What should we call the virus that is killing people on every continent and shutting down much of the world economy? COVID-19 is the scientific name. Although there are a number of coronaviruses, “the coronavirus” (we know which one) seems to be the most popular term. President Donald Trump and other demagogues on the right insist on calling it the “Chinese virus” or “the Wuhan virus,” in order to bait easily trolled liberals who already denounce all Republicans as racist into calling them racist again.
I have a suggestion. Let’s call COVID-19 the Tom and Daisy Virus (TDV), after Tom and Daisy Buchanan, the rich couple in The Great Gatsby, published almost a century ago in 1925. F. Scott Fitzgerald has his narrator Nick Carraway observe: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess that they had made.”
Compared to most of their fellow citizens, today’s versions of Tom and Daisy are having a good pandemic. Having fled their Manhattan apartment for their second home in East Egg, Long Island, the 21st-century power couple can work entirely online—Tom with his boutique investment firm, Daisy with her social-impact nonprofit. Their wealth enabled them to buy several extra freezers full of provisions for a year as well as rubber gloves and enough N95 masks to provision the British National Health Service. After checking their investments each day, Tom and Daisy can use a stiff drink, so they join online happy hour with their rich friends on Zoom. Yesterday they danced the jitterbug in front of the laptop camera and Daisy wore a feather boa.
Outside of enclaves like Fitzgerald’s fictional East Egg, less privileged Americans and their counterparts abroad are suffering a slow motion disaster. While some essential workers like doctors and nurses and nursing aides and police officers and first responders stay at their posts out of a sense of obligation and are honored for doing so, others in our skeleton-crew economy—grocery store clerks, delivery workers, warehouse workers, and truck drivers—stay in low-wage, low-status jobs risking exposure to the virus more out of economic necessity than duty. They are the lucky ones. Many other working-class and middle-class Americans are already unemployed, with their savings exhausted, uncertain when and whether they will be able to obtain promised cash relief from the government. Unable to pay people to bring their food and drugs and supplies to them, they sit in cars for hours at drive-through food banks or shop in stores in improvised protective gear, wearing a plastic grocery bag, perhaps, or a Halloween mask. And in the morgues in every state and every major city, the bodies pile up.
To date the coronavirus has made an unfair class system even more unfair. Members of the overclass like our modern Tom and Daisy, who as a group have profited the most from the reckless globalization and deregulation that made the rapid spread of the pandemic possible, have had the easiest time protecting themselves from its effects.
Whether this pattern holds depends on how long the current crisis lasts. It is one thing if rapid development of effective treatments or a vaccine allows the shuttered nation and the closed world to open again in a few months. But the longer the emergency lasts, and the deeper and more persistent the collateral economic damage turns out to be, the more likely it is that there will be a rebalancing of power among social classes—if not a reckoning.
For example, over time the balance of forces may shift somewhat in favor of debtors and against creditors. Unemployed people forced to live off their credit cards may run up balances that they can never realistically repay even when something like normal life resumes. Will the political system agree to make them lifelong indentured servants to banks and other lenders?
What about tenants who are deprived of jobs because of government lockdowns and cannot pay the rent? What about unemployed homeowners behind on their mortgage payments? Will local police departments and courts assign much of their personnel in 2021 or 2022 to the task of evicting people from their homes?
In the aftermath of COVID-19, expect calls for working-class debt relief to gain support across the political spectrum. With or without government action, much debt is simply never going to be repaid. Creditors—disproportionately wealthy people and wealthy institutions—may ultimately take the biggest haircut since Delilah sheared Samson. (So much for the savings Tom and Daisy Buchanan invested in the real estate investment trust (REIT) their friend Jay Gatsby told them about.)
The balance of power among workers and employers may shift as well. Offshoring production by firms to low-wage countries to avoid paying First World workers living wages may have peaked, now that the pandemic has disrupted overseas supply chains, including those in China, the source of the virus. Meanwhile, in economic sectors with jobs that cannot be offshored, like retail and warehouse work and shipping, yesterday’s poorly paid, disposable workers are today’s essential front-line workers. Already in the retail sector there have been spontaneous strikes and unions in some places have successfully demanded greater safety measures and higher pay.
For the past generation, the employer lobby has encouraged and exploited mass unskilled immigration, both legal and unauthorized, as a tool to suppress wages and weaken unionization. Undoubtedly the cheap labor lobby will try again. But in the aftermath of the pandemic, it will not be as easy to dismiss demands that the legal (and health!) status of all workers in the United States be verified by employers as racism or nativism. And the employer-lobby talking point that the United States is running out of impoverished workers and will collapse unless it imports tens of millions of foreign nationals willing to work for poverty wages will be hard to make with a straight face if mass unemployment lingers after the shutdown.
Exurban and rural workers may also benefit from a combination of high demand and tight labor markets. Deprived of an easily accessible pool of low-wage, off-the-books labor in Manhattan, Tom and Daisy may have to pay a premium to purchase the services of local workers in their Long Island refuge.
Along with these shifts in the social balance of power, a rebalancing of wealth among different classes may occur. Much of the wealth of the American professional class is bound up in expensive homes. Real estate prices in many areas may fall permanently, wiping out another source of elite wealth, after several decades of bubble froth. If dense urban areas are afflicted not only by high rates of infection but also inflation in the prices of scarce goods and a desperation-induced crime wave, look for a wave of permanent migration to urban peripheries and small towns by members of the urban professional and working classes.
Other knock-on effects of the pandemic may also reshape the pattern of wealth in America. We may see a shift in relative economic importance away from sectors like tech, pharma, and finance, toward the “real economy” sectors of manufacturing, agriculture, physical transportation and communications infrastructure.
Some of the high profits and intellectual property rents enjoyed by tech entrepreneurs and shareholders may evaporate and never return. If more economic activity permanently migrates online, for reasons of both national security and social solidarity, governments may end the Wild West era of the internet and treat search engines like Google and videoconferencing firms like Zoom as public utilities like water and electricity, with tight government regulation of prices and performance. Thanks to differences among national regulations, the global internet will be ever more fragmented, and many “global” tech companies may survive only as brands shared by national subsidiaries which in effect are autonomous local firms. Except for Enron’s Ken Lay during a brief and quickly reversed period of deregulation, as a result of public utility regulation, there have been no water barons or electricity tycoons among celebrity business leaders since the 1930s. Much essential tech may similarly become a highly regulated, low-margin business as well, in countries that do not nationalize critical tech industries altogether.
Then there is pharma, whose lobby is one of the most powerful in Washington. Jonas Salk refused to patent the polio vaccine, forgoing the opportunity to become a billionaire in today’s terms. Will the public tolerate vast windfall profits going to private actors who develop treatments for the coronavirus or a vaccine? In a world recovering from the COVID-19 epidemic, excess compensation for all medical providers, both individual and institutional, is likely to come under scrutiny. If preventing future pandemic waves requires each country that can afford to do so to set up integrated national medical surveillance and treatment systems, in return for compelling all citizens and tourists to sacrifice their privacy and take part, governments will surely limit the fees charged by doctors, hospitals and pharma companies as part of the new social contract. In dire circumstances sovereign governments can always coercively purchase or annul medical patents to make drug formulas free.
The U.S. government, like others, has committed itself to spending trillions to rescue the financial sector from the economic consequences of social distancing. The longer the economic downturn goes on, and the more the majority of citizens suffer, the greater will be the public demand to impose stricter conditions on government aid to private finance. If the 2020s ends up being anywhere near as bad as the 1930s, then the financial sector, like essential tech infrastructure and essential medicine, also may be converted by public utility regulation into a low-profit, low-risk industry, as it was during the days of tight financial regulation between the New Deal and the beginnings of neoliberalism in the 1970s.
Within the economic elite, relative shares of national wealth may shift toward sectors based in real-world essentials: manufacturing, mining, energy, agriculture and logistics. If this happens, it will not be because the profits in these real-economy industries go up—many will continue to be low-profit sectors and some will be tightly regulated utilities. Fortunes made in traditional productive sectors will loom larger simply because pre-pandemic, bubble-era profits in tech, finance, and urban real estate will shrink. There may be a resurgence of the kind of wealth produced in the earlier stages of the industrial revolution, based in transportation (railroad barons like Leland Stanford), manufacturing (Carnegie, Ford) and oil and gas (Rockefeller).
What is more, the real-economy sectors tend to be mature industries that benefit from economies of scale, dominated by large corporations and professional managers. Following the pandemic the face of American capitalism may once again be the middle-aged corporate executive, rather than the startup founder who becomes a billionaire at 30. And to the extent that the government and the public considers critical firms to be national champions, executives will be under pressure to treat workers relatively well and to avoid—or at least disguise—exorbitant remuneration packages for their managers.
It might seem that this would be good news for the Democrats, until recently the party associated with activist government. But in American politics, these developments, if they come to pass, would be better news for the Republican donor class than for its Democratic rivals. The Democratic donor class, after all, is dominated by tech, finance, and hub-city real estate, as well as by entertainment. In a post-pandemic world, those sectors may decline in relative importance compared to the oil and gas, manufacturing, and agribusiness sectors whose managers and investors tend to underwrite the GOP.
In electoral politics, it is conceivable that Trump’s chronic unpopularity, together with his inadequate response to the crisis, will produce a Democratic victory in this year’s elections. But while the Democratic Party may win back the Senate and the White House for a time, it is safe to say that the progressive agenda, in its most recent version, is dead.
For one thing, the claim that the U.S. response to the coronavirus would have been much better off with something like the “Medicare for All” system proposed by Bernie Sanders is not borne out by the evidence. The key variable in this pandemic has been whether or not a country adopts early testing and contact tracing, not whether its preexisting health insurance system is public, private, or mixed.
In addition, the coronavirus pandemic has probably killed off the left’s hopes for a “Green New Deal” for a generation, if not forever. In recent years, both the center-left and the further left made rapid replacement of fossil fuels and nuclear energy by solar, wind, and hydropower central to its economic agenda. But if today’s quarantines trigger a recession or depression that lingers for years, it will be harder than ever for environmentalists to argue that consumers and companies should pay higher energy taxes now—for example, carbon taxes—in order to forestall possible limited damage from climate change in 2050 or 2100. Indeed, during a post-pandemic era of slow growth and low revenues, existing renewable energy subsidies may find themselves on the chopping block.
The war on fossil fuels is not the only progressive campaign that is likely to be undermined by the coronavirus. Two other fashionable progressive policies will be casualties: open-borders immigration policy and urban densification.
It seems like a lifetime ago, but it was only a few months back that all wings of the Democratic Party, in a strange-bedfellows alliance with cheap-labor business lobbies, agreed that U.S. immigration policies should be far more lenient. Many progressives argued for abolishing any restrictions on immigration whatever. Without going that far, even centrist Democrats proposed decriminalizing illegal immigration. A number of one-party cities controlled by Democratic patronage machines have declared they are “sanctuary cities,” shielding illegal aliens, including some guilty of violent crimes, from identification, arrest and deportation by federal authorities. As the coronavirus spread outside of China and metastasized in Italy, leading Democrats including Joe Biden denounced Trump’s bans on air travel first from China and then Europe as unjustified and racist.
That was then, this is now. Whatever party controls the White House in 2021, it is safe to assume that abolishing border controls and immigration enforcement in an age of global contagion will not be a winning message in the foreseeable future, in the United States or abroad.
Urban densification, another favorite progressive cause, is also likely to be derailed by the pandemic. In an age of plague spread by proximity to other human beings, progressive proposals to encourage more Americans to squeeze themselves into micro-apartments in densely populated cities and give up their cars for crowded subways or buses or light rail are unlikely to gather much support.
The discrediting of progressive environmentalism, open-borders immigration policy, and urban densification policy will not necessarily translate into victory for Republican conservatives. A few maverick Republicans have risen to the occasion, such as Sen. Josh Hawley, who has proposed a radical plan for government-underwritten job retention in the crisis, and Sen. Marco Rubio, who has fought to use the Small Business Administration to rescue many American firms and their employees alike. But Hawley and Rubio are viewed as dangerously populist, even left wing, by many of the social Darwinist plutocrats who fund the Republican Party and their loyal elected retainers. If the legacy Reaganites prevail, the mainstream GOP may spend the pandemic complaining that government rescue payments are too generous and the economy should reopen prematurely even if far more people die.
Even worse, when the situation eventually improves, the plutocratic wing of the Republican Party could use federal deficits that were run up during the disaster as a new excuse for its perennial crusade to cut Social Security and Medicare for the working people who suffered the most during the pandemic. The eclipse of pre-pandemic progressivism, then, need not automatically translate into enthusiasm among voters for zombie conservatism.
I have assumed that any post-pandemic rebalancing—among debtors and creditors, workers and employers, suburbanites and urbanites—will take place within our existing social and political structures. But the possibility of radical disruption cannot be ruled out.
David Autor and other scholars have shown a correlation between the decimation of manufacturing areas by Chinese imports and offshoring in the 2000s and votes for the anti-system candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in 2016. What will happen when vast areas of the North American continent resemble the Midwestern Rust Belt, filled with shuttered storefronts and legions of the long-term unemployed?
Tom and Daisy may feel safe and secure now in their East Egg mansion. But in a place like the one that Fitzgerald described as a “valley of ashes,” in a derelict commercial neighborhood under a billboard by the highway, a garage mechanic named George Wilson is getting angrier every day.
Michael Lind is a Professor of Practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, a columnist for Tablet, and a fellow at New America. He has a master’s degree from Yale and has taught at Harvard. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.