CNBC commentator Rick Santelli said something inane about the novel coronavirus in early March as it was beginning its spread across the United States.
“Maybe we’d be just better off if we gave it to everybody, and then in a month it would be over,” Santelli said during a segment for the business network. “Because the mortality rate of this probably isn’t going to be any different if we did it that way than the long-term picture, but the difference is we’re wreaking havoc on global and domestic economies.”
Santelli’s idea proved unpersuasive with the public and his bosses at CNBC. After a brief backlash, he quickly apologized. “It was just a stupid thing to say,” he acknowledged.
And yet, a variation on Santelli’s theme quickly became the official Republican line on how to deal with the pandemic, from statehouses to Fox News to the Trump administration. By overreacting to the public health emergency, the country was holding back the economy.
“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” Trump tweeted on March 23.
“As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?” mused Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in a Fox News appearance later that night. “If that is the exchange, I’m all in ... we can’t lose our whole country, we’re having an economic collapse.”
By May, Fox host Pete Hegseth was encouraging viewers to show some “courage” and go out and intentionally contract the disease as Trump insisted “we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon.”
Astoundingly, this reckless narrative took hold not only among Trump’s fellow Republicans but also with many Democratic mayors and governors eager to boost the flow of cash to bars, restaurants, real estate developers and other local business interests.
The results have been horrific. Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced that the largest state in the country by GDP was going back into lockdown after premature reopening led to a catastrophic rush of COVID-19 infections and deaths. In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) reopened the economy in early May, setting off a surge in new daily coronavirus infections from less than 500 to over 2,000. Democratic governors in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Michigan are now implementing new lockdowns after seeing caseload spikes.
None of this magical thinking ever made any economic sense. You cannot get the economy roaring and the unemployment rate down if citizens are constantly dying in a pandemic.
In truth, reopening the economy was never really about containing economic damage. It was about maintaining a social order in which wealthy people enjoy leisurely economic gains while working people are subjected to various forms of abuse and exploitation.
Neither Republicans nor Democrats had any problem with massive government bailouts due to the virus ― in March, the Senate voted 96 to 0 to approve trillions of dollars in relief funding for large corporations and hundreds of billions of dollars for small businesses. The problem was not an ideological unwillingness to let the state support the economy through the pandemic ― it was an ideological commitment to social hierarchy.
In late April, Georgia began cutting off unemployment benefits and other aid to workers who refused to return to their jobs ― even workers with health complications who worked at facilities that presented a high risk of contracting the virus. Several other states followed suit, not all of them Republican. In Montana ― where Democrat Steve Bullock is governor ― state agencies have been eliminating aid to workers who refuse to return to work even with written statements from doctors declaring it to be an inappropriate medical risk.
These policies got thousands of people killed and have destroyed the livelihoods of others who refused to sacrifice themselves for a false trade-off between public health and gross domestic product. The economy in the United States cannot and will not recover until policymakers get control of the pandemic.
But sometimes when our leaders talk about “the economy,” they’re not really talking about trade flows and inventories. They’re using the term as a placeholder for a system of social domination that continues to appeal to wide elements of our ruling class even as the costs of that system to working people have turned increasingly, obviously deadly. It is a disgrace.
Zach Carter is the author of “The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes,” now available from Random House.
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