Back in March, when Congress was debating pandemic relief, Senator Rick Scott of Florida spoke out against a Democratic plan to greatly expand federal unemployment insurance. “The moment we can go back to work, we cannot create an incentive for people to say ‘I don’t need to come back to work because I can do better some place else,’ ” Scott said at a news conference in support of an amendment that would strike the program from the bill. “These employers are going to need these workers to rebuild this economy, so we cannot pay people more money on unemployment than what they would get in their jobs.”
Most Republican senators voted to remove the unemployment expansion at its full size, but it survived. Billions of dollars of benefits have gone to tens of millions of Americans. The increase in aid was so great that, as The New York Times reported last month, the federal poverty rate declined even as the jobless rate reached incredible heights. And there’s also no evidence that additional benefits are keeping people who want to work from working
But while that is important, I’m less interested in the trajectory of the Cares Act than I am the nature of Scott’s opposition. The Florida senator (and former governor) wasn’t so much concerned with the ability of people to work as much as he was with the ability of employers to discipline them. Workers are kept on edge — and willing to accept whatever wage is on offer — by the threat of immiseration. This, for politicians who back both big business and existing social relations, is a feature and not a bug of our economic system, since insecurity and desperation keep power in the hands of capital and its allies. Even something as modest as expanded unemployment benefits is a threat to that arrangement, as they give workers the power to say no to work they do not want.
We should keep all of this in mind as we try to understand the Trump administration’s response to the Covid-19 economic crisis, whether it is the hostility to more stimulus, the indifference to the mounting eviction crisis, the opposition to state budget aid, the drive to reopen businesses, or the current push to reopen public schools, even as the virus rages nearly out of control in huge sections of the country.
Yes, you can understand the president’s approach as an attempt to goose the economy enough for him to win a second term (Democrats “don’t want to reopen because they think it will help them on Nov. 3,” Trump said on Thursday). But there’s a reason his business allies are committed to the same course of action. A forced reopening helps keep the market afloat; it is what you would do if you were trying to protect capital from any serious losses. And it is exactly what you would expect from an administration whose central aim, beyond immigration restrictionism, is the upward redistribution of wealth to heirs, owners and industry.
Let’s turn back to schools. Trump, again, wants them open. “In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS,” the president said on Twitter on Wednesday. “The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families.” He also threatened to “cut off funding if not open.” His education secretary, Betsy DeVos, said the same. “Kids have to continue learning and schools have to open up,” she told Fox News, announcing, like Trump, that she is “very seriously” considering withholding federal funding.
But it was Trump’s secretary of labor, Eugene Scalia, who made clear why the administration is so eager to open schools, even as the pandemic rages out of control. “One study has suggested that if we closed all our schools and day care for just a month — just, hypothetically, if we did that — the impact on U.S. productivity would be in the order of $50 billion,” he said at a Wednesday press briefing for the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Many parents, for good reason, want to send their children back to school. Others aren’t so sure. The situation is dire. But that has everything to do with the priorities of an administration that shows no real interest in fighting the virus and has done everything it can to prevent additional lockdowns.
And so schools have to open because parents have to work, and parents have to work because the president opposes any additional aid to American families, who might stay home and avoid the virus if they had the choice. This would raise the unemployment rate — possibly jeopardizing Mr. Trump’s chances for re-election — and redistribute power from employers to workers, while also strengthening the case for a robust and generous social safety net.
Millions of Americans are in the impossible situation of juggling work and child care while protecting their families from a deadly virus, and it’s because the White House and its allies would rather try to save the stock market and pursue narrow ideological goals than try to preserve the fabric of this society.
“The ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and capacity to dictate who may live and who must die,” the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe wrote in a 2003 essay called “Necropolitics.” “Hence, to kill or allow to live constitutes the limits of sovereignty, its fundamental attributes.” I read this line not long before the pandemic reached American shores, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
President Trump has lately refused almost any action to control the virus and largely abdicated his responsibility for helping Americans weather the economic crisis. But he has pushed meatpackers to go back into dangerous plants, urged businesses to reopen despite danger to the public and hindered the production and distribution of protective gear and other critical materials.
Trump has power. But in the face of Covid-19, he doesn’t use it to facilitate life as much as he does to dictate exposure to death.