An Epidemic of Hardship and Hunger

Why won’t Republicans help Americans losing their jobs?

Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on workers. The economy has plunged so quickly that official statistics can’t keep up, but the available data suggest that tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, with more job losses to come and full recovery probably years away.

But Republicans adamantly oppose extending enhanced unemployment benefits — such an extension, says Senator Lindsey Graham, will take place “over our dead bodies.” (Actually, over other people’s dead bodies.)

They apparently want to return to a situation in which most unemployed workers get no benefits at all, and even those collecting unemployment insurance get only a small fraction of their previous income.

Because most working-age Americans receive health insurance through their employers, job losses will cause a huge rise in the number of uninsured. The only mitigating factor is the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, which will allow many though by no means all of the newly uninsured to find alternative coverage.

But the Trump administration is still trying to have the Affordable Care Act ruled unconstitutional; “We want to terminate health care under Obamacare,” declared Donald Trump, even though the administration has never offered a serious alternative.

Bear in mind that ending Obamacare would end protection for Americans with pre-existing conditions — and that insurers would probably refuse to cover anyone who had Covid-19.

Finally, the devastation caused by the coronavirus has left many in the world’s wealthiest major nation unable to put sufficient food on the table. Families with children under 12 are especially hard hit: According to one recent survey, 41 percent of these families are already unable to afford enough to eat. Food banks are overwhelmed, with lines sometimes a mile long.

But Republicans are still trying to make food stamps harder to get, and fiercely oppose proposals to temporarily make food aid more generous.

By now everyone who follows the news has a sense of how badly the Trump administration and its allies botched and continue to botch the medical side of the Covid-19 pandemic. Weeks of denial and the failure to implement remotely adequate testing allowed the virus to spread almost unchecked.

Attempts to restart the economy even though the pandemic is far from controlled will lead to many more deaths, and will probably backfire even in purely economic terms as states are forced to lock down again.

But we’re only now starting to get a sense of the Republican Party’s cruelty toward the economic victims of the coronavirus. In the face of what amounts to a vast natural disaster, you might have expected conservatives to break, at least temporarily, with their traditional opposition to helping fellow citizens in need. But no; they’re as determined as ever to punish the poor and unlucky.

What’s remarkable about this determination is that the usual arguments against helping the needy, which were weak even in normal times, have become completely unsustainable in the face of the pandemic. Yet those arguments, zombielike, just keep shambling on.

For example, you still hear complaints that spending on food stamps and unemployment benefits increases the deficit. Now, Republicans never really cared about budget deficits; they demonstrated their hypocrisy by cheerfully passing a huge tax cut in 2017, and saying nothing as deficits surged. But it’s just absurd to complain about the cost of food stamps even as we offer corporations hundreds of billions in loans and loan guarantees.

But what’s even worse, if you ask me, is hearing Republicans complain that food stamps and unemployment benefits reduce the incentive to seek work. There was never serious evidence for this claim, but right now — at a time when workers can’t work, because doing their normal jobs would kill lots of people — I find it hard to understand how anyone can make this argument without gagging.

So what explains the G.O.P.’s extraordinary indifference to the plight of Americans impoverished by this national disaster?

One answer may be that much of America’s right has effectively decided that we should simply go back to business as usual and accept the resulting death toll. Those who want to take that route may view anything that reduces hardship, and therefore makes social distancing more tolerable, as an obstacle to their plans.

Also, conservatives may worry that if we help those in distress, even temporarily, many Americans might decide that a stronger social safety net is a good thing in general. If your political strategy depends on convincing people that government is always the problem, never the solution, you don’t want voters to see the government actually doing good, even in times of dire need.

Whatever the reasons, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Americans suffering from the economic consequences of Covid-19 will get far less help than they should. Having already condemned tens of thousands to unnecessary death, Trump and his allies are in the process of condemning tens of millions to unnecessary hardship.

Kicking and Screaming: WSJ’s Kim Strassel on the Media vs. Trump

As a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a commentator for Fox News, Kim Strassel is a card-carrying member of the mainstream media. But Strassel is appalled by the media’s treatment of Donald Trump, and not just from journalists from the left. She describes the “resistance” in detail in her recent book, Resistance (at All Costs): How Trump Haters Are Breaking America. She and Peter Robinson discuss the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and the way the media has covered it and disseminated the information to the public. They also discuss the upcoming presidential election (yes, we are still having one) and the politics of the $2 trillion stimulus bill, with more spending on the way, and the realities of restarting the economy in a post- or partial-post-COVID-19 world. Finally, they discuss the pluses and minuses of Donald Trump’s temperament, and the possibility of something good coming from this current crisis.

Covid-19 Brings Out All the Usual Zombies

Let me summarize the Trump administration/right-wing media view on the coronavirus:

  • It’s a hoax, or anyway
  • no big deal. Besides,
  • trying to do anything about it would destroy the economy. And
  • it’s China’s fault, which is why we should call it the “Chinese virus.”Oh, and epidemiologists who have been modeling the virus’s future spread have come under sustained attack, accused of
  • being part of a “deep state” plot against Donald Trump,
  • or maybe free markets.

Does all this give you a sense of déjà vu? It should. After all, it’s very similar to the Trump/right-wing line on climate change. Here’s what Trump tweeted back in 2012: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.” It’s all there: it’s a hoax, doing anything about it will destroy the economy, and let’s blame China.

And epidemiologists startled to find their best scientific efforts denounced as politically motivated fraud should have known what was coming. After all, exactly the same thing happened to climate scientists, who have faced constant harassment for decades.

So the right-wing response to Covid-19 has been almost identical to the right-wing response to climate change, albeit on a vastly accelerated time scale. But what lies behind this kind of denialism?

Well, I recently published a book about the prevalence in our politics of “zombie ideas” — ideas that have been proved wrong by overwhelming evidence and should be dead, but somehow keep shambling along, eating people’s brains. The most prevalent zombie in U.S. politics is the insistence that tax cuts for the rich produce economic miracles, indeed pay for themselves, but the most consequential zombie, the one that poses an existential threat, is climate change denial. And Covid-19 has brought out all the usual zombies.

But why, exactly, is the right treating a pandemic the same way it treats tax cuts and climate change?

The force that usually keeps zombie ideas shambling along is naked financial self-interest.

  • Paeans to the virtues of tax cuts are more or less directly paid for by billionaires who benefit from these cuts.
  • Climate denial is an industry supported almost entirely by fossil-fuel interests. As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

However, it’s less obvious who gains from minimizing the dangers of a pandemic. Among other things, the time scale is vastly compressed compared with climate change: the consequences of global warming will take many decades to play out, giving fossil-fuel interests plenty of time to take the money and run, but we’re already seeing catastrophic consequences of virus denial after just a few weeks.

True, there are may be some billionaires who imagine that denying the crisis will work to their financial advantage. Just before Trump made his terrifying call for reopening the nation by Easter, he had a conference call with a group of money managers, who may have told him that ending social distancing would be good for the market. That’s insane, but you should never underestimate the cupidity of these people. Remember, Blackstone’s Steve Schwarzman, one of the men on the call, once compared proposals to close a tax loophole to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

Also, billionaires have done very well by Trump’s tax cuts, and may fear that the economic damage from the coronavirus will bring about Trump’s defeat, and hence tax increases for people like them.

But I suspect that the disastrous response to Covid-19 has been shaped less by direct self-interest than by two indirect ways in which pandemic policy gets linked to the general prevalence of zombie ideas in right-wing thought.

First, when you have a political movement almost entirely built around assertions than any expert can tell you are false, you have to cultivate an attitude of disdain toward expertise, one that spills over into everything. Once you dismiss people who look at evidence on the effects of tax cuts and the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, you’re already primed to dismiss people who look at evidence on disease transmission.

This also helps explain the centrality of science-hating religious conservatives to modern conservatism, which has played an important role in Trump’s failure to respond.

Second, conservatives do hold one true belief: namely, that there is a kind of halo effect around successful government policies. If public intervention can be effective in one area, they fear — probably rightly — that voters might look more favorably on government intervention in other areas. In principle, public health measures to limit the spread of coronavirus needn’t have much implication for the future of social programs like Medicaid. In practice, the first tends to increase support for the second.

As a result, the right often opposes government interventions even when they clearly serve the public good and have nothing to do with redistributing income, simply because they don’t want voters to see government doing anything well.

The bottom line is that as with so many things Trump, the awfulness of the man in the White House isn’t the whole story behind terrible policy. Yes, he’s ignorant, incompetent, vindictive and utterly lacking in empathy. But his failures on pandemic policy owe as much to the nature of the movement he serves as they do to his personal inadequacies.

Judge’s Order Puts New CFTC Chairman in Unusual Position

Heath Tarbert and two other commissioners must answer questions about a provision in a settlement with Kraft Foods and Mondelez Global, judge says

A federal judge in Chicago has made an unusual demand of the new chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission: Testify in front of—and perhaps be cross-examined by—lawyers for two companies that were recently penalized by the regulator.

U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey this week ordered Chairman Heath Tarbert to testify about statements he and his agency made following a $16 million agreement with Kraft Foods Group Inc. and Mondelez Global LLC to settle wheat price-rigging allegations.

Heads of regulatory agencies aren’t typically called upon to testify in court. Lawyers who specialize in CFTC cases called the move by Judge Blakey surreal and unprecedented.

The order, which also requires two other CFTC commissioners to testify at the hearing in Chicago, is an early setback for Mr. Tarbert, who took the helm July 15. The hearing could delve into the agency’s sensitive internal deliberations, and Judge Blakey on Monday raised the possibility he could make a referral for criminal contempt of court. Mr. Tarbert didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The hearing, scheduled for Sept. 12, follows a motion by Kraft and Mondelez alleging that the statements by the CFTC, Mr. Tarbert and the two other commissioners violated an unconventional provision of the settlement. The provision prohibited parties to the settlement from making public comments about the deal, beyond referring to information in public records or the terms of a consent order approved by Judge Blakey.

On Aug. 15, a day after the settlement was finalized, the CFTC did just that: It issued a press release announcing the settlement with Kraft and Mondelez, which were one corporate entity when the agency announced its civil charges in 2015.

“America is the breadbasket of the world; wheat markets are its heart,” Mr. Tarbert said in the release. “Market manipulation inflicts real pain on farmers by denying them the fair value of their hard work and crops.”

The commission and its two Democratic commissioners, Rostin Behnam and Dan Berkovitz, also released separate statements touting the settlement and noting the restriction on public statements. The statement from Messrs. Behnam and Berkovitz took particular issue with the provision but said it didn’t restrict them from speaking individually about the settlement.

The press release and statements prompted Kraft and Mondelez to accuse the CFTC of violating the terms of the settlement. The companies have asked Judge Blakey to impose a monetary penalty on the agency.

CFTC lawyers argue that the statements didn’t violate the provision because they largely summarized information already in the public record. And individual commissioners can’t be prohibited from issuing their own opinions as a matter of law, they say. Nonetheless, the CFTC agreed Monday to temporarily remove the three statements from its website.

At a hearing Monday, Judge Blakey ordered Messrs. Tarbert, Behnam and Berkovitz to appear in court to answer questions about the statements. Lawyers for the CFTC, including its enforcement division director, and counsel for Kraft and Mondelez also are expected to testify.

Messrs. Behnam and Berkovitz didn’t respond to requests for comment left with their offices at the CFTC. A lawyer for Kraft and Mondelez also didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The legal protections enjoyed by the CFTC could make it difficult for the judge, or for Kraft and Mondelez lawyers, to question the commissioners closely about internal decision-making at the regulator.

But a decision by the court that the agency had violated the settlement would be a bad outcome for the agency and its chairman, said Matt Kluchenek, a lawyer specializing in CFTC cases at Mayer Brown LLP.

The CFTC is concerned about its reputation and maintaining confidentiality, Mr. Kluchenek said. “If the court disagrees” with the agency’s arguments, he said, “it’s embarrassing, frankly, for all concerned.”

Agreements negotiated by the CFTC also normally include a detailed summary of factual and legal findings explaining how a company violated a particular law. Those findings, which typically appear in a settlement agreement, provide guidance to the public about the agency’s interpretation of its laws.

The CFTC’s settlement with Kraft and Mondelez didn’t include such a summary, which was another anomaly of the agreement, said Elizabeth Davis, a former CFTC lawyer who now works at Murphy & McGonigle PC.

The civil complaint filed against Kraft and Mondelez was based in part on an anti-manipulation statute in the Dodd-Frank Act, a 2010 law designed to boost regulation of the financial sector after the 2008 economic crisis. Other companies had been looking to the case for guidance on the anti-manipulation statute, Ms. Davis said.

”The fact that the settlement happened without legal conclusions means those questions are unanswered,” she said.