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It’s time to reject the gods of commerce: America is a society — not an ‘economy’

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- Commentary
JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon (AFP)

The “economy” does not exist. Human beings do. What nearly everyone understands, except Republican officials and economists on television, is that there is no singular, shared experience within one large-scale economic system. Leilani Jordan, a 27-year-old woman with a developmental disability, who worked as a grocery clerk at a satellite store of Giant Food — a chain throughout three states — died from the coronavirus infection she contracted when earning her final paycheck. That check was for $20.64. She worked without a facial mask, and lived in an entirely different universe than Nick Bertram, Giant’s CEO, who collects a salary in the high six figures.

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This article first appeared in Salon.

The majority of Americans have less than $500 in savings. They simply do not experience the same “economy” as Rep. Trey Hollingsworth of Indiana, a Republican who described Americans dying as a result of “opening the economy” as the “lesser of two evils.” Hollingsworth is the 12th-richest member of Congress, with a net worth of $50.1 million, most of it coming from his father — the “silent partner” in Hollingsworth’s investment firm.

Americans as disparate as Trey Hollingsworth and Leilani Jordan, whose death the congressman would presumably regard as collateral damage, might not share an economy in any substantive sense, but they do share a society.

The ideological disease that cripples the United States is the belief that society does not exist beyond its commercial activity. President Calvin Coolidge famously remarked that “the business of America is business,” while Joel Millman, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, once wrote, “America is not a nation … America is a market.”

Millman was making a neutral, analytical observation, but a similar thesis has guided America’s long succession of disastrous policy decisions that treat the “economy” — meaning profits for corporations and their owners or shareholders — as sacred. An entire set of religious assumptions follow, most significantly that people like Jordan are martyrs for the God of profit. Their deaths are acceptable losses in the name of God and country, which mutate together into the bloodless idol of commerce.

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Human sacrifices at the altar of the idol have become almost commonplace. Millions of children of color in the inner cities develop asthma and suffer from other respiratory problems because they breathe heavily polluted air; 26,000 Americans die every year because they lack health insurance; public health experts have concluded that poverty — and the lack of robust social services — causes tens of thousands of deaths a year.

The fatalities caused by environmental injustice, denial of health care and outright deprivation never provoke widespread scrutiny because, unlike the daily stock market report or reports of marginal GDP growth rates, they are largely out of sight and out of mind.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the United States to confront its market-based theology. Americans now must consider whether their country is anything more than an engine of commerce, and whether human life has value separate from a financial calculus. For the first time in most of our lifetimes, the question of priorities is direct and implicates almost everyone.

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Public health experts, doctors, nurses and virologists have argued one position: Even though it is painful and costly, the United States must remain on lockdown, and its citizens must continue to practice social distancing. Otherwise, massive amounts of people will needlessly die. The good news is that, for the time being, the majority of Americans accept and support the adoption of public health protocols: 8 in 10, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll, favor “strict shelter in place guidelines.”

Republican politicians, Fox News hosts and a small but vociferous minority of the public propose a counterargument: The “cure is worse than the disease,” as President Trump once tweeted, and we must return to “normal” life, public health advice be damned, because the “economy” is too important. As one Republican commentator recently put it during a Chicago talk show on which I appeared: “A pandemic is much too serious a thing to leave to doctors.”

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“American exceptionalism” emerges again, in especially ironic form. Other than Sweden’s attempt to reach “herd immunity,” no other country in the world is “debating” the efficacy of public health recommendations. The right wing has seized on Sweden’s example without mentioning that Swedes live alone at higher rates than any other population, and that they take for granted comprehensive health care coverage and excellent medical infrastructure accessible to everyone, regardless of income or employment status. (Or that, in fact, Sweden has the 10th-worst per capita death toll from the coronavirus in the world.)

The right wing also ignores the risks that surpass even the COVID-19 death count. As Sarah Dowd, a surgical nurse and member of the New York State Nurses Association, recently wrote, “Reopening the economy while the virus is still freely circulating will cost lives.… Without the shutdown, our already overburdened hospital system would have collapsed under the pressure of skyrocketing admissions.”

There is no question that ending the shutdown prematurely will cause many people to die. One measures the federal government could take to mitigate loss of life is using the Defense Production Act to order the mass manufacturing of masks and other personal protection equipment. Trump has refused to do that — but did use his presidential powers to order meat packing plants to remain open. It is likely that many of the workers in those plants, without masks and other protective gear, will become more human sacrifices to the gods of commerce.

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American greed has culminated, in this pandemic, in confronting average people with a choice, using phrasing familiar to fans of 1950s crime movies: Your labor or your life.

A few of the more tactful ministers of human sacrifice attempt to couch their arguments in the language of compassion, pointing out that millions of people face financial devastation due to widespread unemployment and small business bankruptcy. Conspicuously absent from the conversation — save for the blasphemy from progressive heretics like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others — is an acknowledgement that death or poverty are not the only available choices in the current crisis. In Denmark, the government is covering 75 percent of laid-off workers’ salaries through the summer. Canada will provide unemployed workers with $2,000 a month for the next four months. The $1,200 that the U.S. is giving most adult citizens — complete with an unctuous letter from the psychopath-in-chief — will be gone, in most households, within a week or two.

As states like Georgia and Florida seek to return to business as usual, they not only risk a new wave of coronavirus infections, they will begin driving people off the unemployment rolls, treating workers concerned about a possible trip to the ICU as indolent bums who lack “personal responsibility.”

All this suffering is necessary, say Republican politicians and pundits, to save “the economy” — a term with no actionable meaning in the lives of people who would rather save their lives. Fearless defenders of the supposed rights of an unborn fetus continue to call themselves “pro-life,” even as they make cold calculations on which lives have value according to their own bizarre criteria of marketability. Popular right-wing “intellectual” Ben Shapiro recently said this to a typically blank-eyed Dave Rubin: “If grandma in a nursing home dies at 81, that’s tragic and terrible. Also, the life expectancy in the United States is 80.”

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After all the years of feigning outrage over the nonexistent “death panels” that Barack Obama had supposedly proposed to ration health care, the right wing is suddenly comfortable with sacrificing the elderly for the sake of economic prosperity — a phenomenon, by the way, that is disproportionately concentrated among the top few percent of income earners.

Cavalier disregard for the lives of their elders reveals that self-proclaimed “conservatives” are anything but that. No political party can call themselves the keepers of tradition if they are not willing to make sacrifices to save the lives of the elderly. Prioritizing life over money would require the American right to accept that their country is more than an economy, and that their religion of corporate capitalism is modern-day idolatry.

For a measurement of the absurd lengths these anarchists masquerading as conservatives will go to protect their claims, consider Dennis Prager — a popular talk show host who often leads his listeners through his studies of the Torah and the Bible. In defiance of all known traditions of Jewish and Christian ethics, Prager actually wrote, “The lockdown is the greatest mistake in the history of humanity.”

If we want a Bible teacher with real wisdom, let’s look to former President Jimmy Carter. Until the lockdown, the 95-year-old Carter was still teaching a Bible study at his small church in Plains, Georgia. As president, he delivered the memorable “Crisis of Confidence” address to a national audience on July 15, 1979. It is the only moment in modern American history when a president has truthfully confronted the public about the psychic and spiritual sources of their problems:

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In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

After condemning American excess and isolation, Carter explained that the country found itself at a fork in the road:

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves.

The United States overwhelmingly rejected Carter, of course, in the 1980 election. Voters instead chose Ronald Reagan, who provided political cover for the “greed is good” era of American life. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush, an obvious heir to Reagan, did not tell ordinary Americans they should volunteer for community service projects or consider other ways to forge solidarity with the weakest and most vulnerable. Instead, he told them what they could do to help the nation in its moment of existential crisis was “to go out shopping” and “keep the economy going.”

It might be too late for the United States to change direction and begin to find meaningful and substantive ways of acting on Carter’s prophetic advice. He offered Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy as examples of genuine leadership — a quality in short supply on the contemporary American scene. When a man as malevolent and ignorant as Donald Trump is somehow elected president, it is undeniable that millions of Americans equate freedom with the “right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others.”

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The coronavirus pandemic is possibly the last chance for America to save itself. With commerce temporarily all but shut down, the American people should ignore the agents of destruction who hope to complete our transformation from a nation to a market, while sending Leilani Jordan, along with tens of thousands of other poor or vulnerable or elderly people, to their graves.

The United States of America is more than an economy. It is a society. Historian and philosopher James P. Carse defines society as “all that a people does under the veil of necessity.” There is nothing more necessary than enabling people to live.


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