Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) addressed the financial, social and political challenges posed by the novel coronavirus in a webinar hosted by the Graduate School of Business (GSB) Corporations and Society Initiative on Wednesday. The conversation, mediated by first-year GSB student Susannah Shattuck, spanned corporate and government responsibilities to essential workers, the weakening of the American public health system and voting rights protections for the upcoming presidential election.
Brown, who wears a pin of a caged canary on the Senate floor as a “reminder of how far the country has come from the days when workers could only count on each other,” described the pandemic as laying bare inequities across lines of race and wealth.
Challenges for essential workers
The challenges faced by essential workers and participants in the gig economy dominated the conversation.
The pandemic “shows our faults,” Brown said. One such fault, Brown suggested, is the plight of workers heralded as “essential” but paid and treated as expendable. “The people that are working in $12-, $14- or $15-an-hour jobs are not protected and they’re not paid well,” Brown said.
“They’re paid so little, but we call them essential.” That hypocrisy, said Brown, “in a nutshell, is who we are and what we are as a nation far too often.”
Brown said that the burdens borne by service sector workers disproportionately fall on the shoulders of communities already “most disadvantaged by this economy.”
“These hourly workers are more women than men, and they are more likely to be people of color,” Brown said, pointing to this and other racial disparities. There are now “no excuses for the whole country not recognizing these racial disparities” in income, health and housing, Brown said.
Learning from the global financial crisis
Asked about how lessons learned during the 2008 financial crisis might guide the government’s response to COVID-19, Brown pointed to the importance of direct financial support to local and state governments and individuals.
“We’re putting real dollars into real people’s hands,” Brown said, pointing to the $1,200 stimulus check for most Americans and to the adoption of $600-per-week unemployment benefits as examples of Congress’ strategy of direct aid for individuals.
The emphasis on “putting money into local and state governments” to aid coronavirus relief efforts also represents a departure from Congress’ response to the 2008 financial crisis, according to Brown.
“We didn’t do that in 2009,” Brown said. “I think if we had, it might have had a different political outcome. It might have launched not just 10 years of growth … but 10 years of wage growth.”
For a coronavirus response to successfully incorporate the lessons from the 2008 financial crisis, Brown said, “Our focus has to be on wages. It has to be on workers. It has to be on putting money in people’s pockets.”
Brown also criticized what he described as the impulse of political leaders to “attach strings” to coronavirus relief aid.
“While conservatives representing their interest groups love to talk about local control, they fundamentally don’t really trust people, and they don’t trust local governments to do the right thing,” Brown said.
Brown accused Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) of endorsing aid policies that limit individuals’ ability to “make decisions about what’s best for your community and what’s best for your family.”
“Senator McConnell doesn’t want to send [local governments] money,” Brown said. “But if he’s forced to do it, he wants to attach strings to how they spend it. And the same with poor people.”
“If we really believe in the human spirit and freedom,” Brown said, “you allow [individuals] to make the decisions — what’s best for your community, what’s best for your family.”
Free trade and public health
Brown also criticized free trade agreements as exacerbating the current public health crisis by incentivizing American business to outsource production transcontinentally. Free trade agreements constitute “one reason we were ill-prepared for this pandemic,” Brown contended.
American trade policy under the Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump presidencies “has done immense damage to this country … because frankly, none of them put workers first,” Brown said.
In the past few decades trade policy “has essentially said … ‘You should move overseas, exploit weak environmental laws, enjoy cheap labor and then sell those products back in the United States,’” Brown alleged.
“I blame it on government … I blame it on the media, and I blame it, frankly, on schools like the Stanford Business School who all say that free trade is the greatest thing in the world,” Brown said, “but free trade is all about business. It’s never about workers.”
As coronavirus spread across the U.S., “we didn’t have enough companies in the U.S. making masks,” Brown said. “We didn’t have enough companies making cotton swabs. We didn’t have enough companies doing all the kinds of things you need to do to address a pandemic.”
In contrast, the U.S. incentivizes domestic production “for national defense,” Brown said. “We figured out that you don’t really want foreign countries making your planes and tanks. We ought to figure out that we don’t want foreign countries … making equipment you need to combat a pandemic.”
Brown acknowledged that public health funding has stalled for a decade under both the Trump and Obama administrations but characterized as problematic a broader pattern of neglect toward the American public health system under the Trump presidency.
Brown pointed to the 2018 departure from the Trump administration of Admiral Timothy Ziemer, whose “job it was to look for epidemics and potential epidemics way before they could become pandemics,” as evidence of the deprioritization of public health in the U.S.
“We went from the world’s best, most admired, most principled public health country — I’d say — in the history of the world, to sort of back of the bus,” Brown said.
Looking to November and beyond
Restoring the American public health system, said Brown, is one of several important issues at stake in the upcoming presidential election, which Brown also characterized as a “referendum on the president’s handling of the virus.”
“There are really big things we need to be thinking about,” Brown said. “Especially on climate, and especially … in income, wealth, race and class disparities.”
With these issues in the balance, “I am convinced that a majority of the country will vote against Donald Trump,” Brown said. “I am also convinced that this president will try to cheat” through “institutionalized voter suppression.”
Asked how to ensure a safe and fair election under unpredictable conditions posed by the pandemic, Brown pointed to three kinds of measures: extensive vote-by-mail options, early voting opportunities and the assurance of safe conditions at in-person polling stations.
“We need to make sure that everybody can vote by mail,” Brown said. “Voting by mail is safe. Trump is just a liar, again, about that.”
Brown also suggested a three- or four-week early voting period as a best practice for free and accessible elections.
“We do those things, we win,” Brown predicted. “I think we’re going to win by a big enough margin [to] shine the light on any kind of shenanigans and misbehavior by people that don’t think voting rights are sacred.”
Brown also encouraged Stanford students and community members to pursue “a life of justice” beyond this election cycle.
The next generation of public leaders, Brown said, will be tasked with “making this country a better place, to help us eliminate racial disparities and class disparities and to help us deal with the climate and the great moral issues of our time.”
Contact Jackie O’Neil at jroneil ‘at’ stanford.edu.