For America’s Wealthiest, the Pandemic is a Time to Profit

The American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Michael Strain wrote an op-ed in the New York Times recently explaining how “The American Dream Is Alive and Well,” and that in his opinion this nation has, “bigger issues than inequality.” Strain’s piece is part of the paper’s new pandemic-era series called “The America We Need” and engages in a set of impressive mental gymnastics to conclude that it ought to be of no concern that the rich are getting richer and that it would be better to focus instead on, “the relatively slow rate of productivity growth,” or “the long-term decline in male employment.”

Michael Strain is incredulous over our fixation on the concentration of wealth at the top, asking, “Do Americans really care as much about inequality as the attention by media and liberal politicians suggest?” He adds, “Given that income inequality has been stagnant or declining over the most recent decade, the timing… is odd” for a conversation “about whether inequality suggests that capitalism itself is broken.” However, inequality continues to steadily rise—a fact it seems the pro-free-market American Enterprise Institute is hoping we ignore.

In his op-ed, Strain chants a mantra that he and other proponents of capitalism want to realize through sheer repetition: “Capitalism isn’t broken. The game isn’t rigged. Hard work does pay off.” Most insultingly, he maintains that, “American workers are resilient and are accustomed to facing—and overcoming—economic challenges.” In other words, because American workers are used to being screwed over by the economy and most have seemingly managed to survive it, they will continue to do so in the face of ever-increasing hardship.

Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) during a Senate hearing on May 19 questioned Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, asking, “How many workers will die if we send people back to work without the protections they need, Mr. Secretary? How many workers should give their lives to increase our [gross domestic product] by half a percent?” Mnuchin responded, “I think your characterization is unfair,” but the Trump administration he attempted to defend has in fact forced people back to work, namely in the meatpacking industry. President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act—not to direct the commercial production of much-needed medical and protective equipment, but rather to provide cover to the meat industry as it seeks to force workers back into a dangerous environment.

Thousands of workers have become infected in recent months. But if meatpacking workers contract the disease and die, it is their fault as per Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who recently claimed that it was the “home and social” conditions in the lives of meatpacking plant workers that were responsible for their COVID-19 diagnoses. He even went as far as suggesting more law enforcement surveillance of those communities where meatpacking workers live in order to police social distancing.

Making clear just how little Republicans in particular care about workers, Trump has opposed extending unemployment insurance for laid-off workers. His Labor Department has encouraged companies to snitch on workers so that their unemployment benefits are cut off if they are too fearful of returning to work. And, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to protect corporations from liability in coronavirus-related lawsuits by workers.

Republicans have also refused to take up any more stimulus bills even as more than 38 million Americans have lost jobs in just nine weeks. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, showing just how blind he is to the pain of workers, said, “I don’t see the need right now.” Senator McConnell echoed this, saying, “I don’t think we have yet felt the urgency of acting immediately. That time could… [come], but I don’t think it has yet.” Time and again conservative politicians, in shilling for the rich, have indicated that American workers, rather than being essential, are simply expendable. This is their version of a class war.

The White House’s latest idea for helping workers is to cut corporate taxes in half as a way to incentivize overseas jobs to return to the U.S. Larry Kudlow, the White House’s top economic adviser, touted a payroll tax cut as a way to put more money into Americans’ pockets. He failed to mention that cutting payroll taxes meant a cut in payroll-tax-funded programs like Medicare and Social Security—programs many Americans rely on that the class warriors have wanted to cut for years.

Amazingly, the stock market appears to not care that there is record unemployment as week after week even with skyrocketing unemployment, the Dow Jones and Nasdaq indices remain buoyed. Indeed, the indicators that are announced with much fanfare every day on the popular radio program Marketplace have never had a real bearing on the well-being of American workers, no matter how much enthusiasm host Kai Ryssdal musters during his announcements. To his credit, he has admitted as much, explaining that the “wealthiest 10 percent of American households own 84 percent of all stocks.”

Before the pandemic, Trump bet his reelection on a low unemployment rate and the buoyancy of the stock market. Now, with official unemployment figures so incongruent with the stock market’s growth, he has a harder time making a claim of widespread economic prosperity. In fact, there was no prosperity even before the pandemic. The official unemployment rate was low, but that did not indicate how many people had quit looking for work or how poor quality those jobs were. The pandemic has exposed the fact that Trump’s claims of financial triumph were always more of a mirage than a miracle.

As the anguish of millions of American workers remains irrelevant to the corporate profiteers and their political benefactors, we are expected to rejoice in the fact that Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, could become the world’s first trillionaire in a few years. It would be convenient for Michael Strain and the American Enterprise Institute if we are convinced to ignore such obscenity and focus instead on workers remaining “resilient” as the rich wage their class war.

The only rational response to the absurd state of the U.S. economy is to insist that billionaires (and especially trillionaires) are simply not allowed to exist. After the first $100 million, there is no need to continue to amass any more wealth. Congress could easily enact laws to tax billionaires heavily enough that they remained more than comfortable for the rest of their lives while funding necessary services that huge numbers of Americans could benefit from: paid sick leave, Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and so much more. There is no justification for individuals to hoard so much wealth compared to the rest of us. But they will never give up that wealth voluntarily. They will instead fight tooth and nail, lie and cheat, to preserve and expand their inconceivable riches. Against such a class war there is only one option.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV, Roku) and Pacifica stations KPFK, KPFA, and affiliates. 

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