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There’s No Such Thing as Pandemic Austerity for Billionaires

As families face food insecurity and homelessness, lobbyists, massive corporations, and the American war machine are living large.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus from the very start was more or less willful neglect, and lately, according to White House officials, he’s banking on that strategy for reelection. The administration’s plan, current and former staffers recently told The Washington Post, is to force the country to reopen in the hopes that going back to offices and restaurants will mean that no one notices a pandemic is still raging. “They’re of the belief that people will get over it, or if we stop highlighting it, the base will move on and the public will learn to accept 50,000 to 100,000 new cases a day,” one staffer said.

That could be setting the stage for a kind of slow-motion apocalypse: If things continue in this vein, the public will have to accept not just more Covid deaths but also widespread hunger and homelessness. Recently, the Institute for Policy Studies estimated that food insecurity in the United States has doubled since the start of the pandemic, with Black and Latinx households hit hardest, and a spokesperson for the organization Feeding America called the surge in demand at food banks “unprecedented and unlike any challenge that we’ve faced in food bank history in the United States.” (Feeding America also estimates that 40 percent of people now visiting food banks are first-time recipients of food assistance.) Things are well on track to get even more dire: As federal and state-level eviction moratoriums expire over the coming months, as many as 23 million renters could face eviction by the end of the summer, according to a new analysis from the Aspen Institute. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans continue their crusade to end pandemic unemployment benefits at the end of this month. “We should help people when they’re down and out. And we have. But we have to be careful,” Alabama Senator Richard Shelby said. “Somebody’s going to have to pay this debt some day.”

Of course, it’s not much of a surprise at this point that this kind of budget hand-wringing all but vanishes when it comes to certain other expenditures. For example, there seems to be plenty of money in the coffers—over $740 billion, to be exact—for the Pentagon. A bill to authorize the annual defense budget, now idling while the Senate is in recess, so far has overwhelming bipartisan support, save for a last-ditch effort by a few Congress members, led by Bernie Sanders, to cut that amount by 10 percent. (Trump, perpetually drowning in a culture war of his own making, has threatened to veto the bill because it requires renaming Army bases currently named after Confederates, but war hawks have bravely vowed not to let that happen. “If it came to overriding a veto, we’d probably override the veto,” Iowa’s Chuck Grassley said this week. What a relief!)

In fact, the defense budget has increased by more than $100 billion annually since Trump took office, which is also, as it happens, the same time period during which the president and congressional Republicans rammed through massive tax cuts for the wealthy. This year’s proposed defense budget is now more than double what the country spends on all anti-poverty safety net programs combined (with the exception of Social Security), including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, housing assistance for low-income families, and disability benefits. It’s also about $50 billion more than the government spent on subsidizing health care in 2018. That kind of warped allocation, as Representative Barbara Lee recently noted, set the stage for the current crisis. “The prioritization of defense spending and the underinvestment in public health has led to 10 times more deaths from Covid-19 than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Lee said. “By over-prioritizing the Pentagon and military solutions, our country is drastically underprepared for any crisis that needs a non-military solution.”

The war machine isn’t the only thing that’s caught a windfall recently. This week, the watchdog Public Citizen found that a group of lobbyists with ties to Trump had collectively reaped more than $10 billion in federal aid during the pandemic. (The swamp, that is, appears to have been drained directly back into itself.) Likewise, federal documents on the Paycheck Protection Program released this week revealed that a number of billionaires and already flush companies and organizations had collected huge sums of money intended to keep small business afloat. Those included possible presidential candidate Kanye West’s fashion brand, Yeezy, worth approximately $3 billion, and the Church of Scientology, which is worth around $1.75 billion and famously pays no taxes as a religious institution. Then there’s the airline industry, which was all but assured a bailout from the very beginning and collected hundreds of millions of dollars in federal relief money on the promise that it wouldn’t lay off workers. As it turns out, several companies did, anyway, and this week, United Airlines announced plans to follow suit starting in October.

It’s not much of a surprise, then, that earlier this month, a crowd of protesters—some with actual pitchforks in hand—marched on a rich Hamptons enclave to demand higher taxes on New York’s billionaires. The protesters included struggling taxi drivers represented by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and citizens of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, among others. “It’s clear the real looters in New York are billionaires—and it’s time to make them pay their fair share so we can all thrive,” protester Rebecca Genia said in a statement. That demonstration came on the heels of Black Lives Matter protests in the affluent Sag Harbor; more than a few wealthy residents are now scrambling to hire private security at the prospect of more unrest.

There’s a certain point at which immense social and economic inequality is not only immoral but profoundly destabilizing. With no end to the pandemic in sight and the number of cases continuing to break records daily, even formerly comfortable members of the creative and professional classes have felt the pinch of policies that commit over $740 billion to the Pentagon while the president threatens to cut off federal funding to public schools if they refuse to open in the fall. “To be perfectly honest, it’s terrifying,” one middle school teacher in Florida told NPR on Thursday. “The story of public education is inadequate funding. And we are supposed to come back to an environment where we don’t know what’s happening, and we’re supposed to do it on limited funds.” In other words, we’re quickly approaching some kind of inflection point.