Goldman Sachs co-head of investment banking Gregg Lemkau wants to disabuse you of any notion that working from his summer home in Hawaii is all it’s cracked up to be. Lemkau complained on Twitter this week that the sun doesn’t come up for several hours into his workday. He’s one of many people eschewing New York City for second, third, or fourth homes in places with lower infection rates, from the Hamptons to Hawaii. Contractors servicing ski and summer homes in Maine are scurrying to get houses ready that are usually empty this time of year and avoiding routine maintenance visits for fear of what germs their wealthy clientele might be harboring. “I’m not going into a unit for somebody that came here from New York City to expose myself to the coronavirus,” plumber John Maynard told the Lewiston Sun Journal. “That’s why they came here, to get away from it. I don’t know if they were exposed or not.” Tourist destinations are urging those who might want to ride out their quarantines in warmer and more scenic environs to stay home; they fear wealthy and potentially Covid-19-riddled visitors overrunning already taxed local hospitals.
It’s long been assumed that during a nuclear war, the ravages of climate change, or an asteroid strike, the wealthy would be able to ride out rising floods and soaring temperatures in private bunkers, exclusive floating cities, or colonies on Mars. As this pandemic is showing, though, the lifestyles of the rich and famous can’t exist without the small armies of workers who shop for and deliver to them, care for their children, walk their dogs, cook their food, teach their children, and treat their ailments. The coronavirus may not be the great equalizer between rich and poor, as Madonna opined from a bathtub this week. But it’s forcing the former to reckon with the fact that we’re all connected, whether we like it or not. Atlas, it turns out, can’t really shrug.
Whether in a pandemic or a climate crisis, capital can only escape labor for so long while fleeing to higher ground. The relationship between the two is close and fraught: This week, stocks rallied even after news that 3.3 million people had filed unemployment claims last week. News of the stimulus was partly responsible for that, but it’s also true that figures that translate to economic ruin and insecurity for millions can be great news for corporate America. Low unemployment before this most recent downturn created what’s known as a tight labor market, where companies are more likely to have to compete with one another to retain workers through higher wages and better working conditions. Three million unemployment claims—for Wall Street—means people will be willing to work for less.
Scandalized by the stimulus bill’s provision to give those out of work an extra $600 a month on top of regular unemployment payments, The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote this week that “workers will now make at least $15 an hour (assuming a 40-hour workweek) and as much as $35 an hour in places like Massachusetts—for not working.” Who, they wondered, would apply for a job in a Walmart or Amazon fulfillment center in such conditions? In a time of pandemic—when going to work can be a death sentence either for oneself, a loved one, or a total stranger—it was a striking statement of priorities. Normally, bosses prefer workers hungry, desperate, and obedient. Amid an outbreak, perhaps they don’t mind if they’re dead, so long as there are a few more at the ready to replace them?
In 2010, then–Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein defended lush executive bonuses handed out in the wake of a crash that left millions homeless and unemployed thanks to a crisis these executives had helped engineer. “The people of Goldman Sachs,” he claimed, “are among the most productive in the world,” as evidenced by their “net income generated per head” doing “God’s work.” As Covid-19 sets in, it’s been health care workers, grocery store shelf stockers, and delivery workers who have kept the world going—many of them earning barely more than minimum wage. It wouldn’t make much of a difference to most people if high-frequency speculative trading shut down for a few days. Blankfein, by contrast, might not last long without teams of workers attending to his every need, whether he’s in Bridgehampton or the Upper West Side. And there won’t be an interest rate low enough to drain his lungs if he catches the coronavirus and there aren’t health care workers around to help him.
The social services cuts that America’s free-market ideologues have pushed for decades are coming back to infect them. Chronically underfunded hospitals, companies competing over who can profit the most off novel testing and vaccines, millions uninsured, and people forced by financial necessity to go to work while infected are all part of the vision many companies and their representatives have spent billions lobbying to create. Those on its losing end are now fighting back, with rent strikes planned across the country and Instacart workers set to strike for hazard, sick pay, and protective equipment; sanitation workers in Pittsburgh already have. Italy’s Amazon warehouse workers were some of the hundreds of thousands there to partake in rolling strikes of shipbuilders, steelworkers, and more, demanding stronger health protections from the federal government.
As with their private jet–aided appeals to lower emissions, the 1 percent’s virtue signaling about social distancing during this outbreak obscures the fact that they’ve helped make the crisis worse. Even starved of their chefs and personal shoppers, the rich might be able to weather Covid-19 in their summer homes. Their worldview, on the other hand, may not be so lucky—and could face an angrier, more organized public on the other side.