We are in the early stages of a calamity none of us can really imagine. The social, economic and political crises ignited by the coronavirus will not merely wreak havoc on American life, they will change its character. What we expect from ourselves, our institutions and each other will be different on the other side of this.
The sheer scope of the disaster is only beginning to emerge. On Thursday, the federal government reported that an astonishing 3.3 million people had applied for unemployment benefits the prior week. This is more than four times greater than the previous record, set in October 1982, and nearly five times greater than the worst week recorded during the Great Recession.
And the jobs crisis will very likely get worse. General Motors, an icon of American industry, has suspended production at all of its North American factories indefinitely. Even in the worst months of the last recession, unemployment never exceeded 5% for people with college degrees. This time around, many people who have never experienced what it is like to live at the margin are going to learn.
Unemployment is just one way the breakdown is expressing itself. All over the world, supply chains are coming apart for everything from simple plastic toys to advanced machinery. Companies that have spent the past three decades chasing lower labor costs around the globe have left themselves acutely vulnerable to an unexpected shock.
In the United States, we can neither manufacture nor effectively distribute critical medical supplies. The health care infrastructure of our greatest city is already strained to the breaking point, with makeshift mobile morgues parked outside hospitals that have begun to churn out bodies by the dozens every day. We are approaching a national shortage of doctors and nurses.
This crisis was preventable. It remains treatable. The response in nations including South Korea and Singapore have proven that effective government measures are possible. But here in the United States, our institutions and leaders continue to fail us.
At the top, of course, is President Donald Trump, who publicly downplayed the severity of the disease for months, and who punted on establishing a functional testing or screening system until the virus had already reached the United States. Other countries that got their act together on testing are not in free fall as we are.
Blame for the inept response, however, cannot be pinned on the president alone. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) refused to close beaches during spring break, converting his state into a “hot zone.” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who has quickly emerged as a national hero among Democrats for his candor and clarity during daily press conferences, is also busy trying to slash his state’s Medicaid program, restricting health care access for the poor. Three weeks ago he urged New Yorkers to “listen to the facts ― not the hype,” tweeting that “we have far more people in the hospital from the flu than from #Covid19.” A few days later, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) reiterated the message on MSNBC: “If you’re under 50 and you’re healthy, which is most New Yorkers, there’s very little threat here.”
Congress, at long last, appears to recognize that dramatic action is necessary. On Wednesday, the Senate passed a bill authorizing more than $6 trillion in economic support ― $2.2 trillion in direct appropriations, plus another $4 trillion from the Federal Reserve. But though lawmakers are clapping each other on the back for a bipartisan bill ― it passed 96 to 0 ― the price tag vastly overstates the significance of the Senate’s action. This bill is much too modest to meet the disaster currently unfolding. It cannot prevent the economic fallout from throwing us into a depression that will make the Great Recession look like a warm-up act.
Most of the money is set aside to bail out corporate shareholders, with Congress placing almost no restrictions on how the money can be spent, or what rules companies who accept it must abide by. This is money for rich people, not the pandemic.
Even seemingly promising provisions of the bill are laced with outrages. A $349 billion fund for small business allows firms with up to 499 employees per location to qualify for money ― meaning many big chains will seek aid from the same program intended for your local used bookstore. And while Congress barred Trump’s businesses from accessing the vast majority of funding in the bill, they did not bar Trump Inc. from accessing the small business fund.
The bill provides an extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits and a $1,200 check for individuals who earned less than $75,000 last year. But that amount is simply too small and too short-lived to make much of a difference in the face of what’s coming.
For many families behind in rent or trying to buy food with one less paycheck, these payments will be desperately welcome. But they will only buy a month or two. After that, then what? Others not in immediate need, however, will simply save much of this money, since people are rightly afraid and want to keep cash on hand for emergencies. As the economist John Maynard Keynes demonstrated in the 1930s, what is prudent for individual households can be catastrophic for society at large. If nobody is spending money, then nobody is receiving it, either, and if nobody is receiving it, then layoffs are inevitable.
Keynes believed the government had to serve as a spender of last resort in a downturn. Cutting checks for households is nice, but the real way to support the economy is straightforward direct spending by the government. And right now, there is no more obvious need for government spending than the coronavirus crisis.
And yet the Senate bill barely addresses the crash at all. Cuomo is rightly furious with Congress for failing to appropriate serious funding to states to help them combat the contagion. A $100 billion pot of money set aside for hospitals is nice, but it won’t do much to help them access supplies they already can’t get their hands on. Instead, hospitals will compete against each other to bid up the price of scarce materials, wasting much of this fund vying with each other instead of fighting the virus.
There are better ways to do this. Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bryan Schatz (D-Hawaii) have introduced legislation to nationalize the essential medical supply chain so that doctors could get what they need without getting gouged for it, but that idea didn’t make the Senate coronavirus bill. Neither did efforts to order companies to start actually manufacturing the stuff doctors need. New York is already short of ventilators. Somebody has to make them. Congress punted.
Democrats have come to expect Republicans to prioritize the financial interests of the wealthy over public health. But this is not a Republican bill. Not a single Senator in either party voted against it. And not even progressive stalwarts stood up to make a public case for a different approach. Despite all the talk in the 2020 primary about “revolution” and “blood and teeth,” when the most severe crisis for working people in a generation arrived, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) decided instead to quietly follow their leaders. The fiercest lions of the left acted like mewling kittens.
The pervasiveness of this leadership vacuum suggests we are witnessing not only a failure of will, but a breakdown in our political system. In a fascinating interview with Rolling Stone this week, Patrick Wyman ― a historian of late Roman and medieval crises ― argues that the great calamities of the past did not wreak havoc on their own. Instead, they exposed existing social fragilities, shattering what had slowly weakened in the lead-up to the disaster.
Donald Trump and this virus are only the proximate causes of our coming misery. A society that has devoted itself to escalating inequality is becoming ungovernable. The Senate bill represents the model of government that former Vice President Joe Biden wooed many Democratic voters with during the 2020 primary. It’s bipartisan, filled with compromise. Everyone seems to have had an ”epiphany” about working together and getting things done.
But what it has done is grotesque. Our government is so committed to serving the wealthy few that it cannot respond effectively even to a once-in-a-century crisis for the unmonied millions.
Zach Carter is the author of “The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes,” available now for pre-order from Random House.