Part of COVID-19’s legacy will be the extent to which the pandemic laid bare the fragility of the world’s largest economy and exposed the overlapping nature of the myriad inequities endemic to American society.
America’s economic model is fundamentally precarious, relying as it does on “clipping coupons” from the relatively impoverished masses, who overwhelmingly staff the services sector that comprises the largest part of the economy.
“In the absence of a major disruption, the system is capable of moving along by collecting small installments of rent from a large segment of the population,” Deutsche Bank’s Aleksandar Kocic wrote in April. “However, if an exogenous shock disrupts the fragile order of these cashflows, there is a chain reaction of collective insolvency ready to sink the entire system.”
Economic precarity tends to feed on itself. In America, it’s commingled with discrimination based on race and gender. The end result is a self-fulfilling prophecy defined by ongoing socioeconomic deterioration.
That backdrop is ripe for exploitation, especially when the masses fail to identify with one another as exploited members of a downtrodden super-majority, and instead see themselves primarily as belonging to disparate groups defined by race, religion, and creed.
COVID-19 might have catalyzed a national awakening among various demographic cohorts who share equally in the economic injustices of a capitalist system gone rogue had it not been for Donald Trump’s exhaustive efforts to stoke racial tensions and keep society divided.
The protests against inequality over the summer showed that Americans are capable of the kind of collective action that can bring about real change, but as Trump’s share of the vote in November attests, American “values” aren’t what we often claim. As I put it just past midnight when the election was still too close to call, the combination of Trump’s tediously cultivated mythos as the embodiment of the American capitalist dream with Trumpism‘s menu of quick fixes and implicit promise to safeguard what many white males believe is their inherent “right” to occupy a higher social stratum than women and minorities, you end up with a platform that is, unfortunately, wholly consistent with American “values.”
You could argue the other side — that the historic number of votes for Biden was evidence that Trumpism is not “who we are,” so to speak.
But that argument doesn’t account for the fact that Trump’s entire presidency was an abject failure. The first two years were spent under the shadow of an investigation into whether his campaign colluded with a hostile foreign power, the latter part of 2019 was consumed by congressional testimony which overwhelmingly demonstrated that he attempted to leverage US military aid to compel a foreign government to investigate a political rival, and the entire four years were spent fighting a trade war that dead-ended last month with China’s bilateral trade surplus sitting at an all-time record high, according to data out Monday.
And all of that is to say nothing of the 282,000 Americans (and counting) who perished during the pandemic, which ushered in the worst economic collapse seen since the Great Depression.
Not all of the above is Trump’s fault, but most of it is, and even if you think none of it belongs on his shoulders, it’s objectively true that he exacerbated virtually every bad situation with unnecessary tweets and provocations. Indeed, the Mueller probe likely wouldn’t have gone on for as long as it did had Trump not provided ongoing fodder for an obstruction case against himself by constantly commenting publicly on the probe.
In this context, it’s astounding that anyone voted for Trump last month. He presided over the most chaotic administration in modern history which included an impeachment, two arguable stock bear markets (February 2018, December 2018), one epic Wall Street collapse (March 2020), the only depression most living humans have ever witnessed, and a literal plague. The fact that he garnered as many votes as he did despite all of that is evidence that tens of millions of Americans are enamored with Trumpism. And, yes, part of that comes down to a desire to preserve white, male privilege.
As America looks ahead to what one hopes will be better days, I think it’s important that everyone admits the country suffers from a chronic incapacity to engage in self-reflection.
While perusing what amounted to a set of policy prescriptions for lawmakers set out by JPMorgan’s policy group in a recent document shared with the Biden transition team, I came across some statistics I wanted to highlight. These aren’t “new” and this isn’t “news,” but that’s precisely the point — that’s what “endemic” means.
“For every dollar the median white family earns, the median black family earns just 71 cents, and the median Latinx family earns 74 cents,” Heather Higginbottom, President of the Chase PolicyCenter remarked.
“Racial gaps in liquid assets are twice as large,” she added, noting that “for every dollar of liquid assets held by white families, the median black family has just 32 cents, and the median Latinx family just 47 cents.”
It is virtually impossible to argue those figures are somehow not the result of systemic racism and chronic inequality of opportunity.
The visual (below) illustrates the first point. What you see in the figure doesn’t just happen by chance. It’s structural.
When it comes to the concentration of assets in the hands of white Americans, the situation is simply egregious. I’ve illustrated the point in a variety of ways over the years, typically using Fed data.
The Chase data referenced by Higginbottom produces a truly disconcerting visual. The figure (below) shows that while income gaps are large, liquid asset concentration disparity is twice as acute for African Americans versus whites.
That’s the breakdown by age group, but as Higginbottom noted, the overall figures show that for every dollar a white family has in a checking account, savings account, money market fund, or CD, an African American family has just 32 cents.
As you can imagine, the situation is even more discouraging when you combine gender and race. For example, for every dollar of liquid assets owned by a white man in America, an African American woman has just 26 cents.
Let that sink in. The median African American woman in the US has just a quarter for every dollar that a white man has.
There is no question in my mind (and there probably shouldn’t be in yours either) that the desire to preserve the state of affairs represented in those visuals is at least in part responsible for what I have subjectively assessed to be a too-large share of the popular vote for Trump if most voters were casting their ballots based solely on job performance or on the merits.
Of course, that assessment begs the question, doesn’t it? What counts as “performance” from an American president? And what are the “merits”? For many voters, those concepts are themselves defined in terms of actions taken and rhetoric employed to perpetuate the attitudes and structural biases that lead to the situation depicted in the visuals.
Frankly, America’s unwillingness to collectively acknowledge the reality of endemic racism and misogyny borders on the pathological. And that steadfast refusal to acknowledge reality is part of what’s driving disadvantaged groups to protest in the streets.
Critically, Americans would do well to wake up to the fact that the vast majority of society shares an economic interest in seeing the system overhauled. The charts above may “help” lower- and middle-class white males cling to a relative advantage over minorities and women, but that should be small comfort when the race- and gender-neutral statistics on wealth, income, and asset concentration show that at the end of the day, America is divided not based on race, gender, or creed, but based on wealth.
And those who possess wealth will do anything they can to preserve it. Including and especially stoking tensions based on race, gender, and creed. Divide, conquer, and stay rich.