Covid-19: The Good and The Bad

There’s a lot of talk about whether the Covid-19 pandemic will lead to a better world or a worse one. I’ve seen plenty of opinions on both sides. No one knows for sure, but let’s take a look at some of the evidence.

Good: Health care tied to your job is widely seen as a disaster. This system was absolutely cruel, insane and counterproductive from the start; a historical accident due to temporary World War Two wage restrictions and previously high unionization rates.

Now, with unemployment soaring while a pandemic is ravaging the country, the sheer insanity of tying health care access to your job is being seen as the abomination it is by increasing numbers of people. I don’t see how anyone besides anti-government zealots and outright social Darwinists can defend it anymore.

Surveys have shown that a vast majority of Democrats and Independents, and even a slight majority of Republicans favor some sort single-payer health care system not tied to employment. It seem like that is finally winning the intellectual argument. Will this finally be the impetus that makes it inevitable? If not, what will it take???

Yet the Democratic Party has put their thumb on the scale for a candidate who has expressly said he would veto Medicare for All even if it somehow got through Congress. It pulled out all the stops to prevent the only candidate running on a health care reform platform from gaining the nomination for president. But how many times can it do this in the face of widespread public support for the policy? How long can the “good cop, bad cop” two party duopoly hold off this desperately needed reform in order to keep the money spigot from health care profiteers flowing? How long can the U.S. hold out being the only rich nation on earth that lets thousands of its citizens die or go bankrupt every year due to health care costs? Forever???

In addition, the federal government is claiming that it will pay health care providers directly for Covid-19 treatment. The question will increasingly be: why stop there? Why keep people from going broke over Covid-19 virus treatment, but allow them go broke if they get anything else like cancer, or Lyme disease, or some other unexpected malady? Hopefully more and more people will begin asking this question.

Good: this will change how a generation thinks about politics.
The generation that came of age during the Great Depression had no time for the bootstraps myth or lectures about “personal responsibility” from the wealthy and their toadies. They knew how unpredictable and fickle unregulated markets are. They saw with their own eyes people who worked all their lives going hungry, losing their homes and suffering. So will this generation.

It’s a cliche about the Baby Boom generation, but in my experience largely true: they grew up in a time of unprecedented affluence thanks to a system managed by government that they largely dismantled. They repeatedly voted for their own selfish interests above the national good. They pulled the prosperity ladder up after themselves and left future generations to drown. They outsourced their thinking to Fox News and wholly bought into the world view espoused by billionaire-funded right-wing think tanks. Having achieved prosperity largely thanks to hidden socialism, they left future generations to deal with capitalism with the gloves off.

Every toxic idea in the country right now is sustained by the older generation. It’s not even close. Look at the age breakdown of those who voted for Biden versus those who voted for Bernie. Look at where the majority of Trump’s support is. It’s heavily concentrated in the over-50 age cohort. And the older you go, the stronger the support. OK Boomer.

And the idea that the younger generation will somehow morph into conservative Republicans as they get older and amass wealth? Forget about it. First of all, they’re not going to amass wealth. That was clear even before Great Depression conditions, thanks to stagnant wages and high education costs. And the healthcare industry will siphon off a large chunk of that wealth, making sure that it doesn’t trickle down to younger generations through inheritance (unless you’re in the top ten percent). The financial industry will take much of the rest.

Plus, a lot of those people are going to be downwardly mobile as they get older, not upwardly moble. I know I am. I’ve made less and less money with each job I’ve held in the last decade, rather than more, and I suspect I’m not alone. Besides, why would someone who believes that health care is a basic human right suddenly change their views because they turn 40, have kids or buy a house? It doesn’t make any sense.

The Great Depression and WWII changed the way we talked about the economy: left to its own devices it would wreak havoc on people’s lives (massive unemployment), “heedless self-interest [is] bad economics” (FDR), and governments can effectively pursue the public good (defeat fascism, provide economic security). As the memories of that era faded along with the social solidarity and confidence in collective action that it had fostered, another vernacular took over: “there is no such thing as society” (Thatcher) – you get what you pay for, government is just another special interest group.

Another opportunity for a long-needed fundamental shift in the economic vernacular is now unfolding. COVID-19, along with climate change, could be the equivalent of the Great Depression and WWII in forcing a sea change in economic thinking and policy.

The Coming battle for the Covid-19 Narrative (VoxEU)

I’m not a big fan of historical determinist literature like “The Fourth Turning” that are often touted by futurists. But a valid point that books like that make is that generations are shaped by the historical circumstances they have experienced. We’ve had a generation that has been shaped by terrorism, endless foreign wars in the Middle East, blatant government corruption, decreasing living standards, a financial panic that devastated the global economy, staggering levels of inequality, unaffordable housing and rampant homelessness, and now a global economic depression caused by a pandemic worsened by forty years of anti-government neoliberalism. They are angry and desperate. They’ve seen the world disintegrate in front of their eyes. They’ve endured extreme suffering. Their hopes and dreams have been dashed forever. There’s no way they are going to vote for the status quo when they gain the reins of power (assuming voting is allowed, however, see below).

Bad: the end of democratic elections. I live in Wisconsin. Perhaps you’ve heard about what happened here this past Tuesday. I’ve seen reports on it all over the world:

Wisconsin is the first state in three weeks to hold a primary with in-person voting since stay-at-home orders swept the nation amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Badger state imposed its own lockdown on 25 March. All other states have postponed their primary season elections or moved entirely to postal votes while the country remains in the throes of its health emergency.

Wisconsin has recorded more than 2,500 coronavirus cases and 92 deaths.

On the eve of the election, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court blocked Governor Tony Evers’s last-minute executive order to suspend in-person voting.”No Wisconsinite should ever have to choose between exercising their constitutional right to vote and being safe, secure, and healthy,” the governor said.

But the Republican-controlled legislature immediately took Mr Evers – a Democrat – to the state Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a 4-2 majority. That same day, the US Supreme Court intervened, barring an extension of postal voting. Pollsters expected a lower turnout on Tuesday to benefit the conservative judicial candidate – who was endorsed by the president – for the state’s highest court.

This past Tuesday I didn’t vote. I couldn’t vote. Normally, I would walk to the pavilion in the park next to my house to vote. When I go after work (because we don’t get time off to vote in the U.S.) I often to have to wait in line (queue), but it’s not too extreme. Even in busy election, it usually takes less than half an hour.

This past election, polling stations in the city of Milwaukee went from 180 to 5. Five, in a city of over 500,000 people. And people had to maintain six feet of distance while waiting in line. If everyone eligible to vote had done so, lines would have stretched to the Illinois border, and polls would still be open a week later.

Waiting in line for Wisconsin voting from gifs

And the usual workaround of mail-in or absentee voting didn’t work. Personally, I don’t even know how to do any of these things. I guess I’m supposed to request a ballot weeks ahead of time. I know I don’t get one automatically. But how was I to know that any of this was going to happen?

And from what I’ve been hearing, even the people who requested mail-in ballots didn’t get them in many cases. And attempts to extend the deadline for mail-in votes were quashed by the state supreme court and upheld by the national supreme court.

[T]he Badger State was turned into a civic punchline by its Republican legislature, which used the COVID crisis for a power grab. With the country in the grip of a deadly pandemic and the state already under a stay-at-home order, Wisconsin’s lawmakers refused to reschedule the primary, essentially smothering the turnout for the sole purpose of re-electing a single key judge to the state supreme court.

Not everyone thought this was prudent. Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, sought to convert the primary to a vote-by-mail format and extend balloting until May 19, which would keep people from breathing on each other at polling stations.

So the GOP legislature went to court. And after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a lower court opinion that had changed the date and extended the absentee ballot deadline — with Trump’s appointments casting the deciding votes, mandating that the show go on — the State of Wisconsin put the lives of their voters at risk and held the primary as scheduled.

You probably saw what happened next: Workers at hundreds of polling stations were no-shows, and lines became intolerable — and more dangerous — in the most urban venues. Milwaukee, which has 330,000 voters and the state’s largest minority population, opened just 5 of its 180 polling sites, with wait times averaging 2 hours. Green Bay had only 2 polling places, downsized from 31.

Welcome to Wisconsin, where democracy goes to die (

It’s disenfranchisement of voters on scale beyond that of even the most corrupt third-world kleptocracy. And it happened in America, the supposed “leader of the free world.” And it was officially sanctioned by the Supreme court. Imagine if this had happened in Russia or Venezuela.

Trump Adviser Caught on Tape Discussing ‘Aggressive’ Voter Suppression in 2020 (Rolling Stone)

This may very well be the beginning of the end of elections in the United States. There’s already massive disenfrahisement due to the disproportionate influence rural areas have over urban ones, and outdated institutions like the electoral college. And even though Democrats won the most votes for the Wisconsin state Senate, thanks to gerrymandering, the Republicans hold a supermajority despite receiving less votes overall.

Bad: Increasing government control over our movements. I see Edward Snowden is warning about governments using the pandemic to build “an architecture of oppression.” I think that’s a valid concern. The excuse that we need to monitor every last citizen 24 hours a day in order to ensure public health may lead to widespread monitoring of people’s movements to an unprecedented degree. Chinese-style monitoring of the citizenry may become the norm the world over. That should give us serious pause.

Can you imagine a world where you won’t even be allowed to leave your house without a special permission slip from government, or where you are forbidden from having a second person in the car with you when you go for a drive on penalty of a fine? Well that’s the reality right now in Spain. If you had told me that this would happen before the pandemic, I would have thought you were crazy or paranoid. Now it’s real. In Italy drones are taking people’s temperature and issuing fines.

Italy was the first Western democracy to enter a national lockdown in the face of a disease that has officially killed more than 18,000 in the Mediterranean country and nearly 100,000 worldwide. It is now one of several European nations using police drones to an extent that would have seemed unimaginable — and almost certainly unacceptable — just a month ago.

And now there’s talk of people having to carry around some sort of paper around validating that you were vaccinated or had already had Covid-19 in order to travel or to attend certain public events in the future. That’s a scary world to live in. It’s also ripe for abuse. What else might those papers say about who can travel and who can go outside, I wonder? Will we be greeted by that sinister phrase from the days of the Iron Curtian, “papers please” everywhere we go now? Will this be just an accepted part of everyday life around the world?

I’ve even heard talk of people’s home thermostats and cell phones monitoring their body temperature at all times and relaying that information to the government. Again, this will be portrayed as necessary, and it’s hard to argue that it isn’t necessary right now. But at what cost do we superempower governments to do things like this? And what is the cost if we don’t?

Good: increasing labor unrest among the lowest-paid tier. There’s a lot of unrest among workers in the country who are deemed to be “essential” and yet not given the necessary protective gear to do their jobs safely. That is, some of the lowest-paid workers in the country are risking their lives and the lives of others (many live with older adults, for example) for a pittance.

This is resulting in widespread outrage, as it should. Thankfully, some workers are fighting back.

Across the United States, we are seeing workers walk off the job in wildcat strikes in response to the employers’ failure either to shut down the workplace or to make it safe. The strikes are too few to call them a strike wave, but we should be aware that on their own initiative workers are taking what practically is the most powerful action they can: withdrawing their labour. The strikes are taking place in both the private and public sector, in both unionised and non-union workplaces large and small.

Wildcat strikes across the US as pandemic spreads (Red Flag)

It’s disorganized now, but after taking everything dished out by the rich and corporations for years, it looks like workers may finally be fighting back. Just being told to “get a better job” rings hollow when there are no jobs to be had. Minimum wages are not enough to risk the lives of your parents and elders.

It’s become clear that things like mandatory paid sick leave are necessary for the good of everyone, not just the workers themselves, and that private corporations won’t provide this stuff unless compelled to do so by the state. Libertarian notions of “individual contract negotiation” by workers are increasingly seen as the bullshit they are.

Bad: a surfeit of labor leading to lower wages and more inequality. When unemployment is sky-high, it exerts downward pressure on wages.

After the Black Death, wages and living standards went up due to the shortage of necessary labor. In this crisis, by contrast, widespread layoffs are reducing the need for labor, while the number of people removed from the labor force through mortality is insignificant. Already in the United States, sixteen million people have been “officially” removed from the labor force (likely an undercount), against a total of two million deaths in the absolute worst-case scenario–deaths concentrated among those already out of the labor force. The official death toll right now is “only” about 100,000 worldwide.

That will strengthen, not weaken the hand of employers. That’s not good.

And employers are already becoming more brutal and thuggish. The leaked Amazon memo demonstrated the degree to which the fortunes of plutocratic billionaires are predicated on suppressing worker wages and unions, meaning that, yes, it is a zero-sum game.

There is a very real concern that wages will actually fall across the board in the years to come, exacerbating already unprecedented levels of inequality. A lot of economic forecasting I’ve read is calling for depressed economic activity for an entire decade!

We’re approaching French Revolution levels of inequality across the entire planet. How much more can we take before sometime, somewhere, we have a Storm the Bastille moment???

Bad: elimination of small and local business. It’s no secret that small and local businesses will bear the brunt of the shutdowns and be a disproportionate number of the bankruptcies that result. And large national businesses like Amazon will be the major beneficiaries. Every forecast I’ve seen has shown this. This will make the economy even more concentrated and monopolistic. It will empower capitalist oligarchs even more. The only silver lining might be that the old “anyone can start their own business” justification for employer abuse will ring increasingly hollow. But it’s certainly not a good thing overall.

Bad: increasingly authoritarian governments worldwide. This trend started well before the outbreak, of course. But there is a very real fear that the outbreak will accelerate the worldwide embrace of authoritarian and quasi-fascist governments that has going on since perhaps 2012.

This is due to the human herd instinct to rally around leaders in a time of crisis, no matter how bad or incompetent those leaders might be. From that standpoint, the crisis is actually a boon to bad and incompetent leaders. We can see this with approval ratings for Trump, for example (although they’ve recently dipped slightly).

Hungary seems to be the canary in the coal mine. Viktor Orban has passed what amounts to an Enabling Act using the outbreak as a sort of Reichstag fire. But in the United States as well, all sorts of institutions are being sidelined and disabled using the pandemic as a convenient distraction, including oversight of the vast sums money being distributed to corporations and the financial sector. The rush to embrace authoritarian and fascist leaders during the Great Depression is often cited as an example of this trend–Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, etc.

Another tactic empowering authoritarians is using the virus to scapegoat already marginalized groups in order to gain popularity:

Bad: scapegoating and xenophobia. Already there is a coordinated and concentrated effect to deflect blame from government incompetence to other parties. Who those parties are varies depending on the enemies list of the particular authoritarian leader.

Already the Republican Party in the U.S. is seeking to blame the Chinese and stoke racist fears to rile up their base. An example is a recent anti-Democrat attack ad:

At one point the ad flashes to an image of former Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D), the Seattle-born Chinese American who also served as former President Obama’s ambassador to China.

Democrats said the image, which features Locke standing near Chinese flags, is indistinguishable from the other images of Chinese officials and was included either because Locke looks Chinese or in an effort to stoke suspicion around him because of his ethnicity.

Democrats say Trump campaign ad singles out Locke over race (The Hill)

Combine that with the pivot towards referring to Covid-19 as “the Chinese virus,” or “the Wuhan virus” among Republicans. It’s clearly a deliberate messaging effort.

And I’ve been seeing a sudden and dramatic uptick of extremely virulent anti-Chinese rhetoric online in places like Reddit, which is replete with various bots, trolls, and government influencers. It’s almost like we are being primed for something…

Good: support for UBI. Support for a universal basic income has gone up since the crisis began. I’ve seen reports that Spain is planning to roll out a permanent UBI. I’d be very surprised if Spain ends up being the first country to actually do this for real, but we’ll see. I know that Switzerland, the Netherlands and Finland have all flirted with the idea in the past but never had the guts to pull the trigger. Will they embrace it now?

But if a country does manage to successfully implement UBI somewhere, it proves that it is possible. Right now, the examples pointed to are all partial implementations that are nowhere near the scale and ambition of the most serious UBI proposals that I’ve seen. But I’ll be skeptical until I see it.

Officials are still sorting out many of the details. There’s no concrete start date yet, though Calviño has said that the Spanish government aims to roll out the new program “as soon as possible.” It’s also unclear what the monthly sum will be, and how it will be determined. Calviño hinted that some families might receive more or less “depending on their circumstances,” which sounds like some sort of means-testing. It’s a massive undertaking, to say the least, and many wrinkles remained to be ironed. But make no mistake: this is a huge fucking deal.

Spain’s UBI Is A Wake-Up Call For Americans (Current Affairs)

Good: public outrage over bailouts. After 2008, there was a widespread narrative that the very people who were most responsible for the financial crisis had been bailed out by the government, while people the average person was left to fend for himself or herself, often losing their home in the process. This was oversimplified, of course, but true in many ways in a broad brush sense.

Now I’ve seen much the same narrative surrounding the current series of bailouts. Trillions for companies and CEOs, with nothing but crumbs for the millions of workers suddenly laid off from their jobs through no fault of their own. An easy to fill out one-page form to get billions in government loans, with crashed web sites and busy phone lines for those trying to claim money from an unemployment system that they’ve already paid into.

And this torches-and-pitchforks outrage is going to have political consequences down the line. How many times are the people going to allow trillions of dollars of what they’ve been gaslit into believing is their “taxpayer money” to be shuffled to Wall Street and CEOs, while rents can’t be paid and food pantries are overwhelmed with demand? Is this a situation of “Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football” forever? People who question this absurd system are going to become increasingly popular in the months ahead:

“Why does anybody ‘deserve,’ using your word, to get wiped out from a crisis created like this?” replied Wapner.

“Just be clear, like, who are we talking about?” said Palihapitiya, himself a billionaire. “A hedge fund that serves a bunch of billionaire family offices? Who cares? Let ’em get wiped out. Who cares? They don’t get to summer in the Hamptons? Who cares!”

After Wapner suggested it would be “immoral” to let any company get wiped out in the economic crisis, Palihapitiya responded that “on Main Street today, people are getting wiped out.”

“And right now, rich CEOs are not, boards that had horrible governance are not, hedge funds are not. People are,” said Palihapitiya. “Six million people just this week alone basically saying, ‘Holy mackerel, I don’t know how I’m going to make my own expenses for the next few weeks, days, months. So it’s happening today to individual Americans. And what we’ve done is disproportionately prop up and protect poor performing CEOs, companies, and boards. And you have to wash these people out.”

Palihapitiya’s interview quickly went viral on social media…

Venture Capitalist Stuns CNBC By Saying We Should Let Hedge Funds Fail (Truthout)

Of course last time much of that anger ended up being captured by a well-funded and organized Right via the so-called “Tea party” movement. Will the Left drop the ball and let that happen again? The coronation of Joe “nothing will fundamentally change” Biden by the DNC does not bode well for this.

Good: low oil prices and less air pollution. I’ve written about this before, so no need to say much more. BUT

Bad: less support for renewable energy. With oil prices low, the incentive for renewables will be decreased. Government support for renewable energy will also be curtailed.

…in the new Covid-19 era, renewables are expected to waffle in the coming years since many projects also need government backing and assistance to be viable. Most Western democracies are currently burning red ink to fund their economies to get throught the Covid-19 crisis, spiking what were already hefty debt levels.

Consequently, many countries will simply be unable to afford to back renewable projects, even as both solar and wind were becoming more cost efficient, achieving economies of scale, and were increasingly being included in many countries’ power development plans.

The loss of financial support for renewables will cause them to cede their growing market share back to oil and gas producers. This will be good news for global oil majors and their price war ravaged balance sheets, and bad news for the environment and activist investor causes.

OPEC Deal Won’t Revive Ravaged Oil Prices (Asia Times)

Local pandemic chalk art.

2 thoughts on “Covid-19: The Good and The Bad

  1. UBI (in the UK at least) would first require a total rethink of how the housing market works. Right now, any UBI would just disappear into landlords’ pockets.

    I incline towards some sort of job guarantee, though that isn’t an instant fix. The Greens hint at this sort of thing: with reduced fuel / chemical use, certain tasks (e.g. agriculture) will become labor-intensive.

    Of course, right now in the UK the government is paying many of us 80% of our usual salary to stay at home and do nothing. I wonder if we’ll be asked to do something else for that 80%?

    What I find interesting is how quickly the money-printing started, after forty years of ‘no, governments never print money’. I think this particular response to recent events must have been a plan for a while.

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