Political leaders like Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans are trying to force the American people to choose one of two unacceptable alternatives:
- Fast Kill: do nothing about the virus’s spread, causing millions of preventable deaths due to the catastrophe of large numbers of people— orders of magnitude beyond what our hospital system is designed to handle— becoming critically ill at the same time.
- Hang the Poor: practice social distancing and flatten the curve (which we must do) but at the expense of crashing the economy, leading the poor to face joblessness, misery, and bankruptcy— In Time, it turns out, is not fiction— culminating in a Great Depression–level economic collapse.
Both scenarios lead to preventable loss of life. Both scenarios are intolerably destructive and will impoverish a generation. Both scenarios are completely unacceptable if something better can be done. Indeed, something better can. We must flatten the curve; we must practice social distancing. But, it is artificial that “the economy” should be threatened by our doing so.
Compared to a 1973 benchmark, employers take 37 cents out of worker’s paychecks for themselves. Costs of living have gone up, wages have not kept pace, and working conditions have degraded. The result is a society where working people live on the margin, where two weeks without an income can produce, for most individuals, financial ruin. It didn’t have to be this way. This fragility is artificial. The rich created, for their own short-sighted benefit, a society in which the poor must serve the manorial lords on a daily basis or starve. It doesn’t have to be that way.
There’s a third option, one that Trump and Congressional Republicans would rather us not see. Yes, we flatten the curve; we practice social distancing and self-isolation and even follow a quarantine if circumstances require it. On the economic front, institute a wealth tax— a 37-percent immediate wealth tax to commemorate the 37% private tax levied against workers by their employers, and a 3-percent annual tax on wealth over $5 million going forward. Restore upper-tier income taxes to their New Deal levels. Offer a universal basic income (UBI) and put in place universal healthcare (“Medicare for All”). Remove restrictions on unemployment benefits. Mandate that employers protect the jobs of workers furloughed by this crisis. Offer rent and mortgage relief to those who need it. Eliminate student debt, and make appropriate public education free for all who are academically qualified. After the crisis, put funding into research and sustainable infrastructure. All of this can be done— for the most part, these aren’t new ideas.
The billionaires and corporate executives— and the Republican Party that represents them— don’t want Americans to see this third option. They’re afraid of “socialism”, not because it might not work, but because it almost certainly will. It took them fifty years— and an uneasy alliance with religious nutcases and racists— to roll back the New Deal and the Great Society, and they’re terrified of socialist ideas getting into implementation, because they know that when this happens, people find out they like socialism, and it takes immense political effort to roll this plutocrat-hostile progress back.
We don’t have to choose between “the economy” and millions of lives. This is a false dilemma being put forward by evil people who will only consider scenarios that leave the power relationships and hierarchies of corporate capitalism intact. Their failure to allow a workable third alternative constitutes murderous negligence.
Our economic elite is made up of people who would rather see millions die than the emergence of an economic system that challenged their titanic power. If we survive COVID–19, if we defeat the the virus, we should go after them next.