesty for those economic costs that many millions of us will not recoup, but it needs to become more than a fiscal policy for the reconstruction of Italy. It must become our worldview.

We absolutely need to think of amnesty for those economic costs that many millions of us will not recoup, but it needs to become more than a fiscal policy for the reconstruction of Italy. It must become our worldview.

“The scar is a deeper level of reconstruction that fuses the new and the old, reconciling, coalescing them, without compromising either one in the name of some contextual form of unity. The scar is a mark of pride and of honor, both for what has been lost and what has been gained. It cannot be erased, except by the most cosmetic means. It cannot be elevated beyond what it is, a mutant tissue, the precursor of unpredictable regenerations. To accept the scar is to accept existence. Healing is not an illusory, cosmetic process, but something that -by articulating differences- both deeply divides and joins together.”  — Lebbeus Woods 

Chapter One: “It’s not that Simple”

It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. — W. Somerset Maugham 

As it often happens when I run into moral conundrums, I went for a chat over the fence with our neighbour, Signor Bruno. I could not guess his age but assume it is far greater than what his countenance suggests: in my best guess he has foregone the idea of going gentle into that good night and instead hauls wood and wheat with a force that I could not muster at half his age. He follows politics as closely as he follows the phases of the moon and our daily talks are a sort of peripatetic academy between chain links. Moral conundrums are frequent these days, and our conversations reflect that.

As the days were measured by the episode of Il Decreto that we would tune into, my mind turned to the byzantine system of tax regimes that Italy seems to show a particular flair for constructing. More tautological than an Escher design, the tax system in Italy is so full of trap doors that an accountant becomes more vital to one’s existence than a priest or a therapist. Why couldn’t we simplify the tax code, wipe out what everyone owes, and start fresh with a more simplified system that actually allows people to track what they earn and see the fruits of their labour in infrastructure, health care, and education? Surely, if there was a moment to do it, that moment was now. It was difficult to imagine that the heads of state and finance didn’t have a way out, and it’s a slippery slope from that incredulity into an echo chamber of conspiracy theorizing and malevolent narratives about how someone, anyone, had all the answers but just refused to tell us. Because if someone started it then someone can fix it, right?

Signor Bruno laughs a lot when we speak, and often his response is positively Miyagi like. His favorite one is,  “it’s not that simple.” People don’t just want money, he said. They want to work. They want their lives back. 

There is a reason we call it a livelihood. Our jobs may be either a means to an end or a fulfillment of our potential but in either case, the ability for us to sustain our lifestyles is a fundamental metric in how we measure our own value. More than that, what we do often reflects who we are, particularly in the careers that we have chosen based on our own skills, talents, and interests. Those of us who are independent workers, or artisans, or who make our living in industries where we cook, house, and guide people have by and large chosen this path because it makes us happy just as much as it makes us money. It is our lives, and our livelihoods, that now hang in the balance. Millions of us now wait for unemployment funds to be delivered or loan applications to be approved and we do not know what we could have done to avoid any of it. The excruciating fact is, there is nothing we could have done.

Now we are confronted with the longer term and more complex work of restarting, the vast majority of which remains to be determined and negotiated. And that work, the work of getting back to work, is daunting. It is daunting for every single one of us and we must resign ourselves to the very real fact that it will be painful and terrifying. Because the problem is not that we have lost our money. The problem is that we cannot return to our livelihoods. And with that, we are losing our dignity.

Markets do not like uncertainty, because people do not like uncertainty. But if there is one universal principle that will guide us in the coming months and perhaps years, it is uncertainty. And if there is another truth to which we can hold fast it is that people, all of us, are unpredictable. In the normal swings and roundabouts of life we confront this uncertainty and unpredictability with rules, regulations, and protocols that, as signatories to the social contract, we by and large tend to follow. It’s what stops our lives from being “nasty, brutish, and short” and what allows us to develop institutions that protect our well being and freedom while simultaneously encouraging our individual ingenuity.

The inestimable challenge we face is that our social contract and all that issues from it are dependent on our social life, and we cannot conduct that collective life in the way that we have become accustomed to for these past hundreds of years. We do not know what will happen, when it will happen, and whether we have seen the worst or if it is yet to come. What’s more, no one has the answer. Just when we need certainty and predictability the most, they have abandoned us.

In ways that will and should make us uncomfortable, we might soon long for the days of lockdown, where everything was simpler and more clear. Staying inside was a battle of wills but one through which our leaders, artists, and loved ones guided us. Now that we have to venture back into a world that is at once familiar yet utterly changed, how will we get back to work if the very thing that we do, the thing we are, is now the greatest threat to our safety? The brutal yet undeniable truth is that each of us will navigate this transition differently, and we will not all make it out. And the economic system that we have built on our own efforts, dreams and attempts at dignity will scull in uncharted waters. Most certainly, we are not “all in the same boat.” Whether you are in a dinghy or a yacht, each of us is floating with no compass and no map. And we won’t all make it to shore.

Uncertainty has now become the defining feature of our daily life, and our individual reactions to it are moored in unpredictability. We absolutely need to think of amnesty for those economic costs that many millions of us will not recoup, because it will save us from financial ruin. But the costs are not just to be measured in numbers, and nor should our response be. Amnesty needs to become more than a fiscal policy for the reconstruction of Italy. It must become our worldview.

Chapter Two: A Specter is Haunting Italy

The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable. — John Kenneth Gailbraith 

Amnesty is by no means a new concept in economic policy, and brighter minds than my own have already thought of this. Many of them are actually in the government. As I spoke to tax specialists and accountants around Italy in order to better understand this, they reminded me that Giuseppe Conte was brought into government to untangle the economic enigma of colossal bureaucratic regimes, before he became the unlikely leader of the country. Indeed, the 2018 “People’s Budget” covered such things as pension reform, a universal basic income, a flat tax for artisans and the self employed, and tax amnesty for those who had underreported or undeclared. Of course, the nature of amnesty was a point of considerable contention between the different parties involved: some thought it would bring former evaders back into the fold of the formal economy, while others contended it would only encourage evasion by rewarding it.

The Cura Italia was drafted to accelerate some of these measures and delay deadlines to file taxes for those who had suffered a loss of income for the period during the crisis. Among myriad details and initiatives, loans would be made available to small and medium business owners with generous, zero interest payment plans. Finally, proposals for large scale investment in infrastructure have the potential to create nearly one million jobs and to remedy the crumbling roads, bridges and byways around the country. It is perhaps no coincidence that Morandi bridge was reopened in the dark days of lockdown, whose inauguration the Prime Minister hailed as “a symbol for the whole of Italy. An Italy that can rise again, that will roll up its sleeves, that will not allow itself to be beaten.”

All of this sounds like a genuinely well thought out effort to not only rescue Italians from the present crisis but to rebuild the country in a manner that might, in the smallest way, make much of the hardship perhaps seem worthwhile. However, Italy’s economy is on track to shrink by almost 10%, and its debt will climb to a stratospheric 160%. These numbers have not been seen in Italy since the end of World War Two and is largely due to the fall in GDP, which the European Commission predicts will drop by almost 20% in the first half of the year and nearly 10 percent by the end of 2020. This is particularly devastating for the tourism sector, which accounts for around 13% of Italy’s GDP. In real terms, our terms, this means that all of us whose calendars were full and hoped our bank accounts would follow suit are looking at mounting debt and the very real possibility of it overwhelming us. The six hundred euro that the government allocated to many of us in this sector was welcome, but it was not anything close to what we would have earned. The 750 billion euro that European Central Bank has pumped into the market was meant to prop up states to withstand the worst of the crisis and in Italy it will mean the difference between being a blue chip investment and a crap shoot. But it won’t mean that your business will be saved. If we do manage to survive, it will be a brutal battle of white knuckles against a Black Swan.

These are neither foolish nor unsympathetic actions on the part of the Italian state, but they do miss a critical point. For this is not like the financial crisis of 2007-2009. Instead of the sudden closure of firms and absence of money, millions of us have been deprived of our ability to work through the necessary yet drastic measures that governments around the world have been forced to take in order to save lives. But the problem is not that we need money (although we do need it). The greater problem is that we are unable to do the jobs that we have trained for, that we have invested in, because of the public safety risks that it entails. Plus, it won’t get us back to a place where we can begin to be productive, creative, or effective members of a workforce. As the formidable Mariana Mazzucato puts it so well, “markets are not static entities that are ‘intervened’ in (for good or bad) but are outcomes of public and private interactions.” As we face a future where interactions are the very thing that we must avoid, it’s no surprise that the tools we have traditionally employed to stimulate an economy are woefully inadequate.

As the very real challenges of the Cura Italia became clearer I asked Signor Bruno, why not just get rid of all the debt? He was cutting his grass at the time and laughed. “It’s not that simple.”

Indeed, it is not that simple, although if you were to ask Mario Draghi or Matteo Salvini, you might not know that. Draghi recently gave a much lauded interview in the Financial Times that few of us read though many of us cited wherein he said that, “much higher public debt levels will become a permanent feature of our economies and will be accompanied by private debt cancellation.” It took little more than this for him to be put into the running as the obvious choice for Prime Minister (it is not clear that he would even want the job) and to make international headlines. Salvini pushed once again for a fiscal peace (condono tombale) that would eliminate all taxes and give the economy a chance to “start over” with more money in people’s pockets to weather the storm. Indeed, there are those who have signalled that this may be the moment to enact a global debt jubilee, wherein all debt would be cancelled out and we return to the old rules.

Though it rankles me to think I was even briefly on the side of Matteo Salvini (or Mario Draghi, for that matter), I see why the idea of debt cancellation seems so appealing. Indeed, the arguments for it are compelling and in places like the United States, it may just work. But wiping out debt doesn’t necessarily fix all of our ills, abolishing taxes for those who have not paid is a harsh penalty to those who have paid, and instituting a unilateral debt jubilee could lead to a devastating capital flight. Moreover, the condono tombale that Salvini proposes would only eliminate back taxes, not those taxes that we are all slowly accruing for an uncertain and indeterminate future. By and large, his plan would only serve to reward those who didn’t pay, rather than relieving those who have. And though it hurts us all to have to pay our taxes, especially when we haven’t earned anything to begin with, it is our taxes that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives in this period. We have kept hospitals open and staffed, and social programs from being wiped out. Indeed, the Director of the Agenzia delle Entrate makes a well taken point when he mentioned the billions that would disappear from the system if Salvini’s plan were to be enacted: “think about how many ventilators that would be.”

Whether some combination of these suggestions or others eventually becomes our roadmap, the harsh truth is that none of it will be enough. It will not be enough to save me or you or Signor Bruno, because we haven’t even begun to tally the ultimate cost that this crisis will exact on all of us. And these are only the costs that we can write down, the costs to which we can assign a numerical value. The total cost of all of this will be much greater, because unlike what many have tried to liken this period to, we are not in a war. This is much worse than a war. In this case, we are the weapons of our own mass destruction.

Chapter Three: The Grim Calculus

Of all men’s miseries the bitterest is this: to know so much and to have control over nothing. — Herodotus 

The end of the most acute phase of Italy’s lockdown period was greeted with muted celebrations and constant reproaches about maintaining the security protocols that had been drilled into us by every government head and grandmother in the country. People took their first tentative steps out of the homes that had been their cocoons for the previous two months. Where did many of them go, after this historic and unprecedented confinement? McDonalds.

In cities and towns across the country, cars lined up for kilometers for McDonald’s drive thru meals in what was quickly dubbed over social media as “McMania”. After two months of leavening our bread and reveling in the joys of family pasta making, many of us headed to the golden arches for what might literally have been a taste of freedom. Almost immediately, harsh criticism was slung at those who opted for a Big Mac instead of the repeated vows to comprare Italiano to sustain the economy. Across social media, people chastised each other for hypocrisy and betrayal for having left those promises behind with the fading rainbows of their lockdown.  

This isn’t just unfair, it is dangerous. Our quest for certainty through solidarity is leading us to punish each other needlessly, and we are putting the onus of recovery on each other while simultaneously acknowledging that nothing and no one could have stopped the crisis unfolding. We are decrying the introduction of a tracing app as a means to surveil us yet we watch others for even the slightest sign of fictive transgression. And all of this is deflection and it misses a profound and tragic point, one which we are still not at all prepared to confront.

The upshot of this disaster goes far beyond what we will all suffer economically, and into a liminal space that humanity has very rarely had to confront in its short history. For whether through an accident of birth or blood, some of us will live and others will not. Beyond the blame that should necessarily and rightly be placed on governments who waited or obfuscated, the organisations who did nothing when everything was required, beyond the incompetence that wasted resources and precious time. Beyond all of these things, each one of us who lives will have to reckon with an existential guilt that we will never be able to reconcile. We will live and have no reason to justify it, or we will die and have no one to blame. If we live, in many cases we will have been the cause of another’s suffering and painful demise through absolutely no fault or intention of our own. We have all become accidental assassins chosen at random and hidden from view and though we run from this reality, it waits for us, hiding in plain sight. We are not only at the mercy of uncertainty: we have become the human embodiment of it. Despite what the internet says, we are not the Virus. We are the vectors.

No one wants to consider this terrible thought, and with good reason. Though imperfect, the overwhelming majority of us would never even consider doing harm to another. Yet every single one of us will have to reconcile ourselves to the idea that we remain while someone who’s hands we held, who’s mouth we kissed, or in whose arms we laid, did not. We will not know definitively if it was our breath that took them away, and the utter impossibility of a definite answer will haunt us, each and all. We, the ultimate arbiters of value and signatories to the social contract, we will destroy what we value most. And it will destroy us.

We will be forced to confront a crushing collective guilt, the scope of which is almost too enormous to ponder. And if you think that it has nothing to do with how we “reopen” or “go back to normal”, you are merely delaying the inevitable. As we discuss the ways that we can safely resume our livelihoods, we are faced with the grim calculus that we may do each other harm by the very means in which we once prided ourselves. Every tour guide or restaurant owner or B&B manager will be forced to weigh their survival against the survival of others and operate blindly, not knowing if they will be a bastion of security or an agent of demise. One report on an infection could shutter a business permanently, but what would it do to the business owner? What would you do if someone came to you for a birthday but left with a death sentence? It sounds dramatic, and it is, but it is not unrealistic to have to ask ourselves these questions, for they lie at the heart of the way forward. Our trade offs will be brutal, lingering, and terrifying, which will make reopening a devil’s bargain and staying open something much worse. We have lost so much in this crisis. But worse than anything, we have lost our innocence. Where does this leave us?

We all watched as Italy was struck with what seemed like an unrelenting force of death and sickness, and the overwhelming majority of us in the country took to our homes willingly and without compunction. By and large, we did so with tremendous (and perhaps surprising) success. Italians, and those of us who live here, do indeed deserve praise and gratitude for the effort we made and the love we showed each other. But as we ease ourselves back into the sunlight, we have begun to demand that same level of cohesion and to rebel at the slightest deviation from it. In the early days we looked at balconies across the country and saw ourselves, and it made us feel more secure. But now, we resume the different paths that we rode before the pandemic, we will have to find a way to live not only together, but with ourselves.

Chapter Four: Reimagining Amnesty

If the world is made and imagined, then it can be remade and reimagined. — Roberto Mangabeira Unger

Words have the tendency to expand and contract, to mean everything until they mean nothing. Amnesty is one of these words. We use it time and again to talk about fiscal absolution, or as the basis to welcome (or refuse) refugees and exiles to join our social contract. If it is true, as Paolo Freire once said, that language is never neutral then we have at best neutered the idea of amnesty so much that it has almost no force and no resonance anymore. This happens to the best of words.

But the real force of it, the radicality of amnesty is this. You don’t have to accept the livelihood you’ve lost, and you don’t have to forgive the circumstances that conspired to make it that way. All you need to do, is forget.

Forget what you were, what it could have been, what it should be. It isn’t any of those things. Admit to yourself that you are grieving and that in that grief you are desperate to find anything that will make it all make sense. But it doesn’t make sense, and it never will. Those of us who were preparing for a busy season are now left to wonder how we’ll make rent next month, and it’s not your fault. It’s not your neighbors fault, or your accountant, or your government. The economy wasn’t brought to its knees by your neighbour, and it won’t be resurrected by them, either. Our dependence on each other must be predicated not on our productivity but on our potential, and we must be willing to suspend everything we were before in order to get our dignity back. We are the backbone of the economy but at the same time we are fallible, fragile, and frightened. There are dark days ahead and we’re going to have to navigate that darkness, often alone.

But forgetting doesn’t mean abandoning all hope: indeed, it may prove to be quite the opposite. While we wait for science to catch up with society, think of the broken window theory, where essentially, “the small stuff matters.” The little things that may seem inconsequential, like a broken window in a nice neighborhood, are actually indicators of a larger societal breakdown. When we stop caring, we stop fixing the little things. By contrast, once we start paying attention to those small things, the ones that we can check off a list and feel a sense of accomplishment for having completed, the view starts looking a little better. And slowly, things start to get better. Maybe our neighbours start taking notice and fixing their windows too. Maybe. But whether they do or not cannot confirm or negate the steps we each take, and it isn’t our cross to bear. Paradoxically, our best chance may be to turn inward, to stop looking for the person 2 meters away for the answers and the direction and to stop caring so much about what he or she might be doing. Wipe the slate clean, start over, and find your corner. Make that corner better than it was before and wait for the time when you can share it again. And if you celebrate with a Big Mac, you don’t owe anyone an explanation. We might all find ourselves acting irrationally or with selfish motives, but we are reacting to the same unforeseen cataclysm, each in our own way. Amnesty means absolving each other of the obligation to be our mirror, to prove our worth to each other and thereby ourselves. The coming years will be a game of inches, and each of us may only get to repair our own broken windows. But in those inches, will be everything.

The only way to confront uncertainty is with creativity, and we will need that creativity to move forward as individuals, and as a society capable of reimagining our livelihoods. When we grant each other amnesty we make way for those ideas that would have seemed unthinkable before but may now be the way forward to revival. When we grant ourselves amnesty, we allow ourselves to walk away from the grief, if only for a little while. I have heard so many stories of children who were afraid during the lockdown and as a way to cope, they have invented worlds within their homes and apartments into which they throw their joy and energy. They create castles out of bed forts and safe havens from throw pillows and imagine the dragons they may slay. In a time where nothing is certain and everything seems to be a powder keg waiting to combust, perhaps that retreat is the closest thing to certainty that they have managed to build. We could learn something from these children, for they have allowed their minds to travel when their bodies could not and in so doing they have found refuge in a tumultuous sea. They will be scarred, and we will be scarred, and it will take a long time for those scars to fade. But they will fade and from them, something new will emerge.

Of course, as Signor Bruno says, “it’s not that simple.” I know it isn’t, as well as you do. But it’s not that difficult, either. Every day, as we chat, we each work on some section of our adjoining gardens. His is much further along than mine, with roses that bloom in bright bursts and fill the air with fragrance. But mine is getting there too, inch by inch.

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