Profits or People

Illustration by Susan Coyne.

A conversation with Mark Blyth about the economics of the coronavirus era. Listen at 2 pm today or anytime at our site.

It’s now a cliché (but nonetheless true) to say that something pretty recent these days can feel ancient, and here’s one of those simultaneously recent and long-ago things: people calling for human sacrifice for the sake of the economy. It was just the other day that Lt. Governor Dan Patrick of Texas spoke of exchanging senior citizens’ lives for the good of the economy in the face of the threat posed by COVID-19. But why were senior citizens the problem to Patrick? Couldn’t one problem, instead, be a public health system so fragile that a pandemic like COVID-19 can overwhelm us in ways, it now seems, that it did not overwhelm China, South Korea, and Taiwan?

The political scientist Mark Blyth of Brown University is our source for wisdom on all kinds of systemic issues, and as the $2 trillion coronavirus-relief stimulus loomed, Blyth became the obvious choice for this week’s interlocutor across social distance. And he didn’t disappoint.

Mark Blyth.

When asked why U.S. bailouts have been concerned with companies like Boeing more than a public health system, Blyth says, “Because rich people have shares in Boeing, nobody has shares in a local clinic.” He adds:

Let’s just cut to the chase. I mean, why are we bailing hotels? Look, in 2008, you could make an argument, which I’ve always been suspicious of, that the banks generate asystemic risk. You couldn’t allow any one of them to fail because they’re all interconnected. And therefore, they would all fail. There is absolutely no way you can make that argument about an airline. If United Airlines goes down, at the end of the day, they still have their hubs and their planes and their employees. The reason you have equity finance is so that the shares go to zero. You go into bankruptcy. Somebody else comes along, takes over the hubs, takes over the planes and flies off. That’s how capitalism is meant to work. The notion that you could have any kind of strategic importance of the hotel industry, come on. This is bailing out Trump. This is unbelievably obvious. And that’s the price you’re going to pay for the sensible part of this, which is basically: direct payments to households to stop them going into the street with their guns.

And as for the perspective of those like Lt. Governor Patrick, here’s what Blyth had to say:

What he really means is: I will personally not die for this. But old people who don’t have assets should probably die so we can all get back to work to stabilize asset values, so that my stock portfolio is stable. That’s why I really care about. The notion these people want to actually in any way guard the future of children when they won’t do a damn thing about climate change, You know, tends to put that into a rather skeptical position, to say the least.

Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick.

A picture emerges of leaders who care about something other than human life, whether that’s demonstrated in Patrick’s call for elderly sacrifice or the government’s support of Boeing over public health. As Blyth says on this week’s show:

The big failure of the United States healthcare system, apart from the fact that we don’t even produce our own bloody masks, is the fact that we can’t even get test kits out there.

The lack of preparation for the pandemic in the U.S. has been shocking indeed. Last week we heard from Italy, where the devastation of the virus was worse than anywhere else at the time, and we also heard from contrarian outliers who worried about possible American overreaction to the coronavirus threat. But the U.S. has, since a week ago, become the country with the most infections during this coronavirus pandemic. Now hospitals here are overburdened, volunteers have had to sew homemade masks for medical professionals, and the death toll rises daily. It didn’t have to be this way; in terms of the U.S. commitment to public health and basic well-being, under-preparation and undereaction have in fact been real problems.

Read: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

With things like climate change and a pandemic threatening humanity, elements of U.S. leadership have somehow decided to respond with xenophobia. The president who called climate change a “Chinese hoax” has also repeatedly declared a coronavirus “Chinese.” This is all wrong, morally and factually and intellectually; again, something anti-human has obviously made its way into responses to threats against humanity.

Edward Gibbon elaborates on an unhinged executive branch—and problems with selecting who should wield executive power from within a broken system—in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

In a large society, the election of a monarch can never devolve to the wisest, or to the most numerous, part of the people. The army is the only order of men sufficiently united to concur in the same sentiments, and powerful enough to impose them on the rest of their fellow-citizens: but the temper of soldiers, habituated at once to violence and to slavery, render them very unfit guardians of a legal, or even a civil constitution.

At this point of the Decline and Fall, Gibbon’s already been describing a long sequence of insecure tyrants, along with a violent Praetorian Guard; it’s a Roman government controlled by an out-of-control executive branch and similarly out-of-control military force. Things do not go well.

So, for your quarantine reading, if you’re looking for acrobatic prose that can nimbly guide you through a history of corrupted, deranged executive behavior, consider all six volumes of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Watch: My Brilliant Friend on HBO

While we’re all binging HBO and Netflix series from quarantine, this might be the time to watch HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. The second season just came out, and the show was well received from the start. From the New York Times:

Ferrante is credited as a writer on the series, and like her novels, the adaptation has a sharp sense of time and place without nostalgia or sentimentality. Costanzo’s attention to period detail helps; it can feel as if you’re watching a lost postwar Italian film about postwar Italy.

Listen: Songs of Comfort

Yo-yo Ma has been performing songs of comfort and posting them on social media. Here he is playing (maestro!) Ennio Morricone’s “The Legend of 1900”:

And as long as we’re cooped up listening to Ennio Morricone (but only if you’re willing to hear less-than-comforting music) re-visit one of Morricone’s masterpieces about being shut inside: his bumpy, ominously sly, and lushly orchestrated theme to Quentin Tarantino’s locked-room mystery, The Hateful Eight. This is L’Ultima Diligenza per Red Rock”:

This week’s ephemeral library

The evolution of a coronavirus. Laila Lalami on the unfulfilled promise of U.S. citizenship. Rachel Ossip on the virus coming to visit. NYT photo essay: The Great Empty. Siddartha Mukherjee on How Does the Coronavirus Behave Inside a Patient. The NYT tik tok (old fashioned reporting, not a 15 second video) on How a Failure to Test Blinded the US to Covid-19. Portrait of the Artist as a Single Mom with Corona

Send news on how you’re faring. Some friends sharing this meme: It took a pandemic but finally I _____ (cleaned behind the fridge, e.g.).

Take it easy and don’t forget to support all your favorite shows and podcasts.

The OS Quarantinos




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