Corporations Are Not Letting This Crisis Go to Waste

As the pandemic wreaks chaos, corporations and the GOP are following the shock doctrine playbook.

Jeremy MohlerApril 15, 2020

Amazon is rapidly expanding, while workers protest unsafe conditions. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In Novem­ber 2008, Rahm Emanuel, then-chief of staff for pres­i­dent-elect Barack Oba­ma, told a crowd of cor­po­rate exec­u­tives: You nev­er want a seri­ous cri­sis to go to waste.” The Great Recession’s his­toric eco­nom­ic down­turn was by then in full tilt, which Emanuel saw as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to pur­sue bold pol­i­cy ideas. And what I mean by that [is] it’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to do things that you think you could not do before.”

As the death toll has skyrocketed and millions of people have lost their jobs, conservatives haven’t hesitated to use the collective shock to advance their political goals.

While the Oba­ma administration’s response to the cri­sis includ­ed some impor­tant reform mea­sures, such as the estab­lish­ment of the Con­sumer Finan­cial Pro­tec­tion Bureau, bold pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy change was hard to come by. In fact, the finan­cial insti­tu­tions whose thirst for prof­it had brought the glob­al econ­o­my to its knees end­ed up even big­ger and more pow­er­ful than before.

Now, 12 years after Emanuel offered that advice, cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca seems to have again tak­en heed. As the coro­n­avirus cri­sis has unfold­ed, cor­po­rate forces and con­ser­v­a­tive politi­cians have teamed up to cut reg­u­la­tions, roll back work­er rights, restrict free­dom, and oth­er­wise take advan­tage of the turmoil.

As just one exam­ple, the plas­tic bag indus­try has worked to block laws pro­hibit­ing sin­gle-use plas­tic in mul­ti­ple states under the guise that reusable bags pose an out­sized risk of spread­ing virus­es, which is sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly disputed.

If con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats are politi­ciz­ing” the pan­dem­ic — as Repub­li­cans have charged — the oil and gas indus­try, big agribusi­ness­es and oth­er cor­po­ra­tions bankrolling the GOP are sim­i­lar­ly to blame. 

They’re fol­low­ing a play­book, of course. Con­ser­v­a­tives and right-wing think tanks have long used the public’s dis­ori­en­ta­tion fol­low­ing a col­lec­tive shock like a nat­ur­al dis­as­ter or mar­ket crash to push through rad­i­cal pro-cor­po­rate poli­cies — what writer Nao­mi Klein has called the shock doc­trine.”

A 40-year cor­po­rate attack on all things pub­lic has plunged trust in gov­ern­ment to his­toric lows, giv­ing cov­er to efforts to slash and dis­man­tle pub­lic insti­tu­tions. Ronald Reagan’s famous line, The nine most ter­ri­fy­ing words in the Eng­lish lan­guage are: I’m from the gov­ern­ment, and I’m here to help,” doesn’t sound so com­fort­ing dur­ing a glob­al pandemic.

Sure enough, over the past month, as the death toll has sky­rock­et­ed and mil­lions of peo­ple have lost their jobs, con­ser­v­a­tives haven’t hes­i­tat­ed to use the col­lec­tive shock to advance their polit­i­cal goals. 

As expect­ed, there’s been plen­ty of prof­i­teer­ing. Pri­vate equi­ty firms have pitched mas­sive returns for investors by gam­ing the small busi­ness loans pro­gram in the fed­er­al government’s CARES Act. Ama­zon, run by world’s‑richest-person Jeff Bezos, is rapid­ly expand­ing to meet surg­ing demand while crack­ing down on work­ers protest­ing unsafe work­ing con­di­tions. (Bezos, mean­while, has seen his per­son­al for­tune grow by $24 bil­lion amid the pan­dem­ic.) Tech com­pa­nies have swept in to sign lucra­tive tele­health con­tracts with all lev­els of government.

More sin­is­ter are the changes to rules and reg­u­la­tions that tilt the bal­ance of

pow­er away from work­ing peo­ple and even fur­ther towards the already pow­er­ful — pos­si­bly permanently.

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion, in the name of pub­lic health, began turn­ing away immi­grants who ille­gal­ly cross the U.S. south­ern bor­der, includ­ing asy­lum seek­ers. It also rolled back fuel econ­o­my and green­house gas emis­sion stan­dards for new cars and light-duty trucks.

The Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, run by for­mer coal indus­try lawyer Andrew Wheel­er, sus­pend­ed enforce­ment actions against com­pa­nies who don’t mon­i­tor for pol­lu­tion dur­ing the out­break — a pol­i­cy that doesn’t include an end date.

The lat­est fed­er­al stim­u­lus bill repeals trans­paren­cy rules for the Fed­er­al Reserve’s meet­ings until the pres­i­dent says the coro­n­avirus threat is over, or the end of the year.

Trump’s Con­sumer Finan­cial Pro­tec­tion Bureau released a bevy of poli­cies to help finan­cial insti­tu­tions at the expense of con­sumers, includ­ing urg­ing banks to offer con­sumers small-dol­lar loans with no inter­est rate restrictions.

The Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board sus­pend­ed all union elec­tions and final­ized a rule that will make it hard­er both for work­ers to union­ize and to keep the unions they have. Mean­while, the Fed­er­al Labor Rela­tions Author­i­ty pub­lished a rule that would make it eas­i­er for fed­er­al work­ers to stop the with­hold­ing of union dues, argu­ing it would increase wages.

Abor­tion oppo­nents have lever­aged the cri­sis to close as many abor­tion clin­ics as pos­si­ble, find­ing par­tic­u­lar suc­cess in Ohio and Texas.

At least three states — Ken­tucky, South Dako­ta and West Vir­ginia — passed laws putting new crim­i­nal penal­ties on protests against fos­sil fuel infrastructure.

That’s just some of what they’ve accom­plished so far. Con­ser­v­a­tive think tanks and pun­dits are crawl­ing out of the wood­work to argue on behalf of cor­po­ra­tions as the cri­sis unfolds.

George Mason University’s Mer­ca­tus Cen­ter, fund­ed by the lib­er­tar­i­an Koch Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tions, is call­ing for dereg­u­la­tion of pub­lic edu­ca­tion to allow for a dra­mat­ic expan­sion in online school­ing. This, despite the many short­com­ings of online learn­ing and the fact that three mil­lion chil­dren lack inter­net access at home.

A self-described free mar­ket coali­tion” of con­ser­v­a­tive Wis­con­sin think tanks are call­ing for a mora­to­ri­um on all non-essen­tial bureau­crat­ic rule­mak­ing orders” in the state.

The oil and gas indus­try is ask­ing the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to fur­ther loosen rules and reg­u­la­tions on pol­lu­tion and extract­ing resources from pub­lic lands.

Indus­try groups, includ­ing the West­ern Grow­ers Asso­ci­a­tion and the Truck and Engine Man­u­fac­tur­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, are push­ing Cal­i­for­nia reg­u­la­tors to delay new envi­ron­men­tal mea­sures.

These are some select exam­ples of pro-cor­po­rate poli­cies result­ing from the cri­sis. And they don’t even take into account the mas­sive cor­po­rate bailout includ­ed in the most recent stim­u­lus bill, the price tag of which could wind up top­ping $4 tril­lion. The end result of this swin­dle could be a huge trans­fer of wealth to the top of the income bracket.

We don’t know what will come next in this ongo­ing pan­dem­ic, but one thing seems abun­dant­ly clear: cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca is not going to let this cri­sis go to waste. Unless, of course, some­one stops them.

Jere­my Mohler is a Wash­ing­ton D.C.-based polit­i­cal writer with In the Pub­lic Inter­est and a med­i­ta­tion teacher.
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