By MATT STOLLER
At the end of February, President Donald Trump dismissed concerns about Covid-19. As he put it, the virus is “under control” in the US and the “whole situation will start working out.” But according to Politico, Trump is privately voicing worries that the impact of the virus will undermine his chances of reelection. His panicked actions of late — including preventing an American from being treated in Alabama, at the request of a fearful Sen. Richard Shelby —c onfirm that this virus is a political event of the first magnitude. While few in Washington have internalized it, the coronavirus is the biggest story in the world and is soon going to smash into our electoral politics in unpredictable ways.
As Jon Stokes notes, we will, in all likelihood, be locking down travel in some areas of the U.S. for several weeks, as they did in China. People may be advised against gathering in large groups. It’s not clear what any of this will mean for campaigning or primary voting, whether most of us will vote by mail or have our votes delayed.
Moreover, the coronavirus is going to introduce economic conditions with which few people in modern America are familiar: the prospect of shortages. After 25 years of offshoring and consolidation, we now rely on overseas production for just about everything. Now in the wake of the coronavirus, China has shut down much of its production; South Korea and Italy will shut down as well. Once the final imports from these countries have worked their way through the supply chains and hit our shores, it could be a while before we get more. This coronavirus will reveal, in other words, a crisis of production — and one that’s coming just in time for a presidential election.
We’ve been through something like this once before. My book “Goliath” describes the 1932 campaign for president, one that was carried out at the depths of the Great Depression and during an era when our productive capacity was shut down. Though the crisis at that time was caused by a banking collapse, not a pandemic, the political backdrop was analogous. Eighty-eight years ago, “old order” politicians, as they were known, proved unwilling — even in the face of crisis — to have the government apply its power toward the broader public benefit. Their recalcitrance prefigured, in certain ways, the reflexively libertarian thinking of today.
A toxic ideology invited disaster in 1932, as policymakers did little in response to the collapse of thousands of banks and businesses. At the depth of that depression, cotton hit its lowest price in 200 years and steel production fell to 15% of capacity. The situation became so desperate that in just one city, Toledo, Ohio, 60,000 of the 300,000 residents stood in bread lines every day. Children were competing with rats for food. And thousands were dying of dysentery. The politics too turned desperate, with one labor leader telling Congress that “if the Congress of the United States and this administration do not do something to meet this situation adequately, next winter it will not be a cry to save the hungry, but it will be a cry to save the government.”
And yet, the old order had no answers. Congress held hearings, but businessmen, academics, and bankers proffered only belt-tightening. Within the Republican establishment, President Herbert Hoover worked 18-hour days, exhorting confidence while refusing to take even basic steps such as having the government guarantee bank deposits. Instead, his administration’s army attacked hungry protesters in Washington, D.C., a move that prompted an angry Republican congressman, Fiorello La Guardia of New York, to remind the president: “Soup is cheaper than tear gas bombs.”
Meanwhile on the Democratic side, conservatives and progressives in the party were locked in a bitter battle for the nomination. Many Democrats agreed with Hoover. Maryland governor and presidential candidate Albert Ritchie, for instance, argued that we should rely “less on politics, less on laws, less on government.” Another candidate, Speaker of the House John Nance Garner, claimed the greatest threat was the “tendency toward socialism and communism” and pledged a massive cut in government spending, as well as a sales tax increase. Others turned to extreme racism and xenophobia. Only Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who went on to win a contested convention, campaigned on aggressive government involvement in the economy — or as he put it, a “workable program of reconstruction,” which later became the New Deal.
That era’s political desperation is alien to us for a few reasons. First off, we haven’t faced shortages of such magnitude for a very long time. More importantly, we have for decades lived under a political framework known as affluence, a term popularized by economist John Kenneth Galbraith in the 1950s. As an affluent society, America automatically produces a surfeit of jobs and wealth, and the problem is solely one of distributing the bounty.
Under the siren song of affluence, we began offshoring critical production capacity in the 1960s for geopolitical reasons. In 1971, economist Nicholas Kaldor noted that American financial policies were turning “a nation of creative producers into a community of rentiers increasingly living on others, seeking gratification in ever more useless consumption, with all the debilitating effects of the bread and circuses of imperial Rome.” Still, Bill Clinton and George Bush accelerated this trend throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
Affluence politics is not the politics of being wealthy, though, but rather the politics of not paying attention to what creates wealth in the first place. That is to say, it’s the politics of ignoring our ability to make and distribute the things people need. With the banking collapse in 2008, the election of Trump in 2016 and his mourning of empty factories, and with Bernie Sanders dominating the early primaries, that era may at last be passing. A pandemic disease outbreak would only hasten this progression and force us back into the politics of production.
With potential shortages of goods, and restrictions on people’s movement, both parties are heading into unknown territory. It is likely Democrats will use this opportunity to further their case for Medicare for All. Pandemic surveillance and medical bureaucracies focused on billing do not mix well — stories about astronomical out-of-pocket costs for Covid-19 testing are already circulating. Republicans are likely to take a more xenophobic approach, emphasizing restrictions on foreigners and infected Americans. When it comes to managing shortages, however, both parties are split, just as they were in 1932, between their Wall Street factions that assume affluence and the less mature populist factions that seek assertive public power. The Democratic Party primaries certainly echo those of the Great Depression, with candidates from Bernie Sanders to Amy Klobuchar trying to wrap themselves in FDR’s mantle.
Regardless, the end of affluence politics means focusing on whether medicine is on shelves, not bitter disputes over bloated and wasteful hospital and insurance billing departments. It means caring about bureaucratic competence in government, and accuracy in media, not because these are nice things to have but because they are necessary to avoid immense widespread suffering. It means understanding that pharmaceutical mergers that benefit shareholders while laying off scientists are destructive, not just because they are unfair, but because they make us less resilient to disease. (Shareholders, as it turns out, also have lungs.) Finally, it means recognizing that wealth, real wealth, is not defined by accounting games on Wall Street, but the ability to meet the needs of our own people.
We came to these realizations once before in 1932, and created a vibrant democratic state over the following few decades — one that rapidly expanded our life spans, defeated the Nazis, and helped create Silicon Valley. The convergence of the Covid-19 outbreak and the presidential election will force us to do it once again. We’ve lived in the world of unreality for far too long.
As Richmond Federal Reserve Bank president Tom Barkin recently put it, “Central banks can’t come up with vaccines.” It’s time to get ready for what that implies.
— Matt Stoller is director of research for the American Economic Liberties Project. Visit economicliberties.us.