We Wish to Inform You That Your Death Is Highly Profitable

To Trump, our illnesses and deaths are a necessary cost of doing business

Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Have you heard the good news? Donald Trump is suggesting our freeze on businesses as a measure to curb coronavirus may end as soon as Monday. Yes, allowing people to go back to work could lead to more widespread infection, but the deaths of a few hundred thousand — if not a few million — more of us is a small price to pay for rescuing the American economy from collapse. In the president’s words, “we can’t have the cure be worse than the problem itself.”

Trump’s message is clear: The economy is not here to serve human beings; human beings are here to serve the economy. Those of us who die in service to the Dow Jones Industrial Average are mere externalities to the higher priority of capital growth. Like the destruction of the environment, our illnesses and deaths are a necessary cost of doing business. We cannot surrender to the depressing verdicts of doctors and scientists, lest we deflate the hope and optimism that make America great.

Those who will benefit most from our sacrifice — the billionaires whose fortunes are based almost solely on the economy’s continuing ability to grow — are already preparing for their escape. They’re booking private jets, ready to depart for their isolated doomsday compounds once they feel they themselves are at genuine risk.

It’s a variation on the “insulation equation” I wrote about a couple of years ago after meeting a group of billionaires who wanted advice on how to maintain security for their doomsday bunkers in the event of societal collapse. The object of the game, as they see it, is to earn enough money to insulate themselves from the very damage their ventures have both directly and indirectly created in the first place. It’s a self-perpetuating nightmare: The more environmental and social damage they do, the more money they must earn to protect themselves from the devastation they leave in their wake. And the more committed they become to saving their asses and leaving the rest of behind when a real crisis emerges.

Like the destruction of the environment, our illnesses and deaths are a necessary cost of doing business.

To be fair, this worldview is a natural extension of a market ideology that already accepted human casualties as a metric on the balance sheet. As Trump fairly argued, “you look at automobile accidents, which are far greater than any numbers we’re talking about. That doesn’t mean we’re going to tell everybody, ‘No more driving of cars.’” We calculate the relative cost of human lives every day as we go about our business, and we accept the trade-off between, say, the cost of making an automobile safe and the need to make it profitable.

This is, in certain respects, the American way. As Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick told Tucker Carlson on Monday, “No one reached out to me and said, ‘as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’… If that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” The underlying premise is simple: Our coronavirus shutdown stalls the God-ordained expansion of the U.S. economy. It is a misguided preservation of the weak and elderly. Are we really going to let our great market go belly up?

This is a quasi-fascist worldview, where we stop forcing ourselves to make decisions on behalf of the losers, and start making them on behalf of the winners. Besides, as Ayn Rand taught us, the more we cater to the weak, the more we weaken ourselves as a society and gene pool. This is natural selection.

Of course, most of the people arguing we take these public health risks are themselves in little or no danger at all. They’ve got private concierge doctors working around the clock to obtain the necessary tests and ventilators should they not make it to their hideaways in time. No, the risks are entirely borne by those of us who can’t afford such measures. It’s a lot easier for the wealthy to hang on to their positivity.

To be fair, though, there’s an internal logic to this approach — one as old as the American spirit of optimism. When Trump tore into a TV reporter who asked that he respond to Americans who fear for their lives, he wasn’t simply obfuscating. He was chastising the press for undermining America’s ability to apply positive thinking to the crisis. “You ought to get back to reporting instead of sensationalism,” Trump replied crossly.

Remember, Donald Trump was raised in the church of Norman Vincent Peale, author of the massively influential The Power of Positive Thinking — source material for every bootstrapping spiritual movement from the “prosperity gospel” to The Secret. From the age of six, Trump sat in the pews with his family at Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church listening to his sermons about how we can create the success we want through visualizing it — as Peale tells it, “formulate and staple indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding” — and never giving in to “fear thoughts.”

At least for Trump and his ilk, the choice to talk and act positively in the face of all evidence to the contrary is not a cynical one. As late as 2009, when he was more than a billion dollars in debt and facing foreclosure, he depended on “the power of being positive.” He told Psychology Today that year, “What helped is I refused to give in to the negative circumstances and never lost faith in myself. I didn’t believe I was finished even when the newspapers were saying so.”

Seen in the very best light, Trump is attempting to apply the power of positive thinking to both the economy and the virus. As far as the stock market is concerned, there’s some sense to this. Markets are emotional. There’s nothing like hope for the future to justify high price/earnings ratios, stoke consumer spending, and spur investment.

But can hope kill the virus? We know the placebo effect is real. Can we think and grow healthy the way Napoleon Hill told us to Think and Grow Rich? That would be reason enough to keep a doom and gloom scientist like Dr. Anthony Fauci off the stage at the press conferences.

But not even Trump is enough of a true believer to believe positive thinking can wipe out the virus single-handedly. It can, however, galvanize our resolve — however foolishly. That’s why he is calling on us to make sacrifices, and to essentially wish the virus away.

For those titans of industry depending on perpetual economic growth, an extended shutdown actually poses a greater risk than meets the eye. The longer we pause from business as usual, the more time we all have to reevaluate the economy we’ve been born into. Yes, we need food, water, shelter, and maybe a communications infrastructure. But not a heck of a lot else. At times like this, we can see the value in farmers, teachers, and doctors… but all those guys in suits going to the city to trade derivatives, make marketing plans, and coordinate global supply chains? Not so much. The real danger here — what the billionaire preppers understand — is that any one of these “black swan” phenomena could be “the event” that destroys our willingness to keep running on the hamster wheel. They want us to go back to work, but for what?

They say it’s to save the economy, but they’re not talking about the real economy of goods and services. The American economy they’re concerned about is based primarily on debt. Banks lend money to businesses who then pay it back, with interest. Where does the interest come from? Growth. Without growth, the whole house of cards comes down, along with the wealthiest among us. We all have to believe in order to keep the hope alive and billionaires in their bunkers.

As far as the ultra-wealthy are concerned, the virus to be afraid of is less a medical challenge than a memetic one. We are waking up to the fact that we’ve been slaves to an exponential growth curve for the past 40 years, at least, and really much much longer. And we’re witnessing how the same exponential growth that gave the billionaires their fortunes is responsible for the fact that 40% of Americans have less than $400 in the bank for an emergency. The need for exponential growth also explains how we surrendered basic manufacturing and food resiliency to tenuous global supply chains. Sure, we can go back to work, but we can’t even make our own respirators.

Imagine if our main reason for returning to work was to make and do the things people actually needed to live good lives, instead of simply doing our part to keep the wealthy safely protected from the rest of us.

Now that’s some positive thinking.

Author of Team Human, Present Shock, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast http://medium.com/team-human

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