Every bar and restaurant in Ohio, California, Illinois, and Massachusetts will be closed on Monday and for a long time thereafter. The nation’s largest school districts have shuttered their classrooms. Virtually all major conferences, sporting events, and concerts in the United States have been canceled. And in its latest advisory, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention implored Americans not to convene or attend any gatherings of more than 50 people for (at least) the next eight weeks.
Much of Europe and Asia is no longer open for business either. In their (necessary) efforts to prevent the novel coronavirus from overwhelming hospital systems the world over, policymakers have engineered a global recession the likes of which no one has ever seen. It is unclear how long the world economy will be working at a fraction of its capacity or whether summer will chase COVID-19 from the Northern Hemisphere — or, if it does, whether next fall will force businesses to close their doors for weeks on end yet again. Workers are already losing their jobs. Investors have already lost their nerve. On Sunday, the Federal Reserve announced it was dropping benchmark interest rates to zero and buying up $700 billion in Treasury bonds — radical measures meant to encourage investment in equities by lowering the cost of capital and the appeal of stocks relative to bonds. Those measures didn’t work; U.S. stock futures fell Sunday night until they couldn’t fall any more.
Meanwhile, there are signs that in the U.S., efforts to preempt the virus’s exponential growth — and thus, to prevent hospitals from eventually being forced to turn away treatable patients for want of beds and ventilators — may be too little, too late. On Sunday, the number of identified cases in our country jumped by 32 percent to 2,900.
It was in this extraordinary context that the final two contenders for the Democratic nomination stood no less than six feet apart in a CNN studio and debated the desirability of revolution.
More precisely, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders spent the opening rounds of Sunday’s Democratic primary debate arguing about whether a humane, comprehensive response to the COVID-19 pandemic requires radically changing America’s political and economic systems. Sanders argued in the affirmative, persistently framing the coronavirus crisis as an outgrowth of America’s broader failures on health-care policy. The Vermont senator demanded to know how the U.S. has managed to spend more per capita than any other nation on its health-care sector, even as it leaves millions of its people uninsured and hospitals unequipped to deal with a pandemic.
Biden countered that a crisis was no time for analyzing and redressing structural failures: When a building is on fire, you don’t sweat the details of how you’re going to rebuild it; you put the dang thing out. Or, in Biden’s words, “People are looking for results, not a revolution.” To that end, Biden’s answers about how he would combat the coronavirus as president was (in contrast with Sanders) short on moral critiques of underlying systems and structures of power, and long on bullet-pointed lists of immediate public health and economic measures for mitigating the coming damage.
And yet, the “results” that Biden promised were themselves unimaginable in the absence of nigh-revolutionary changes to America’s political economy:
[The American people] want to deal with the results they need right now. And we can to that by making sure that we make everybody whole who has been so badly hurt. In terms of their — they lose the job, in terms of not having the ability to care for their children, in terms of the health-care costs that they have relating to the crisis, we can make them whole now, now, and put in process a system whereby they all are made whole.
Biden later elaborated on what it would mean to make everybody badly hurt by the pandemic “whole”:
We’re going to have to … let people know their mortgage is going to be paid. Their rents are going to be paid. They are going to have child care. They are going to make sure that all their medical bills are cared for relating to this, et cetera.
If we are headed for a lengthy global recession (as most economists now believe), then the number of American workers badly hurt by the coronavirus outbreak are going to number in the tens of millions. Joe Biden is promising to see to it that not a single one of them fails to make rent, or keep up with their mortgage payments, or find child care, or pay their medical bills.
And yet, this week, the U.S. Congress was unwilling to guarantee that all workers affected by the pandemic would have access to paid sick leave; in fact, it extended that benefit to a mere 20 percent of the U.S. workforce.
Which is to say: We currently live in a world where the proposal “Let’s ensure that all U.S. workers who contract a highly contagious virus in the middle of a pandemic can afford to stay home from work” is beyond the bounds of political possibility. And Biden is promising to deliver us into a world where the U.S. Congress will ensure that no American is evicted, or foreclosed on, or forced to leave their kids home alone as a result of a pandemic-induced recession — without fomenting a “political revolution.”
In fact, at one point, Biden appeared to suggest that he could simultaneously make everybody hurt by the coronavirus whole and avoid significantly increasing the federal deficit:
The problem is, the policies of this administration economically have — we’ve eaten a lot of our seed corn here. The ability for us to use levers that were available before have been used up by this godawful tax cut of $1.9 trillion … And so we’re going to have to just level with the American people.
Here, Biden implied that the U.S. government did not have significant room to fiscally stimulate the economy out of recession because it already ate its “seed corn” (i.e., used up its supposedly limited capacity to inject money into the economy through deficit spending) by implementing the Trump tax cuts. This is a dangerously wrong view on its merits; the costs of allowing our economy to wallow in a recession are vastly higher than those of borrowing money at a 0 percent interest rate and spending it to keep people in their homes and jobs. But Biden’s remark was also a testament to the fundamental dissonance in his pitch: He is simultaneously promising to “level with the American people” about hard political truths and to undo all of the damage wrought by a world-historic public health and economic disaster.
This is a utopian fantasy; or else, a cynical bait and switch. Either way, Biden’s appeal to political realism is anything but.
And this holds true for the Democratic front-runner’s broader agenda. Biden insisted Sunday night that — unlike Sanders pie-in-the-sky Medicare for All plan — his health-care proposal can pass Congress as soon as he takes office. But the health-care industry is about as opposed to Biden’s public option as it is to Sanders’s single-payer system. And for good reason: Biden has promised that his public plan would “reduce costs for patients by negotiating lower prices from hospitals and other health-care providers.” In other words: He has promised that his bill will cost the health-care industry a lot of money. Congress has struggled to so much as pass a ban on surprise medical billing over industry objections. Biden is not going to pass a health-care plan remotely like the one he’s been touting without radically changing the balance of power in America’s political economy between entrenched corporate interests and working people. And one can say the same about Uncle Joe’s ambitious plans for combating climate change and revitalizing the American labor movement.
Now, Biden’s approach may be wiser than Bernie’s in strictly political terms. Judging by the American public’s broad resistance to “social distancing” in recent days, the idea that the median U.S. voter wants “results” without any significant disruption to his or her normality — and will cling to the familiar until it becomes manifestly unsustainable — isn’t hard to believe. Meanwhile, nothing Biden did Sunday night appeared likely to cost him his 20-point lead over Sanders in national polls of the Democratic primary. Although some expected Biden to wither under the scrutiny of a two-person debate, the former vice-president was uncharacteristically cogent for the bulk of the proceedings.
But if Biden is poised to win the nomination, it’s far from clear that he’s prepared for the world that coronavirus will leave in its wake. Perhaps, the coming crisis will radically expand the bounds of political possibility for Biden. It’s conceivable that much of the U.S. hospital and fossil fuel industries will be bankrupted in the coming months, developments that would change the balance of power in our politics on the issues of climate and health-care without the Democratic nominee lifting a finger (or mobilizing a mass movement). In such a scenario, perhaps Biden’s insistence on branding his sweeping promises as pragmatic reforms will pay dividends, as he ushers in the largest leap toward American social democracy since the Great Society come 2021.
But when Uncle Joe starts leveling with us about our limited “seed corn,” it’s hard not to think that the Democratic Party is about to let another crisis go to waste.
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