by Eddie Kim
The government put us in this position by failing to prepare and provide aid. Now they want small businesses and workers to carry the load of the recovery?
The money disappeared before my parents ever had a chance. Turns out, $350 billion isn’t much under the weight of a COVID-19 pandemic that’s reshaping the American economy. My dad laughs as he tells me their little Italian restaurant in a Hawaii suburb, a 40-minute drive from downtown Honolulu, feels like a metaphoric dinghy in a storm.
We don’t know what to do with the news that Congress is set to approve $310 billion more for the Paycheck Protection Program, which is supposed to help small businesses survive the pandemic through forgivable loans with certain conditions, namely keeping your employees hired. Their loan application remains in the queue, with no word on when money might arrive. Many think the funds will disappear as quickly as the first round, if not faster.
It’s hard to parse out whether people are even getting the money in good faith. Sure, corporate behemoths like Ruth’s Chris and Eataly got caught red-handed and are now pledging to return the tens of millions they swiftly received. But so many capitalists are treating the stimulus like a money-grab free-for-all, with the most dollars going to those with the cleverest paperwork and fattest accounts at the bank, not to those who need the money most urgently to protect workers and family livelihoods.
It hardly seems to matter that the government is getting some money back, or that class-action lawsuits have been filed against the major banks for unethical preferential treatment. The situation was always a shell game. It’s not really about whether there’s enough money. More than 175 publicly traded companies received $650 million-plus in forgivable loans, with little to no oversight on whether they actually need it, according to CNN. “I don’t think the bill was really targeted at the small guys,” as Penn Wharton economist Richard Prisinzano told CNN.
This is the context in which several politicians and business leaders are calling for the “reopening” of businesses, even in the face of outcry from public health experts. People are literally out here saying that saving the economy is more important than saving lives, and while that’s an easily mockable opinion, it’s an opinion that’s starting to catch on. Without aid nor much long-term direction from the government, a lot of business owners are starting to peek their heads out and wonder whether they have any other choice but to open the till again — and soon. Allowing businesses to reopen now, under loose and unclear guidelines (as in Georgia), is to place people at a fork in the road that will inevitably cost lives. That’s how the pandemic riddle works.
Who really benefits from reopening the economy in such rapidly changing waters, with little clarity on what assistance regular people can get? What does it mean to reopen “safely” when we don’t even have widespread COVID testing? How do we consider the benefit for workers and employers when so many employers still screw their workers over because of loose rules on protections during the pandemic?
I was mulling these questions when I stumbled across a viral message from a “restaurant owner in Georgia” that seemed to articulate the trap small business owners could fall in:
And this made me see it: Reopening the economy, as currently designed, is basically a glorified pyramid scheme. The smoke and mirrors around what’s going on, the domino-effect way people are compelled to participate, and the way money funnels and concentrates at the top — these are symptoms of a pyramid scheme. And, like in a true scam, it’s the people at the bottom of the pyramid who lose most often and have the most to lose.
Can you see it, too? Wall Street wants the markets to recover. Creditors and landlords want money to flow again. A governor’s order pressures mayors to follow suit, lest they be judged unfavorably by a money-starved electorate; that convinces large employers to take the risk in a bid to beat their vulnerable competitors. Opening businesses means recruiting customers; that leaves more workers on the front lines, carrying the burden of infection with few avenues for recourse if they do get sick. The end of quarantine will mean the end of higher wages and “catastrophe pay” for essential workers, as well as roadblocks to employer paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Act. And losing money means it’s less of a choice to keep yourself safe at home and more of a consequence…