How to Negotiate With People Who Don’t Care If You Die

Source: In These Times

It is Sep­tem­ber. The pan­dem­ic is still rag­ing. As a result, the real econ­o­my (if not the stock mar­ket) is still being gut­ted by bank­rupt­cies, small busi­ness fail­ures and unem­ploy­ment. The term ​K shaped recov­ery” has been coined to describe the path we are pro­ceed­ing down, in which the wealthy expe­ri­ence an easy, upwards ​V shaped” recov­ery after the spring’s momen­tary slow­down, while every­one else expe­ri­ences a con­tin­ued down­ward slope into pover­ty. State and local bud­gets across the coun­try are bro­ken. The win­ter will like­ly cause anoth­er surge in virus cas­es. Our only hope is anoth­er fed­er­al stim­u­lus bill big enough to car­ry us through the crisis.

So nat­u­ral­ly, we seem to be doomed.

You may recall that just a few months ago, the pas­sage of anoth­er big fed­er­al stim­u­lus bill was seen as a fore­gone con­clu­sion. The CARES Act, which passed in March and did a decent job of staving off some of the worst effects of the ini­tial coro­n­avirus shut­downs, was clear­ly not going to last long enough, after the White House’s ​ignore the pan­dem­ic” approach failed to make Covid mag­i­cal­ly dis­ap­pear. The House passed the $3 tril­lion HEROES Act in May, a bill appro­pri­ate­ly sized for the scale of our cur­rent cri­sis. It extend­ed both direct cash stim­u­lus pay­ments to fam­i­lies, and the $600 week­ly unem­ploy­ment bonus — a ben­e­fit that has sin­gle­hand­ed­ly saved mil­lions of Amer­i­cans from finan­cial dis­as­ter, and has enabled spend­ing that has kept much of our econ­o­my afloat. It also includ­ed mon­ey for haz­ard pay, loan for­give­ness, and assis­tance on hous­ing pay­ments. And, cru­cial­ly, it con­tained hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars to fill the bud­get holes in state and local gov­ern­ments, so that pub­lic ser­vices don’t start shut­ting down. It is the bill that should have passed already, in a sane world.

We do not live in a sane world. The HEROES Act was nev­er going to make it through the Repub­li­can-led Sen­ate. We all knew that. We knew that there would be a process of win­now­ing that bill down to a small­er size that every­one could grudg­ing­ly agree on. But the real pur­pose of this col­umn is to dis­cuss the fact that it is now Sep­tem­ber — and not only have we not passed anoth­er stim­u­lus bill, but it’s look­ing increas­ing­ly like­ly that Con­gress will not pass any new stim­u­lus bill before the Novem­ber pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Which is — speak­ing sole­ly from the per­spec­tive of some­one who believes that unnec­es­sar­i­ly impov­er­ish­ing tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans is an unde­sir­able pol­i­cy goal — insane.

Since the Democ­rats passed the HEROES Act, Nan­cy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, their lead­ers in the House and Sen­ate, have been play­ing hard­ball in nego­ti­a­tions with the Repub­li­cans. This has not proven to be suc­cess­ful. As is often the case, the Democ­rats find them­selves being on the right side of the pol­i­cy argu­ment in the­o­ry, but com­plete­ly inef­fec­tu­al in mate­r­i­al real­i­ty. The Repub­li­cans ini­tial­ly coun­tered with a $1 tril­lion pack­age, and the Democ­rats fig­ured they could land at $2 tril­lion, split­ting the dif­fer­ence. Instead, the lat­est Repub­li­can coun­terof­fer has been cut in half again, to about $500 bil­lion — and even that may not get enough Repub­li­can votes to pass. Mean­while, mil­lions of peo­ple suf­fer with­out the ben­e­fits they need to sur­vive, and count­less busi­ness­es get clos­er to clos­ing for­ev­er, and munic­i­pal gov­ern­ments pre­pare to slash ser­vices out of neces­si­ty. All of which will only make the sit­u­a­tion for most peo­ple even worse.

It is not easy to nego­ti­ate with peo­ple who are will­ing to let the world burn. Repub­li­cans are not even will­ing to tell their con­stituents to wear masks that might con­trol the pan­dem­ic that is destroy­ing their liveli­hoods and endan­ger­ing their health. There is no chance that Mitch McConnell and Mark Mead­ows will be per­suad­ed to agree to an ade­quate stim­u­lus pack­age out of a sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty for mass nation­al suf­fer­ing. But in this case, Democ­rats do not have the lux­u­ry of being moral­ly right while fail­ing to get a bill passed. We need a fuck­ing bill. At min­i­mum, we need a bill that res­cues state and local gov­ern­ments and con­tin­ues enhanced unem­ploy­ment pay­ments while pro­vid­ing some mon­ey to tide over busi­ness­es to pre­vent mass bank­rupt­cies. Fail­ure to get these things, in some form, will cause a long and deep reces­sion that will sen­tence mil­lions of non-rich peo­ple to anoth­er lost decade, as the rich get rich­er. We need some­thing right now, because peo­ple are des­per­ate. So Pelosi and Schumer need to reimag­ine what their lever­age is, in a more real­is­tic way.

How do you nego­ti­ate mean­ing­ful­ly with peo­ple who don’t mind if every­thing goes to hell? By putting pres­sure on them, per­son­al­ly and direct­ly. A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Con­gres­sion­al Repub­li­cans are okay with let­ting you be evict­ed, starve, and catch a dead­ly dis­ease. As long as the stock mar­ket hasn’t crashed, the entire Repub­li­can donor base is on the good side of the ​K shaped” recov­ery. The rest of us are on the bad side.

Pelosi and Schumer mis­cal­cu­lat­ed their lever­age by fail­ing to take into account what inequal­i­ty has done to this coun­try. We live in two nations, rich and non-rich, sep­a­rate and unequal, and if the non-rich nation col­laps­es into great suf­fer­ing, that is not the con­cern of the Repub­li­can Par­ty, which works for the rich nation. There­fore Repub­li­can lead­ers feel no great pres­sure to pre­vent such suf­fer­ing by pass­ing an ade­quate bill. One way or anoth­er, they need to be made to feel the suf­fer­ing of the bot­tom two-thirds of the income dis­tri­b­u­tion, who they do not work for. Tra­di­tion­al­ly that has been done through street protests and riots and a lev­el of social chaos that grows so dire that even the rich can’t tol­er­ate it. Of course, the reac­tion to that unrest from the right is often to dial up police oppres­sion, rather than to solve the under­ly­ing social prob­lems. If all of this sounds famil­iar, it’s because it describes what we are all liv­ing through right now.

The Democ­rats must rec­og­nize that their lever­age is not in the halls of Con­gress. It’s in the streets. Time to stop dis­avow­ing it, and start embrac­ing it. If the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment lets months go by with­out com­ing to the aid of peo­ple who now have nowhere else to turn, the chaos will be all that peo­ple have left.


Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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