If you've been thinking, Gosh darn it, why doesn't anyone ever ask obscenely rich, privileged people what they'd like us to be doing in response to the coronavirus crisis?, you just got your wish: Vanity Fair's William D. Cohan now brings us the voices of the unheard.
Since no one seems to be consulting Wall Street bankers and traders about when and how to reopen the economy, I convened an impromptu circle of Wall Streeters I know well to get their views. The consensus among them is: We can’t continue any longer in lockdown mode. Something has to give, because more than 36 million newly unemployed Americans are not going to be able to pay their monthly bills, feed their families, or maintain their mental health if the economy remains shut. And the problems are only going to get worse the longer so many Americans are out of work.
It seems to have escaped Cohan's notice that the Republican Party and the Trump administration seem to be listening exclusively to plutocrats who say exactly this. Those plutocrats, admittedly, are from elesewhere in the country, not Wall Street. But I'm struggling to feel sorry for the Wall Streeters as a result.
They reference United Nations’ projections that 250 million people could be on the brink of starvation by the end of the year.
The number is actually 265 million people, according to an April 21 story in The Guardian. But that's up from the usual 130 million people. Funny, I never knew a Wall Streeter to express any discomfort about 130 million people starving worldwide. But 265 million? I guess that's where they draw the line!
They also cite a report by the Stop TB Partnership that if the COVID-19 lockdowns continue that an additional 1.4 million people will die from tuberculosis because they will be unable to get treatment.
Yes, and the Stop TB Partnership's remedy for that is a continued focus on TB monitoring, testing, and treatment, even through the crisis. The group doesn't say this increase is inevitable or that we have to accept mass death from COVID-19 as the price we pay for keeping TB deaths at their usual level.
Do you find it a tad suspicious that these Wall Streeters spontaneously responded to Cohan's questions with heart-tugging but little-known statisics about global health, as if they sit around their Hamptons homes every day reading WHO reports? Why, if I were a cynical man, I'd suspect that they reagarded Cohen's article as an opportunity to propagandize in favor of what they believe will make them more money, and sent surrogates out in search of tear-jerking stats that would make their entirely selfish point.
“Saving lives versus saving jobs is the wrong debate,” says one senior Wall Street banker. “Isn’t there a middle ground?... How many lives are you willing to spend to bring the economy back to maintain people’s standard of living? How many lives are we willing to risk? How do you put a price on a life? Many lives were lost preserving American Democracy in the fight against Nazi Germany. There was no moral high ground then. And now they are remembered as the Greatest Generation.”
We're being lectured on life-and-death courage by a man who's afraid to let a sympathetic reporter use his name.
Admittedly, not every one of Cohan's interviewees is so reticent:
Kim Fennebresque, a longtime Wall Street investment banker, has had successful stints at First Boston, Lazard (where I met him), UBS, and as the former CEO of Cowen & Co., a small, independent investment bank. He’s had enough health issues lately to make him especially vulnerable to COVID-19, if he were to contract it. Nevertheless, Fennebresque believes the time has come to open up the economy, especially in those regions of the country where, so far anyway, it has had less of a devastating impact. He agrees the debate has been poorly framed. “In terms of money versus lives, it really reduces it to a silly trade-off, because that’s not what it is,” he says “People will die. People do die. People my age die. It happens, right? It can happen with a flu epidemic. People can die. People have to take care of themselves and wash their hands. People have to stay in and do lots of things, and 5,000 people can’t go running to a beach the day it opens. You do that and it has consequences. People have to take responsibility for their own lives. And people do die. That is kind of what happens.”
Fennebresque is 70 years old. He used to be a hotshot, but now he mostly sits on boards. I bet he never has to leave the house to communicate with fellow board members. He certainly doesn't have to ride the subway in a hot zone (I wonder if he ever rode the subway) or work in a meatpacking plant or cubicle farm with inadequate to nonexistent social distancing.
Fennebresque also goes on to compare this to war ("When Eisenhower and Churchill sat and talked about D-Day they said, You know, how many people did we lose? 150,000? 200,000? What? 50,000? 100,000?") I should note that even though he appears to have been old enough to be drafted starting in the late 1960s, I see no military service on his C.V.
He worries, too, that “people with no stake in the economy” are talking about keeping it closed, to prevent deaths from the virus, while ignoring the severe plight facing many Americans suddenly thrown out of work. “The politicians have no stake in the economy because they’re going to get paid,” he says. “The journalists on TV, their jobs aren’t at risk. [Anthony] Fauci’s job, not at risk.”
Journalists' jobs aren't at risk? Employment in newspaper newsrooms dropped 51% between 2008 and 2019 -- during an economic recovery. Job losses since the coronavirus hit have been massive. And we all know Anthony Fauci's job is at risk.
You know who never winds up on the unemployment line with no idea where his next meal is coming from? A top-earning Wall Street muckamuck.
I don't want to convey the impression that these Wall Streeters have nothing but grievances. They also have solutions. Fennebresque has some swell ones:
There need to be “clear rules,” he continues, for what people need to do as the economy reopens. When do you wear a face mask? How do people go to the beach, or to a restaurant or to a theater? There have to be fines levied for noncompliance. Health inspectors should not only rate a restaurant’s sanitary condition but also how compliant it is with the new rules regarding physical distancing and food preparation. He also thinks simple technical innovations should be implemented. For instance, he went out to dinner the other night near his home in Florida and he and the people he was with wiped down the table, chairs, and silverware. “Then they bring me a leather-bound menu,” he says. “Well, you know what? The menus should all be on my phone. Every restaurant should have their menu on the phone so I can look at it. What do you do with the bill? They bring the bill in one of those little leather containers that closes the bill and I put the credit card in it. They shouldn’t be touching my credit card. They should have a way to do it.... we really do have to have enforcement of whatever the rules are.”
Really? Ya think?
And how is that supposed to happen when Fox News and the dominant political party in America -- folks who listen to Wall Streeters a hell of a lot more than they listen to grouchy liberals, or even to Dr. Fauci -- are rousing the rabble with the notion that any enforcement of health restrictions is jackbooted tyranny? Did Cohan ask Fennebresque how they're supposed to have enforcement and "clear rules" in Michigan, for instance, when so many Michiganders respond to any restraints whatsoever on their behavior by brandishing AR-15s?
Another longtime Wall Street banker agrees the economy needs to get back up and running.... The policy response for opening back up should reflect that reality. “The right thing is to reopen geographically,” he says, “and then I think it becomes somewhat a thing of a voluntary nature as to who decides to, come back and work or not. I don’t think you can hold it against employees who don’t.”
People should return to work, but I don’t think you can hold it against employees who don’t. Really? Who wants to tell this guy, who presumably has never missed a meal in his life, how uneployment works?
Cohan quotes Fennebresque again:
But to those people willing to listen, he would say, “We can’t shut down the country for some minuscule number of people. This is not a 100% death rate. It’s a number of basis points.”
That's what your life is to this schmuck, along with the lives of all the other at-risk people in America: basis points. That says it all.
Posted with permission from No More Mr. Nice Blog