COVID moved the wealth of the many into the hands of the few, distorting the economy at our peril. Can we stop the revolution of the inequality wheel?
There’s something happening here, and what it is, should be all too clear. The COVID-19 pandemic arrived to immediate politicization, limited relief for people who suddenly lost their livelihoods, and a premature economic reopening that fueled the spread of infection. All of which fed into the powder keg of social unrest sparked by yet another instance of police brutality against people who were promised freedom in the 1860s, and the 1960s, and who, at this rate, will still be fighting for their lives in the 2060s. However, neoliberalism is antifragile, which means that our current market-based morality-play economic system only becomes stronger (at least for some) during desperate times. Come, let’s watch the inequality wheel make another revolution and see where we go from here.
Times are tough all over the country. With their parents sent home from corona-closed workplaces, kids face food insecurity in alarming numbers. Extra unemployment subsidies meant to carry workers through a short quarantine while propping up the economy have lapsed, thanks largely to the efforts of Republicans who claim that life-supporting funds disincentivize people from working at jobs that don’t exist anymore, and which will take longer to come back when people don’t have money to circulate back into the economy. The inequality wheel rolls along.
In Michigan, the rhetoric is as brutal as it is blunt. Michigan’s Senate Majority Leader, Republican Mike Shirkey, spared no empathy for the people in his state who have been economically sidelined by circumstances beyond their control. “Some states have crippled their economies, like Michigan, based on the actions taken, and we just need to suffer through it for a cycle or two until the economy gets back on track,” he said in a recent interview. It’s worth noting that Michigan “crippled” its economy in order to save lives, and was relatively successful at doing so, despite being an early coronavirus hot spot and subject to multiple protests by conservatives who demanded early reopening, mortality be damned. The inequality wheel gains speed.
Times aren’t this hard for everyone, though. Even as legislators like Mike Shirkey consider shorting school budgets to make up for funds spent keeping Michiganders safe, Michigan’s billionaires saw their net worth increase by $2.8 billion. According to Forbes, five of Michigan’s eight billionaires raked in a combined $33.4 billion during the first three months of the pandemic. The three richest people in the United States (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg) gained a combined $87 billion around the same time. That’s how the inequality wheel turns, widening the gap.
For those who claim that the market is the most efficient arbiter of economic justice, taking from those who fail and delivering to those whom the Invisible Hand (and maybe even God Himself) deem worthy, the inequality wheel is a feature, not a bug, of our morality-infused economy. As the recent working class visit food banks to feed their kids, the very richest pocket enough money to buy the distressed assets of closed businesses and maybe even their own Senators. After the pandemic, those who were already near the abyss will have slipped into it, while their assets as well as political and economic power accrue to those who already have more than enough for several lifetimes. Did they deserve it? Do you?
If we don’t share these morals, if our trust in the market’s perfection was not meant to become a suicide pact, what can we do to roll back the inequality wheel? The “human capital stock” whose sweat makes possible the wealth of the billionaire class have a modest proposal. As we have fed them our wealth during the pandemic, perhaps they could spare a few crumbs for the upkeep of their wealth’s creators? Surely a token of noblesse oblige, a one-time tax on their pandemic windfall profits, would grease the economy enough to prevent, say, a revolution …of the inequality wheel.
Of course, if you’re of the opinion that such taxation is heresy, you are certainly free to support the consolidation of our national wealth into fewer and fewer hands. Might I suggest voluntarily going hungry in order to contribute a few more dollars to the campaign coffers of Arizona Senator Martha McSally, so she can help her fellow Republicans protect the interests of the very rich?
Sarcasm aside, a vibrant economy requires the participation of the many. When one small subset of Americans collects enough of our national resources that they imperil our future, something has to give. It can give peacefully, or it can struggle. We can sacrifice a generation of children to poor nutrition and reduced opportunity, we can hope that the same government that the rich control will control the rich, or we can remember where our ancestors left their pitchforks and fight for the deep, systemic change needed so that the economy can serve all of us.
Related: Reopen and Rise!