The Republican fetish for “work” has always been a sham. The prime beneficiaries of Republican policies are, after all, the investor class, who by definition make their money while not working. As our current economic crisis worsens, Republicans cling to ideas that become increasingly separated from reality, like fundamentalists rejecting modern medicine even as their family member is dying. All of you, go back to work, or die trying!
Most of the world has asked people to stop going to work – temporarily, in theory – for the sake of public health. In the wiser countries of the world, the government is covering the payrolls of businesses through the worst part of these shutdowns, which has the dual benefits of helping employers not go broke, and keeping workers paid and employed until things can start getting back to normal.
America, of course, did not do anything so rational. Instead, we just sweetened unemployment benefits, forcing nearly 40 million people to pile into broken and dysfunctional state unemployment systems, while millions more give up altogether. The US did an excellent job propping up the financial markets, a mediocre job giving lifelines to businesses, and a poor job saving working people. And now, as we stare down the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression, Republicans in Congress have a bright idea: cutting off the extra money we’ve been giving to unemployed people, and instead incentivizing work. As if workers needed more incentive than desperately trying to avoid starvation.
Rob Portman, the Republican senator from Ohio, is proposing a temporary new $450-a-week bonus for unemployed people who go back to work. Consider the wonderful benefits this would provide: the Republicans will do away with the $600-a-week benefit you are currently getting for the unemployment you were forced into, and instead offer you a lesser amount in order to return to your job that no longer exists. The government’s failure to put in place a coherent response to this crisis from the beginning – a failure that will now force countless small businesses to close forever and will leave tens of millions of people persistently unemployed and tens of millions more newly stuck in part-time jobs without benefits – will now be compounded by a weird adherence to the idea that everyone is dying to cling to public benefits for the rest of their lives, unless we force them to do otherwise. Portman’s plan is like pushing someone out of a plane and then offering them some string and a bed sheet on the way dow – incentivize them to make their own parachute, rather than lazily relying on a government handout. (Republicans are also pushing a capital gains tax “holiday”, so the investor class will be handed two parachutes each, just in case anything goes wrong with the first.)
It is the lie at the heart of the Republican governing philosophy that causes all of these ludicrously insufficient responses to an existential crisis. The fundamental purpose of the Republican party is to cut taxes and otherwise serve the interests of the rich. That’s it. Everything else is in service of that goal. In order to hang on to enough electoral support to do this, they construct a morality tale about the sanctity of work and the evil of government handouts, a quasi-religious tale designed to ensure both the upper class and working class parts of the party’s base that the existing social arrangement is honorable and right. Now that we find ourselves in a crisis for which the obvious solution is unprecedented government support of the economy, the Republican party finds itself in a quandary. Doing what should be done would lead a lot of people to begin asking uncomfortable questions. If government aid can save us from another Great Depression, might it not be able to do something about inequality too? Republicans simply can’t have that in their own party.
What we will get instead are paltry tax credits and work incentives and much rhetoric about Strong Americans Rallying Around the Flag, while the stock market is backstopped and everyone without six months of expenses saved up is told that risking their lives to return to work is the patriotic thing to do. In one sense, the Republican leadership was prepared for their role at this moment. Fomenting the possibility of mass death in order to avoid any softening of the public’s attitude towards socialism is something that they have been adept at for many years.
People need healthcare. People need jobs that pay a living wage. People need food, and the forgiveness of rent payments, and a social safety net that is up to the challenge of being strained like it never has before. These are things the Republicans do not offer. They have an alternate plan: support for capital markets, a little bonus if you can find yourself a new job, and a vow to “wait and see” how things go, after state and local governments are forced to slash public services. Doesn’t that sound nice? Your $0 stock portfolio can sustain you over the next year after the restaurant where you worked goes out of business. The closer you slide to homelessness, the greater your incentive to participate in the economy will become.
The government’s response to this crisis does not work for the majority of humans. But it does work for the Republican idea of work itself. Work comes above all. The more of your fellow Americans that die, the greater your chance of finding a new job. When you look at it like that, it’s a win-win situation.