We believe in second chances.
And not just the kind given out in It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol. At times of crisis, nations also show their true character, and this one didn’t exactly distinguish itself after the 2008 financial collapse—too many people of means turned, well, mean, unwilling to sacrifice a little to help other people a lot.
Back then, the government’s panicked bailout of financial institutions, even ones that had driven the collapse, outraged ordinary citizens, who were losing their jobs and houses. They were just as appalled by the save-my-tax-cut-and-by-the-way-forward-my-bonus-to-Florida ethos of the 1 percent, which exposed just how deep the class divide really was.
We expected that the financial meltdown of 2008 would teach the hyper-wealthy what uncontrolled greed and unfettered deregulation breed, and they would repent. As Thomas Macaulay put it, in 1831, when Britain seemed on the brink of revolution, “Reform, that you may preserve.”
And here we are. Again.
Twelve years later, a pandemic is ravaging economies worldwide. Jobs, food, housing, and human lives—all are at stake. Are we going to do it better this time?
We expected that the financial meltdown of 2008 would teach the hyper-wealthy what uncontrolled greed and unfettered deregulation breed, and they would repent.
In some ways, yes. Even under Trump’s loopy leadership, this government, like others around the globe, seems prepared to spend whatever it takes to prop up corporations and small businesses and try to keep people solvent and in their homes during the looming recession.
For a while.
And the Happy Few? Those with plenty of reserves in the bank, a house or two in the country? The ones who can ask their concierge doctor to order them up a coronavirus test while they book a private jet to the Caribbean? Those who weeks ago stockpiled toilet paper, Pellegrino, and Sancerre? (O.K., on that one, guilty as charged.)
We can’t start at the top, because one of the richest billionaires we know, Michael Bloomberg, turns out to be the lowest of the low. Just a few weeks ago, as the coronavirus panic was shuttering his hometown, it seems the former mayor of New York City allegedly welched on his promise to keep paying campaign staffers until November.
Bloomberg, who spent more than $900 million on his Ozymandian bid for the presidency, got a lot of credit for pledging that should voters reject him he would keep his staff in place and salaried through the election. Maybe Bloomberg wasn’t likable as a candidate, but we thought he was honorable. The week the market collapsed, he suddenly fired campaign workers who say he had promised to pay them through November, shuttered his campaign, snuffed his plan to form an anti-Trump super-PAC, and instead gave a paltry $18 million to the D.N.C. Sure, he then pledged $40 million to the fight against the coronavirus, but that doesn’t begin to make up for his callous disregard for his own employees.
Now, some are suing him for breach of promise. Lawyers call that “promissory estoppel.” We call it “acting like Trump.”
There are plenty of other signs that the lessons of 2008 were not learned. What are the chances that when it comes to doling out money, the Trump administration would shortchange the real-estate industry? And yet the Taubman Company, one of the nation’s largest shopping-mall investors, told tenants such as the Gap that they have to pay rent even though malls are closed from coast to coast. (This would be a good time to remember that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who is in charge of handing out billions to big business, made a fortune with the 2008 collapse by, among other things, investing in a bankrupt mortgage company and repossessing its customers’ homes.)
It’s ridiculous, and deeply sad, that workers for Instacart and Amazon and Whole Foods—people risking their health to keep our food supply intact—had to strike this week to demand hazard pay and better protective gear. And yet, after a walkout at a New York warehouse, Amazon promptly fired one of the strike’s leaders. (May we remind you: Jeff Bezos is worth $117 billion. And counting.)
It’s almost impossible to believe that while nurses at Mount Sinai were saying they feared they would have to use garbage bags as protective wear and mourning the death of emergency-room nurse Kious Jordan Kelly, who died last week due to the coronavirus at the age of 48, two of the hospital’s top directors, the C.E.O. and the president, were avoiding risk—and leadership—in their homes in Palm Beach, Florida.
It’s ridiculous, and deeply sad, that workers for Instacart and Amazon and Whole Foods—people risking their health to keep our food supply intact—had to strike this week to demand hazard pay and better protective gear.
It gets worse. The New York Times reported that after Richard Levitan, an E.R. physician from New Hampshire, came to Manhattan to volunteer at Bellevue Hospital, the New Yorkers he came to help were not uniformly grateful: the co-op board of his brother’s apartment on the Upper West Side, where he was staying, told Dr. Levitan he had to leave.
And let’s not even talk about senators who dumped stocks after they were secretly briefed about the impending pandemic, even as they were assuring all of us there was nothing to worry about. Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, was bad enough—he sold off $1.7 million worth of shares. Then there is Kelly Loeffler, Republican of Georgia. We thought she dumped up to $3 million worth of stock. Actually, she sold some $18.7 million worth of Intercontinental Exchange stock. Loeffler’s husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, is the C.E.O. of the company, which owns the New York Stock Exchange. To her credit, the rookie senator did put some of her money into the market: she bought stock in DuPont, which manufactures medical protective gear.
The crisis has just started, and already there are way too many examples of selfishness and financial perfidy. O.K., just one more: EasyJet asked pilots and cabin crew to go on unpaid three-month leave, but kept senior officers on the payroll with a 20 percent cut and also paid out a $74 million dividend to the airline’s founder, Stelios Haji-Ioannou.
So it’s all the more important to focus on those individuals and organizations who do the right thing, and not just behemoths like the Gates Foundation, which has pledged $100 million toward coronavirus treatment. After New York governor Andrew Cuomo asked for more medical workers to come forward, some 82,000 people—including retirees—volunteered.
You have to credit all kinds of people who are stepping up, even if it means for once holding back on jokes about Kim Kardashian and actors such as Ryan Reynolds. (They each pledged $1 million to help with the pandemic.) After he was forced to lay off his restaurant staff, Danny Meyer, of Gramercy Tavern and Shake Shack, donated his entire year’s salary to a relief fund for his employees. Ralph Lauren pledged to spend $10 million on relief and is exploring manufacturing protective gowns and N95 masks for hospital workers. (Polo logo or tartan?)
In England, where memories of the Blitz never die, citizens are pitching in and getting on with it. As our friend Joseph Bullmore explains in this issue, even ultra-elitist Eton has rolled up its bespoke sleeves to help out. The Tories, who elected free-market buccaneer Boris Johnson, are recasting themselves as the party of the masses and bucking up the National Health Service they once decried as wasteful. The Times of London said last week that Britain’s new Conservative chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has all but nationalized the British workforce by promising to cover 80 percent of the salaries of workers who would otherwise be fired.
“When this is over, and it will be over, we want to look back at this moment and remember the many small acts of kindness done by us and to us,” Sunak said. “Now more than at any time in our history, we will be judged by our capacity for compassion.”
Exactly. It’s still a wonderful life, just a really bad time. And it gives Bloomberg, Bezos, Loeffler, and all the other wrongdoers their second chance to turn around and get things right.