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Tomgram: Liz Theoharis, Making Sense of Mass Abandonment Amid Abundance

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

To my mind, the single most shocking thing in recent weeks wasn't Donald Trump's never-ending rants about election fraud or the fact that 60% to 80% of Republicans doubt that Election 2020 was a fair one or that Rudy Giuliani became the latest presidential associate to end up with Covid-19. It was a Rand Corporation study showing that, between 1975 and 2018, the equivalent of $2.5 trillion (no, not "billion"!) was transferred annually from the bottom 90% of Americans to the top 1%. (In those years, even the 2% to 9%-ers essentially twiddled their financial thumbs.) Such a transfer of wealth, close to $50 trillion, should stagger the imagination.

And yet, unbelievably enough, in this Covid-19 year of ours, America's billionaires have simply continued to add to their treasure trove in an overwhelming fashion as significant parts of that 90% went down hard. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, between March and September, in the midst of a devastating pandemic, the net worth of America's 643 richest people rose from $2.95 trillion to $3.8 trillion. It's since topped $4 trillion and a new study suggests that those billionaires could make out $3,000 stimulus checks to everyone in this country and not have a cent less than they had when the pandemic began. And yet, at this moment, with millions of Americans out of work, Congress can barely imagine offering them, at best, the most minimal kind of helping hand, though its generosity when it comes to the Pentagon budget is beyond compare. In such a context, TomDispatch regular Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, offers a suggestion about what the remarkably speedy hunt for a Covid-19 vaccine shows might be possible when it comes to the inequality that may be the most striking aspect of American life in the twenty-first century. Tom

Pandemic Lessons for the Rest of Us
Or Vaccine Thinking Applied to All of American Life
By Liz Theoharis

Martin Luther King, Jr., offered this all-too-relevant comment on his moment in his 1967 speech "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?":

"The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent."

King concluded that American society was degrading human life by clinging to old thinking rather than turning to bold, visionary solutions -- words that (sadly enough) ring even truer in our day than in his.

In late October as the coronavirus pandemic raged, the Economic Policy Institute released a study showing that it isn't just morally right but an economic necessity to deal with poverty in this country and fast. "If America does not address what's happening with visionary social and economic policy," as that study put it, "the health and well-being of the nation are at stake. What we need is long-term economic policy that establishes justice, promotes the general welfare, rejects decades of austerity, and builds strong social programs that lift society from below."

Even as, almost two months later, we remain trapped in an unprecedented crisis of spreading illness, there is increasingly clear evidence that, were those in power to make other choices, we would no longer need to live burdened by the social ills of old. Oddly enough, because of the Covid-19 crisis, we're being reminded (or at least should be reminded) that, in reality, solutions to many of the most pressing issues of our day are readily at hand if those issues were prioritized and the attention and resources of society directed toward them. In a moment overflowing with lessons, one of the least discussed is that scarcity is a lie, a political invention used to cover up vast reserves of capital and technology facilitating the enrichment of the few and justifying the pain and dispossession of so many others. Our present reality could perhaps best be described as mass abandonment amid abundance.

Indeed, the myth of scarcity, like other neoliberal fantasies, is regularly ignored when politically expedient and conjured up when the rich and powerful need help. The pandemic has been no exception. Over the last nine months, the wealth of American billionaires has actually increased by a third to nearly $4 trillion, even as tens of millions of Americans have filed for unemployment and more evictions loom than ever before in U.S. history. Now, politicians in Washington are haggling over a "compromise" relief bill that offers little in the way of actual relief, especially for those suffering the most.

At the same time, with the health of everyone, not just the poor and marginalized, at risk, the government has proven itself remarkably capable of mobilizing the necessary resources for decisive and historic action when it comes to producing a Covid-19 vaccine in record time. That the same could be done when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable and abolishing poverty should be obvious, if only the nation saw that, too, as a crisis worthy of attention.

Where There's a Will, There's a Way

In 1918, with an influenza pandemic raging in the United States, cities closed down and doctors prescribed painkillers like aspirin as a national debate (remarkably similar to the present one) raged over the necessity of quarantine and masks. At that time, the country simply had to wait for those who were infected to die or develop immunity. Before it was over (in a far less populous land), at least 675,000 Americans perished, more than in every one of our wars since the Civil War combined.

A century later, when the Covid-19 pandemic exploded this March, the country ground to a similar terrifying halt, but under different conditions: for one thing, the shutdown was accompanied by the promise that the government would invest billions of dollars in a potentially successful vaccine produced far faster than any ever before. Nine months later, after the Trump administration had funneled those billions into research and had guaranteed the manufacture and purchase of viable vaccines (radically reducing the business risk to pharmaceutical companies in the process), it appears that we are indeed there. Last month, multiple companies released trial data for just such vaccines that seem to be nearly 95% effective; and Great Britain has, in fact, just rolled out the first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine with the U.S. not far behind. On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer's vaccine for emergency use.

A long list of grave questions remains when it comes to the oversight of, and accountability of, those private companies that now hold the health of the world in their hands. Already, the British government has granted Pfizer, which stands to earn billions by beating the competition to market, legal indemnity from any complications that may arise from its vaccine, and the Trump administration has made similar agreements. Much also remains uncertain when it comes to how American-produced vaccines will be fairly distributed, here and across the world, and whether they will be safe, effective, and free. (I recently signed onto a public letter to the incoming Biden administration calling for a "people's vaccine.")

Still, it does seem that the historic speed with which this novel virus could eventually be curbed by just such a vaccine (or set of them) is likely to prove astonishing. Historically, on average, successful vaccines have taken 10 to 14 years to develop. Until now, the fastest effective one ever produced was the mumps vaccine and that took four years. Nearly as remarkable is how so many people have received the news of the coming of those coronavirus vaccines as if it were the norm. If anything, in a time of constant, rapid technological revolution, there's a noticeable impatience, stoked by Donald Trump and others, that it's taken this long.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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