Back to Work? You First.

Hamilton Nolan March 24, 2020

U.S. President Donald Trump looks on as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks during a briefing about the coronavirus outbreak in the press briefing room at the White House on March 17, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

We must reopen the econ­o­my,” you say. It is vital that we send peo­ple back to work,” you say. Well, it sounds impor­tant. By all means — you first.

The cure must not be worse than the prob­lem, the pres­i­dent says. It is impor­tant that we not dis­in­cen­tive work, right-wing econ­o­mists say. Keep­ing things closed could dev­as­tate the econ­o­my, busi­ness lead­ers say. These things are a trade­off, you see. Yes, some peo­ple will die if we put every­one back to work soon­er than the health experts say. But these things are inevitable. And the eco­nom­ic dam­age could be awful if we don’t.

Okay. All of you line up, to report to work.

Lloyd Blank­fein, the rea­son­able cheer­leader for restart­ing com­merce, you can be a door­man, throw­ing open the doors of your Man­hat­tan office build­ing for all the bankers to return to their desks. The door­man, who prefers not to die, can be the CEO of Gold­man Sachs. That office is suf­fi­cient­ly large for social dis­tanc­ing, I’m sure.

Art Laf­fer, the dis­cred­it­ed econ­o­mist, can be a wait­er in a crowd­ed restau­rant. A wait­er, who prefers not to die, can become an econ­o­mist. No wait­er could be a worse econ­o­mist than Art Laf­fer, anyhow.

Let the lieu­tenant gov­er­nor of Texas, rar­ing to sac­ri­fice him­self on the altar of the free mar­ket, become a gro­cery store work­er. Let the CNBC pun­dits become retail cashiers. Let the Wash­ing­ton cor­po­rate lob­by­ists beat­ing the drum for restart­ing pro­duc­tion become ware­house work­ers. And let the reg­u­lar peo­ple who work in crowd­ed restau­rants and crowd­ed stores and crowd­ed ware­hous­es and crowd­ed fac­to­ries take jobs in state­hous­es, and on cable TV, and at think tanks. It is only fair that the bold lead­ers urg­ing us all to be brave enough to dis­re­gard sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly sound warn­ings of mil­lions of deaths in order to prop back up Amer­i­can busi­ness be the first ones out there, in close prox­im­i­ty to the infec­tious pub­lic, get­ting coughed on as they enable each and every one of the trans­ac­tions that will get mon­ey flow­ing again. That is what lead­er­ship is all about.

Besides, there will cer­tain­ly be a num­ber of job open­ings in pol­i­tics and cable TV pun­dit­ry and think tanks once all of those free mar­ke­teers go out into the work­force and prompt­ly catch coronavirus.

There is an unspo­ken and under­ly­ing assump­tion in all of the push to end our nation­al shut­down before the pan­dem­ic has passed, which is: Rich peo­ple will not be the vic­tims of this. This belief is untrue, but the rich can be for­giv­en for believ­ing it — in nor­mal cir­cum­stances, it is a very reli­able rule. The rich have been send­ing poor peo­ple to their deaths in wars for the sake of prof­its for cen­turies. Noth­ing new at all about that. In vio­lent con­flicts, non-rich peo­ple are just grease in the wheels of the cap­i­tal­ist machine. It is not remark­able that busi­ness lead­ers and their allies would want to enact the same pat­tern of human sac­ri­fice now, with the stock mar­ket plum­met­ing. The dif­fer­ence is that the pan­dem­ic will kill the rich, too. They are cur­rent­ly act­ing as if they can buy their own safe­ty, because they haven’t seen their peers die too much yet. But they will.

The voic­es push­ing to send mil­lions of peo­ple back to work at the cost of what could be mil­lions of lives will say that they are being hard­head­ed real­ists. They will say that the cost of our ongo­ing eco­nom­ic shut­down, with its atten­dant unem­ploy­ment and bank­rupt­cies, will be even worse. But the only world in which that could pos­si­bly be true is a world in which we pre­serve our old, sud­den­ly absurd eco­nom­ic arrange­ments at all costs. It is only true in a world in which we refuse to con­sid­er debt for­give­ness, and a mas­sive gov­ern­ment wage sub­sidy, and health care for all. It is only true if you accept the premise that, dur­ing this eco­nom­ic shut­down, all small busi­ness­es will go bank­rupt and work­ers will lose their jobs per­ma­nent­ly and we’ll all become buried in debt.

If you instead assume a world in which we rec­og­nize the obvi­ous real­i­ty that, as a result of this unprece­dent­ed pub­lic health cri­sis, we must waive many debts and let gov­ern­ment spend­ing car­ry us past the dan­ger­ous peri­od, then keep­ing peo­ple at home in order to save a mil­lion or two mil­lion lives is the only choice. But rec­og­niz­ing the neces­si­ty of what must be done means that, on the oth­er end of this, the cap­i­tal­ists must take a loss. They will not take all of the loss, or even a per­ma­nent loss, but they will take a loss, because eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty will almost cease for a peri­od of time.

That loss — of a year or two’s prof­its — is what is con­sid­ered unac­cept­able. So, of course, we must all get back to work while the pan­dem­ic is still rag­ing. And if a cou­ple mil­lion peo­ple must die in order to ensure that we do not for­give any loans in this coun­try, then that is just how it is going to be. It’s just plain com­mon sense. Okay? Fine.

You first, fuck­ers. See you in hell.

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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