People and Profits

The word “unprecedented” is tossed about a lot these days. Very little in the world is actually unprecedented, including global pandemics. We’ve had them before in 1957, 1968, & 2009. The one we hear the most about is the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed at least 50 million people worldwide.

This novel coronavirus is similar to the Spanish flu in that without a cure or a vaccine, the tools that we have to fight it are what experts call non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI). We’re all now very familiar with these measures: staying at home, self-isolation, hygiene, using disinfectants. In 1918, as now, communities issued stay-at-home orders and enforced social distancing. All evidence indicates that those measures worked in limiting greater spread of the virus. The evidence also indicates that these measures continue to work now.

But now, as in 1918, there are naysayers, such as certain governors around the country, antsy to get the economy rolling because they are beholden to a base that has been riled up by astro-turf organizers.This exposes their hypocrisy. The party that calls itself “pro-life” seems to have very little regard for life these days. Many Republican leaders (though not all) have expressed a willingness to sacrifice the lives of their constituents for what would amount to a very short-term economic benefit. Never mind that studies of the 1918 flu pandemic indicate that communities that enforced stay-at-home orders longer actually had better economic outcomes one year later than those that re-opened sooner.

We on the left often push for a system that values people over profits. I hope that one of the outcomes of this pandemic will be the broad realization that we needn’t have to choose one over the other. This pandemic and its economic fallout is a demonstration of the fragility of “low-road capitalism,” the designation given it by University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist Joel Rogers.

Low-road capitalism describes an economic system designed to advantage the few over the many. We accept inequality as a given in this country. But it’s not. If we collectively insist on a more equitable system, a few will get less, but the benefits of the many will be profound. A two-month pause shouldn’t induce a precipitous crash. In other democracies, already existing safety nets, in addition to robust government intervention, has softened the hit for the average citizen. Here, many of us still wait for a check that may never come. 

It should go without saying that a more equitable distribution of wealth, in the form of universal health care and basic social services, would encourage entrepreneurship and foster community resilience. But apparently it needs to be said. Somehow this isn’t obvious to everyone. Times like these show that when only a few people have all the wealth, that affects us all (even the wealthiest), because the truth is that it doesn’t trickle down. It never has.

I’m no economist. I’m no epidemiologist. Since I’m neither, I listen to those who are. And I want leaders that listen to them as well. Leaders who then act based on real data and real science. Times like these illustrate the failure of “leaders” hamstrung by failed ideologies and magical thinking. Our wanna-be war time president, a former wanna-be billionaire, who spent his father’s fortune gilding second rate establishments into bankruptcy, cares more about looking like a president than actually being one, and real people pay the price. America deserves better than this. Don’t we?

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