Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the argument, both from the White House and supposed centrists outside of it, that America should prioritize the economy.
Though coronavirus cases continue to climb in the U.S., a number of businesspeople and commentators have begun to talk about “restarting” the economy, even at the cost of American lives. If even non-Trumpists are in part echoing Trump’s views on this, should we take them seriously?
A society reveals a lot about itself, heroic and not, when confronting a plague. But we didn’t need a plague to tell us that Trump places zero value on any life except his own, and it’s no surprise that many of his zealots are willing to blindly follow his example. Witness that so-called man of God, Jerry Falwell Jr., who decided to end social distancing and summon the previously dispersed student body back to Liberty University in Virginia, at whatever cost to themselves. Or Larry Kudlow, the White House economic adviser who had previously assured Americans that the virus was “contained” and advised them to buy stocks just before the bottom dropped out of the markets. Not content to speed the destruction of Americans’ 401(k)s, he has led the cheerleading for Trump’s kamikaze goal of getting the country back to work by Easter. Perhaps Trump can kick off this return to normalcy by holding the biggest and best MAGA rally ever on Easter Sunday at Liberty U.
But what does it say that ostensibly serious people like Lloyd Blankfein, Gary Cohn, Thomas Friedman, and the ABC analyst Matthew Dowd, among others, have in varying degrees taken up this cause? And done so with so little grounding in reality? Cohn, for instance, tweeted, “We should be able to handle incremental economic activity in appropriate locations while not allowing it in other geographies.” What are “appropriate” locations and what are those “other geographies,” pray tell, and who would designate them? Others take the tack of layering in caveats intended to shield them from criticism if such a plan goes wrong and corpses start piling up in genocidal magnitude across the land. Take Friedman, for instance, who points out how “urgent” it is to first “immediately rectify the colossal failure to supply rapid, widespread testing” and to get more N95 masks and hospital beds before initiating a scheme to start bringing back the workforce “in as early as a few weeks.” Get those tests and masks “immediately” — great idea! And the White House agrees besides! “More testing is essential,” says Larry Kudlow, “and we’re loading up on tests right now.”
But in the reality-based world, the idea that we’ll have enough capacity anytime soon should be given as much weight as Mike Pence’s weeks-ago promise that 4 million tests were on the way. So whether you’re Kudlow or Friedman or a former partner at Goldman Sachs, to posit that a return to normal in “a few weeks” would be preceded by the sudden advent of “rapid, widespread testing” is disingenuous on its face. Tests are nowhere near as available as promised, or as they need to be nationally if the density and speed of South Korea’s testing regime is used as an effective model. And even if we had the needed quantity of tests, the coronavirus has already left the barn in the United States; it is too late for mass testing to map the contours of a return-to-normal plan any time in the near or nearish future. Masks and other PPE, not to mention hospital beds and ventilators, also remain in desperate demand, and the White House, having lied for weeks that they’re on the way, is still refusing to use the federal government to mobilize their production.
So why are these return-to-normalcy enthusiasts so willing to roll the dice on public health? It depends on who’s making this pitch. Clowns like Glenn Beck, Brit Hume, and the lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, who have volunteered that older people risk sacrificing their lives for younger generations, are just Trump lapdogs. But when someone like Lloyd Blankfein proposes that we “let those with a lower risk to the disease return to work” in “a very few weeks,” it’s another story. They are revealing their arrogance, of course — masters of the universe know more than, say, a mere civil servant like Anthony Fauci — but also their own economic isolation from the masses they are purporting to help. It’s behavior reminiscent of the titans who tried to rally Wall Street after the 1929 crash by making a big show of buying large blocks of stock. And let’s face it: Most, if not all, of these public notables who are preaching get-back-to-work-soon schemes have a cushion most Americans don’t — the means and the clout to cut the line for a coronavirus test and to secure immediate and attentive medical care away from an overflowing public hospital. This class divide is most ostentatiously exemplified by Richard Kovacevich, the former CEO of one of the most predatory banks in American history, Wells Fargo, who in giving his endorsement to a get-back-to-work scheme, said, “Some may even die, I don’t know.” Doesn’t know and doesn’t care to find out, clearly. This is a guy who served on the board of Theranos, whose marketing of fraudulent blood tests was a potentially moral threat to the national health ecosystem.
It is cheering that some businessmen will have none of this. As Mark Cuban succinctly put it, “Ignore anything someone like me might say. Lives are at stake.” Bill Gates, who actually has devoted his own fortune to the amelioration of world health, implicitly called out the Cohns and Friedmans and Blankfeins, by stating without equivocation that “there really is no middle ground, and it’s very tough to say to people, ‘Hey, keep going to restaurants, go buy new houses, ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner.’” He added that “it’s very irresponsible for somebody to suggest that we can have the best of both worlds.”
These exceptions are to be applauded. But overall, the pandemic has revealed in particularly stark terms that the extreme economic inequalities unmasked by the 2008 economic collapse remain unaddressed. There’s a titanic dynamic playing out now in real time. Celebrities and the wealthy are first in line for the lifeboats of coronavirus tests. Rupert Murdoch and his family protect their own health while profiting from a news empire that downplayed and outright disputed the threat of the coronavirus. The permanent residents of resort towns on the Eastern seaboard are being shoved aside by prematurely returning summer vacationers who are stripping shelves of food and flooding the limited local health facilities.
As the virus spreads from its current epicenters throughout the country, the grotesque discrepancy between the elites and the have-nots is going to make Parasite look as benign as an episode of Modern Family. The anger and despair that have fueled populism in America, even to the point of inducing voters to hand power to a charlatan like Trump, may metastasize at least as fast as the plague.