Seventh in an ongoing series, Notes from a Plague-Time
It is distressing — but not all that surprising — to see fat cats fatten even in a plague-time. While the rest of humanity suffers, the fat cats, the financially robust, have the means — the lawyers, the lobbyists, the bankers, the access to power — to ensure that they will not only survive the plague, but thrive on it.
The latest spectacle of opportunistic capitalism occurs with the dispersal of the $2 trillion CARES Act — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — that Congress in a miracle of bipartisan unanimity passed March 25. The biggest (by far) relief package in American history is intended, as its title says, for the aid, relief, and economic security of individuals and businesses hurting in this novel pandemic.
But hurt can be variously interpreted. In a recent column titled “Crumbs for the Hungry, Windfalls for the Rich,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof describes the “Zillionaire Giveaway”: Tucked in the argle-bargle of the 880-page Act, on page 203, is a $135 billion allocation for a sector profoundly hurt by this plague: wealthy real estate developers. (Not normally cynical, I am being hyper-cynical here.) This sector of course includes President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner.
The beauty of the provision, per Americans for Tax Fairness (a source Kristof cites), is that it allows the entity to leverage business losses into tax savings and refunds; plus it applies to retroactive losses for periods predating the pandemic. Neat! And, no strings are attached: The entity does not have to keep its employees on the payroll or pay the money back, like other corporations getting bailouts or like small businesses getting Paycheck Protection payments. Double neat! This provision was inserted by Republican senator Charles Grassley, chair of the tax-writing committee.
“In other words,” as Kristof writes, “a single mom juggling two jobs gets a maximum $1,200 stimulus check — and then pays taxes so that a real estate mogul can receive $1.6 million. This is dog-eat-dog capitalism for struggling workers, and socialism for the rich.” Meanwhile Trump and Congressional Republicans seek to cut the food-stamp program further and totally gut the Affordable Care Act.
More socialism for the rich playing out in the news: AutoNation, a Fortune 500 company, received $95 million in bailout monies; the burger chain Shake Shack got $10 million; the restaurant chain Ruth’s Chris Steak House got $20 million. All applications were finessed by the biggest banks giving their biggest customers the concierge treatment.
Good news, though: Shamed by the ensuing public furor — mainly from bona fide small businesses —all these entities will return the bailout monies, and properly so, since they have access to other loan sources. So will Harvard, the Aspen Institute, and L.A. Lakers. (N.B., Harvard did not apply for a bailout but was granted it as an educational institution.) Still, the unappetizing spectacle of fat cats fattening stays. But why did it take a public furor? Where were the institutional checks, the oversight — the Inspectors General — that one would expect when rivers of money are involved? The problem is: Trump ignores or fires the I.G.s (also here and here). Trump signaled his intent when he signed the CARES Act into law: “I’ll be the oversight.”
But: Fat cats can’t do oversight! Former head of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Schaub, calls this assault on the Inspector General role and the rule of law “late-stage corruption.”
And the scale of corruption? Per Americans for Tax Fairness, this $135 billion tax cut is more than the CARES outlay for hospitals and other public health services ($100 billion), dwarfs that for food and housing aid ($42 billion), and almost matches that for the state governments bearing the brunt of the pandemic ($150 billion). Since the pandemic’s onset mid-March, America’s billionaires have seen their wealth grow by 15% — repeat: by 15%. (Allowances are made for truly beneficent fat cats like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. Gates has publicly expressed regret he did not do more to warn of a global pandemic.)
Again, fat-cat self-aggrandizement has been a factor throughout human history. But it is so distressing to see it manifest in this unprecedented struggle with a viral peril: At this posting, the death toll in the U.S. reached 100,000. With 40 million Americans losing their jobs in these last 10 weeks — that is 1 in 4 American workers, 26% of the labor force — we now brace for historic economic wreckage.
It will take a Victor Hugo of a novelist to portray the suffering souls in this wreckage, now and to come — wreckage that might have been avoided had we had as president a Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a fat cat who cared and saved the nation, rather than the uncaring and incompetent one we have.
But it is in this context of suffering and upheaval that the real news — the new news — of this pandemic is taking shape: that is, the citizens, despite whatever suffering of their own, who are helping their fellow citizens.
It is enough to make the Times’ conservative columnist David Brooks take heart, seeing “people showing up for each other,” choosing connectedness over division.
Coming early to light were the armies of citizens turning to their sewing machines and turning out surgical masks for our medical heroes working the COVID-19 front lines, after it became clear Trump would not organize a federal response to hospitals’ pleas for personal protective equipment. Newspapers published patterns and instructions on how to make a mask. What the victory garden symbolized for World War II, the surgical mask may come to symbolize for this pandemic.
This home-front industriousness of mask-making you could visualize as a montage that filmmaker Frank (“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”) Capra might insert here. You could also imagine Capra calling the characters in his montage “the little guys.”
In addition to the medical heroes, there is a new kind of “little guy” hero: those who, having survived COVID-19 themselves, turn around and donate “convalescent plasma” for those still fighting the deadly disease. One such hero is Diana Berrent, who founded Survivor Corps, a grassroots clearinghouse connecting COVID-19 survivors with organizations needing their blood. Since Berrent, a photographer and mother of two living on Long Island, founded Survivor Corps in late March on Facebook, the number of donors has grown to 42,000. On “PBS NewsHour,” she said she puts the experience of donating her plasma up along with getting married and having children (“meaning no disrespect to my family”): “There are very few opportunities in a lifetime to literally save another person’s life.”
Other acts of magnanimity abound. But since most such acts are treated by the media — and the culture in general — as “human interest” and thus as soft and not hard world-beating news, we do not learn about them in the normal news rundown.
Instead, we hear of these good deeds as anecdote. There are anecdotes galore of people volunteering to work at the food banks in their communities (and upping their own donation rate). There are anecdotes galore of citizens checking in on their elderly neighbors, doing their grocery shopping, picking up their meds. (It warms the heart to see the young people doing these deeds.) There are anecdotes galore about various other kindnesses, from people popping by with an emergency supply of toilet paper to stocking the neighborhood free lending library.
It takes nothing away from these good deeds if they remain unheralded. Because this is how a culture can change — from the grassroots and the heartbeat outward. And American culture does need to change. For too long, the person performing a good deed or extending a kind gesture was mocked, with a specially ugly sneer, as a “do-gooder” and “moralistic” — a peculiar condescension that only a once-great culture actively degrading itself could sanction. But in this time of peril and fear, when every last one of us in the world is under viral siege and thus vulnerable, now we see that a kind gesture or good deed carries the heft of heroic action, or at the least allays suffering. Let us remember this when the “All clear” sounds to this pandemic.
Let us also get over our fascination with fat cats — their type and their behavior. Enough with the cold theatrics of the TV series “Billions,” let us study the ways of the little guy. For at the heart of the fat cat — let’s wrap scare-quotes around “heart,” as it is only theoretical — lies cold and sociopathic solipsism, which, if given great power, lays waste, as we have seen these last four years. But at the heart of the little guy who looks out for the other little guys in the world, there is magnanimity, hope. And if the little guys came together in solidarity (while practicing social distancing, of course)….
This movie will not end well if the fat cats prevail. It’s up to the little guys and their humanist ethos to write a better script. In this plague-time we see Character — both malign and beneficent — writ large. Seeing what we are seeing, suffering what we are suffering, will we learn to write a better script?