The big news, again today, is the spread of the novel coronavirus. There are all sorts of articles out there about how bad things are going to get and how long this will last. I’m not going to repeat the discussion because what’s the point? We know it’s bad. The only thing I can add—and it’s hardly original—is to take this very seriously indeed, and listen to actual epidemiologists and doctors and do what they say.
While I can’t talk about the epidemiological aspect of the pandemic, I can speak to the economic fallout, and politics in its wake.
The economy is contracting at a crippling rate as the country shuts down. Consumer spending drives about 70% of the American economy, and with consumers at home, spending is drying up. As industries slow down, and more and more of those consumers lose their jobs, it will slow the economy even further, in ways it’s hard even to imagine. Fewer cars on the road mean less toll money collected, for example, and less money for the local and state governments that depend on those collections. Here at home, the shutdown of restaurants and cruise lines has torn the bottom out of the market for lobsters; many of the lobstermen are pulling their gear. Economists warn that unemployment could go as high as 20% in this crisis.
These concerns have lit a fire under the Senate. Today we learned that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, formerly an investment banker, urged reluctant GOP senators to support the coronavirus relief bill passed by the House of Representatives. The situation is too urgent for them to dither, Mnuchin emphasized. After suggesting earlier that he was in no great rush, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) apparently got the message. When asked what he would do when he gets the House bill, McConnell told a CNN reporter: “Pass it.”
Florida Senator Marco Rubio noted that the pandemic might soon mean that Congress couldn’t keep reconvening week after week, and that members had better act while they could, in a big enough way that it would make a difference. “I think the assumption is going to be, we’re going to do something [and] it’s going to be big because we can’t assume we can keep coming back here.”
Senate Republicans and White House officials are also talking about another, larger stimulus package of more than $850 billion dollars of relief for airlines, hotels, casinos, and smaller businesses, as well as direct payments to individuals. Republicans want to make sure individuals get more money than the industries—especially the airlines—to undercut concerns that the relief is just a corporate giveaway. They are not holding discussions with Democrats, but are coming up with their own bill without Democratic input. Democrats are preparing their own, apparently smaller, package aimed at hospitals, unemployment insurance, small businesses, child care, and food assistance for seniors.
Altogether, these measures would add up to more than $1 trillion. The proposed package would be bigger than that passed in early 2009 under newly-elected President Barack Obama to address the crash of 2008. That one was slightly under $800 billion.
The other big story today is that Trump and the supporters who for weeks downplayed the seriousness of the novel coronavirus are trying to rewrite that history to say that they always knew it was bad. “I’ve always known this is a real—this is a pandemic,” Trump said today. “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”
In fact, until the last week or so, Trump insisted that concerns about the coronavirus were overblown. As experts began warning about what was coming as early as January, he continued to insist “We have it very well under control.” He began to pay attention in late February, when the stock market began to slide, at which point he blamed CNN and MSNBC for “panicking markets.” In early March, he insisted that Covid-19 was milder than the flu. It was not until March 11 that he gave his Oval Office address, full of misstatements, that he conveyed to the public that the coronavirus was serious indeed.
Fox News Channel personalities echoed the president’s disinformation and urged their followers to dismiss experts’ frantic warnings. Now they have done a 180. The Washington Post put together a devastating video of the contrasting messages. Just last week, radio host Rush Limbaugh called the coronavirus a scam and told his audience: “We’re shutting down our country because of the cold virus, which is what coronaviruses are.”
The rewriting of history by Trump and his supporters to say the administration was always on top of the situation matters for two reasons. First of all, it overwrites the reality that the administration ignored reality in favor of their rosy hopes. People have died, and will die, because we did not—and are not—sufficiently testing for, and prepared for, the virus. We need to remember the reality of this so that we address such shortcomings and make sure they cannot happen again.
The rewriting of history also matters because reality matters in governance. Administrations based on ideology rather than reality cannot accurately address the country’s needs. The ideology of those now in control of the Republican Party is based on a distrust of any federal government at all, preferring to slash federal action and turn any required governance over to the states. These Republicans reject the idea that the federal government has any role to play in business regulation, social welfare policy, or infrastructure development. They insist they are protecting the individualism that makes America great.
It is revealing that, faced with this crisis, Republicans are advocating an even bigger stimulus package than Obama got. The reality is that we need government spending to lift us over economic crisis, and this situation is forcing Republicans who hate government in theory to say “Spend, and don’t worry about the money.”
It turns out we need a federal government after all, and Americans today are seeing that reality play out powerfully.
In the primary voting for the Democratic presidential nomination today in Arizona, Florida, and Illinois, former Vice President Joe Biden, who was part of the Obama team that pulled America out of the 2008 crisis, won handily over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Trump’s coronavirus statements: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/15/opinion/trump-coronavirus.html
Post video of FNC change of tune:
Limbaugh et al: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/as-much-of-america-takes-drastic-action-some-republicans-remain-skeptical-of-the-severity-of-the-coronavirus-pandemic/2020/03/17/f8b199c8-6786-11ea-b313-df458622c2cc_story.html