They want to make Trump look as bad as they can because they want to try and win an election that they shouldn’t be allowed to win based on the fact that we have done a great job. We built the greatest economy in the world. I’ll do it a second time.Donald Trump, April 6, 2020
“It was a terrible relationship,” a pal of mine commented after a couple we knew suddenly announced that they were divorcing; “but I thought they would be together forever.”
We feel that way about the whole house of cards that is the American economy. What has happened to our world three months after the novel coronavirus swept across the borders, and six weeks into self-isolation, was entirely predictable even if we could not put our finger on what would cause the great collapse. The health care system was a shambles. The low unemployment figures disguised a lot. For example, in 2019 4.7% of men and 5.3% of women had multiple jobs, numbers that ticked up if you were not white; that, as of December 2019, almost half of U.S. workers worked in low-wage jobs; and that 44% of those workers made less than $18,000 a year.
Now, many of those people have nothing. As of December 2019, 61% of Americans had less than $1,000 in a savings account.
Then there is the debt. Excluding home mortgages, the average American has $38,000 in personal debt. A big chunk of that for many people is student loans: 69% of the graduating college class of 2019 will pay for their education for decades to come. They owe, on average, 29,000 per borrower. Overall, U.S. student debt tops $1.64 trillion: 44.7 million Americans owe that debt. Over 10% of them are, as you read this, delinquent for more than 90 days.
If you were a college teacher, you could see it happening in front of your eyes. But somehow, the people in charge didn’t. And we are not just talking about the Trump administration. Politicians in both parties have systematically defunded education and health care, created giant loopholes for legally defrauding consumers, and enabled precarious labor to keep payrolls–and employer responsibilities for their workers–low.
On the one hand, we can’t blame them for not seeing a pandemic coming down the chute (although, back in 2015, Bill Gates did predict it in a TED talk.) But they seem to have thought we, the 99%, could keep it together forever.
But as it turns out, we couldn’t. That is why, this week, we begin with finance. Agata Soroko warns us that consumers are already being blamed for their troubles and that experts will renew calls for better financial literacy as a solution to future calamities. But “Young people need a new, more critical economic literacy,” Soroko writes, one that addresses the realities of capitalism and “illustrates the historically constructed nature of our financial system.” William Bernstein warns that not everyone suffers when the economy crashes. As unemployed workers raid their devalued retirement portfolios to pay the bills, investors snap up these investments at firesale prices. Finally, Pat Garofolo looks at the funds appropriated by Congress to save small businesses: Is this program a boondoggle to funnel money to corporations?
Next, we turn to politics. Stan Draenos reports from Athens, Greece, where a refugee crisis now in its fifth year is being amplified by the coronavirus pandemic. Mark Frazier returns us to Hong Kong, where the political crisis has entered a temporary lull due to the Covid-19 lockdown, but arrests continue. In a city where the wearing of masks is illegal, “Both the accused and the police escorts were seen wearing medical masks as they filed into police stations for formal charges associated with their involvement during last year’s protests,” Frazier writes.
Back in the United States, William Scheurman explains why the Trump White House’s ongoing failure in the face of Covid-19 is not an accident, but a direct outcome of legal theories circulating on the Republican Party’s far-right wing for several decades. Finally, John Stoehr explains that the misdirection of federal funds away from social services in the northeast and towards corporations is intentional too.
In the last several weeks, Public Seminar has begun to receive more personal writing, as our readers start to write their pandemic experienced into the historical record. We close with one of our own, Patrick Gilger, S.J., one of our editors and a graduate student in sociology at The New School for Social Research. Paddy went to Milan to learn Italian for his dissertation research—and was instead greeted by a plague.
Next week, Public Seminar shifts to a new Friday publication schedule. As usual, we will publish new stories on our site each day. But we’ve been watching your reading habits, and we’ve noticed that our audience often has the time to engage more deeply on the weekend. Because of this, the special weekly issue will now debut each Friday.
Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar and Professor of History at The New School for Social Research. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical. Subscribe to her Substack, Political Junkie, here.