Interview by Stephen French
In a special edition of “Scheer Intelligence,” host Robert Scheer becomes the guest as filmmaker Stephen French asks for the journalist’s take on the coronavirus crisis. Speaking on the eve of Scheer’s 84th birthday, the “Scheer Intelligence” host draws from lessons learned in his seven decades of reporting to make sense of this unprecedented moment. His two most recent books, “They Know Everything About You” and “The Great American Stickup,” are especially helpful in understanding how governments, as well as financial institutions and private companies are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the filmmaker asks him what he thinks about the pandemic sweeping the world, Scheer initially discusses the impact the coronavirus is already having on privacy and civil liberties. He explains that when he first wrote “They Know Everything About You” on the ever-expanding surveillance state, and our willingness to sacrifice all sense of privacy to companies for the sake of convenience, he had not expected he’d live to see the day people around the world would also welcome government spying. Yet, the terrifying spread of the novel coronavirus has provided governments with a justification for expanding already wide-reaching, invasive surveillance apparatuses.
“The extreme surveillance state [we’re already seeing in China, for example], is, I suspect and from all reports seems to be, quite popular there,” says Scheer. “People think it’s necessary and they think the government will only do it when necessary. I’m sure there are some who are suspicious, but suddenly every society in the world, whatever they call themselves–socialists or capitalist democratic or authoritarian religious–they’re all using this new surveillance technology.
“And [the public is] eager for the government to have their private data,” he continues, “because the government will make them safer. Or at least that’s what the government has promised. And they’re desperate, they’re scared, they’re afraid of this invisible enemy.”
French and Scheer go on to discuss how the novel coronavirus has highlighted something crucial about all societies: every member is interconnected. It seems like an obvious point, and yet this idea of the collective–and collective health–has been obfuscated by years of rampant capitalism and the over-glorification of individualism. As many people are currently arguing, COVID-19 has made it incredibly clear that there is no way the wealthiest members of society can really hide from the fact that we are all only as healthy as the most marginalized people around us, a point Scheer drives home during his conversation with French. This is why, the journalist believes, the 2020 election and the trajectory of America as a whole have shifted dramatically since the beginning of the year.
For starters, Bernie Sanders, despite having ended his presidential campaign on Wednesday, has undoubtedly won the ideological war, especially when it comes to Medicare for All, posits Scheer. In addition, the debate surrounding the future of the country will necessarily change dramatically in the coming months as Americans struggle to repair their lives after the mass death and job loss caused by the pandemic.
“[Post-plague], you will not be able as a political candidate to talk about anything but how you make us whole [after this crisis],” says Scheer. “Anything else will be like a cop out. They don’t want to hear about what you’re going to do in Syria, you know, and they don’t want to hear about, you know, some plan of getting us closer to God and, [how to] get rid of the homosexuals or you know, Roe vs Wade. That will all just be seen as obvious obfuscation and noise.
“People want to know how are you going to make us feel economically safe, medically safe, secure in our communities. That’s what they’re going to want to know,” the “Scheer Intelligence” host concludes.
Recalling the lessons of Scheer’s book on the 2008 financial crisis, which details how a bipartisan, decades-long deregulation led to the wholesale swindling of the American people, French asks an important question about the economic consequences of the pandemic.
“You mentioned how [the government’s] financial injection into main street [with the CARES Act] might revolutionize, for the short term, the financial markets,” says French. “I also want to make that point in conjunction with your previous book, ‘The Great American Stickup: How Reagan and Clinton Enriched Wall Street While Robbing Main Street.’ Is there a potential that history could repeat itself somehow?”
“No,” responds Scheer, “I think the American public right now, they’re in a state of shock, but they’re not going to have [the trust they had during the 2008 banking bailouts] anymore.
“The good thing about the bailout is that this time,” says the journalist, “[is that the government] didn’t just bail out the people who had created all [the problems of inequality]: the big corporations and the banks. [And] it wasn’t just the Democrats putting pressure [on Republicans] because they control the house. That was helpful, but Donald Trump himself and the Republicans knew they were going to have riots in the streets if they didn’t help people stay in their homes.”
In the media player above, listen to the full conversation between French and Scheer as the two find glimmers of hope for a better future in the midst of this unprecedented crisis. You can also read the full transcript below the credits.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
SF: Welcome to another edition of Scheer Intelligence. And in these unique times, we thought we would celebrate Robert’s 84th birthday with a unique episode. My name is Stephen French, and I’ll be your host. I’m a filmmaker here in Los Angeles, and I’ve been following Bob for over two years for a film we are collaborating on together. We wanted to catch up remotely to discuss L.A. in lockdown mode, Trump’s response, the virus versus your privacy–and, of course, what will Los Angeles be like in the post-virus landscape?
RS: This is a couple of days before my 84th birthday. And it’s a clarifying moment, existential encounter, that suddenly the–actually, the prospect of life ending on this planet. Not through necessarily this pandemic, but–I was just thinking, I’m in downtown L.A.; what if there were to be an earthquake during this period?
SF: Oh, it would be devastating.
RS: Yeah, well of course we’d all go rushing out and mingle with each other. I mean, you wouldn’t hesitate; you’re not going to sit in the rubble of your condominium or something. But you know, it’s very interesting, because people like myself who sound the alarm about different issues are always dismissed as, you know, worrywarts or alarmists or what have you. And here I wrote a book about the prospect of the surveillance state dominating, and the end of individual freedom. And the basis of that book was the conflict between the desire for convenience–mostly shopping convenience, and advertising. And so as a result, people gave over their information for nothing to Facebook and Google, and then that information was exploited by advertisers. And you know, they didn’t care much, my students or others, about the loss of freedom, because they thought these companies would be benevolent, and they didn’t think government would get ahold of that.
And then we were disabused of that by Edward Snowden and the revelation that government could get ahold, easily, and would get ahold of this information. And then one started thinking about, OK, maybe you like your government here, although I know plenty of people who are very suspicious of the Trump administration. But what about the government of China or Saudi Arabia, or any of those other governments that have the same access to freedom? And then you’re confronted with the Orwellian prediction that maybe Big Brother will know everything about you, and Big Brother, in the name of fighting an enemy, will have total power over you.
And the assumption in 1984 is that the enemy is bogus; it’s invented, it’s convenient, it’s the enemy of the moment. Well, here, governments now have the most convenient enemy, because the enemy can’t speak for itself, the virus, right? The “invisible enemy” that Donald Trump talks about. We don’t know whether the danger is exaggerated to the degree that you should give up all of your freedom. But we’ve certainly, all over, accepted in every country, whether it’s democratic Israel–I’m not talking about the occupied territories, but Israel; Hungary; Italy resisted, but now they’re doing it–following the lead of China, which after all has used this technology. Most people in China have some kind of cell phone, they share a lot of their data, the government has access to that data and now can monitor people. So you have to show your cell phone if you–even if they’ve ended the curfew in Wuhan, but when they go, they have to show that they’re clear, their data, all their most intimate data about their health and who they’re meeting with, who they’re talking to.
And suddenly this extreme surveillance state is, I suspect, and from all reports, seems to be quite popular in China. People think it’s necessary. And you know, and they think the government will only do it when necessary. I’m sure there are several who have suspicions. But suddenly every society in the world, whatever they call themselves, socialist or capitalist, democratic or, you know, authoritarian, religious–they’re all doing the same thing. They’re all using this new surveillance technology, which is not marginal to the internet. It’s the main profit maker, targeted advertising, going to your private data to sell you stuff and to manipulate you.
Well, every government in the world now has this. People are drunk on this consumption, drunk on the convenience of shopping, the convenience of finding the perfect restaurant, finding jobs, what have you. And this information, which was only supposed to be collected for private enterprise, in most societies now is available to all governments. And suddenly we have this existential moment where people are asked to trade their privacy, and all of it really, to governments that are going to protect them, which is what was claimed in 1984.
And as far as one can see–and I know from my own students, because I’ve been conducting classes with over 100 students during this period. They’re very eager to have the government have that information, because the government will make them safer, or at least that’s what the government has promised. And they’re desperate. They’re scared. They’re afraid of this invisible enemy. And suddenly we’re living in this Orwellian world, OK, where we’re counting on an all-knowing government to actually be acting in our interests in all matters. Now, we’re very early into this experience. But when I wrote my book, I didn’t think this was going to happen, certainly in the near future; I didn’t question whether it would happen in what remained of my lifetime. And here, suddenly, we are in this world that George Orwell was describing, you know, in the, I guess it was the late 1940s when he wrote 1984.
SF: I want to just tie it up with something that I noticed when we first had the first lockdown. And we spoke, and you were actually the first optimist that I spoke to after the first lockdown. And I wonder–you hinted at a notion of perhaps some kind of post-World War II type of rejuvenation that’s going to happen. What do you feel about that?
RS: Well, you know, World War II was a sobering event. You know, not as much within the United States as it was in Europe, you know, and Asia. The massive deaths, destruction of every city, the firebombing of Tokyo and every other Japanese city. The, you know, leveling–the destruction, really, of every modern economy in the world, except that in America. And so, but people came out of that war having had this incredible reality check. That life is not stable, that you can’t take it for granted. And we had also had a depression just before the war. So out of that came–in the United States, but elsewhere–social democracy, a notion of accountability of the state for our economic well-being and our security. And we got, you know, workers’ rights.
In fact, one of the countries that’s done better, you know, in the world is Germany. They don’t have as much of a fascination with anarchy, or the anarchy of shopping, and the freedom of lifestyle. And in Germany, among other things, you have a great sense of medical security, right? One of the things, why their death rate at least at this point is much lower than in Italy or Spain, is there’s much more of a sense of preserving order and taking care of people and making sure they’re healthy and clean. Because you know if they’re not healthy, there are consequences for others.
But we just had this whole stupid presidential debate in the Democratic Party, with Bernie Sanders’ very conservative, sound idea of Medicare for all–a proven program of Medicare extended to the rest of the population so you wouldn’t have big arguments about getting tests [Laughs] for a virus. You wouldn’t have big arguments about how big your hospital population might have to be, how many beds, how many ventilators, because you would be talking about taking care of the whole population, and with everybody having access to healthcare. Now the president has to assure people if they take the test, it won’t cost them any money. You know, well, that’s a recent announcement, you know? And who’s going to pay for all this healthcare? You have people not even reporting their illness because they’re afraid they’ll have big bills and they’ll be bankrupted by it.
So suddenly, I suspect, as a result of this pandemic, the argument about universal healthcare, I think, is over. OK, so that’s a good thing. It’s not a good thing that we’ll have a significant number of people who died that didn’t have to. Because if we’d caught this earlier, if we’d been cognizant of it–we knew it was happening, we certainly knew in the United States from the Chinese example what it was going to do. And we now recognize, among other things, we truly live in a global world. So it’s not like we didn’t have the idea about SARS and Ebola; these terrible things happen, they happen elsewhere. Now we know it doesn’t matter where they start, you know. You don’t have to have a conspiracy theory, like Trump’s idiocy about the “Chinese virus”; the virus learns languages very quickly, OK. And the virus learns transportation very quickly, and the virus is everywhere.
So I’m not saying that I was optimistic about the course of the illness. I said it is an educational moment, it’s a teaching moment. I happen to be a college teacher. I’m dealing with my students, who are very depressed. And what I’ve done is, in this distance-learning we’re now doing, where they’re trapped in their parents’ homes, you know, and wondering what ever happened to their world–they thought they were going to be partying now for graduation and what have you, and they don’t even know if there are going to be jobs. They don’t know what’s going to be there. It’s a teaching moment. Because we know now that there is something wrong with the notion of individualism. There’s a lot that’s right about it. But one thing that’s wrong with it is your ability as an individual to control your environment. We should have known that, with the global climate change and everything, but we don’t. Suddenly I think there are very few people, in this country anyway, or certainly in most of the world, that think, oh–I’ll make my plans for the next 50 years, and if I work hard and save and all that, my grandchildren will be fine, I’ll be fine. I think people don’t believe that. We have had a teaching moment, maybe one of the most powerful in human history, because it’s so universal.
SF: Do you not feel that there are large swathes of people that are going to be devastated by this financial collapse, that are somehow slipping between the cracks? They can’t necessarily get the funds that the government are promising, and they are going to be devastated by this next movement in the financial market?
RS: Yes, that’s the big problem. And I’ve written about income inequality and so forth. Let’s take this massive homeless population that you have five blocks from where I am. I’m in downtown L.A. I’m looking at an empty city, but I know the huddled masses, yearning to be free, are over there four, five, six blocks away, OK. We can’t ignore them–the most cynical, vicious, capitalist, egotist, self-centered billionaire can’t ignore them. Why? Because if they get sick, we all get sick. Suddenly there’s a need to deal with the homeless. You know? And unfortunately, five homeless people died in the last couple of days here in L.A., boosting our death figure up. So you better get to them, you better test them, you better make sure they’re staying six feet apart, you better make sure they have some shelters. So necessity has destroyed selfishness. Because in fact, you aren’t an island. And the fact of the matter is, you don’t want to live on some island where there are no other people. And so these poor people, and the masses that you’ve ignored of the poverty-stricken in L.A.–you look the other way–hey, they can give you the virus.
It’s interesting how societies change. Sometimes–well, war is one example. You have this dramatic message of World War II, you know, and suddenly the U.N. was possible. Suddenly some notion of the nation-state surrendering its unique power could be embraced. Some notion of war crimes had to be addressed. You know, it was an incredible teaching moment. The depression was another incredible teaching moment, particularly in the United States. That’s the only reason we got the degree of retirement and healthcare and everything that we have.
OK, I’m not saying I welcome tragedy. And tragedy at times can lead to fascism, it can lead to chaos, it can lead to mass–it is leading to mass death now; it’s horrible. But it seems to me that in this dialectic, this experience is so shattering to our sense of security, real security, that you know, that you think about it–the richest person here in L.A., unless they got out on their yacht somewhere or they flew somewhere, you know, they have to take shelter. Their movement is restricted. They can’t go to a restaurant. If they have to go to the hospital, they’re going to run a risk of somebody else who comes from a poor background having it, maybe having other things. So it is a reality check of the kind that I have not experienced since I was a kid during World War II.
SF: You mentioned previously about how this financial injection into Main Street might revolutionize, for the short term, the financial markets. I also wanted to make that point in conjunction with your previous book, The Great American Stickup: [How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street]. Is there a potential that history could repeat itself somehow?
RS: No. I really don’t believe that, because first of all, the mythology that I described in The Great American Stickup is a mythology that was embraced on a totally bipartisan basis. As I argued in the book, the republicans had always been talking about radical deregulation, reversing the New Deal and so forth. They never could do it; even Ronald Reagan couldn’t do it. You had the savings and loan crisis, you had a reality check: people like Social Security, they like Medicare, they won’t let you touch it. There were real limits.
It required a shameful opportunist by the name of Bill Clinton coming into the Democratic Party as the great reinventor of the center of our American politics, you know. For poor people, reversed the whole war on poverty. Prison, millions of people, the whole incarceration program and the drug war and all the stuff he did. And you can go down the list of really the crimes of the center of the Democratic Party, allowing the concentration of media, the Telecommunications Act that let these big giants–they’re now companies like Verizon and others, you know, Comcast–they can own MSNBC or something. And everybody thought, oh, that’s good, they’re all for us, and you could have another billionaire like Jeff Bezos own the Washington Post; that’s good for journalism, you know.
And we went along with the ride of somehow it was all going to work out, and that deregulation would work, and Wall Street would govern itself. And then suddenly that came crashing with the housing breakdown. And the only reason that you had Donald Trump on the republican side being able to win in the ’16 election is because he told people they weren’t–he admitted people were not happy, OK. Now, he’s a demagogue of the right, and you know, he doesn’t have the solution, and he’s a big billionaire exploiter and everything. But at least he tapped in to the idea that Main Street knows it’s been robbed, knows it’s not working for them. So faced with Hillary Clinton–who is, with Bill Clinton, one of the people who endorsed that whole new centrist, democratic politics of “let Wall Street take charge, as long as they give us campaign funds, everything will work out”–so Trump was able to make these big inroads in places like Michigan and elsewhere.
OK. So what happens is Obama blew the opportunity to do what Donald Trump has done now. Just think about it. Obama comes in, we have this great economic meltdown, the recession, right? And a lot of people–myself, that was why I wrote all that stuff, I was writing a lot of columns. I was not alone. Robert Reich, who actually had been in the Clinton administration, was saying this; plenty of people were saying this, Nobel Prize winners: have a moratorium on foreclosures. Don’t let people be thrown out of their houses over these phony mortgages where you don’t even know who made the mortgages, who owns the house. They all were put in these collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps. They swindled the American people, did these liar’s loans and everything else. They don’t even know where this thing is, and yet they want to throw people out of their houses. And then you had Blackstone and all these companies go and buy up these properties and make another big fortune.
Barack Obama did not interfere with that. He condoned it. And he brought one of the really–the guy Lawrence Summers, who was responsible as Secretary of the Treasury, took over Robert Rubin in the Clinton administration. The two guys who designed the whole unleashing of Wall Street greed that gave us the Great Recession. He brings Summers back into his government, he takes money from Wall Street, and Barack Obama says we first have to make the banks whole, and then we’ll worry about everybody else. And so people lose their homes. We have this terrible redistribution of income away to the rich, and we go through [years] from the time when Bill Clinton is president, on to the present, where we don’t address the question of income inequality. We don’t do anything serious about extending healthcare in a serious way that addresses the costs and the income issue, which was taken out both by Hillary Clinton in her health plan and by Barack Obama in his.
And what happens is you have very unhappy people. We have this election going on. And among other things, we don’t really do anything about stocking our hospitals, about extending healthcare, about addressing the health conditions around the world, preparing for the next pandemic. And we get to this place, OK. I don’t think the American public now has any tolerance at all for a laissez-faire approach, because a laissez-faire approach says trust the adults watching the store. You know, Goldman Sachs or Donald Trump, trust whoever is president, trust the authority figures. I think the American public, right now they’re in a state of shock. Shock. But they’re not going to have that trust anymore.
And as far as the bailout, you know, the good thing about the bailout is that this time they didn’t just bail out the people who had created all these problems, the big corporations, the banks. They were smart enough–and it wasn’t just the democrats putting pressure because they control the house. That was helpful. But Donald Trump himself, and the republicans, knew they were going to have riots in the streets if they didn’t help people stay in their homes, OK. If they didn’t do something about it. We have, in states like California now, you can’t evict people, renters. You can’t just foreclose houses now. And even the banks are forced to say we’ll delay your housing payment for three months and maybe tack it on to the loan after. That’s why you have the $600 addition to unemployment insurance. That’s why they even extended unemployment insurance to freelance people, to temporary workers and so forth.
There was tremendous pressure on that $2.2 trillion. Yeah, it gives a lot of money to bail out wealthy companies. But Trump himself said he’s going to take an equity position in companies that got all that money. He’s going to–but the big emphasis was on, you know, spare no money. People have to be sheltered, and we’re not going to let them starve, and we’re not going to let them suffer, OK. And that had to come from both democrats and republicans, and they knew it. Because if they didn’t do that, you know, they would have riots. They would not–it would not be acceptable. The reality is so harsh, you know. And you can’t–you can’t blame it on people’s being lazy or something. Suddenly the world has been turned upside down and they’re going to lose their house, their kids can’t go to school, they can’t work, and these banks are going to get the house? Nah-ah. There’s going to be tremendous resistance to that.
SF: But how about this idea of just managing these huge swathes of people? This country’s so big. It’s very fragile, this notion of, like, governing this amount of people in this type of situation, you know. And anarchy is, like, maybe a couple of steps away, right? Just imagine if this financial assistance that is promised doesn’t arrive.
RS: It’s arriving. It’s arriving. By the time we use this, that won’t be the issue. Because thanks to the internet, thanks to the way we do banking now, it may take three weeks and not two weeks, but right now, you know, even credit card companies are saying OK. You know, American Express, this morning my wife had a conversation, you know, 18% interest–imagine American Express still charging 18% interest at a time when the Federal Reserve is giving them money for nothing, no interest, you know, OK. So they call, they call and they say, “Oh, we can lower you to 6%”–not a great deal–“and we’ll freeze it for a year.” And they’re doing that with a lot of people. Not a great deal. But, you know, they wouldn’t have done that before, OK. They would stick to the 18%.
So there are concessions. And what I’m trying to say here, Stephen, is that consciousness changes my reality, OK. It’s like people coming out of World War II had it with the segregated armed forces. We fought a war for freedom, there was going to be a civil rights movement. Remember the army, the military was segregated, OK. People come out, no–working people came out and they said, hey, I want a little house too. I want a GI loan. I want to be able to go to college and have a GI bill for education. So a lot of concrete stuff came out of that harsh reality, people being drafted into the army, risking their lives, some getting killed and so forth, and also the Great Depression. Now you’ve got a situation where no politician can survive in this country, and I suspect not anywhere else, if they don’t share the wealth.
And what we’re really talking about is hardly anarchy. Anarchy is what happens when you don’t share the wealth. And what Trump has had to do–you’ll find imperfections in this bill, but they are committing a hell of a lot of resources. Not just now. He’s actually said, and the democrats have said, they’re going to have to spend a lot more. He’s actually said it could go to $6 trillion, OK. So we’re talking about a major, you know–really, this problem is not going to be solved in the short run. The scourge is not going to be solved in the short run, putting it back together. You’re talking about a year of intense struggle, expenditure. And you’d better bring people back whole. And bringing them back whole is going to be: Stay in your house. We’re going to have more mortgage forgiveness, debt forgiveness. Because you can’t do anything about it. We’re telling you can’t leave your house. How can we expect you to pay your rent?
SF: What was interesting–you know, you mentioned the word anarchy. It reminded me of when we met up with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, when we met up at his place up in San Francisco. How anarchy was never really the key even for the Beat writers, because America became too big. You needed a government to run the madness. I just wonder what dear Lawrence is thinking at this time.
RS: You know, dear Lawrence, who I have great respect for, always used the idea of anarchy as a teaching tool. And he was, after all–hopefully he’ll be alive, he’s 100 years old, just turned 100–one of the greatest Americans we’ve ever had, greatest people in the world. I love the man. And Lawrence Ferlinghetti understood the opposite to anarchy. He had been in the U.S. military as a young person. He was involved in the Normandy landing. He was in an anti-sub ship previous to that, and then he was in the Navy. He also saw what happened in Nagasaki with the dropping of the bomb, because he was sent after from Europe to the war in Asia. And he had a great–you know, the reason you had a book like 1984 after the war was because of writers like Orwell and Ferlinghetti, who saw what the gigantic state machinery, when wedded to war, can do.
And it’s a real caution that we should not forget now–that was my whole point. We’re going to give up a lot of our individual freedom; not anarchy, individual freedom, the right to dissent, the right to challenge, because we’re so scared. Well, they lived through that. Orwell lived through that, Ferlinghetti lived through that. They understood why people welcomed authoritarian models at some point. They understood that fear, OK. And it’s a real fear, you know. So it’s not a question of a poetic notion of anarchy, of individual freedom. That’s something that, by the way, is not just Ferlinghetti. It’s something that the founders of the American republic believed in or entertained, or had illusions about. Not the freedom of their slaves, mind you. Not the freedom of poor people, not the freedom of women. But nonetheless they had the song, the poetry of anarchy, the poetry of individualism, and so forth. They were rebelling against the church-state of Europe, they were rebelling against the monarchies, we know all that story.
So what’s happening now is you have–you’ll have twin impulses. The American public, and the Chinese public and the Korean public, all over the world–Hungary, Israel, all over the world–yes, they will want more government. But they will want government that is responsible to their basic needs and long-term needs. You will not have stupid discussions about climate change, because people will recognize that this kind of panic is what’s in the offing when you have the flooding of cities, when you can’t control the climate, when it gets out of hand. It’s the same as this medical pandemic. It’s the recognition that life on this planet is fragile. It’s fragile, and it can’t be made solid by the individual acquisition of wealth. It can’t be made stable by some privileged people having their secure fortresses, their gated communities, their police force, imprisoning other people–but so what? You could be the head of the whole Chinese Communist Party, and when that thing got out of hand in Wuhan, if you didn’t fix it damn fast, OK, people were going to eat you! They were going to murder you, they were going to hang you on the top of their pitchforks, and the Communist Party be damned. And they knew that. They knew that. And that’s what Donald Trump knows. Donald Trump’s not an idiot, and he’s a smart salesman. And Donald Trump is moving with great alacrity to address this problem now. He was slow, slow to the cause, all right. But once he saw the dimensions, he’s out there. Spend whatever you have to.
SF: No, no, I agree, there’s definitely a kind of a sea change in how he is managing things, perhaps. And I wondered how you feel people are reacting to his managing of this situation.
RS: You know, we make these caricatures of people. You got Pence, the vice president, you know, and yeah, he’s supposed to be a bible belter. And he’s supposed to be, you know, a real conservative, blah blah blah, you know. But he had a scare because he had to be tested. And he looks at these bodies in the morgue–like Trump said, Trump’s from that neighborhood in Queens–wait a minute, that’s my old neighborhood, what are these bodies doing out there? OK. And so it’s a clarifying experience. Labels don’t mean that much, ideology doesn’t mean that much, philosophical constructs don’t mean that much when the tide waves of reality come crashing over them. They seem silly. They seem beside the point. Who gives a goddamn about the label of socialism or capitalism? They tried to destroy Bernie Sanders by calling him a socialist and left out the democratic part. Who gives a damn when you want to get medical coverage for everybody because if you don’t have universal medical coverage, you lose the first barrier to the next plague. Everybody needs universal medical care, because everybody should be tested for different illnesses. Everybody should be taking their meds. Everybody should be dealing with their health problems. Everybody. That is a minor expense to keep a sane society, OK?
SF: How will culture adapt? For me, you know, people keep saying that the economy is going to come roaring back, but we have just experienced, you know, a 40%, 50% decrease in the stock market. We have 6 million people unemployed, potentially 9 million people next week. Is this not just the first leg of a further crashing leg down? You know, after closing the country, can it just reopen?
RS: Well, but you forget how rich we are. This is–let me tell you, Stephen. The real issue that will come up, assuming that the rest of the country experiences something like New York–I don’t know, maybe we’ll have a California miracle, a Washington state miracle. Maybe, you know, maybe they got on top of it fast enough and it won’t be quite as horrible. But the fact of the matter is, there are going to be a lot of losers. A lot of people who got hurt by this, their jobs don’t come back, and now the banks want them to make up these loans. Or, you know, the people who have a freeze on rents, they can’t collect the rents, but that house where they’re the landlord is also the source of their income. There’s a lot of really big problems there.
And we live in a society that was able to come up with the $2.2 trillion, because it exists. The money’s there. It’s in, first of all, it’s there in our ability to print it. [Laughs] It’s there in our, what the Federal Reserve has, what the holdings are. But it’s also there in a lot of rich people who are, some of them, are getting richer from this experience. You know, they’ll know just when to buy back into the stock market, or you know, I suppose a Jeff Bezos or some of these other people are in a position where there’ll be more money for them. I don’t know, they also–like in China, some of these billionaires like Jack Ma and everything, they had to start giving back, you know, more as a result. So there’ll be tremendous pressure to redistribute wealth to take care of the most of the people. Right? And if they don’t do it, they’ll have chaos.
SF: Do you think in some small way it might advertise the madness of the role of the Federal Reserve in our society? You know, people might start to think more closely about just how did the $2 trillion get created?
RS: No. [Laughs] I’ll tell you why. Not that people shouldn’t raise questions about the Federal Reserve, but this time, as opposed to the banking meltdown, the Federal Reserve acted–I don’t want to say appropriately, but did much better. They were even earlier than the Congress to recognize that this is a biggie. A real biggie. And I keep using this language, “redistribution of income.” And the reason I say “redistribution” is because the rich people got it from the rest of the people, OK. [Laughs] You know, you could glorify the robber barons, you could glorify capitalism, but the fact of the matter is, they were in a position to take advantage of situations, exploit it and so forth. It wasn’t just the sweat of their brow.
And there’s a lot of wealth in this society. And you can tell people that have this wealth that you’re going to, you know, you’re going to pay more to make us whole. That’s the only way we’re going to do it. You know, because the people, other people, small businesses and people struggling to get back and hold onto their homes, you ain’t going to be able to raise their taxes. And you’re going to have to keep subsidizing. You’re going to have to have forgiveness on a mortgage, you know, on the payment, and you’re going to have to fund other things. You’ll have to rebuild the whole medical system, resupply it, and you’re going to have costs–people who got ill as a result, people who can’t go back to work, you know. People who lost resources and lost loved ones, and are shattered and so forth. And you’re going to have to pay for it. And it’s not going to be because you suddenly read a book by somebody, or adopted a label, or thought, “That’s nice.” You’re going to do it out of necessity, because otherwise people are going to overthrow you. They’re going to make your life miserable, you know.
And this word “revolution” is not just some empty idea. We have revolutions–we have scientific revolutions, we have medical revolutions, we have economic revolutions, you know. And that’s true in China as well as here. The reason China is a communist country, by the way, is because the previous governments failed to address the poverty of China. When it was only four or 500 million people, they failed to address it. Now you got these so-called communists–I mean, everybody talks about this marriage of communism and capitalism, but you got a Communist Party, and they know if they don’t address the needs of almost 1.4 billion people–1.3, 1.4 billion people as opposed to four or 500 million people that Chiang Kai-shek failed to address, and then the emperors and everything before him–they’re toast. The Communist Party in China will be toast if it does not, post-plague, deal with questions of making this mass of people that have been hurt by this more than the wealthiest people, whole. If it doesn’t address their needs, if it doesn’t help them get back in the game.
Well, that’s true in this country in spades, because we at least have the illusion of democracy and elections and everything else. And you will not be able as a political candidate to talk about anything but how you make us whole. Anything else will be a cop-out. They don’t want to hear about what you’re going to do in Syria, you know. And they don’t want to hear about, you know, some plan of getting us closer to God and getting rid of the homosexuals. Or, you know, Roe v. Wade and ending a woman’s right to abort–that will just be seen as obvious obfuscation and noise. People want to know, how are you going to make us feel economically safe, medically safe, secure in our communities? That’s what they’re going to want to know.
SF: As we edge closer towards the election, for instance, do you feel that there will be some reassessment of President Trump? And are you seeing any other candidates that are kind of–
RS: You know, we’re at the beginning of this. We’re early in the plague in California. It’s not over in New York and lots of other places. So, you know, this is–I don’t know how this is going to work out. I don’t know what missteps the Trump administration might make, or what good things they might do. I don’t know how long he could take this, you know–the endurance of someone his age, and you know he’s into the middle of it. You know, you can’t accuse him of being an absentee president. He’s hands on, you know? And you know, but you can’t control science, you can’t control reality, you can’t control, you know, what’s going to happen here.
So I don’t know how he’s going to look a few months from now. I think if the democrats put up somebody like Cuomo, who’s been in the trenches, or Gavin Newsom, our governor in California, I think Gavin Newsom could beat Trump. I think Cuomo could beat Trump.
Because they are activist governors, who acted with alacrity, with spirit. I think it’s going to be hard for Bernie to recapture any momentum, because you know, the Democratic Party’s got it locked in, you know, for Biden. I think Biden would be a disaster as a candidate, because he’s just a carping critic from the sidelines who, you know, after all, had a lot of time as vice president to prepare us for an emergency. [unclear] I don’t want to get into all that.
Look, the problem with the mass media is that–and there’s some truth to what Trump, President Trump says. They are so hostile to this president that it’s difficult for them to take the true measure of the man. And by the way, you know, I have my–I think that Trump has at times been a neofascist in his baiting of, say, people from Mexico, and his, you know, jingoism. And even naming this illness “the Chinese virus” is an invitation to vicious chauvinism, jingoism, hostility. And actually Asians are being beaten up in America because of Trump’s rhetoric. So he’s irresponsible and so forth, in a major way. And by the way, one of the contradictions so far–so far–is that Mexico, which has taken a different approach, and I hope for their sake that it works. They haven’t been doing the sheltering in place, and all that. But nonetheless, there’s been relatively few people crossing over from Mexico into the United States carrying this virus. Far more from the United States have gone to Mexico carrying the virus. That much I think we can state with some clarity. So the virus is much more present in Mexico. So you know, his jingoism is appalling, it’s dangerous, it’s scapegoating, and it is neofascist. I’m not giving him a pass at all.
However, the media can’t give the guy any credit at all. And that just makes for bad reporting. The fact of the matter is that he has grown to the challenge. He’s risen to the challenge. And that he is acting energetically, he is on the case, and he has a considerable list of achievements, you know. And one of his achievements, he said screw the private sector if it can’t deliver. Now he’s saying that as a businessman who had to deal with the private sector. So when he said to GM, if you don’t get those things going in the next, you know, 20 hours, I’m going to do it another way. Now, they got it going pretty fast, you know, the ventilators, but not fast enough, and he still invoked the [Defense Production] Act, OK.
So he used the big stick here, like Teddy Roosevelt. He said, you’re going to do it. I would rather you did it your own way, private, blah blah blah. But if you don’t do it, we’re there. The Army Corps of Engineers is coming in and mobilizing. And the good thing, by the way, so far, his mobilization of the military has not been to regiment us–he may come to that–not been to force us into our houses, but to build hospitals, to help maintain order, and so forth. And put it, by the way, under the control of governors. So, so far, his use of the military–you know, Biden said “Use the military!” But how you use the military–use the military to ferry masks and ventilators, and you know, and so forth, that’s a good thing. So I think Trump has been given a bad deal by the media. I think the White House press corps, on display there, are basically doing a lot of nitpicking questions. And really often it’s Trump that reminds us of the larger picture, the chaos, the death, the fear that’s out there. And they’re doing a lot of gotcha journalism. A lot of the reporting of MSNBC and CNN and everything does not honor a great press tradition, in my view.
Now, I do want to say something positive about where we are. The internet is–I’ve said this in my book–is the best and the worst of all worlds. And we know the worst; we know about fake news, we know about hysteria. Actually, that hasn’t been on very vivid display during this crisis. We haven’t really seen chaos-producing reports, in the main, from the internet. Most people are using the internet in a very sensible way. And that brings me to my other view of the internet; it is not only the worst, but it’s the best of all worlds. You know, and the only reason we’re not going absolutely nuts now is that we have the internet. You know, if that whole thing should crash–and after all, the internet was developed as a way of keeping communications in the event of an all-out nuclear war. It was a Defense Department program, OK? And it’s proving its mettle. Because we have the internet, I’m able to talk to you, I’m able to get information, I’m able to read scientific journals, I’m able to talk to my students, and it’s kept our sanity. This is a great moment, time, for a celebration of the internet.
And the negatives have really been disproportionately small compared to the positives. We’re learning a great deal about how, where our neighbors are, our families. We do, here, we do–I forget the name of the particular program, but we also do FaceTime, we do Skyping and Zooming and everything. And so people are able to keep in touch with their grandparents that are in nursing homes and are near death. You know, we’re able to keep communication, we’re able to learn, we’re able to improve our behavior. And I think if there’s something positive to be said about this time, it’s that the internet–net neutral, net neutrality, people having access to it–I think we put too much emphasis on all the negative things about the internet. So let’s end this interview, which we’re only able to do because of the internet. Why don’t we really cheer the existence of this technology?