Robert Reich: We've reached a moral emergency. The privileged are profiting from this pandemic

When society faces a common threat, exploiting a special advantage is morally repugnant.

Published March 26, 2020 6:30AM (EDT)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and US President Donald Trump (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and US President Donald Trump (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)

This originally appeared on Robert Reich's blog.

Societies gripped by cataclysmic wars, depressions, or pandemics can become acutely sensitive to power and privilege. 

Weeks before the coronavirus crushed the U.S. stock market, Republican Senator Richard Burr used information gleaned as chairman of the Senate intelligence committee about the ferocity of the coming pandemic to unload 33 stocks held by him and his spouse, estimated at between $628,033 and $1.72 million, in some of the industries likely to be hardest hit by the global outbreak. 

While publicly parroting Trump's happy talk at the time, Burr confided to several of his political funders that the disease would be comparable to the deadly 1918 flu pandemic. 

Then the market tanked, along with the retirement savings of millions of Americans. 

Even some pundits on Fox News are now calling for Burr's resignation.

When society faces a common threat, exploiting a special advantage is morally repugnant. Call it "Burring." However tolerable Burring may be in normal times, it's not now. 

In normal times, corporations get special favors from Washington in exchange for generous campaign contributions, and no one bats an eye. Recall the Trump tax cut, which delivered $1.9 trillion to big corporations and the wealthy. 

Yet the coronavirus should have altered business as usual. The most recent Senate Republican relief package, giving airlines $58 billion and more to other industries, is pure Burring.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried lamely to distinguish it from the notorious bank bailouts of 2008. "We are not talking about a taxpayer-funded cushion for companies that made mistakes. We are talking about loans, which must be repaid, for American employers whom the government itself is temporarily crushing for the sake of public health." 

But the airlines are big enough to get their own loans from banks at rock-bottom interest rates. Their planes and landing slots are more than adequate collateral.

Why do airlines deserve to be bailed out? Over the last decade they spent 96 percent of their free cash flow, including billions in tax savings from the Trump tax cut, to buy back shares of their own stock. This boosted executive bonuses and pleased wealthy investors but did nothing to strengthen the airlines over the long term. Meanwhile, the four biggest carriers gained so much market power they jacked up prices on popular routes and slashed service (remember leg room and free bag checks?)

United CEO Oscar Munoz did his own Burring last Friday, warning that if Congress doesn't bail out the airline by the end of March, United will start firing its employees. But even if bailed out, what are the odds United would keep paying all its workers if the pandemic forced it to stop flying? The bailout would be for shareholders and executives, not employees.

While generous toward airlines and other industries, the Republican bill is absurdly stingy toward people, stipulating a one-time payment of up to $1,200 for every adult and $500 per child. Some 64 million households with incomes below $50,000 would get as little as $600. This would do almost nothing to help those who lose their jobs pay their mortgages, rents, and other bills for the foreseeable future.

The Republican coronavirus bill is about as Burring as legislation can be — exposing the underlying structure of power in America as clearly as Burr's stock trades. In this national crisis, it's just as morally repulsive. 

Take a look at how big corporations are treating their hourly workers in this pandemic and you see more Burring.

Walmart, the largest employer in America, doesn't give its employees paid sick leave, and limits its 500,000 part-0time workers to 48 hours paid time off per year. This Burring policy is now threatening countless lives. (On one survey, 88 percent of Walmart employees report sometimes coming to work when sick.)

None of the giants of the fast-food industry — McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Duncan Donuts, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Subway — gives their workers paid sick leave, either. 

Amazon, one of the richest corporations in the world, which paid almost no taxes last year, is offering unpaid time off for workers who are sick and just 2 weeks paid leave for workers who test positive for the virus. Meanwhile, it demands that its employees put in mandatory overtime, 

And here's the most Burring thing of all: These corporations have made sure they and other companies with more than 500 employees are exempted from the requirement in the House coronavirus bill that employers provide paid sick leave.

At a tie when almost everyone feels burdened and fearful, the use of power and privilege to exploit weakness and vulnerability is morally intolerable. Whatever form it takes, Burring must be stopped. 

By Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written 15 books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's also co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism."

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Coronavirus Covid-19 Richard Burr