The dangerous economy-first argument sweeping the right
President Trump is apparently eager to restart the American economy — coronavirus or no coronavirus.
In tweets and at a press conference on Monday, Trump repeatedly toyed with calling off the social distancing recommendations that have kept American businesses shuttered and consumers at home, once the current period ends on March 30. The president, his advisors, sympathetic Republicans, and his supporters in the media are reportedly becoming convinced that risking the virus' spread is preferable to keeping the economy on lock down. "The cure can't be worse than the disease," Larry Kudlow, the president's top economic advisor, said on Fox News. "We're going to have to make some difficult tradeoffs."
The sudden turn towards "economy-first" thinking by the White House and its allies has several layers worth pulling back. But let's begin with the obvious point: Ending social distancing within a week would be an extraordinarily dangerous move.
Health officials are virtually unanimous that we're nowhere close to containing the disease, and it will probably take several more weeks, or even months, of society-wide shutdowns of activity to get COVID-19 cases under control. The novel coronavirus is rapidly headed past 10,000 new infections in America per day. And that's just the infections we know about, since testing capabilities remain grossly inadequate.
It's worth noting that most of the shelter-in-place and social distancing orders have come from mayors and governors. Trump has little power to actually change these decisions. He can maybe convince ideologically sympathetic states to go along with him, and possibly encourage loyal voters to defy the rules regardless. But of course those rules will remain in place in many states and cities, and most likely the vast majority of people will stay isolated out of justifiable fear. So we'll still get most of the economic damage from a national stop to commerce, plus all the economic costs of far more infections, far more deaths, and most likely the breakdown of our health-care system. Trump and his people say the cure shouldn't be worse than the disease, but this solution would get us the worst of both.
It may be that they simply aren't taking warnings from health officials seriously, and don't realize the genuine scale of the threat to people's lives — and how those are also by definition threats to jobs, incomes, and growth. The White House might just be panicking here.
By all accounts, Trump and his officials are watching the stock market collapse and listening to projections of genuinely unprecedented unemployment and GDP drops with mounting dread. Politically speaking, they should be terrified: In 2008, when Democrats not only took the White House, but decimated the GOP in the House and Senate, voters were reeling from both the economic crash and the endless bloody quagmire of the Iraq invasion. Trump and the GOP most likely face an even bigger one-two punch of a massive recession and a larger social and political crisis.
This brings us to what might be the craziest part of their reaction.
The best way to contain the economic damage here — and thus maximize Trump's chances for re-election — would be to throw all possible financial help at regular voters while organizing industry onto a wartime footing to defeat the coronavirus as quickly as possible. On both the raw economic merits, and as a matter of cold-blooded political self-interest, that's what the president and Republicans should be doing. And yet they are doing the opposite.
The White House has been sitting on the Defense Production Act for weeks without actually utilizing it. The law would allow Trump to supersede existing private contracts and re-assign (and pay) private companies to produce the supplies, devices, and goods needed to fight the virus. Instead, the White House has been trying to encourage purely voluntary efforts from big business, which is proving both chaotic and inadequate.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have eagerly promised hundreds of billions of dollars in aid to major American companies, but getting the GOP to offer help to anyone other than the centers of U.S. corporate power has been like pulling teeth: Democrats have had to cajole, fight, and threaten to get adequate funding to our unemployment insurance system, to provide any sort of national paid sick leave policy, to send funds to the state and local budgets bearing the brunt of the crisis, and to design a cash aid system that would actually include the Americans who need the help the most. As of this writing, the latest Senate bill remained far from adequate.
Why are Republicans so reluctant to spend on these things?
It's less about money and more about power. Dealing with this crisis properly — shutting down social and economic activity long enough to contain the coronavirus, and enacting all the policies necessary to keep the economy in healthy stasis, so that we really do get a quick and booming recovery — would almost inevitably push the U.S. economy in a more democratic direction. More or less by definition, it would distribute resources and incomes in a more equitable manner, and level power relations between workers and owners to at least some degree. It's hard to imagine that the U.S. economy wouldn't be altered permanently by those changes even after the coronavirus has passed.
Meanwhile, the president's reluctance to use the Defense Production Act is apparently at least partially due to lobbying from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "We're a country not based on nationalizing our business," Trump said at the press conference. In other words: running the economy via democracy is not how we do it here.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that keeping things that way is the unifying thread running through all the White House and the Republicans' choices. That's why they'd prefer we go back to business as usual now — even if it means untold deaths in the process.