Working in public policy for the past several years I’ve come to appreciate that it’s common for those of us in the government sector to create policies that often treat the symptoms of a failing system rather than structurally change the system itself. The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic globally, and locally, has illuminated so many of the symptoms that it’s nearly impossible to not see the whole of the problem it standing right in front of us. The Pandemic is a public health crisis, but it has cast light on the self-inflicted crisis of public policy we’ve let fester since the introduction of neoliberalism to the world in the 1980s.
I know that the overhaul of policy regimes in western democracies necessary to build a truly equitable and sustainable world has no shortcuts, but sometimes a simple idea is easier to organize change around, so I’ve come to the conclusion that one small but meaningful thing we can do to protect ourselves moving ahead is to make sure we never elect a billionaire to lead a country on this planet ever again. If you’re curious why, given the extent to which North American society has lionized them as exemplars of success, I hope you’ll read on.
This is the biggest crisis we’ve faced in generations. We’ve heard elected officials like President Macron in France and Trump in America describe the struggle to contain and recover from #COVID19 in the context of war. Even the head of the World Health Organization himself stated “We are at war with a virus that threatens to tear us apart“. It’s because of this that my first post in this series, examining issues of equity and politics and the pandemic, began with a passage from George Orwell’s 1946 book Why I Write.
In this passage, written as the blitz had begun pounding souther England, Orwell describes a Great Britain completely unprepared for the outbreak of World War Two. The wealthiest Industrialists and political leaders downplayed the risk, even selling the very metals to Nazi Germany that would come raining down on British cities just months later. All the while local factories still rolled out luxury cars and fur coats while the British Army was equipped with weapons leftover from WW1. Orwell lamented that this leadership was wholly out of touch with the reality facing the majority of Britons. And that Britain had to “assume its real shape” and “break the grip of the moneyed class” who raced off to the safety of their bucolic country estates, while working people cowered in subway tunnels and cellars as the shelling continued.
I was struck with how many parallels I found in today’s situation from what Orwell described 80 years earlier. Countries languishing in their own decadence and inequality, especially the United States, with its Billionaire In Chief creating nightmare after nightmare for public health officials with every darkly comical and ridiculous daily press briefing he holds.
At first claiming it was all a hoax, then trying desperately to convince the American public it was all under control (as it was spiralling out of control) the Billionaire in Chief eventually took to peddling wonder-cures, from malaria drugs to injecting disinfectants and shining lights in peoples bodies, in a desperate attempt to find a magic bullet that will kick-start the economy in time for the upcoming election.
A Hydroxycloroquine for every pot and a disinfectant in every garage.
Then he and his pundits eventually just said fuck it and have been pretending the pandemic away as cases continue to rise.
Taking a step back and considering the absurdity of his actions and words over the past three months it is astounding the lengths the current President of the United States has gone to in order to avoid taking normal, regular, proven public health measures to protect the public.
Because they aren’t good for the stock market, and that’s how this president measures his success.
Trump himself is a product of the financialization of the economy, explored in the first post in this series. This is the economy that matters to him, the one streaming under newscasters on TV. How well the stock market is doing is a measure of his performance as president in responding to the threat of the pandemic.
What’s worse is that the American stock market is not even representative of the American economy or how the majority of Americans earn their wages anymore. As Matt Philips writes in the New York Times “In fact, a relatively small number of wealthy families own the vast majority of the shares controlled by U.S. households.”
What Trump is trying to protect with his pandemic response plan is wealth. Stock equity for the 10% of American families who own nearly 90% of stocks traded through the various American exchanges.
Not public health.
Not healthcare workers short of protective equipment, not seniors in care homes, not working people who he is goading on to get back to work while infections increase in states, not workers in U.S. meat packing plants which have now seen thousands of infections flare up in poor working conditions.
Unfazed by U.S. food chains on the brink of breakdown from employee sickness, pundits supporting the President have even suggested that people should sacrifice their lives for the economy. A Republican lawmaker who promoted this line of reasoning reiterated it weeks later when he went on the record saying “there are more important things than living” .
One of those things, presumably, is the NASDAQ.
So much for Republicans being the Pro-Life Party.
This of course resulted in a popular hashtag #NotDyingForWallStreet
President Trump’s hastiness to downplay the threat to people and to want to reopen the country to full economic activity despite the warnings of public health experts, has been chalked up to him being an optimistic guy by his own Vice-President’s estimation.
Let’s pause on this for a moment. Because when Mike Pence says this, I actually believe he’s being entirely honest, and I think his observations are quite reasonable and perhaps even accurate.
In fact it’s a parallel with Orwell’s observations about the “Two Britains” he observed in 1939. Two Britains experiencing two different realities, one of prosperity, security and optimism, and one of hard work, danger and impending doom.
Living in the world of abundance
Several years ago I met an old friend for a drink as he was in town speaking at an event. In the 1990s as we were growing up together we played in bands, regularly entertaining ourselves through over-booked all-ages gigs as our small town had little else for kids our age to do half the time. His was a punk band, in the vein of Minor Threat, Rancid, and other American groups who were critical of the wealthy and political elite of the day. He was an anti-establishment anarchist from a middle-class family. I don’t know exactly what I was, but I was also from a middle-class family and was also displeased with where I saw the world heading.
As we sat there enjoying our beers we reminisced about our lean years after moving from our home town. Going to school with too many roommates crammed into inadequate lodgings with us, eating poorly, partying hard, and eventually getting our shit together. It was while we shifted the conversation to getting our shit together (having officially entered that phase of life) that I observed a profound change in him. Where once he was full of righteous indignation at the unjust system of political-economy at work in the world, he now spoke of the poor as living in a world of scarcity, and nanny-state governments enforcing this worldview of scarcity, and of a world of abundance which existed right in front of us, but is veiled by our own self-limiting negativity.
The experience of his growing economic security had transformed him into a government is the problem Libertarian.
There’s an old saying, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. I believe that this extends to the knowledge of how it feels to make money, and for those who gain a glimpse of it, the revelation of this World of Abundance. It creates a sense of false consciousness in which tax breaks for the wealthy of today become tax breaks that your future wealthy self will benefit from.
This despite forty years of evidence to the contrary.
I fear the line between this supposed world of abundance and the world of extraction is also vanishingly thin. Once you see the world of abundance emerge from the blurry background, many other realities fade into the shadows.
Those who live in the world of abundance may have forgotten what it’s like to work a precarious job, to live in precarious housing, to recall what lack of access to healthcare and other services feels like.
I worry this lack of empathy drives Elon Musk to defy public health orders and threaten to move his Tesla factories to Texas, and presumably once there’s too much regulation there, a man-made floating island somewhere in the pacific, free of any kind of regulations whatsoever.
I worry it drives Jeff Bezos and Amazon to persist in subjecting employees to unsafe working conditions by refusing demands by workers to improve workplace conditions and pay fair wages during the pandemic, which has resulted in walkouts.
Billionaires and others with extreme wealth are demonstrating through their response to the pandemic that we are put at greater risk when they are in charge of public policy. At the core of this problem of asymmetrical risk is the lack of empathy, weaponized by the courage to fail.
I believe that the courage to fail in government, in public policy, in public health, as seen in the United States and elsewhere (UK and Brazil notably) has been fostered through this tragic pattern of building private profits for the wealthiest on the back of public risk and austerity for the rest. Most recently it was seen in the 2008 financial crisis, where the elite investors of the world claimed innocence by remarking they had failed to see ‘systemic risk’ in the global economy. Bankers who tanked the economy were then given jobs in government administrations to make public policy, because we were told government needed to think more like business.
For 40 years we’ve been fed this line that government should be run more like a business, and in that time we’ve bailed out the tech sector, the banks, the hedge funds, the automobile companies, after each and every one of their spectacular failures. Then we gave their top CEOs government jobs to fix regulatory environments and build new policy regimes. Now here we are, the most extreme manifestation of running a government like a business we’ve ever seen is the Trump administration, and Americans should be concerned to know that Trump’s record as a businessman has included a wake of failed ventures, bankrupt casinos and lawsuits.
It doesn’t appear he’ll leave the United States any better off than many of his past business conquests.
Where the risk was once contained to real estate deals gone bad the risk is now hundreds of millions of lives and livelihoods across America.
When the Courage to Fail Becomes Public Policy
A recent article in the Atlantic written by George Packer, puts a magnifying glass on the Trump Administration and Republican political elite and shows just how reckless they are with people’s lives and livelihoods while profiteering themselves from the pandemic. The article cites the actions of Kelly Loeffler and the President’s son in law Jared Kushner among others, as it illustrates the crisis of leadership that has left the United States appearing more and more like a failed state.
The pandemic has also clarified the meaning of nonessential workers. One example is Kelly Loeffler, the Republican junior senator from Georgia, whose sole qualification for the empty seat that she was given in January is her immense wealth. Less than three weeks into the job, after a dire private briefing about the virus, she got even richer from the selling-off of stocks, then she accused Democrats of exaggerating the danger and gave her constituents false assurances that may well have gotten them killed. Loeffler’s impulses in public service are those of a dangerous parasite. A body politic that would place someone like this in high office is well advanced in decay.
Packer’s assessment of Kushner in the article is even more incendiary.
Dr. Sarah Kenzdior describes the Trump Administration in her writings and interviews as an international white collar crime family who display their malfeasance, fascist trial balloons, and criminality in plain sight. As the bestselling author states in an interview about her new book:
Trump covers up crime with scandal and covers up malice with incompetence. His administration would like you to think that they’re inept, that they’re just stumbling into these situations. That’s not the case. And the key thing to remember is that it’s not Trump as some geopolitical mastermind; it’s an inner circle of Republican backers and ideological extremists, many of whom have massive financial interests and certainly their own agenda.
Instead of seeing them as symbols of potential in The World of Abundance, Max Lawson writes in Counterpunch that we should see billionaires as a sign of economic failure. While there are some feel good billionaires out there that progressives see as virtuous captains of capital, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, George Soros, by and large the “billionaire class” as Bernie Sanders has taken to calling it, is built on inherited wealth, offshore tax havens, monopolization of industries and sectors, and political cronyism. As author Nicholas Shaxson who has written extensively about shadow banking and the world of offshore tax havens points out, after a certain point, there’s just no marginal utility to society to someone being so insanely wealthy.
Worse yet, we are all put at greater risk because of it. Because of their outsized influence in our politics, in our media, in public policy, and the increasingly concentrated control over capital that they have.
It’s because of all of this that I’m increasingly concerned that those with wealth vastly beyond that of working class people live with an entirely different threshold for risk, in an entirely different experience of the world, and that when elected or otherwise expected to act responsibly, they are unable to internalize personal or collective risk in the same way ordinary people might. They are sheltered by their wealth, perhaps sociopathically so, as it has been scientifically shown that wealth decreases compassion.
I want us to heed Orwell’s call to rid our politics and our public policy of the ‘grip of the moneyed class’. More than ever we need to get money out of politics, out of the tax havens, and into public goods like healthcare, education, childcare, housing and the other things that functioning societies depend on for continuation. But where countries and subnational jurisdictions around the world have done this, the United States appears locked in to this toxic death spiral.
A recent piece by Umair Haque “How Freedom Became Free-Dumb in America” captures why America perhaps seems incapable of collectively grabbing the steering wheel before the country drives off the cliff. Haque suggests it stems from a perverse notion of “Freedom” that has plagued American public policy, and cultural identity, from the very beginning. Where freedom from a government that regulates handguns trumps the freedom to access universal free healthcare and other public goods that most other democratic countries around the world invested in. The stark differences between freedom-to and freedom-from is also part of the American habit of lionizing billionaires as the ultimate expression of the free and unfettered individual conquering the world around them.
In a representative democracy that type of person should never be considered qualified to be president as they represent the perspective and interests of the most privileged fraction of the country’s population, one that is living in an entirely different reality than the vast majority of others.
Trump’s response to the pandemic, including his fixation on the stock market as a measure of his success, his abandonment of legitimate public health approaches for high-risk gambles on unproven drugs and other ridiculous treatments, his desperate goading of armed protestors disrupting democratic process to demand unsafe reopening of economies, all stem from his single-minded fixation on the protection of American wealth belonging to the fraction of the population his own interests are aligned with. And his own interests first and foremost.
If American public policy right now is driven by the needs of the 1% or even the 10% of top income earners, it is no surprise that the needs of the rest being neglected would cause America’s response to the pandemic to be compared to that of a failed state. The State, under the leadership of the Trump Administration, is literally failing to serve the needs of 90% to 99% of its population.
Democratic institutions, and the public at large needs to address the problem of wealth in politics with meaningful changes coming out of this pandemic, or we will be doomed to repeat history, where billionaires living in the world of abundance and personal security built through decades of neoliberalism, once again make terrible decisions that affect millions of us living in the real world in order to protect their wealth.
If we are to have true self-government, we cannot elect billionaires.