Pandemics, it turns out, expose national weakness and strength.
Strength? How about those unprotected front line health care workers, some draped in garbage bags — here in the world’s sole superpower — sacrificing their lives to save ours?
Weakness? This virus has unmasked the deeply embedded economic dysfunction and disparity that bedevils our society.
Yes, our president’s bottomless incompetence has proved deadly. But it’s the last four decades of slavish servitude to rapacious, anti-government capitalism that turned a semi-manageable pandemic (see Germany) into full-blown public health and economic catastrophe.
Suddenly, the grave consequences of a 40-year-old right-wing strategy to “starve the beast” of tax funds needed to properly govern is glaringly apparent.
The United States lost its way after the 1980s Reagan Revolution against the Democrats’ inclusive, equitable vision of government. Ever since, the United States has been weakened by unsound fiscal policies that hollowed out the government’s ability to carry out its core responsibilities, such as maintaining a robust and ready public health system and biomedical research programs capable of protecting the nation.
As part of the “reform” package, the government of We the People turned a blind eye to widespread abuse of the nation’s workforce, whose economic lives grow ever more perilous thanks to capitalism’s 19th Century-like effort to disempower labor. “Essential” workers even now too often are expected to labor without employer-provided safeguards against the virus.
What’s going to happen to the 22 million laid-off American workers who don’t have the wage-replacement programs that worker-friendly nations rapidly — rapidly! — deploy to keep financial meltdowns from devastating their economies?
Millions of American workers lost their health insurance along with their jobs. That didn’t happen to laid-off workers in other developed nations because their workers aren’t dependent on employers for health insurance.
Balancing the scales
Only the government can balance the scales of justice to protect all citizens from the inequities inherent in a capitalist system. Yet Congress and the Supreme Court routinely put the weight of government’s thumb on the side of the wealthy, disenfranchising workers and consumers.
Conservatives who espouse careless capitalism are perhaps blind, or indifferent, to how it threatens our national security.
Most of our essential medical supplies are made in China, some by American firms. It was China itself that showed the United States the folly of depriving ourselves of a domestic manufacturing base for essential goods.
China refused to let U.S. firms ship critical emergency medical equipment to the United States because China itself needed it. We don’t depend on China to make our missiles. Why do we depend on China to make our masks? Hello?
Though Donald Trump showcases the danger of letting incompetent anti-government ideologues govern, he didn’t set this table. Trump is the dystopian end product of a long-nurtured, profoundly unwise right-wing vision of nationhood.
The last time capitalism failed big time was 1929.
Lauded for bringing food aid to starving Europe after World War I, Republican President Herbert Hoover refused to assist destitute Americans when the Great Depression (not his doing) unfolded in his own country early on his watch.
It would undermine American self-reliance and threaten capitalism if the government helped its citizens, Hoover argued.
Hoover’s refusal deepened the depression.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, had a different solution for capitalism’s failures. His New Deal meant lots of federal spending on public works, including a huge dam down the road from us.
FDR went further, restructuring the government to impose regulations on the finance and banking systems and establishing fair labor practices and the Social Security system. His goal wasn’t to destroy the unregulated capitalist system that had wrecked the country. It was to make capitalism work for everyone.
That meant striking a more equitable balance of economic and political power between rich and poor. FDR seemed to grasp that the American experiment in democracy would fail unless that balance was struck.
Because FDR made good on the premise that the government has a fundamental duty to fairly balance the interests of rich and poor, he’s counted among presidents who’ve had the most impact on history.
The other is Democrat Lyndon Baines Johnson. We’ve been living in his Great Society since the mid-1960s.
Though widely despised for his Vietnam War policies, he improved the lives of millions of Americans by passing 1,000 progressive laws, including civil rights, voting rights, poverty, education, science, and Medicare and Medicaid measures.
But LBJ’s reforms were the last straw for anti-government conservatives. Their effort to emasculate government by lowering taxes on the rich began in earnest with the election of Republican Ronald “The government is the problem” Reagan in 1980, and it continues to this day.
Just a short 12 years ago, Henry M. Paulson Jr., the Bush administration treasury secretary, reportedly lost his lunch into a wastebasket while trying to prevent the collapse of the global banking system.
Taxpayers ultimately saved the banks. But nobody saved the millions of taxpaying homeowners bankrupted by the banking system’s predatory mortgages. Still, Paulson recently wrote: “History has proved that capitalism is by far the best economic system in the world.”
For whom? Capitalism, it seems fair to say, has yet to fully achieve its potential as a nation-strengthening instrument.
Paulson wrote his defense of capitalism shortly after Senate Republicans, in the CARES Act, gave a $170 billion tax forgiveness gift to wealthy investors who had suffered personal mishaps in the capitalist marketplace.
Hospitals got $100 billion.
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.