Wiggle Room

By Noni Mausa

Wiggle Room

In a claustrophobic economy where the lions share of the fruit of citizens’ efforts is funneled to a small number of beneficiaries, where institutions intended to intervene on their behalf have been rejigged to work backwards, what can the little guy do to gain some wiggle room?

The poorest Americans have many strategies that provide small amounts of wiggle room, like working off-the-books, juggling several bank accounts or using payday lenders, locking kids in a closet so they can go to work, and stiffing landlords and various debtors when and as they can. Some are chosen strategies, some are just the result of not having enough tokens to satisfy all the turnstiles.

And these skills are ancient. Being dirt poor is a venerable world sport, and the tactics have been practiced since before written records.

But in the past century we seem to have entered a new situation, where the great majority of people are in a closed system with very little wiggle room, and most wiggle choices leading to less, not greater freedom and prosperity.

The bumper sticker used to say, “If you are not angry, you’re not paying attention.” But now it should read “If you are not claustrophobic, you don’t understand the situation.”

In my city, a man went missing a few years ago, and was finally found dead in a basement space behind a false wall – a space that was narrower at the bottom than the top. He hadn’t been shot or stabbed – in fact, he had fallen prey to his own efforts to escape. Every wiggle wedged him lower, and made it harder for him to breathe, until he suffocated.

The great question facing ordinary Americans is not how to find further wiggle strategies, to make do with less, to work harder to try to tread water under increasing burdens. That way lies less freedom.

In a way, Americans do understand this. Otherwise, why would they have disdain for the model of the immigrant many Americans scorn? – living ten to a room, on rice and beans, sleeping in shifts to make use of scarce bedspace, and all for wages that a babysitter would refuse? Americans scorn these living arrangements, but that’s where they’re heading.

And many of the wiggle strategies in use even 80 years ago (raising chickens, cutting firewood for heat) are impossible now. Urging the majority to do more with less, (“austerity”) while the 1% do less with far more, is not the solution. But what is?

Going Galt isn’t an option. The poor are their own hostages, and dropping out of the labour market in large numbers is what’s happening now, anyway. But would it be possible to move into the “rice and beans” model while concurrently building solid economic walls to provide breathing space and room for more effective wiggling?

Could the model of the Beguines show us a direction?