A Mass Quarantine Shines Light On Which Workers Truly Matter Most

It’s funny sometimes to think back to how naive I was when I first entered the job market. Even as someone who thought of myself as a cynic, on some level I really did believe that the economy rewarded our best and brightest. I lived by the same spoken and unspoken axioms of middle class achievers everywhere: study hard, be good at what you do, and the rest will follow. As ironic and iconoclastic and skeptical as we fancied ourselves, that’s the religion with which we gen X, Y, and older millennials were raised.

One of the very first realizations that hit once my peers and I joined the workforce was that, with few exceptions, the jobs whose function were the hardest to describe tended to pay the most. If your job was self-explanatory — plumber, mechanic, barista, even doctor and lawyer, to some extent, at least at the beginning — you were probably a lot worse off than someone who dealt in arcane financials, brokered, consulted, or “fostered relationships” between parties with even more money. Ah, “knowing people,” that’s the ticket. What a fool I’d been.

If I became disillusioned with my own childish notions of meritocracy the second I got a real job, the COVID-19 quarantine forever puts the lie to the idea that the invisible hand rewards those most necessary to a functioning society. While those of us with fake jobs (“non-essential” workers) are cooped up in our houses, people with real jobs (“essential” workers) are outside risking their health to keep us fed. With every day that goes by, more and more people are forced to reckon with how much we need grocery clerks, delivery drivers, the people who pick our fruits and vegetables and pack our meat, our healthcare workers (obviously) and childcare providers. This crisis exposes like no other before it whose work truly matters most. The message is louder than ever. Will we be able to hear it this time?

How long can we survive without hedge fund managers and consulting firms (and yes online writers)? Probably a really long time. Meanwhile, there’s food somewhere that needs to be harvested (you can’t postpone ripening like you can a shareholder meeting) that will literally rot in a field unless our lowest-paid workers (there’s actually a special exemption from the normal rules that keeps them from earning time-and-a-half after 40 hours) harvest it, so that some other minimum wage workers can gather together in a warehouse packing it, so that more low-wage workers can ship it to stores, where even more low wage workers can gather to stock the shelves and keep everyone protecting ourselves and our families from starving, all while risking their health and ignoring the normal rules. Ditto the people in a kitchen somewhere from whom we order takeout.

If the market is supposed to incentivize behavior that keeps civilization humming, why is it almost without exception our lowest-paid workers being asked to maintain business as usual? Why should they do it? It’s not the money, so it must be a sense of personal duty. Weird how quickly the amoral incentive machine turns maudlin in times of crisis. When Bernie Sanders said Michael Bloomberg was immoral for having more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans in the Democratic debate, Bloomberg responded how billionaires generally respond to these kinds of situations. He shrugged and said, “Well, I earned it.”

Now ask yourself: how many billionaires are being asked to sacrifice their health and perform some indispensable task this month? How many cooks, truck drivers, meat-packing house workers, healthcare providers, delivery drivers, and grocery clerks are?

In an ideal world, should a grocery store clerk make Michael Bloomberg money? Well, in an ideal world no one would make Bloomberg money, but at the very least this quarantine should forever invalidate any justifications for wealth inequality that invoke “worth,” “sacrifice,” and some greater good to society. It’s plain now to see who’s being asked to sacrifice.

I first entered the job market at a time when the free credit flowed like wine, especially to the housing and financial markets. When the bubble burst and it all went to shit, the government bailed out the banks who had over-leveraged — who had made bad mortgages and sold bad securities based on them — while doing little to help the homeowners who still owed those banks money. We mostly gave those institutions more resources to collect while giving debtors nothing to pay them with. In fact Steve Mnuchin made an even bigger fortune foreclosing on those homeowners and now he’s the Secretary of the Treasury.

Now that we’re back in a financial crisis it’s basically the same playbook: the richest corporations and their patrons in Congress asking for big bailouts and consolidation, and accusing anyone who doesn’t just hand it over of “playing politics.” This strategy is so ingrained and shameless at this point, even a U.S. Senator essentially caught profiteering just a few days earlier (along with Richard Burr, James Inhofe, and Dianne Feinstein, among others) has the gall to shout about it:

It’s not even assuming we’ve forgotten the last 15 years, they think we missed the last 15 minutes. Boeing wants $60 billion after losing billions in 2019 from rushing a buggy plane to market and spending $65 billion in stock buybacks over the last 10 years. Stock buybacks are when corporations spend their money on their own stocks to raise the price rather than using their profits to reward their workers — benefiting the shareholders first — or stash savings away in the bank as you or I might do. Now when the chips are down it’s the same pattern — reward those with enough money to own stock first and everyone else if we get around to it. Democrats seem to be faced with the same choice they always are: go along with another reorienting of the economy benefiting big business, or risk being seen as doing nothing. Either the workers get scraps or nothing at all.

As Steve Mnuchin told Fox Business of the stimulus bill Democrats blocked Sunday evening, “This isn’t corporate welfare. This helps all American workers.” And hey, if you can’t trust the Foreclosure King, who can you trust?

I’m not supremely confident that we won’t just reward the same predators again (after all, more or less the same people are in charge), but this time around the answer to who needs relief the most couldn’t be more clear. It’s right in front of us, waiting patiently at the register while we stand in line for bread. We’re asking our lowest-wage workers to get back to work while our shareholders jockey for handouts. Which ones do you think we should pay first?