Free market fundamentalism and COVID-19

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Wikimedia Commons/Laconia

The world turns upside down a couple times a day. As I write this, President Trump has caught COVID-19 and is benefiting from “socialized medicine” in an excellent military hospital. 

Meanwhile, Pope Francis has issued an encyclical saying that the pandemic has definitively shown that we need drastic changes in the global economic system. He denounces free market fundamentalism and the “trickle down” notion that policies benefiting the wealthy will benefit the rest of us. The poorest and most fragile have disproportionately suffered during the pandemic.

The pope declares, “Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.” 

In a chapter on politics, the pope says, “Lack of concern for the vulnerable can hide behind a populism that exploits them demagogically for its own purposes, or a liberalism that serves the economic interests of the powerful.” 

He is obviously referring to right-wing populists like Trump. He is also criticizing Reagan-Thatcher “neo-liberal” economic policies, which eliminate the concept of the “public good,” cut public expenditure for social services, bust labor unions and reduce government regulation of business.

Donald Trump is a right-wing populist who gives us “neo-liberalism” on steroids. For example, his EPA is promoting pollution, his education department is attacking public schools, his interior department is selling off public lands and his labor department is trying to destroy labor unions.

The COVID-19 crisis is a big challenge to this approach. We need a big government response to a rapidly proliferating global virus that doesn’t respect boundaries of any kind. Trump responded to the virus just like he has responded to climate change. 

Both contagious disease and environmental destruction are examples of what economists call negative externalities. They are problems that markets can’t handle on their own. A person who sneezes without a mask and a CEO of a company polluting the air don’t bear the full consequences of their actions.

Trump has done real damage. Recently, researchers at Cornell University analyzed more than 38 million English-language articles on the pandemic in traditional and online media around the world. Sarah Evanega, the study’s lead author, said, “The biggest surprise was that the president of the United States was the single largest driver of misinformation around COVID. That’s concerning in that there are real-world dire health implications.”

Trump and his minions have trashed and muzzled reputable federal public health experts and agencies. The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis has documented 47 occasions over eight months when Trump administration officials “attacked or undermined” public health experts. 

Early on, many leading Democrats urged Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act (DPA). The act had its roots in the all-out industrial mobilization for World War II. The law was passed in 1950 in reaction to the conflict in Korea. President Harry Truman had chaired a special committee when he was in the Senate during World War II that exposed profiteering and waste in war production.

The Trump administration has refused to make systematic use of the DPA to rapidly produce needed medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) despite urgent calls from hospitals, health care workers and workers in “essential jobs” to do so.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been lobbying the Trump administration against invoking the DPA, according to a report entitled “Unmasked.” It was produced by the Public Accountability Initiative and several partners, including the SEIU and CWA unions, the Partnership for Working Families, Action Center on Race and the Economy, Care Test Protect and Bargaining for Common Good.

The report said, “Many of the most powerful corporations that lead the Chamber have direct financial interests in how the COVID-19 response plays out. The companies — including medical manufacturers like 3M and Honeywell, major employers of frontline workers, and big banks — have the power and responsibility to reverse the Chamber’s lobbying agenda that prioritizes corporate control and profit over public health and well-being.”

Vanity Fair investigative reporter Katherine Eban blames Jared Kushner for the administration’s disastrous COVID-19 response. He led a “shadow” coronavirus task force dominated by “young, untested volunteers drawn from consulting firms and investment banks.” The group had a “quasi-messianic belief in the private sector’s ability to respond effectively to the crisis and contempt for government capabilities.”

At a crucial meeting, an attendee said Americans were bidding against each other over a finite supply of PPE. He said there were businesses eager to help but they wanted some leadership and direction from the federal government. Kushner shot back, “Free markets will solve this. That is not the role of government.”

Someone said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was desperately asking for more PPE. Kushner angrily replied that Cuomo wasn’t trying hard enough. “His people are going to suffer and that’s their problem,” he said.

At that point, this attendee concluded, “We’re screwed.”    

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.