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The coronavirus pandemic has made it painfully obvious that the United States lacks a fully functioning public health infrastructure. In recent years, funding has been cut to local, state, and federal public health agencies. The White House dissolved the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense. We are now observing the effects of these cuts. In the face of a global pandemic, our country is disastrously unprepared.
These cuts did not happen by accident. The neoliberal worldview, which has dominated public policy-making across the world for the last 40 years, celebrates the liberation of a nimble market free from the oppressive constraints of the lumbering government. Neoliberalism’s prescriptions are rooted in a radical individualism. In the words of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” Corporations, wealthy elites, and their political allies have turned this narrative—along with a healthy serving of racism and xenophobia—into self-fulfilling prophecy: Slash government funding so the public sector no longer works well, erode public confidence in government, justify further funding cuts, and reap the benefits in lower taxes on wealth and profits.
But it’s not just the defunded public health infrastructure that has left us unprepared for the pandemic, nor the fragmented health care system and the large number of people who remain uninsured. Neoliberalism has also undermined other aspects of our social order that are necessary for a robust response to this catastrophe.
Unprepared… by design
First, workers in today’s neoliberal economy don’t earn enough to survive a crisis of any kind. Living paycheck to paycheck, many workers have no savings to fall back on. The majority of Americans can’t pay $400 in unanticipated bills, so, even before the arrival of Covid-19, unforeseen medical bills drove families into bankruptcy, foreclosure, eviction, or homelessness. As the economy grinds to a halt, many working people can’t pay for food, housing, health care, or almost anything else, despite the federal bailout and its derisory $1,200 checks. The outbreak has made clear that many of us live precariously and the existing safety net is inadequate for a real emergency.
Second, our care infrastructure is insufficient. In today’s economy, most families must have two working parents to get by. That leaves holes, in good times and bad: Who will take care of kids and elders? Women, often women of color, perform most of the child care, elder care, and unskilled nursing care, some of it unpaid, the rest underpaid. Many working parents can’t take paid time off from work to care for themselves or their family members when they are sick. Today, they face the choice of going to work feverish, in defiance of public health guidance—or staying home, unable to pay their bills. And while the emergency bill passed by Congress provides paid sick days for some, it does so only for our current pandemic and not for workers at businesses with more than 500 or fewer than 50 employees. Not to mention, who is supposed to take care of the kids when schools close? In the brutal social order modern capitalism has created, the basic challenge of combining work and family has been shrugged off by both business and government.
Third, neoliberalism has cultivated sizable populations that are uniquely vulnerable to the spread of disease. People who are homeless—victims of the soaring cost of housing, elimination of housing subsidies for low-income people, and reduced support for mental health and substance abuse treatment—often have underlying health conditions that put them at risk. They live in close proximity to others and lack places to safely shelter from the cold and rain, let alone wash their hands. Incarcerated people, a population that has grown fivefold in the neoliberal era thanks to the unequal distribution of economic opportunity paired with draconian Law and Order policies, are starting to fall ill in the confined quarters of jails and prisons. And then there are undocumented immigrants, systematically demonized and terrorized for political gain, but crucial to our economy and here because of the devastation neoliberalism has wrought in their home countries. They are understandably hesitant to get tested or seek medical help if they get sick.
Even our democracy is ill-prepared for the pandemic, with some primaries postponed and others likely to be. Neoliberalism has played a role in this, too, as political actors with power and influence have blocked online voter registration, vote-by-mail, and other democracy-promoting reforms by spreading tales of voter fraud and stoking racial animosity.
Ultimately, the pandemic has revealed starkly who has power and who doesn’t. Much of the response to Covid-19 has been shaped by the needs of industry and finance, not health. While unaccountable multilateral bodies like the International Monetary Fund have forced painful austerity on countries suffering financial crises, the World Health Organization lacks the authority to dictate a response to the health crisis. Here at home, stock market numbers seem to spur presidential responses far more than health data. And when our season of bailouts and rescue packages is complete, it feels inevitable that pork for corporations will dwarf the crumbs thrown to working people.
In short, the outbreak, its fallout, and the inadequate US response have laid bare the brokenness of neoliberalism. The problem goes far deeper than Trump. Indeed, the failure of prosperous, developed nations to respond appropriately to this crisis should push us to question the more profound if ugly truth on which today’s economy lies: Society as a whole produces wealth, but only some of us get to take it home.
In our contemporary narrative, wealthy people and successful corporations deserve their bulging bank accounts because of their work, ideas, effort, or brilliance. But no one makes money alone. Put Bill Gates on a desert island, and he won’t generate a dollar, let alone a billion. His success depends on factors far beyond his control: the labor of workers, which in turn depends on their education, housing, transportation, and nutrition; the utilities that supply power and water to factories and offices; the financial and banking systems; the legal system to enforce claims; and so on. Microsoft made billions because a huge social infrastructure allowed it to operate and succeed.
Every society creates wealth, and every society writes its own rules about how to distribute it. Some use that wealth to build pyramids or cathedrals or skyscrapers. Some distribute it to keep people fed, clothed, and housed, whether through the obligations of feudal noblemen to their serfs or through progressive taxation and a welfare system. In the past 40 years, our society has systematically made it easier for the most powerful individuals and corporations to stash socially produced wealth for their own benefit and accumulate it at prodigious levels. Under the rules of neoliberalism, “business as usual” exacerbates inequalities and allows billionaires to pile up more wealth than many nations will ever produce.
Times of crisis drive home these guiding principles. Bailing out financial firms after the Great Recession of 2008 socialized corporate losses. When the bailout enriched executives and investors, it privatized profits. We anticipate the same outcome from the Covid-19 outbreak. In good times, the rich get richer. In poor times, the poor get poorer. Heads I win, tails you lose. One stimulus bill at a time, wealth flows from the public into the pockets of corporations and the wealthy.
The privatization of wealth at this scale widens inequality, weakens democracy, and unleashes a competitive individualism that undermines community and destabilizes the social order. But the worst part is that so many people think this is just the way it is.
Another narrative is possible
Maybe the Covid-19 outbreak could allow us to imagine a different world. Perhaps the coronavirus could expose the dark side of neoliberal capitalism and make possible a different economic system, just as the Great Depression of the 1920s made possible the New Deal. Is it really such a radical idea to think that we could design our country to function better for everyone, not just the über-rich?
What if we took advantage of this moment to tell a different story about wealth? What if we dispelled the obvious fiction that the so-called free market allows people to thrive? What if we saw contemporary corporations for what they are: engines that take from the many to make profits for the few?
The platforms of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are a start—policies like Medicare for All, paid sick leave, and free child care. But we have to be able to respond to the inevitable pushback: “How are we going to pay for that?” As long as we assume corporations deserve their massive profits and executives their obscene paychecks, while working people are getting charity if they access public benefits, we will never create a more equitable society (not to mention prepare for the next pandemic).
A transformational narrative would begin with the idea that society’s wealth belongs to everyone. We all have a part in creating it, whether as workers, consumers, or taxpayers who underwrite the education, infrastructure, and safety net that make profits possible. Once we see our society’s prosperity as a collective product, it’s a short step to making democratic decisions about what to do with this wealth, so that everyone can thrive.
We’re not claiming this argument is original. Community organizers and others on the left articulate it every day, and it has been the guiding principle of many societies in the world. But to many it still sounds alien and radical, because it has been strikingly absent for the past 40 years.
If we could shift the public conversation in this way, a further set of policies would seem common sense: guaranteeing workers a living wage; taxing emissions of pollutants and building a green economy; requiring employers to cover the costs of health, child, and elder care; and expecting businesses to contribute to housing, education, and infrastructure—including public health infrastructure—in their communities. Remaining corporate profits could be taxed significantly, as could high salaries, capital gains, and individual wealth.
Many organizations on the left are already fighting for these policies, but there are limits to our current approach. The current narrative makes it hard to win any of these policies, let alone all of them, and it pits us against each other as we squabble over slices of a tiny budgetary pie. If we could join together to change the public discussion while we advocate policy changes, we would multiply our power and position ourselves to advance real change.
For an example of how conceptual shift could drive smart policy, consider Amazon, which is flourishing during the crisis. The popular narrative tells us that Jeff Bezos has earned his riches, but Amazon’s success was built on the labor of many and depends on infrastructure—like paved roads—built and maintained by governments and taxpayers. Seeing that, isn’t it reasonable to insist Amazon’s workers receive a living wage, paid sick days, and reimbursement for child care; that the company pay for the environmental harm it causes; and that a share of Amazon’s annual profits be used to shore up our public health system? (While we’re at it, let’s also fix the loopholes that allow the company to avoid paying federal income taxes.)
More pandemics will arrive on our shores. Climate change will wreak havoc. And we’ll face other disasters we can’t yet anticipate. To respond adequately requires questioning the unquestioned premises of neoliberalism, telling a different story of how society should function, and taking control of resources that belong to us all. In a democracy, we should all get to make decisions about who takes home the profits and how we spend them. Only this will move us toward the world we want to live in, where prosperity is distributed more equitably, with less division along lines of race, gender, and class, where we care for our democracy and our environment, and where we nurture the community we all need to thrive.