If David Green, the Hobby Lobby CEO with a net worth of $6.4 billion, wants to pray his and his family’s way out of this crisis, that’s his business. But he has 32,000 employees. He’s making them work because, he assures them in his instantly notorious letter, God will look after them.
I don’t want to sneer at the idea of prayer. Lots of people find comfort in it. That’s good. But I will say this: There’s a reason why, when a direct intercessory prayer of the “Please, God, cure my mother’s cancer” sort is answered, it’s called a miracle. It’s because it doesn’t happen often. I’m sorry, it’s no way to run a business. He should close his stores down—crafts are arguably therapeutic but in no way essential—and pay the people.
Unimaginable economic chaos is around the corner. I’m more terrified of that than I am of the disease. The disease sounds bad but survivable for most people. The economic calamity that’s headed our way, however, will not be survivable, for millions of Americans. But there is a potential silver lining: We absolutely have to change some of the habits and policies that have made our economy into a machine that works only for the rich.
I hope Congress is doing that with its stimulus and bailout packages. I read over the weekend that the airlines promised, in exchange for $30 billion, to do the following: put limits on executive compensation; no stock buybacks for the life of the loans; no stock dividends for the life of the loans.
That’s all fine but doesn’t go nearly far enough. At a press conference last week, Chuck Schumer said:
We just want to make sure that whatever help we give them, workers come first. The vast majority of the aid should go to the workers, not to increasing executives’ salaries, not to doing the kinds of things that the companies have done, like buybacks. We would prohibit buybacks. We’re also thinking that there should be, if they’re going to get help, maybe their employees should get on the boards of these companies. Last time, the government took stock when they gave money to the banks. Well maybe that stock should go to the employees so they have some representation in these industries.
We want them to pay $15 minimum wage and we want to make sure that there are strict requirements to keep workers in their jobs, and not cut their benefits. The aid has to be workers first if we’re going to help these industries, not what happened in 2008, where the big boys got helped and the workers and everybody else were left by the wayside.
Amen to all that, but there’s still more. No executive bonuses should be paid or vested unless pensions are being fully funded, employees are receiving at least a cost-of-living increase, and health and other benefits have been maintained. Also: No plant closures, no downsizing, and no reclassifying employees from full- to part-time. Finally, failure to comply with any of these conditions means the loans have to be paid back immediately.
Of course, other people have different ideas. Warren went off Sunday about this $500 billion Treasury Department “slush fund” in Mitch McConnell’s bill that seems to have almost no strings attached to it.
What is going on in these people’s brains? As David Roberts of Vox asked in a tweet, “What are they telling *themselves* about why they’re fighting for corrupt oligarchy during a health crisis?” David, my friend, I think the answer is staring us in the face. They want oligarchy. They prefer it to democracy. They’ve been making it obvious for years. Every calamity that befalls this country, from the 9/11 attacks to the Great Recession to this, is just an excuse to hand more money back to rich people and corporations.
If the rest of us can save the country in spite of them, if we get President Joe Biden and a fully Democratic Congress, then, after the crisis abates, we need to make some of these changes permanent. Raise the minimum wage, obviously. But build all kinds of provisions into the corporate tax code that require them to share their profits with their workers. Stock buybacks are just one part of this problem. But why not just ban them? They haven’t existed forever. They weren’t inscribed on a stone tablet by God. They were permitted for the first time ever by Ronald Reagan’s Securities and Exchange Commission, in 1982’s Rule 10b-18. What Reagan’s SEC hath wrought, Joe Biden’s can unwrought.
And, eventually, we ought to talk about taxes. Donald Trump called himself a “wartime president.” Does he know what wartime presidents do? They raise taxes. This should absolutely not be considered now, while the economy is dying. But at some point, more taxes on the rich (and only the rich, not middle-class people) has to be on the table. Congress should create a new top marginal rate of at least 50 percent on some high-dollar amount (just so people understand, the 50 percent applies only to dollars earned above a certain level, not a person’s entire income).
The coronavirus isn’t Mike Bloomberg or Jeff Bezos’ fault. But “fault” isn’t the issue. The issue is how we respond. Bloomberg laying off employees he’d promised jobs to through November is outrageous, for a man with a fortune valued at more than $50 billion. Harvard University, with an endowment of $40 billion, can find a way to pay its contracted cafeteria workers.
We have to demand better responses. We have to insist that even though this crisis didn’t happen because of our raging economic inequality, we can still use this crisis to build a fairer economy. We’re about to see millions of people lose their livings. For the most part, these are people who’ve been having a very tough time of it anyway. They’re underpaid, they’re overscheduled, they can’t plan time off, they live one illness or tragedy away from penury. That is not how life is supposed to be in this country. If it takes a pandemic to focus us enough to address that, then so be it.
Finally, of course, we need a leader to articulate these priorities and fight for them. Needless to say, we don’t have one now. If you haven’t seen this ad by The Recount, check it out:
Biden needs to be that leader. Schumer and Nancy Pelosi need to step up, too. Democrats should be out front every day highlighting some act of economic decency or indecency or announcing some priority. I know it’s hard to get attention when Donald of Orange is up there mouthing off for an hour a day. But it’s not impossible. Katie Porter finds a way. If she can, other Democrats can, too.
We are in an unprecedented crisis, potentially far bigger than any war. No war ever killed a million Americans, as this virus may (we’ve lost 1.35 million American lives in all our wars in history). The president and the Republicans are making things worse. Democrats, step up. This time, it’s life and death.