Dick Kovacevich, former CEO of Wells Fargo bank, thinks most Americans should return to work in April, urging that we “gradually bring those people back and see what happens”.
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Lloyd Blankfein, former CEO of Goldman Sachs, whose net worth is $1.1bn, recommends “those with a lower risk of the diseases return to work” within a “very few weeks”.
Tom Galisano, the founder of Paychex, whose net worth is $2.8bn, believes “the damages of keeping the economy closed could be worse than losing a few more people. You’re picking the better of two evils.”
Donald Trump is concerned that a prolonged lockdown might harm his chances of reelection. He agrees.
“We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem,” the president said last week, announcing that America will be “open for business” by Easter.
But senior public health officials including Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, think this is no time to scale back social distancing.
If anything, they say, the economy needs to be shut down even further. Otherwise the virus will continue to escalate, inundating hospitals and causing far more deaths. America leads the world in coronavirus cases. Dr Fauci believes we haven’t yet felt the worst of the pandemic.
It may seem logical to weigh the threat to public health against the accumulating losses to the economy, and then at some point decide economic losses outweigh health risks. As Stephen Moore, who is advising the White House, warns: “You can’t have a policy that says we’re going to save every human life at any cost, no matter how many trillions of dollars you’re talking about.”
But this leaves out one big thing. The “trillions of dollars” of economic losses don’t exist on any balance sheet that can be tallied against human lives. An “economy” is nothing but human beings. So it matters whose losses we’re talking about – whose losses of life, and whose losses of dollars.
“Look, you’re going to lose a number of people to the flu,” Trump said during a Fox News town hall on Tuesday. “But you’re going to lose more people by putting the country into a massive recession or depression.”
Wrong. Recessions and depressions don’t themselves cause people to sicken or die. Their health is imperiled during such downturns if they don’t have enough money to eat, keep a roof over their heads and get needed medical care.
Last week, lawmakers made an important step to prevent such hardships. Because unemployment insurance levels in many states are so low, Democrats insisted on a provision in the $2.2tn coronavirus bill that would provide jobless Americans an additional $600 a week for four months.
When Republicans objected that this would boost incomes for some of the unemployed higher than their pay when they worked, the bill was almost scuttled. The Senate vote on the Republican amendment was a hair-raising 47 to 47. But the provision made it into the law.
Apparently, Republicans didn’t appreciate that the pay of the typical working American hasn’t increased in decades, adjusted for inflation. So a temporary boost in pay in order to get people to stay home and thereby help slow the spread of Covid-19 is hardly unseemly.
Here’s what is unseemly. The “economy” the bankers and billionaires are eager to restart had been growing rapidly. But most of its gains had gone into corporate profits, as shown by the meteoric rise of the stock market.
The bankers and billionaires now urging Americans get back to work possess a huge share of that stock market. The richest 1% of the population owns roughly half of the value of all shares of stock. (The richest 10% own more than 80%.)
So when they recommend Americans get back to work for the sake of the “economy”, they’re really urging that other people risk their lives for the sake of the bankers’ and billionaires’ own stock portfolios.
While it’s true that we can’t save every human life at any cost, and at some point may have to end the lockdown of America and accept some additional coronavirus casualties, we need to keep in mind who we are talking about.
The trade-off average Americans might make between getting back to work and exposing themselves to the virus is likely to be quite different from the trade-off bankers and billionaires make, especially if average Americans have enough income support to get through the crisis.
Four months of extra unemployment benefits may not be enough. The richest nation in the world surely has enough resources to keep its people safe at home for as long as it takes.
Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few and The Common Good. His new book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, is out now. He is a columnist for Guardian US
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