OFF THE CUFF: Contribution comes with personal costs

People measure success in various ways. 

During a pandemic it would seem the measuring stick used would factor metrics that show how well the nation has done to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus through communities. Success would be measured by the efficient distribution of personal protective equipment, the ability to slow infection rates and reduce the number of deaths. 

Developing a unified strategy to address baseline issues when a new disease like COVID-19 threatens the most vulnerable — and even those less susceptible — provides more stability during uncertain times. A strategic and focused approach has proven more effective when navigating troubled waters than scattershot responses into which there has been little thought. 

Our president touts great success when it comes to his administration's response to a public health threat that has killed more than 208,000 Americans since February. Unable to appreciate the link between public health and a good economy, he admittedly downplayed the risks of the novel coronavirus with the purported hope of keeping the financial markets from crashing.

President Donald Trump's monumental miscalculation has costs taxpayers — a segment of the American population among which the president reportedly does not count himself — trillions of dollars. It turns out those with the highest incomes — those who benefited most from the 2017 tax cuts, which will cost the rest of us at least $1.9 trillion during the course of a decade — reaped the most during the pandemic.

New data released by the U.S. Federal Reserve show the accumulated wealth of the 50 richest Americans grew by $339 billion since the beginning of the year. Their combined wealth now totals nearly $2 trillion, according to Bloomberg News, while the 165 million Americans who round out the bottom half of America's economic spectrum possess about $2.08 trillion. 

Fed Chair Jerome Powell warned about the economic divide this week, saying any progress toward a recovery could be eroded if Congress fails to provide additional aid. While that assistance appears to be stalled by pre-election politics, the Federal Reserve continues to pump dollars into the financial markets, propping up stock prices and stuffing even more money into the pockets of fewer people.

The Washington Post reported this week about the contents of the minutes of the central bank's meeting in September, when its members revealed they saw the Fed's monthly purchases of U.S. treasuries as a tool to prop up stock prices. These purchases, the minutes note, contribute "to accommodative financial conditions in a way that supported economic recovery.” 

The $80 billion purchases made each month since June also disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans. The wealthiest 1% of Americans reportedly own stocks and mutual fund shares valued at more than $11 trillion — 70 times more than the 165 million Americans who cling to the bottom rungs of the economic ladder while their opportunities for upward mobility slip away. 

The Federal Reserve simultaneously dropped interest rates so low those who try to save a nickel are paid next to nothing for certificates of deposits or other risk-free investments. And those elected to office are no different, directing hundreds of billions in pandemic aid to businesses within days of applying while displaced workers endured weeks without income trying to prove they committed no fraud.  

The Project on Government Oversight reports several instances of companies with track records of misconduct — but close ties to the White House — were awarded lucrative contracts without going through a competitive bidding process. Good Jobs First has identified nearly 70 federal contractors that landed deals during the pandemic that collectively have paid $4.7 billion in fines to settle claims of fraud against the government. 

Many of the corporations reaping dividends for their wealthy shareholders were fined for violating workplace protection laws or employee rights. Senate Republicans held up continuing pandemic unemployment benefits for about 12.58 million workers because they want to give these companies blanket immunity for any claims arising from a failure to protect employees or the public from the novel coronavirus.

Decisions to play down the virus and tailor aid toward those who really don't need it have resulted with what economists have described as the most inequitable economic recovery in American history. This could be exacerbated by the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett as an associate justice for the U.S. Supreme Court. 

“Judge Barrett has proven she puts the wealthy and powerful first," Executive Director Rebecca Dixon said on behalf of the National Employment Law Project. "If confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice, she would only further entrench the anti-worker, pro-corporation slant of this Supreme Court.”

Some legal scholars contend Barrett's anti-regulatory sentiment would lead the high court back to the Lochner era. That period during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a time when laws failed to protect workers from unsafe working conditions and inadequate wage protections. 

If there is anything good to come of 2020, it will be this: Workers must wake up and vote their interests, not the interests of those they envy.

D.E. Smoot covers city/county government for the Phoenix. 

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