Conservatives this weekend staged protests demanding that in the name of freedom, “liberation” and patriotism, public officials lift stay-at-home orders and effectively encourage people to expose themselves to a lethal pandemic that drowns victims to death in their own lung fluid. Their case was bolstered by Vice President Mike Pence, who said Sunday that we must make sure that the coronavirus stay-at-home “cure isn’t worse than the disease.”
The idea is that we must force workers back into a lethal pandemic because the effects of a frozen economy (unemployment, lost health insurance, poverty, etc.) could be ruining more lives than the shelter-in-place orders are saving.
When you consider it for five seconds, this argument promoted by Trump officials, other Republican politicians and pundits with establishment cred seems like that of great stern-faced leaders dramatically removing their glasses, taking deep breaths, doing their best Winston Churchill impressions and bravely telling us politically inconvenient truths like “death is an unavoidable part of life” (an actual quote from a GOP senator pushing for reopening the economy).
But when you consider it for five minutes instead of five seconds, you realize the argument isn’t the sober, empirical and pragmatic declaration of courageous wartime statesmen -- it is actually the insanity, ideology and radicalism of the same billionaire-paid suits, wild-eyed demagogues and let-them-eat-cake pundits who make sure nothing in our economy ever changes for them or their sponsors.
Claim: There Is Only Door #1 and Door #2, That’s It
Think about it: from Tom Friedman to Glenn Beck to Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, the clarion call of “reopen the economy!” is predicated on the presumption that in this high-stakes game of Let’s Make A Deal, Monty Hall is only offering us two doors to open:
Door #1: Halt the pandemic by following scientific guidelines, keeping as many people home as possible, but allow a frozen economy to financially decimate millions of people, resulting in more pain, suffering and death.
Door #2: Halt a potential Great Depression by ignoring scientific directives and reopening the economy, thrusting more workers into a deadly pandemic that could result in more pain, suffering and death.
These are shitty choices -- and yeah, if they were the only options, then perhaps you could argue that hey, if lots of people will die in both scenarios, then screw it, let’s go with door number 2, Monty, and open the economy because then at least we can go to the local cineplex and get plastered afterwards at a packed Dave & Busters. End times can at least be fun times!
Reality: There Is Door #3
But, of course, the only way these are our only two possible choices is if we refuse to consider making some long overdue changes to our economy. These are changes that other countries long ago made that would open up the possibility of Door #3 — a set of options that would let us simultaneously follow the scientific demands for social distancing, halt the pandemic and economically protect workers.
One example of the kinds of changes we could make has to do with health care.
Every other major industrialized country has some form of government-sponsored health care system that guarantees medical care to all people, regardless of their income and their employment status. That means people in those countries aren’t economically destroyed by health care bills during a COVID stay-at-home order. Instead of sitting by and watching more than 9 million Americans lose their job-linked health care coverage, Congress could pass recently introduced legislation expanding Medicare to cover everyone -- if not permanently, at least through the emergency.
Another example of a change we could make has to do with wages and the workplace.
My pal Peter Goodman recently published a New York Times report about how in Denmark, “political parties from across the ideological spectrum joined with labor unions and employers associations this month to unite behind a plan that has the government covering 75 to 90 percent of all worker salaries over the next three months, provided that companies refrain from layoffs.”
By contrast, Congress just gave Steve Mnuchin and the Fed hundreds of billions of dollars to haphazardly bail out whichever large companies they happens to like. While there were some genuinely decent parts of the first stimulus bill, it did not provide the kind of robust, universal emergency benefits for workers that other countries have offered — and its paycheck-related provisions created a byzantine patchwork of loans for small business that is already plagued by dysfunction.
But as the American Prospect notes: “A better idea is to just have the government take over payroll, getting a bill from ADP and the other paycheck processors and simply covering it (and) new legislation from Senate Democrats would do just that.”
Clearly, we don’t have just two options -- it’s not just a choice between staying at home and dying of poverty or running out into a lethal pandemic and dying of COVID. A temporary or permanent Medicare for All system, a universal program to directly pay the wages of furloughed and laid off workers, and other similar safety-net policies would let America follow all the social distancing directives from our scientific experts and also minimize the economic pain for as many workers as possible.
If There Is Door #3, Why Aren’t We Talking About It?
These tools aren’t rocket science -- it’s not like policymakers and pundits don’t know about these options being used in other advanced economies. They know. They just don’t want to you and I to know about them -- and to start demanding them.
Why? Because while these options would let us both respect science and protect workers, they could require higher taxes for billionaires and large corporations that buy our democracy. In the case of Medicare for All, the policy directly threatens the profits of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries that bankroll politicians and sponsor the corporate media.
And so rather than allow for the possibility of billionaires and corporations paying their fair share, we are led to believe that Door #3 doesn’t even exist.
Instead, our corporate-owned political system and media works to artificially narrow the perception of what’s possible to just two door prizes: economically die at home or literally die in the workplace.
It’s a false choice. In this situation, there is a middle ground. There is a third way.
But it isn’t being discussed because only money talks.