Societies around the world face a horrible decision, as a deadly coronavirus rages through the population. Do they continue with economic business-as-usual, and allow tens of millions of preventable deaths? Or, do they take drastic measures to slow the spread of disease (“flattening the curve“) that endanger our economy?
Let’s consider one extreme. What is likely to happen if our elected and business leaders do nothing? The number of people infected continues to double every 6 days. Our hospitals are swamped. Unheard-of numbers of people need respiratory support, all at once. Most do not get it— and they die. People needing transplants, even if they never get the virus, die waiting because the resources are unavailable. By midsummer, tens of millions of people are dead, and at least tens of millions more, though recovered, are permanently disabled. I call this scenario, the Fast Kill.
I don’t want the Fast Kill. Millions of needless deaths is a thing to be avoided. However, the perspective of our economic elite is quite different from mine or yours. The billionaires are on private islands, or in secret bunkers, and can wait this thing out. A Fast Kill, to them, has one clear advantage: the power relationships and hierarchies of corporate capitalism (with some loss of personnel) remain intact.
Will our economy shatter if we take measures to slow the spread of disease? Yes, because corporate capitalism is brittle by design. Since 1973, worker productivity has nearly doubled, while wages have stagnated. Out of every dollar a worker makes, executives take 37 cents for themselves. As workers compete against each other for the benefit of the richest 0.1 percent— as opposed to, say, overthrowing their masters— rents rise, wages fall, and working conditions degrade. We now have a world where most people— and quite a number of vital small businesses— cannot survive 2, 4, 6 weeks without an income. Many workers get no paid sick leave. As elected officials and public-health experts demand we take measures to control COVID–19’s spread, many people will, by virtue of their need for weekly income, be unable to comply.
We wouldn’t tolerate a 37% tax, imposed on the lower and middle classes, from our government. And yet, that is exactly what the private-sector bureaucrats called “executives” have levied against working men and women. As a result, millions of people are so broke that, even under a quarantine enforced by the national guard, the need for an income will undermine such measures. Those who are forced to live on the daily
“hustle”— odd jobs, panhandling, alleyway short cons, and black-market labor— are used to evading authorities, and they’re good at it.
Here’s some of what we need to do, to survive COVID–19 with civilization intact. Yes, of course we need to flatten the curve; we need to slow our economy and focus on urgent needs such as food, shelter, energy, and medicine. We need universal basic income protection— not a means-tested one-time payment, because a one-time check won’t do enough and we don’t have time to quibble over means tests— that people can rely on until the crisis is over. We need mandatory job protection for people sickened (and, in many cases, disabled) by COVID–19. We need rent relief for people who lose their jobs. We need to remove all restrictions on unemployment benefits, and to make these benefits tax-exempt as they were before Reagan. We need an unconditional moratorium on all medical bills— and, at the same time, government funding of hospitals to keep them afloat— during this unprecedented public health crisis.
All of this, yes, is “socialism”. Socialism is nothing more and nothing less than the contention that the principles of the Age of Reason (e.g., rational government over clerical rule or hereditary monarchy) ought apply to the economy as well. It turns out that there are no capitalists in foxholes.
Our society is ruled by people, most of whom would rather see millions die than see such measures enacted. Why? Once so-called socialist measures are in place, they become pillars of a society and it takes decades to remove them. Surviving COVID–19 is going to require governments all around the world to impose socialistic measures more drastic than the New Deal and the Great Society combined.
There are no good alternatives. If elected leaders do nothing, we get a Fast Kill. Tens of millions of people die, and tens of millions more are disabled. If curve-flattening measures are imposed without socialistic protections, we destroy what’s left of the middle class, eviscerate the consumer economy, and risk such a high rate of noncompliance that infection may spread, needlessly killing millions, anyway.
Billionaires and corporate executives are scared, not of the virus, but of the changes our society will need to make to survive COVID–19. What if those social-welfare protections stick? Billionaires will become three-digit millionaires. Three-digit millionaires will become two-digit millionaires. Private jetters will have to fly first-class commercial flights. Corporate executives will be administrators rather than dukes and viscounts. Worker protections will be enforced again, interfering with the “right to manage”. In the long term, extensive investment in the sciences and health (to fight the next COVID–19) will raise employee leverage, at capital’s expense, across the board. The horror!
Those who run the global economy, to the extent that they have a say in what societies do, have a conflict of interest. They can try to preserve the hierarchies and power relationships that enrich them— at the cost of a holocaust or few. Or, they can accept social changes that, while bringing humanity forward, will emasculate corporate capitalism and hasten its replacement by a more humane system, such as social democracy en route to automated luxury communism.
Shall it be Capitalism–19, or Humanity–20, that survives? Working men and women await the answer.