UAW activists years ago helped usher in a vastly more equal society. Can history repeat?
Earlier this week, in his daily coronavirus briefing, President Trump shared that some of his business friends had been advising him to “don’t do anything, just ride it out and think of it as the flu.”
America’s corporate chiefs — and their cheerleaders — haven’t just been whispering that advice into the president’s ear. They’ve been loudly proclaiming their distaste for the corona economic shutdown for some time now.
In a “very few weeks,” former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein has advised, “let those with a lower risk to the disease return to work.” Former Wells Fargo CEO Dick Kovacevich has urged that the nation bring workers back to work and “see what happens.”
“Some of them will get sick, some may even die, I don’t know,” Kovacevich continued. “Do you want to suffer more economically or take some risk that you’ll get flu-like symptoms and a flu-like experience?”
Paychex Inc. founder Tom Golisano, as late as last week, was totally agreeing.
“The damages of keeping the economy closed as it is could be worse than losing a few more people,” the billionaire told Bloomberg. “You have to weigh the pros and cons.”
Billionaire business execs — and the lawmakers they bankroll — clearly have priorities that go beyond getting people back to work. They want people to go back to work at the bargain-basement wage levels that make billions for billionaires. That may help explain why four Republican senators pushed an amendment to the phase-three corona relief bill that would have, if passed, reduced any new unemployment benefits for workers who’ve lost their jobs in the Covid-19 shutdown.
The relief bill that came before the Senate called for increasing jobless benefits by $600 a week for up to four months, a significant boost since unemployment insurance checks average only $385 weekly. Senator Ben Sasse from Nebraska, a leader of the pushback against that $600 increase, told the Senate that a jobless benefit that high would “create an incentive for folks to stop working.”
“Under this bill you get $23.15 an hour based on a 40-hour work week not to work,” a horrified Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina would add. “We’ve created Pandora’s box for our economy.”
Exactly half the senators present for the Senate relief bill vote felt the exact same way, and the vote on the benefit-cutback amendment ended up in a 48-48 split, not enough to change the bill as written.
So millions of corona-jobless Americans will get some real help. But what should we make of the casual contempt for the economic well-being of working people that oozes through the opposition to that aid? How do we explain the even more callous disregard for the health of working people that glares through the corporate executive impatience with shutdowns and shelter-in-place?
Should we consider these elite attitudes the product of our century’s intense “free market” fundamentalism? Or a leading indicator of the Trumpification of our times? Or are we dealing here with something deeper, with the unavoidable psychological dynamics of a society that lets wealth concentrate in the hands of a precious few?
We can find one revealing answer in the darkest days of the 17th century. In 1629, the British historian Erin Maglaque noted recently, a fearsome plague swept into Italy. In Florence, officials in the local health board tried to cordon off their city, but the disease slipped in anyway.
By August 1630 Florence was burying its dead by the hundreds in broad and deep pits. By the following January, the city had ordered citizens locked in their homes for a 40-day quarantine — and then gone about the business of delivering food to the tens of thousands of locked-down households.
The food the Florentine health board had delivered would be exceptionally varied and fine: bread and wine, sausage seasoned with fennel and rosemary, rice and cheese, salads of sweet and bitter herbs. The health board, historian Maglaque tells us, considered the city’s enormous outlay for good food a necessary expense. The poor of Florence had been living, city health officials realized, on diets that left them “especially vulnerable to infection.”
Improving the well-being of the poor, the Florentine health board believed, would be a key to the city’s recovery. But this idea of feeding the poor at a high-quality level appalled many of the city’s wealthy. They worried, one observer would later write, that the quarantine would give the poor of Florence “the opportunity to be lazy and lose the desire to work, having for forty days been provided abundantly for all their needs.”
Other Italian cities rejected the Florentine health board lead. They refused to provide “abundantly” for the needs of their poor — and paid a price. In Florence, the plague ended with 12 percent of the population dead. In Venice, the death rate ran nearly three times the Florentine rate, in Milan almost four times.
Today, nearly four centuries later, Senator Lindsey Graham and his Republican Senate colleagues are marching right in the footsteps of those 17th-century Italians who found the prospect of anything close to abundance for the poor so scandalous.
“This bill pays you more not to work than if you were working,” Graham harrumphed before the Senate vote on his benefit-cutback amendment to the corona relief legislation.
What connects our affluent today to the wealthy elites of old Italy? The unnerving impact of inequality on the psyches of the privileged. The more wealth the wealthy — of any epoch — accumulate, the less they value those without wealth.
In deeply unequal societies, those who hold grand private fortunes must sooner or later come to grips with the vast gap that separates them from everyone else. Why do I have so much, becomes the unspoken question, while so many have so little?
The easiest answer: I must deserve my good fortune. I must be worthy. And if I owe my good fortune to my worthiness, then those without fortune must owe their sad circumstances to their unworthiness. They must be dumb or lazy or profligate or worse. These undesirables, this perspective plays out, do not deserve our generosity. Any generosity toward them would only open up, as Lindsey Graham puts it, a “Pandora’s box.”
So assumed the rich of Florence so many generations ago. So assume their counterparts today. Then as now, that amounts to a deadly assumption.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His recent books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.