Opinion: Greed versus Need: Coronavirus Only Magnifies Ongoing Struggle over American Morality Tale

The inspirational mantras we hear multiple times a day remind us repeatedly that “we’re all in this together” and “we’ll get through this together.”

It’s such a powerful and commonplace expression these days, seemingly rolling off the tongues of every commentator, commercial spokesperson, and social media user, that one would almost think Hillary Clinton had, in fact, actually been elected back in 2016, when her defining campaigning slogan urged us to see ourselves as “stronger together.”  Everybody’s saying it.

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Woefully, she is not president.

And, woefully, while it is no doubt true that we are “stronger together,” the national aspirations encapsulated in the hope that “we’ll all get through this together,” have not quite materialized in our national behaviors.

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The emergency efforts, such as the multiple relief bills the federal government has passed, were purportedly designed to address people’s and the economy’s most dire needs, just to “get us through” this time.

The efforts and ethos align with the one of the nation’s highest ideals, a cornerstone of the nation’s self-image, that of our unity and togetherness.

The implementation of the relief bills, however, has unfortunately aligned with a conflicting and countervailing individualist value dominant in—and validated by–American life and economy: the idea that in our competitive economy, individuals are entitled, expected, and compelled to grab for the biggest piece of the proverbial pie. And they are rewarded and praised for it.

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Corporations such as Potbelly, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Shake Shack, and others applied for and were granted tens of millions of dollars in largely forgivable loans.  Several of these companies have announced they will be returning the monies; and Trump administration has issued warnings that if such large companies do not give back the funds within two weeks, they will suffer “severe consequences.”

But these developments are largely because this gross behavior, satisfying greed and not the real desperate need Americans are experiencing, was spotlighted.

Indeed, the grab for the pie by the wealthiest, arguably experiencing the least need, was flagrant and orchestrated.  These companies were first in line, and guided by the big banks who knew best how to work the system.

J.P. Morgan Chase, for example, according to CNN, reportedly “hosted a nationwide conference call to inform their workers how to handle customers so that favored customers got special treatment. That special treatment . . . included allowing those customers to submit applications earlier than they would have been able to, a tactic that pushed other qualified loan applicants out of line for a loan.”

This is not behavior honoring need; it is not behavior consistent with the aspiration that “we will get through this together.”

Indeed, Harvard University, with likely the largest university endowment of all time, in the hundreds of billions, similarly got spotlighted accepting $9 million it has pledged to return.

Meanwhile, I work at a cash-strapped state university that serves students from among the lowest socio-economic brackets who otherwise could not access higher education, and we do much to lift to these students economically, and we received less than Harvard and still experience grave need.

And Mitch McConnell has blatantly asserted his opposition to providing funding to states suffering huge revenue losses due to the pandemic, straining their abilities to fund education and hosts of other vital services.

What we need to understand is that this struggle between slaking America’s insatiable greed and addressing our people’s most basic needs is not new.

What we see we these relief packages repeat the behaviors we saw with the bank bailouts during the Great Recession and with Trump’s tax cuts.

Trump’s tax cuts benefited the wealthy and did not trickle down, despite Trump’s promises that companies would invest in workers and not cut jobs. Companies like AT&T, Wells Fargo, and General Motors lobbied for them, promising to re-invest their tax savings in their workers and companies to the benefit off the nation as a whole. And yet all of these companies have engaged in massive layoffs or plant closings. AT&T has eliminated over 23,000 jobs since the tax cuts went into effect, despite receiving a $21 billion windfall from the tax cuts with the prospect of cashing in an additional $3 billion annually in tax savings. In November 2018, GM announced it would be closing five plants, eliminating 14,000 jobs in communities across Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada, while buying back $10 billion in stock and earning a net profit of $8 billion on which the company paid no federal tax. Wells Fargo did raise the minimum wage of its employees, though the tax savings for the company were 47 times larger than the cost of that pay raise to the company; and the company announced its plans in September 2018 to eliminate 26,000 jobs, at the same time that it has raised health insurance costs for its employees.

Reducing the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent and saving corporations some $13 billion in taxes was supposedly to spur economic growth, create more jobs, and induce companies to raise wages. While Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin trumpeted that 90 percent of working adults would experience an increase in pay tied directly to the tax cuts, in fact only 4.3 percent of workers in Fortune 500 companies have received either a one-time bonus or an increase in wages. Businesses have reaped nine times more in tax cuts than what they have passed on to workers.

In our ongoing American morality play, it’s Gordon Gecko’s morality of greed—and hence social divisiveness and antagonism–that seems to be winning and defining our dominant value system, not our aspiration of mutual aid and cooperation embodied in expressions valorizing togetherness.

When we come out the other side of this pandemic, we need to ask if we want a return to normalcy, to the ethos and behavior of the bank bailouts and Trump tax cuts, or whether we want to forge a new national morality, the advent of genuine spirit of cooperation.