During the past three months, we have had socially distanced “happy hours” with our neighbors in Bethesda, Maryland, an affluent suburb of Washington DC. We have learned that like my wife and I who are professors at local universities, our neighbors and their highly educated offspring are busier than ever at work. Each of us have well paid positions in the knowledge economy such as entertainment, marketing, software and data engineering, financial services, education, and communications that we don’t seem to have missed a beat or lost any income. My own extended family who work in Silicon Valley tech firms have become much more active at work innovating and building ways of digitizing and transforming several sectors of the economy. The challenges in restaurants, hotels, doctors’ offices and transportation spur them on to try and accelerate the nascent automation in these industries.
Every one of these upper middle class professionals are vociferous in their criticism about opening up the economy. Listen to the doctors, they say, and follow the science to decide when to open. Let’s wait for an effective vaccine, they say, because it alone can signal “all’s clear”. They tend to be condescending and mocking about the “rednecks” and “yahoos” especially from the South who don’t seem to understand the dimension of the problem, and the focus of their attack is aimed at governors who are opening up beaches and bars as though this is more important than the potential “spike” on coronavirus cases. There is not the same regard for job losses – there is consensus that lives are more important than livelihoods and if people die, the economy will be worse off than if they don’t.
Hardly any of my friends, relatives and neighbors see the irony of this whole thing. Upper middle class professionals working from home, educating those with high-speed WiFi, creating entertainment for those with Netflix and AmazonPrime accounts, automating the jobs of manual, transportation and hospitality workers, engaging in managing news and political polls, and all at little or no loss of income, telling those who need to be physically at work to earn a living that they are irresponsible if they don’t stay at home and that they should stop bugging their governors, mayors and county executives to open up!
When I bring up this argument with my colleagues, friends and family, it takes them awhile to process the fact that they are unthinkingly contributing to the discourse about opening the economy or not, and they tend to react in a negative but very intelligent and convincing way. The first point they make is that say that many of those who are dying from COVID-19 are African and Latinx Americans or “essential” workers and that opening up too soon will only hurt the poor and minorities. There is also the argument that it is businesses and Trump who want to open the economy but that the workers in high risk occupations like meat processing plants are against it. Ironies aside, they say, if one follows the logical conclusion of my point-of-view, we would simply be playing into the hands of greedy capitalists and Trump.
One cannot disagree with these counterpoints but there’s the rub. The upper middle class professionals working in the knowledge economy have good arguments to rationalize the need to stay at home, self-isolate and not open the economy too soon, especially because it is in opposition to the outrageous pronouncements of a President who most thinking people in the world agree is incompetent, idiotic and self-serving. In fact, there is a certain smugness in knowing and feeling that we oppose Trump’s unintelligent and uncaring directives. However, what we miss is that the logical conclusion of the irony I have identified is not that one needs to open the economy without a proper plan, it is that we, as a nation, need to equalize the opportunity to make a living, no matter what industry we are in and what our educational level is.
If the meat packing workers do not go to work, they do not earn a living. The same goes for waiters and cooks in restaurants, those cutting our hair and nails, packing and transporting packages and letters, cleaning and maintaining offices and airlines and so on. Our capitalist system is structured to pay people only when they work. How about the professionals in all of the knowledge industries who can stay at home and work at the same or higher level of frenzy be charged a super tax during this time of pandemic to be distributed to those who cannot make a living without physically going to work?
Clearly Congress, with the initiative of the Democratically controlled House, has passed the CARES Act providing some relief to those earning less than $75K and are in the process of passing further bills, the most generous of those being the Harris-Markey-Sanders bill providing $2000 per adult making less than $100K plus a generous allowance for at most 3 children per family. These bills have a collective cost to the treasury of about $5 trillion and will eventually have to be paid for. Given that many of the professionals in the knowledge industries are working full steam ahead from home with the same or additional pay through bonuses, it is they who should bear the brunt of the tax bill to pay for the rescue package.
I can already hear the protests of the liberal upper middle class well educated “don’t open too soon” professional set.