Forcing People Back to Work During a Pandemic Is Both Stupid and Immoral

We need Americans to stay safe at home, not put themselves in harm’s way.

America’s economy is teetering on a precipice. The COVID pandemic, abetted by the Trump administration’s incompetent and immoral failure in responding to it, has pushed to the brink a nation already staggering from record generational and racial inequalities in housing, income and debt. The economy has contracted by almost a third. The unemployment rate has hit a Great Depression-level 15%, with little prospect of improvement. 32% of Americans missed their rent or mortgage payments in July, even as eviction protections just expired last week. A looming social crisis more severe than the Great Depression has only been staved off temporarily by unprecedented federal stimulus–help that is coming to an end while Senate Republicans and the Trump White House dither.

The continued exuberance of the stock market in these crisis conditions is no salve, either: it only makes the problem worse. Much populist anger on both sides of the aisle is driven by the realization that the federal government exists primarily in order to prop up the fortunes of the wealthy living off passive income. The Dow Jones is clearly not an indicator of any objective sense of economic health, but rather a Rich People’s Feelings Index disconnected from the lived experience of the vast majority of working Americans.

Americans not lucky enough to depend on passive wealth are in desperate need of money to pay for food, rent and necessities. Even those who have maintained salaries working from home are often at wit’s end trying to take care of children or older loved ones in social isolation while working full-time from home without the support of school, babysitting or elder care. People need help. Unfortunately, the same Trump White House that functionally committed genocide by letting poor people of color and likely Democratic voters die in blue states and counties for political reasons, is also trying to cut unemployment benefits for the desperate and force them into outside work.

First, if people getting $600 a week from government assistance are being “overpaid” compared to their jobs, that says much more about their wage than about the assistance.  $600 per week is not a living wage in any American city. Minimum wage workers are literally unable to pay rent anywhere. That itself is a crisis. If a job needs doing, then basic justice and social stability require the person doing it to be able afford at a minimum food, shelter and basic dignity.  If an economic system makes that impossible, then it’s time to rethink the grounding principles of that system. Economic systems exist to serve people, not the other way around. The outrage of it is even more acute given that billionaires saw their fortunes explode upwards to the tune of $434 billion more, even as so many of the workers we have deemed “essential” to the nation’s survival slip further into the abyss.

But second and perhaps more importantly, trying to incentivize people to work in a raging pandemic is both morally perverse and economically stupid. The problem isn’t a lack of jobs: it’s a lack of customers. No one in their right mind wants to go to malls or dining indoors in bars and restaurants right now. The few that are, are those who have bought into conservative infotainment propaganda declaring the virus a hoax or who believe that the pandemic is only a problem for those Other people who live where they don’t and don’t look like them. But even that crowd is beginning to understand the scope of the problem as the pandemic has shifted to Trump country. The leopards are eating everyone’s faces now. Not even most diehard conservatives want to die, do permanent damage to their heart and lungs, or get their parents killed for Trump. You can force a hairdresser back into the salon, but you can’t make people come in for haircuts.

The problem, in other words, isn’t supply or incentives: it’s a basic lack of demand. Acolytes of Milton Friedman economics don’t seem even capable of understanding this point. As Paul Krugman said yesterday in a series of tweets:

To make sense of the benefits disaster, you have to realize that Republicans don’t understand that lack of sufficient demand can cause mass unemployment. I don’t mean that they’ve rejected that view; they don’t even know where it comes from…In [conservative economist Larry Kudlow’s] view, higher output means lower inflation, because money is chasing more goods. Not a hint that he understood that output might be depressed because of insufficient spending, or even that he understood the concept. “I don’t get it,” he declared; that at least was true…

So the whole GOP lives in a mental universe in which the only reason people might be unemployed is because they don’t want to work, or maybe because employers pay too much taxes. The idea that cutting off income for millions will lead to more unemployment isn’t in their mind. And what they don’t know can very much hurt you, and almost everyone else.

As long as the virus is raging, you can’t open schools without exposing teachers, administrators, parents and functionally the entire community to infection, debilitating health risks and death. If schools cannot open, parents cannot effectively work. People won’t patronize restaurants or bars that are COVID death traps. Not even professional sports teams in non-contact sports with essentially unlimited resources can protect their teams from mass infection, even without stadium crowds.

There is no path to reopening the economy that does not begin with controlling the virus. As long as there is no consistent federal effort to lock down, test and contact trace, the virus will not be contained. Without containment, the government must use its money printing ability to pay people to stay home. If the inflation hawks insist there is no money to do so, perhaps they should acquire some for the federal coffers by conscripting some of the nearly $500 billion that billionaires have looted just in the last few months.

You cannot force an entire country’s citizens to sacrifice their lives on the altar of Steve Mnuchin’s investment returns. Any attempt to do so would inevitably trigger riots, even veering into violent revolt and low-scale civil conflict in a hyperpartisan powder keg. It would literally tear the country apart. And it wouldn’t work, anyway.

If Republican politicians want a sharp economic recovery to boost their election prospects, there is no alternative to doing what they should have done back in February and March: control the virus, develop a federal test and trace program, and pay people to stay home and take care of themselves, their kids and loved ones. We need to be reducing the pressure on and danger to all the essential workers in healthcare, food preparation, civil infrastructure and elsewhere, on whom our basic functioning as a society depends.

Forcing people back to work in a pandemic is economically stupid, civically destructive and morally outrageous.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.