On Monday night, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick told Tucker Carlson that he and other older people would be willing to risk their lives to help the country “get back to work.”
“Those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country,” he said. “No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that America loves for its children and grandchildren?’ And if that is the exchange, I’m all in.”
This had been a theme throughout the day, with President Trump telling reporters that “we can’t have the cure be worse than the problem.” Larry Kudlow, his top economic advisor, agreed, telling CNBC: “At some point, you have to ask yourself if the shutdown is doing more harm than good.” He reiterated the point on Fox News: “We’re gonna have to make some difficult trade-offs.”
In other words, for the sake of The Economy, restrictions put in place to limit the spread of COVID–19 will need to be eased sooner rather than later. Vulnerable, non-productive workers—that is to say, the sick and the old—are on their own. “We can socially distance ourselves and go to work, and you have to work a little bit harder,” Trump said on Tuesday. (Also: “You don’t have to shake hands anymore, with people. That might be something good coming out of this.”)
All manner of bourgeois propagandists are now pushing this line, including former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who warned that “crushing the economy, jobs and morale is also a health issue—and beyond.” (???) After a perfunctory gesture to healthcare workers and the ill, Thomas Friedman advised readers that “We also need to be asking ourselves—just as urgently—can we more surgically minimize the threat of this virus to those most vulnerable while we maximize the chances for as many Americans as possible to safely go back to work as soon as possible.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial board was well ahead of the curve, issuing its opinion last Thursday. “The costs of this national shutdown are growing by the hour,” the board warned. “Think about the entrepreneur who has invested his life in his Memphis ribs joint only to see his customers vanish in a week.”
It really didn’t take long for the ruling class and its spokespeople to start raising these kinds of questions. “Shutting down comes at a price,” economic historian Adam Tooze wrote on Friday. “No one wants to do it. But then it turns out, in the face of the terrifying predictions of sickness and death, there really is no alternative.” A nice thought! But perhaps too optimistic, as even Tooze allowed: “It is an open question how long we will be able to persist, how long we will be able to freeze the economy to save lives.” It only took a few days for the answer to that open question to reveal itself: two weeks, basically. Certainly no longer than a month. Let’s get this over with by Easter, Trump says.
The trouble is that there are forces at work here bigger than Trump, or the Journal editorial board, or Lloyd Blankfein. Some economists suggest that we are likely already in a global recession. Dire predictions about unprecedented unemployment claims that circulated last week now appear to have been too low, while the president of the St. Louis branch of the Federal Reserve is predicting a 30 percent unemployment rate. It is easy to imagine a summertime retreat lulling the Trump administration into a false sense of security, only for the virus to return in the fall.
Demands that people back to work aren’t just about making sure that the United States is “open for business” or keeping the markets from cratering further. It’s about legitimacy, it’s about keeping things moving, it’s about preventing people from stopping to consider that an economic system that cannot provide for everyone’s basic needs—safe and stable housing, their health, a nutritious diet, a good education—in the best of circumstances, much less in a time of crisis, and in fact requires a massive blood sacrifice to sustain itself may not be the most rational (to say nothing of just or moral) system. As Sarah Jones put it last week:
The true danger of America’s hyperindividualist tendency has been clear to people with chronic illness for a long time. To have any sort of ailment in this country is to know that your well-being depends on the whims of your peers. You pin your hopes on their voting preferences, their charity, in that aforementioned capacity for shame. You are usually disappointed, and while it is tempting and even occasionally useful to blame individual acts of stupidity for making life more complicated, shame has its limitations. Your true enemy isn’t the 24-year-old at happy hour. You are up against a passive brand of eugenics, embedded in the structure of our health-care system and reinforced by consumer politics that lionize the individual at the expense of the group. The state doesn’t euthanize you. Doctors don’t forcibly sterilize you — at least, not anymore. Instead, you learn that you are an expense to insure and to treat. Your needs drain the resources of the public: You are taking more out than you are putting in. The message might not be audible to those who don’t have to listen for it, but it’s there. It would be easier, this subtext whispers, if the sick and the elderly did not exist.
So much for subtext.