Oh pity the poor downtrodden Fortune 500 — that’s what America’s been doing this past decade and longer, forgetting, it seems, the plight of the middle-class working stiff. We’ve linked the welfare of our sprawling corporations with our national well-being, assuming that what’s good for business is what’s good for America. We’ve lowered corporate taxes and scrapped regulations. We’ve lionized Lee Iacocca and Donald Trump. Our business reporters cheer Wall Street with the shamelessness of hometown sports announcers. Had we been living in Palestine three thousand years ago, we’d be firmly ensconced in Goliath’s corner.
I wrote that half my life ago, in my first published book (with the wise Adrienne Miller), The Hamlet Syndrome. So much changes, yet so much stays the same.
In America, humans exist to serve the economy rather than the other way around. Most of the time it’s easy to ignore that disturbing reality. But when the president of the United States proclaims his intention to ease public health measures against the most lethal pandemic in a century because of their effect on the economy — as of Easter, no less, Christian America’s celebration of spiritual rebirth — there’s no avoiding the psychopathic premise underlying our daily life.
Let’s say the country goes along. What’s the cost in human lives? Yascha Mounk (of whom I’m usually skeptical) has sketched a scenario generous to the president. Assume only one-third of the population catches COVID-19 because we relax social distancing requirements too soon. That’s more than a hundred million people, not nearly enough to create herd immunity, but enough, perhaps, to reduce transmission in most workplaces. Assume further that the mortality rate of COVID-19 is only one percent, far lower than the World Health Organization’s recent estimate (and ignoring the pressure the sudden influx of patients will put on our health care system). That means more than one million Americans will die. As Mounk laconically notes, “That is about as many people as the country lost in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II — combined.”
Some of those people might have died with social distancing measures in place, but nonetheless, the knowing decision to sacrifice nearly a million lives for short-term economic gain? That’s mass murder. We’re certainly not afraid to call it that in reference to the famine resulting from Stalin’s decision to collectivize Ukrainian farmland during the Depression.
The counter-argument is that a bad economy causes extra deaths too. Acknowledged. But a million extra deaths? Extremely unlikely. There will be more despair and suicide, but less than usual in an economic meltdown, I suspect, because this isn’t anyone’s fault, so there’s no shame or guilt. And why else is Congress passing a $2 trillion stimulus package if not to broadly mitigate the crash’s impact?
There’s also this: even in good times our economy claims victims. Despite the lowest unemployment in half a century we have legions of homeless, millions without health care, and two in five adults unable to cope with an emergency costing more than a thousand dollars. To my knowledge, no one is measuring the mortality rate from those conditions. But then, what wealthy foundation is offering grants for such research?
A couple of years ago I wrote a post about whether any idea is worth killing or dying for. Spoiler alert: the answer was no. That the president would let a million die to keep cash registers humming should disqualify him for re-election most among the pious Christians who stand solidly behind him. As the New York Times’s Jamelle Bouie puts it, “given the choice between solidarity and barbarism, Trump will choose barbarism. We’ll see, in November, if the rest of the country follows suit.”
Don’t be surprised if it does. Fivethirtyeight.com shows the Stalin Wannabe’s approval rating rising a couple of points since the pandemic struck. This country may be more in Goliath’s corner than it likes to think. And Joe Biden doesn’t look quite right in the role of David.