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Even During a Pandemic, Plutocrats Prioritize Profits Over People

These 24 billionaires, executives, and right-wing pundits are urging a premature rollback of social distancing, risking millions of American lives.

Lloyd Blankfein, Former CEO of Goldman Sachs, Net worth: $1.3 billion. (Photo by Michael Cohen/Getty Images for The New York Times)

Lloyd Blankfein, Former CEO of Goldman Sachs, Net worth: $1.3 billion. (Photo by Michael Cohen/Getty Images for The New York Times)

It’s become a truism, almost trite, that with the coronavirus crisis, “we’re all in this together.”

But not everyone agrees.

A small but highly influential group of billionaires, executives and right-wing pundits have a different view: Some of them urge that we must  “normalize” the economy as soon as possible, implicitly – and in some cases, explicitly – accepting that this would mean sacrificing lives. Others, apparently, just don’t care about those risks, or conveniently believe against evidence that they are not real or overblown

Proponents paint this callous approach as the kind of “tough” decision that strong leaders must make. They have had a dangerous influence on policy. And although their recommendations have been shunted aside for now, there’s a great risk that save-the-economy-and-let-the-chips fall-where-they-may chorus again gains the president’s favor, with potentially horrifying consequences.

On March 16, the Trump administration announced its “15 Days to Slow the Spread” initiative. Surgeon General Jerome Adams conceded 15 days would likely not be enough time. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said to expect social distancing measures to last at least through late May or mid-June.

Less than a week into the “15 Days” initiative, Trump posted a tweet that seemed to signal his growing impatience with social distancing and frustration with its impact on the market.

Two days later, the president and Vice President Mike Pence reportedly huddled with billionaire Wall Street executives including:

  • Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group, which holds $545 billion in assets. Schwarzman’s net worth is $15.2 billion;
  • Robert F. Smith, founder of Vista Equity Partners, a firm with $50 billion. Smith’s net worth is $5 billion;
  • Kenneth Griffen, founder of Citatel, a hedge fund that manages $32 billion. Griffen’s net worth is $12.2 billion. (Griffen started a new fund to take advantage of the stock volatility caused by the coronavirus crisis.)
  • Daniel Loeb, founder of the $15 billion hedge fund Third Point. Loeb’s net worth is $2.8 billion;
  • Paul Tudor Jones, founder of the hedge fund Tudor Investment Corporation with a net worth of $5.1 billion;
  • John Paulson, founder of the hedge fund Paulson & Co. with a net worth of $4.2 billion; and
  • Jeffrey Sprecher, the CEO of the Intercontinental Exchange, whose compensation over the past five years is more than $100 million. (Sprecher is the husband Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), who dumped millions in stock following a private coronavirus briefing.)

According to CNBC reporter Kayla Tausche, Vice President Mike Pence’s former chief of staff arranged the call and was “running backchannel” between the White House and corporate America.

After the meeting, Trump held a press conference to announce he intended to push for a hastened end to the social distancing measures, saying “America will again — and soon — be open for business. […] Very soon, a lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting. A lot sooner. We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”

In the meantime, a chorus of corporate executives, free-market extremists and right-wing ideologues started backing the president’s push to hasten the resumption of normal business activity.

When criticized for this reckless, aggressive timeline despite credible forecasts that millions could die absent aggressive measures, Trump doubled down and accused the experts pushing back on his Easter reopening date of being politically motivated. “I think there are certain people that would like it not to open so quickly […] I think there are certain people that would like [the economy] to do financially poorly, because they think that would be very good as far as defeating me at the polls.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top federal authority on infectious diseases, pushed back against the president’s arbitrary timeline on CNN: “And you’ve got to understand that you don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline. So you’ve got to respond, in what you see happen. And if you keep seeing this acceleration, it doesn’t matter what you say. One week, two weeks, three weeks – you’ve got to go with what the situation on the ground is.”

Several days later, Trump relented and postponed his aspirational reopening of the country to June 1 after his health advisors persuaded him the casualty cost could be massive. Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) reportedly told the president he would own the deaths if coronavirus lockdowns are prematurely ended.

For the moment, Trump has decided to avoid the worst-case scenario and listen to public health experts instead of Wall Street billionaires.

But it’s still a scandal that the profiteers’ advice to the president – which could have cost millions of lives – was taken so seriously that the nation’s top public health experts had to force a course correction in order to avert that catastrophe.

The heartlessness undergirding the advice to end or diminish social distancing is jaw-dropping. What’s plain is that, despite a few members of the chorus saying they are willing to sacrifice themselves, purportedly to assist the younger generation, the proponents of a “return to normalcy” are treating coronavirus deaths as a statistical abstraction. They don’t imagine that actual humans’ lives are in the balance, or at least not the lives of anyone they know.

Perhaps the super wealthy believe that in their bubble they can protect themselves. This in fact may be true to some extent (the super rich are rushing to second homes in the Hamptons and elsewhere and some billionaires are opting to self-isolate on super-yachts). It’s a certainty in our harshly unequal society that the coronavirus will take a far worse toll on lower-income communities.

But it’s not just the callousness of the ”return the economy to normal” advocates that is so shocking. So too is their blinkered outlook. The economic costs of lockdowns and social distancing are in fact severe, catastrophically so for many, and impose their own health costs. There is good reason to believe these costs could have been significantly ameliorated if the United States had responded far more aggressively to the coronavirus, including especially with scaled-up testing. Somehow, the billionaires and pundits who want to re-start the economy seem to ignore this point. They also seem oblivious to the stark reality that the economy cannot simply be re-started, no matter what Trump or anyone else decrees.

The real problem is the virus, not the restrictions. Loosening social distancing restrictions would spike the public health disaster we are facing and bring disastrous economic consequences almost surely as severe as what we now are experiencing. At some point in the future, it will be possible to loosen restrictions – but making sensible decisions on this score and being able to maintain a less restrictive environment requires adequate testing, which is still unavailable, as well as having in place a massive system to do contact tracing. People who are serious about doing everything possible about getting the economy going as soon as possible, without sacrificing hundreds of thousands of lives or more, would be demanding on these fronts and screaming about the administration’s patent and ongoing failures.

Here is a sampling of those voices who recklessly pushed to suspend life-saving social distancing measures during the coronavirus crisis. Many are millionaires and billionaires with great influence in Washington, and with the Trump White House in particular. Some are more crass than others. A few of them come right out and admit that they are OK with seeing more deaths so that the economy can get going again.  The milder voices call for partial social distancing suspensions – at best, a foolish undermining of medical advice. The worst peddle outright conspiracy theories that the lockdowns are politically driven. Generally, they couch their concern as helping everyday Americans avoid the real economic pain caused by social distancing, but it is very hard to avoid the conclusion that their concerns are with profit and an ideological zeal for unregulated markets.

Surely there is nothing patriotic about their call to sacrifice American lives during a global pandemic in a self-defeating effort to return to normalcy. This is not a normal time.

Billionaires and Corporate Executives

1. Lloyd Blankfein
Former CEO of Goldman Sachs

Net worth: $1.3 billion

2. Gary Cohn

Former Goldman Sachs executive and former Trump administration economic advisor

Net worth: $252 million – $611 million

Reportedly spoke “for many on Wall Street arguing for a need to ‘normalise’ the economy. ‘Decision will be difficult but it must be made,’ he said. (Source: Financial Times)

3. Tilman Fertitta

Owner, Golden Nugget casinos, Houston Rockets, Bubba Gump Shrimp

Net worth: $3.2 billion

Feritta complains his company is “doing basically no business” wants authorities to let businesses reopen in a limited capacity by mid-April. (Source: Bloomberg News)

4. Tom Golisano

Founder and chairman of Paychex, Inc.

Net worth: $3 billion

“The damages of keeping the economy closed as it is could be worse than losing a few more people.” Golisano has subsequently apologized for his comments. (Source: Bloomberg News)

5. Charles Koch and Americans for Prosperity

Chairman and CEO of Koch Industries; founder and funder of Americans for Prosperity

Net worth: $40.3 billion

While Charles Koch has personally been silent on the pandemic, the organization he heavily backs, Americans for Prosperity, has forcefully pushed back against governors ordering the closures of non-essential businesses. Emily Seidel, the group’s CEO, released a statement opposing the closures and arguing that, “Rather than blanket shutdowns, the government should allow businesses to continue to adapt and innovate to produce the goods and services Americans need, while continuing to do everything they can to protect the public health.”

The group’s state chapters have followed suit, with both the Pennsylvania and Michigan state directors opposing state closures of nonessential businesses.

Unlike millions of frontline workers, Americans for Prosperity employees, it should be noted, can work from home, as the organization reportedly has gone “totally remote” in light of social distancing requirements. (Source: The Intercept)

6. Dick Kovacevich

Former CEO and chairman of Wells Fargo & Co.

Compensated more than $188 million over last five years at Wells Fargo (2002-2007)

Regarding requiring workers aged 55 and younger to return to work: “We’ll gradually bring those people back and see what happens. Some of them will get sick, some may even die, I don’t know. […] Do you want to suffer more economically or take some risk that you’ll get flu-like symptoms and a flu-like experience? Do you want to take an economic risk or a health risk? You get to choose.” (Source: Bloomberg News)

7. Elon Musk

CEO, Tesla, SpaceX

Net worth: $32 billion

Musk has repeatedly downplayed the coronavirus pandemic in an email to employees on March 13, comparing the death toll to the death toll from car crashes.

Since March 21, Musk seems to have taken a turn, and has subsequently distributed 1,000 ventilators from China to Los Angeles and pledged to repurposing Tesla factories to produce ventilators. (Source: Buzzfeed News / Vox)

8. Michael Saylor

CEO of MicroStrategy

Net worth: Once worth $7 billion and dubbed “the richest person in Washington, D.C.,” Saylor famously lost $6 billion in one day when the tech bubble burst.

In a March 16 email to 2,000 MicroStrategy employees saying he expected them to keep coming to the office despite public health warnings, Saylor said:

[T]he “economic damage” of social distancing and quarantines was greater than “the theoretical benefit of slowing down a virus” and suggested that it would make more sense to “quarantine the 40 million elderly retired, immune compromised people who no longer need to work or get educated” and described “the absolutely worse case” as “the overall life expectancy worldwide would click down by a few weeks … Instead of 79.60 years to live we would have 79.45 years to live. 1 out of 500 people will pass on a bit sooner, or not, or die from a celebrated disease instead of just old age.”

After numerous media outlets reported on the email, Saylor sent another message to employees allowing them to work from home.

(Source: The Guardian / The Wall Street Journal)

9. Barry Sternlicht

Founder of investment firm Starwood Capital Group and donor to South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign

Net worth: $3 billion

“I kind of agree with the president, frankly, because you cannot kill the economy, the largest economy in the world. We don’t have enough money to fix it, and it’s not fixable. It’s a balance, is all I’m saying. I’ve never seen a counter of deaths every day of my life. I’ve never seen that. And if I saw it for the flu, I’d probably freak out, for regular flu I’d probably be freaking out too. […] To say we’re going to shut the economy down for two years or 18 months is just ridiculous. I mean it is a flu. It will pass. […] Let’s get on with it.” (Source: CNBC)

10. Mark Wilson

President and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce

Led the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s effort of lobbying Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis against a statewide shutdown of nonessential businesses. “We’re recommending that the governor continue to do what he’s doing […] I don’t think the data says we need to do a statewide shutdown.” Gov. DeSantis was among the governors holding out against announcing a statewide shutdown of nonessential businesses until finally relenting on April 1. (Source: Tampa Bay Times)

Conservative Leaders and Pundits

1. Glenn Beck

Former Fox News Channel host and CEO of The Blaze

Net worth: At least $100 million

“I’m in the danger zone. I would rather have my children stay home and all of us who are over 50 go in and keep this economy going and working, even if we all get sick, I would rather die than kill the country. ‘Cause it’s not the economy that’s dying, it’s the country.” (Source: Media Matters)

2. John Cardillo

Newsmax TV host

 

3. Sean Davis

Co-founder of The Federalist, former staffer for Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) On Twitter, Davis attacked Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a physician, former pharmaceutical executive and FDA commissioner under President Trump until 2019.

It is not known who funds The Federalist, which published an article declaring, “It seems harsh to ask whether the nation might be better off letting a few hundred thousand people die. Probably for that reason, few have been willing to do so publicly thus far. Yet honestly facing reality is not callous, and refusing even to consider whether the present response constitutes an even greater evil than the one it intends to mitigate would be cowardly.”

4. Tom Fitton

President of Judicial Watch, a conservative activist group

Fitton has made numerous posts agitating for an end to the closure of nonessential businesses resulting from social distancing measures.

In another post, Fitton links to a blog post showing top epidemiologist Dr. Anthony Fauci praising Hilary Clinton with a video of himself saying, “Well isn’t that interesting,” fueling conspiracy theories that Fauci is seeking to undermine President Trump. (Source: The New York Times)

5. Rudy Giuliani

Personal attorney for President Trump and former mayor of New York City

Net worth: $45 million

Posted a tweet quoting Candace Owens, a former director of urban engagement for the right-wing group Turning Point USA, minimizing the number of deaths caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

6. Ed Henry

Fox News Channel host

“The best estimate of the mortality rate is less than 1%, every life matters, and you don’t want to minimize any of them, *but* when the mortality rate is that low, what is the balance” (Source: MediaMatters)

7. Brit Hume

Fox News Channel political analyst

“He is saying, for his own part, that he’d be willing to take a risk of getting the disease if that’s what it took to allow the economy to move forward. And he said that because he’s late in life, you know, that he would be perhaps more willing then he might’ve been and a younger age. Which seems to me to be an entirely reasonable viewpoint.” (Source: MediaMatters)

8. Steve Hilton

Fox News Channel host and former advisor to David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

“You know that famous phrase, ‘The cure is worse than the disease?’ That is exactly the territory we are hurting towards. […] You think it is just the coronavirus that kills people? This total economic shutdown will kill people. […] “Save small businesses. Flatten the curve, but not the economy, and do it before it’s too late.” (Source: The Hill)

9. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.)

Net worth: Holds assets worth at least $10.8 million

“Every premature death is a tragedy, but death is an unavoidable part of life. More than 2.8 million die each year — nearly 7,700 a day. The 2017-18 flu season was exceptionally bad, with 61,000 deaths attributed to it. Can you imagine the panic if those mortality statistics were attributed to a new virus and reported nonstop?” (Source: USA Today op-ed)

10. Charlie Kirk

Founder and president of Turning Point USA, a right-wing group that does on-campus organizing.

11. Dan Patrick

Lieutenant Governor of Texas

“No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’ And if that is the exchange, I’m all in […] My messages is that let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it and those of us who are 70+, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.” (Source: CNN)

 12. Bill Mitchell

Host of a right-wing talk show YourVoice America (“We’re all MAGA all the time!”)

13. David McIntosh

President of Club for Growth

“We need to act to contain the virus, but at the same time more people would be hurt and have terrible health and life consequences if they don’t reopen the economy,” Mr. McIntosh said. “They have to put an end to the social distancing some time in the near future to restore economic activity.” (Source: The New York Times)

14. Buck Sexton

Host of The Buck Sexton Show, a conservative talk show

Sexton posted and then later deleted a tweet that said, “America is going to have to go back to work very soon, even if that means there are more casualties from Covid-19 than would occur under this continued extreme shutdown[.] It’s a hard thing to say, but it is reality and we need to accept and act on it.”

Rick Claypool

Rick Claypool is research director for Public Citizen's President’s Office, investigating how corporate power undermines democracy and justice.

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