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Two Weeks in an Oligarchy

A 14-day tour through government malice, open stupidity, and capitalist excess

Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Two Sundays ago, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, devoted YMCA member and erstwhile presidential hopeful, reluctantly closed the city’s public schools after pleas from multiple city officials and public health experts and the threat of a teacher sick-out. Later that week, he waffled on whether to cancel the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and then on whether to close the city’s bars and restaurants. On the latter, he was swiftly upstaged by his longtime rival, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who issued an order to close bars and restaurants statewide sometime between using prison labor to make hand sanitizer and resurfacing plans to cut Medicaid.

In the two weeks or so since the World Health Organization designated the coronavirus a pandemic, the disorder that’s ensued has exposed the frailty of American civic life and the vast gulf between the people who make or influence policy and those who just have to live with it. The malfeasance of the ruling class has reached such a level of absurdity that it almost feels as if they’re trying to summon a mob (or at the very least, hand-deliver the remaining Democratic primaries to the socialist candidate, who’s fallen behind in the delegate race). This week a gaggle of bankers and other billionaires—including former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and former Wells Fargo CEO Dick Kovacevich—took up the call to send workers back into the pandemic in order to keep the economy (and presumably their investments) cranking along without further disruption. “We’ll gradually bring those people back and see what happens. Some of them will get sick, some may even die, I don’t know,” Kovacevich said.

Other billionaires, including Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos and hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, called for caution but somehow also managed to reap massive windfalls, even as the economy has collapsed. Ackman, who begged Donald Trump last week to put the country on an “extended spring break,” ostensibly for the good of the public, has since made $2.6 billion, essentially by betting that the spring break would occur. Jeff Bezos, who off-loaded a large chunk of Amazon stock in February along with several other Amazon and Wall Street executives, avoided an estimated loss of around $317 million while a group of Amazon warehouse workers continues to rely on crowdsourced donations to stay afloat.

Elected officials appear perfectly happy to follow suit. Last week, reports from ProPublica and elsewhere revealed that Senators Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler had made particularly timely and profitable sales of stocks right before the market crashed—Burr after warning an exclusive gathering of elite constituents about the scope of the coming pandemic and Loeffler after a private Senate briefing on the coronavirus. (Both have denied insider trading or other illegal activity; both also seemingly downplayed the severity of the virus in public while scrambling to protect their money in private.) This week, the party to which Burr and Loeffler belong tried desperately to scuttle a part of the stimulus bill that would have granted an extra $600 per week to laid-off workers because, a group of Republicans protested, total unemployment benefits after that additional relief would have been more than poverty-wage workers had earned on the job. “I want to make sure we’re helping people get back in the workforce,” said Florida Senator Rick Scott, whose family’s net worth in 2018 was $255 million.

Meanwhile, our electoral system, battered as it was before, is now effectively suspended in the ether. We’re in the middle of a primary that’s been described over and over as a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party, yet states must now postpone elections, or worse, push ahead with holding primaries in the face of a public health crisis, as Florida, Arizona, and Illinois did on March 17 to predictable confusion, disarray, and low turnout. There are few indications that such conditions will improve in time for the November general election, let alone the rest of the primaries, and the stimulus package approved by the Senate this week contained only $400 million for election protections, or a fifth of the $2 billion recommended by voting rights researchers. On Thursday, election officials in Florida announced that two people who had worked the polls on primary day had tested positive for Covid-19. “We just don’t know, did they contract it after or before? That’s between them and their physician,” went one department spokesman’s helpful explanation of the situation.

Finally, when asked about the record-breaking 3.3 million people who filed for unemployment this week, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin dismissed the number as “not relevant” because, he said, stimulus checks would be mailed out within three weeks. (No word on what the newly unemployed are supposed to do about any rent or bills that might be due before then.) That was a few days after Madonna called the coronavirus “the great equalizer” from a petal-infused bath—a sentiment that may become more meaningful if Tom Hanks is ever turned away from an urgent care facility for lacking health insurance. Currently, over 82,000 people in the United States have contracted the coronavirus, and hospitals are running short on masks that cost less than a dollar to make but have already been subject to at least one instance of price-gouging. “Coronavirus deaths hit 1,000 in U.S.,” headlines read on Thursday. But also: “U.S. stocks surge.”