The Trump administration is pushing a deadly cocktail of lies and propaganda. This week on Intercepted: As the coronavirus rapidly spreads throughout the United States, major public health organizations are warning that New York could become the next Wuhan. While President Donald Trump fantasizes of wrapping up the virus in time for Easter church services, people are getting sick and dying, hospitals are overwhelmed, medical workers are begging for vital supplies and protesting their conditions. As Congress continues to negotiate a bailout, Republicans seem intent on exploiting the crisis to enrich Wall Street, while Democrats offer meek resistance. Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project breaks down the various proposals in Congress, compares the U.S. plans with other countries’ responses, and lays out some of the tenets of what a bailout for the people should look like. Meanwhile, the fate of more than 2 million people locked up in U.S. jails and prisons hangs in the balance as coronavirus begins to spread among incarcerated populations. Workers at carceral facilities are also getting sick. While some cities are working to release pretrial detainees and people convicted of nonviolent technical crimes, legal groups and human rights organizations are sounding the alarm bells on what could be a horrifying aspect of the coronavirus pandemic hitting people who are literally prevented from social distancing. Premal Dharia, founder and director of the Defender Impact Initiative, describes the situation in carceral facilities across the U.S. and why she is warning of a humanitarian disaster if action is not taken immediately.
Elise Swain: Hey Intercepted listeners, this is Elise Swain. I’m the associate producer on this podcast and before we get to our show, I wanted to let you know that we have a voicemail box here at Intercepted and we’d be interested in hearing your stories and airing them on this program as we all try to deal with the realities of living through this coronavirus pandemic.
If you feel up for it, call our voicemail, introduce yourself, and tell us a short story about what has happened to you as this pandemic has changed life as we know it. It could be a short story of injustice, being wronged. It could be a story of community organizing or a message of solidarity. So leave us a message, our voice mailbox number is (202) 930-8245. Give us a call, leave a message and you may hear it on a future episode of Intercepted. Thanks for listening. On with the show.
Joe Biden: Good morning. Let me say something right up front. I’ve laid out a very detailed in-depth plan of what I think we should be doing. We need to get in motion. We need to move and we need to move fast. Now, everyone. Now, all at once. Now. We can only move too slowly so we need to get moving. Move faster. Now. You can read it on JoeBiden.com. And in addition to that, in addition to that, we have to make sure that we are in a position that we are well let me go the second thing. Look, here’s the deal, these are confusing times. This is the United States America. Thank you. Please, help.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from my basement in New York City. And this is episode 123 of Intercepted.
Donald J. Trump: Don’t forget the doctors, if it were up to the doctors, they may say let’s keep it shut down. Let’s shut down the entire world because again, you’re up to almost 150 countries. So, let’s shut down the entire world and when we shut it down that would be wonderful and let’s keep it shut for a couple years. You know we can’t do that.
JS: Let’s be very clear about what lies the Trump administration is telling every single day, multiple times a day. The president has been floating the absolutely dubious claim that a cure for coronavirus might exist by mixing an anti-malaria medication and an antibiotic.
DJT: Now, this is a common malaria drug.
JS: His own scientific advisers have warned him against promoting this drug for coronavirus and he defies them.
DJT: It is known as a malaria drug and it’s been around for a long time. And it’s very powerful. But the nice part is it’s been around for a long time. So we know that if things don’t go as planned, it’s not going to kill anybody.
JS: At least one person we know of has died from apparently attempting to follow Donald Trump’s advice.
Amy Goodman: In Arizona, a man has died and his wife is in critical condition after the couple took chloroquine to try to prevent a coronavirus infection. The anti-malarial drug has been touted as a possible treatment for the corona virus by President Trump. But it has not been approved by the FDA or the World Health Organization for that use.
JS: Trump has spent the last few days completely ignoring the advice of doctors and public health experts, not to even mention the World Health Organization or international bodies. He has been calling for social distancing measures to be curbed if not effectively reversed so that business can return to usual, as he puts it, “very soon.” Trump’s latest claim that we only need to wait mere weeks before we are in the clear and people can return to work and it’s a lie. It’s a lie that is laid bare by just looking at what has happened to other countries, not the least of which is Italy. Trump has said that:
DJT: Nobody in their wildest dreams would have ever thought that we’d need tens of thousands of ventilators.
JS: That’s a lie, too. The spread of this virus will only start to peak in this country in the weeks and months to come. It is so clear that social distancing and lockdown or shutdown orders have to be followed by all of us. It is imperative that hospitals are given more ventilators and personal protective gear in order to continue to treat the ever increasing numbers of patients, but most medical care institutions have not received much of any of what they desperately need.
Despite all of this, Trump continued on Tuesday to double down, triple down on his calls for people to return to work soon. Here is the president speaking during a Fox News town hall from the Rose Garden:
DJT: It’s been very painful for our country, and very destabilizing for our country. We have to go back to work much sooner than people thought and people can go back to work and they can also practice good judgment.
JS: People are already dying because of the actions and inactions of this administration and it has only just begun. Not so shockingly, this “let’s get back to work” mentality has been spreading like wildfire through the capitalist class. It really does seem clear that many corporate vultures don’t seem to care if millions of vulnerable, working class or poor people in this country die in the name of returning to their drive for more and more profit. Let’s take a look at just New York State, where the infection rate is exploding. Governor Andrew Cuomo warned on Tuesday that we are two weeks away from seeing 40,000 people in intensive care.
Andrew Cuomo: One of the forecasters said to me, we were looking at a freight train coming across the country. We’re now looking at a bullet train because the numbers are going up that quickly.
JS: There are only some 3,200 ICU hospital beds statewide. If New York is this unprepared, think about what this means for rural hospitals, for prisons, jails, for immigration detention facilities.
Coming up later on this program, we will be talking about the catastrophic situation developing in jails and prisons across this country. More than two million people are locked up with roughly a half a million people in pre-trial detention. People who have not even had a trial.
Premal Dharia: What we have is essentially what experts and advocates around the country are calling a powder keg situation or a ticking time bomb inside. Carceral facilities across our country are crowded, often unsanitary. They’re inherently by nature congregate settings. And so you just have people crowded into these small spaces where of course the risk of transmission of the virus is very high. And, as experts have also said, will spread like wildfire when it hits.
JS: That’s coming up later in the show. At this moment, as best we know, the current rate of infections in this country is doubling every three days. The peak of this virus could come in just two to three weeks, and this is exactly when Trump is saying that he wants things to “open back up.”
DJT: We’re opening up this incredible country because we have to do that. I’d love to have it open by Easter. OK, I would love to have it open by Easter. I will tell you that right now. I would love to have that. It’s such an important day for other reasons, but I’ll make an important day for this too. I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.
JS: Trump is not the only one saying things like this. Here are just some examples of these depraved individuals calling for business as usual. This is Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program:
Dan Patrick: And you know, Tucker, 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?” And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.
JS: Carlson then asks Patrick if there would be something worse than dying:
Tucker Carlson: So you’re basically saying that this disease could take your life but that’s not the scariest thing to you. There’s something that would be worse than dying.
JS: “Yeah.” That’s what he says. “Yeah.” Unbelievable. This is Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch talking to his nearly one million followers on Twitter:
Tom Fitton: You know, Dr. Fauci, for instance, was saying it could be several more weeks before we get the country open again. That can’t, that can’t, that simply can’t be allowed to happen. We’ve got to get the country moving again. It’s the only way to rescue the economy and frankly, when it comes to the long term public health of the nation, a strong economy is the best way to protect it.
JS: But it’s not just right wing or fringe right people. Matthew Dowd, he is ABC’s chief political analyst, said this on Twitter: “I believe President Trump is right about at least one thing today. We must find a balance between protecting citizens’ health and protecting our economy. Decimating our economy in pursuit of fighting the virus doesn’t do our citizens any good in the short or long term.” That’s ABC News’ chief political analyst.
In a further reply to someone who asked him on Twitter if he was talking about being OK with people dying to get the economy moving again, Dowd Tweeted: “Ummm, thousands of people die every year from traffic deaths. We find a balance there, don’t we?”
What Trump, politicians, and prominent figures seem to be saying here is that keeping stock prices high, and profits flowing, that’s more important than keeping people alive. Here’s New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo responding to Trump:
AC: I understand what the president is saying. This is unsustainable that we close down the economy and we continue to spend money. There is no doubt about that. No one is going to argue about that. But if you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy, then it’s no contest. No American is going to say accelerate the economy at the cost of human life.
JS: Now, it is true that the U.S. economy, economies across the globe, are in great turmoil despite Tuesday’s 11 percent gain to the Dow Jones average. We watched for the past couple of weeks as the entire gain for the Trump era was wiped out swiftly. The unemployment rate, according to some projections, could hit 30 percent in this country. We are seeing predictions for what is to come blow past the 2008 recession and in some cases, perhaps even the Great Depression. But the markets don’t tell the story of how intense the impact of this crisis is for working class people, for poor people, vulnerable people in our society.
To try to get a handle on all of this, I am joined now by Matt Bruenig. He is a policy analyst and is currently the president of People’s Policy Project. 3P is a think-tank focused on building an economic system that “serves the many, not the few.” Before his current gig, Breunig was a lawyer at the National Labor Relations Board.
JS: Matt Bruenig, welcome to Intercepted.
Matt Bruenig: Thank you for having me.
JS: So I want to start by getting your big picture assessment of where things stand right now.
MB: So we have two thousand page plus bills, one in the Senate that has been mostly controlled by Mitch McConnell, and one in the House that has been mostly controlled by Pelosi. But I mean in broad strokes, there are maybe two or three very important parts of these bills. The one is getting support to households, to families. The second is getting support to state and local governments. The third is maybe getting support to corporations, companies that are about to go bankrupt. And I guess I should say the fourth, the health response, how are we going to deal with the logistics of this crisis as our hospitals get overwhelmed? And those are the sort of four things that they need to try to address and they do in different ways.
JS: What are the primary differences between the two major efforts from the Democrats and Republicans?
MB: So both now at this point, have decided that pretty much every family except for those who are above a certain level of income, are going to get some kind of cash. In the house, the cash amount is $1,500 per person, up to $7,500 for a family of five so I guess if you have six or seven, they cut you off at some point. And then in the Senate, it’s $1,200 per adult and $500 per child. And then it also cuts off at some point, both subject to if you have too much income, you don’t get anything.
Then we got expansions and unemployment benefits. The House one increases the unemployment income replacement rate. So what percent of your income do you actually get from the unemployment office from 40 percent to 80 percent, it looks like and in the House version, they increase it to 100 percent, subject to some cap. In the House version, we have increases and benefits to food stamps and the Senate version, as far as I could tell, we don’t have that. In the house version, we have Medicare for coronavirus victims basically. Not so I think in the Senate, that’s just sort of support for families. It’s cash, better unemployment benefits, maybe more food stamps, maybe more health care. That’s where we are.
JS: And on the issue of Wall Street, big corporations, the airlines, what are the various positions that are being staked out right now on Capitol Hill?
MB: This is probably the most interesting, stark divide. In the Senate, we have as many people have pointed out $500 billion, “slush fund.” Basically, they appropriate $500 billion, they give it to the Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, and say, all right, buddy, do what you need to do. We wouldn’t even be able to know who he was giving money to until six months after the money was sent out. We wouldn’t know how much money he gave to them until six months after it was set out. There’s no requirement of attaching any strings. Are we going to make sure that you have to keep all your workers employed? You got to at least keep them on payroll, even if they’re at home. Are we going to force them to do that? The Senate bill says nothing about that. Are we going to prevent them from paying bonuses to executives? It says nothing. So it’s basically just a $500 billion check to Mnuchin. Go wild, have fun, figure it out. And you don’t even need to tell us for six months what you’ve done.
So in the House, the main difference is that the bailout requires issuing equity meaning that if a corporation gets a certain amount of money, then they have to issue shares of stock to the government. And then those shares of stocks will be held perpetually. They’ll be able to vote those shares of stock, any dividends that you would receive at some point, you’d receive those dividends.
That is actually I think one of the key provisions that was really missed the last time. Though other countries managed to pull this off. And that is to say, if we’re going to help a company stay alive, which frankly, you know, they have lots of workers. They produce important things. We need the company to keep going. Sure, OK, we’ll bail out a company, we’re not going to bail out its owners. We’re not going to bail out its shareholders. Those are very, very affluent people. They take on this risk, we’re not going to bail them out. And the only way to make sure that you don’t bail them out is to require the company to issue new equity to the government as the investor and to basically, heavily dilute out the existing shareholders. I will say, Trump has said that he is OK doing that.
Reporter: Do you support the idea of the government taking an equity stake in certain companies?
DJT: I do. I really do. People are coming, people are coming in for money. In some cases, no fault of their own, but in some cases, where they did certain things over the course of the years, including buying back stock, you know, they bought back stock and they paid a high price for it.
MB: And so has Larry Kudlow at some point. But of course their public statements as you know, are not terribly reliable.
JS: Over the last several years, we saw huge amounts of money — tens of billions of dollars — spent in stock buybacks. And now these same airline companies are saying that if the government doesn’t infuse them with $60 billion odd dollars in immediate funding, that they’re going to have to take draconian measures. Explain the context of what major airlines did in this country over the past several years with stock buybacks. And what that says about their demand now for tens of billions of dollars in more money.
MB: Yeah, so when a company has a profit, there is two or three things they can do with it. One, I suppose they could just not get the profit and instead increase pay to their workers, right, that would reduce their profit. Or if they decide we’re gonna have a surplus, and we’re gonna have that on the books, they could do a few things with it. One is they can hold on to it, and just build up cash stockpiles. That’s kind of weird and doesn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense. The second thing you could do is you can use it to reinvest, maybe, you know, buy some new planes, if you’re an airline company or, you know, upgrade your facilities or make some kind of capital investment. The third thing you can do is shovel it out to shareholders and that’s what buybacks do.
The reason they say they do that is they say, look, we don’t have a profitable way to invest this money. We’re going to push it out to shareholders, to investors, and now they have the cash and they can go use it on something that makes more sense than what we would use it on. But as some people note, obviously, it makes these companies less productive in the sense that they’re engaged in less investment, engaged in less research and development. And insofar as they could, I guess stockpile the cash on their balance sheet in the case of an emergency. It makes them more vulnerable to situations like this.
JS: There are some projections that the unemployment rate in the U.S. could hit 30 percent. How bad is the economic situation right now compared to other crises throughout history?
MB: Yeah. So like you said, a lot of it is projection right now which is terrifying. There was the graph that everyone was passing around the other day that was produced by one of the big banks saying that initial unemployment claims next week — because we get this data every week — initial unemployment claims so these are new people who are unemployed trying to get benefits is going to go up to two million. On an average week, I’d say it looks like we have about 200,000 of these claims. So ten times a normal week.
You know, during the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, the unemployment rate got up to around 10 percent. These projections are saying 20 percent or 30 percent. So that’s obviously two or three times that much the unemployment rate that you had during some parts of the Great Depression. So we’re talking about going back to the 30s. And what I guess is widely regarded as the worst period of our economic history in terms of having an economic shock in which tons of people are thrown out of work and that sort of thing.
JS: You know, we have the rise of pundits and well, some political figures who are quite clearly making the argument that it wouldn’t be so bad if we let some people die.
DJT: It’s like this cure is worse than the problem. Again, people, many people, in my opinion, more people are going to die if we allow this to continue, we have to go back to work. Our people want to go back to work.
JS: Lloyd Blankfein, saying, “extreme measures to flatten the virus curve is sensible for a time to stretch out the strain on health infrastructure, but crushing the economy, jobs and morale is also a health issue and beyond.” You had the Wall Street Journal editorial board writing recently, “No society can safeguard public health for long at the cost of its economic health.” What are these people actually saying? Translate this to us.
MB: We have this concept in mostly regulatory arguments called a value of a statistical life which is kind of a grotesque concept to most people when they’re introduced to it. But it’s basically putting a price on a life. They put the price at about, like $10 million or $11 million. And the reason they come up with these numbers is because you have to do all these cost-benefit analyses when you’re passing laws and regulations to determine that, you know, the regulation saves more money than it costs. And so they’re handing out a very similar thing here. It’s basically saying, look, GDP, U.S. GDP is about $20 trillion. If we cut the GDP in half by having everyone stay home, that costs us $10 trillion of output. If we send everyone to work, then OK, maybe an extra three million people die, but is three million people worth $10 trillion? That’s basically what they’re asking us to think about.
JS: It’s essentially like capitalist death panels.
MB: Yeah, but in this case, I would say the main issue is people who are speculating like this, they’re taking this general concept of, you know what, sometimes we do have to make these sorts of decisions and they’re applying it very sloppily. What they’re doing is they’re saying things like, “Well, why don’t we just let people who aren’t vulnerable, let’s let them go out? And then people who you know, are, we’ll just keep them at home.” The problem is that you can’t keep these two things contained. That’s just not something that’s doable.
So the whole point of social distancing, at least as it’s been argued, is just to cut as many links in the transmission chain as possible. So that you know, the virus just has nowhere to go. It just keeps hitting dead ends, and you bring everyone out to work and the dead ends are all brought back together. And it’s very hard to prevent the infection of the people that you’re trying to prevent from being infected. You know, even if you wanted to play this game and put a cost-benefit analysis where you put price on pain and suffering and death and so on and you compare it to GDP, you need to add a lot more stuff to the pain and suffering and death side of the scale than these analyses are.
JS: In the world of policy, I think it’s been fascinating to watch the Biden campaign, adopting whole cloth, many of the concepts that Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, or economic justice, social justice groups have been talking about for a very long time. But I’m wondering if you can parse through the rhetoric and explain exactly how you interpret what the Biden camp is arguing should be the solution right now.
MB: I mean, the Biden stuff is hard to parse through frankly. They put out these proclamations by these strange videos. They don’t really address the full universe of things that need to be addressed. So it seems like basically he’ll express a sentiment that is saying, hey, we need to get cash and unemployment benefits to families. All right, you know, that’s in both of these bills. Get more money and support for our health sector in this trying time, you know, OK. You know, these are all sort of vague things. These are the kind of things that you would put on a campaign website in many cases.
But we’re beyond that. We’re actually trying to plan this out. And he doesn’t seem to have very specific commitments on that front, except, as you say, he has been somewhat strategically — and this was actually occurring before this, you know, crisis really came on — strategically pulling off parts of Bernie Sanders’s and Elizabeth Warren’s platform, and saying he now supports them. And I assume that’s just, you know, him trying to get endorsements from one of the two candidates or maybe both and trying to appeal to their supporters, right, because he does have a very, I think, significant problem coming in the general election, which is that no young people really supported him during the race and young people are very fickle voters, they sometimes come out, they sometimes don’t. And I think they’re aware of that and they’re trying to get ahead of that.
JB: Why doesn’t he just act like a president? That’s a stupid way to say it.
Nicolle Wallace: You know, Donald Trump.
Nicolle Wallace: Go ahead.
JB: No, no, probably best I don’t.
JS: If the stakes are so high, if Donald Trump is as incompetent as he appears to be on the one hand, but also just operating with greed and malice, on the other hand, and we’re being told that this is the election of our lifetime, I’m just having trouble wrapping my head around the defense of Joe Biden’s absence during this entire crisis, regardless of the fact that we have the coronavirus. I mean, obviously, none of us want Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, older men running around the country shaking hands with people. That’s clear. Like I’m not attacking him for that. But my God, I cannot recall in modern history, a less present front-runner when we’re talking about the severity of the crises facing this country in the world right now. I just, I don’t see how any reasonable person can say, Biden is handling this just masterfully, and it shows why he’s the man to take on Trump.
Jake Tapper: Given the corona —
JB: I’ve not, though —
JT: Go ahead.
JB: I’ve not talked to any individuals. [Coughs] Excuse me.
JT: You know, you’re supposed to cough into your elbow. I don’t know, sir. I learned that actually covering your White House.
JB: Actually, actually, that’s true. But fortunately, I’m alone in my home, but that’s OK. I agree. You’re right.
JT: It’s kind of old school to do with your hand, do it into your elbow. You’re supposed to do it.
MB: What this thing represents for Democrats, among other things, is an opportunity not to exploit the situation in an immoral sense, but to point out the fact that Donald Trump is completely incompetent and he’s killing people and he might end up killing literally millions of people based on the way that he’s handling it. And based on the way that he says he might handle it in the next two or three weeks when he’s going to send people to work and so on. And, you know, we live in a democratic country, in theory, right? Small-D, democratic country, we have votes and so on.
You got to hit the party in power in order to get your own power back. You got to hit them, and you got to hit them especially hard where we need, you know, 60 votes in the Senate and so on. Like, this is your moment. If you just sit and you’re quiet and you don’t say anything, then nothing happens. You know what it reminds me of — though this wasn’t an election year — was 9/11 to some degree where Democrats after 9/11 just let Bush do whatever and they were not critical of him. And I think they had this sentiment that oh, you know, we were attacked. This is wartime, rally behind the president kind of stuff. But that didn’t work. He was re-elected in 2004.
And you had a moment there where you could have said, “Look, thousands of people died because of this guy’s failure to prevent a terrorist attack that was, you know, known in advance, was reported in intelligence briefings and so on.” They didn’t do that. They just kind of sat quietly, let’s let the president do what they want to do. Biden is doing the same thing right now. And yeah, that doesn’t seem to bode well for the electoral prospects of the Democrats. It’s hard to understand.
JS: The fact is that the greatest number of voters in this country are actually not aligned with the Democrats or Republicans. More than 40 percent of people identify themselves as independents. And we are seeing real numbers that Donald Trump’s popularity is going up on the question of how he’s handling the coronavirus. And I really feel like a lot of Democrats seem to be whistling past the graveyard on this point, but I’m wondering why you think Trump’s numbers are going up on the question of how he’s handling coronavirus?
MB: When I think about the historical part of this. I think there are two ways you could think about what’s happening right now. You could kind of think about it like wartime, we’ve been hit with a catastrophe or something like that. And in those cases, you have seen people rally behind the president. He’s on TV a lot. He seems to be trying to do something. And unless they get a strong counter-narrative, that’s like, no, this guy is just incompetent making wrong decision after wrong decision after a wrong decision, all they see is crisis hit. The big leader is doing something for us. Approval goes up and obviously 9/11 fits that mold.
When you think back on 9/11, the absurdity of it is, like I said, these towers come down because of an intelligence failure. The president of the United States then goes and stands on the rubble of his own failure, and his approval rating goes up to 90 percent. So, that would be one model. Another model is to say the economy is about to tank. It’s already in the process of tanking. Voters hate that and they really punish presidents who sit over economies that go that way. Right now we have both happening sort of simultaneously. And so it’ll be interesting to see how voters reconcile that.
JS: Are there any helpful examples that you can cite for how other nations are handling this in a way that is worth exploring?
MB: Denmark is the one that a lot of people have been pointing to as having had sort of the most creative response. Their response, initially, was just to say, look, we’re gonna have to basically throttle a lot of businesses right now. But what we want is, we want to maintain in a kind of zombie form the structure of these businesses. We want to maintain their workforce. We want to maintain their relationships with other suppliers and so on. So that when this crisis ends, we can kind of just hit the reboot button and everyone just goes back to work like nothing ever happened.
So there what they’ve promised is that the government will cover 80% of the payroll costs of companies that have to essentially lay off people, though they’re not going to lay them off. They’re going to continue to pay them their normal paycheck, it’s just the government’s going to kick in 80% of it. When things get good, instead of those companies having to go out and try to hunt down people to hire since they’ve laid off their whole workforce, they still got them on payroll. They call them up, “Hey, come back to work.” And you can get going again much more quickly than if you lay off all these workers. And now it’s a sort of chaotic process of trying to get them back into firms and get them working again.
And on the bailout side, what you’ve seen in Germany, is what they also did in 2008, in 2009, is they’re saying, “Look, we are going to bail out failing companies, but we are going to require equity.” And so the government is going to be a substantial owner in any of the companies that are bailed out. Other than that, I mean, you know, the response is pretty obvious across all countries. It’s basically income security. Most other countries are probably just going to rely on unemployment benefits. And frankly, if you didn’t get ahead of the payroll thing you’ve already lost, right?Because all these people have already been laid off.
JS: Matt, if you were treasury secretary, what would the architecture of your proposal for how to respond right now look like?
MB: First thing is unemployment benefits need to be 100% of prior income. There also needs to be a new unemployment benefit for people who are not eligible for ordinary unemployment benefits but who are unemployed, right? So right now, if you’re a gig worker, if you’re an Uber driver, if you’re a delivery person, if you’re one of these, you know, millions of people who do this independent contractor work, you’re not eligible for unemployment benefits, we need a new benefit to make them eligible. If you are someone who just got out of prison, they’re actually releasing a lot of people from jails right now. You’re not eligible for unemployment benefits. It’s insanity to imagine you’re going to release a lot of people from jail and prison and then not give them any income and expect that to work out well.
The second is you need cash to every family to fill in the gaps, a check for every kid, a check for every adult until the crisis is over. The thing that they’re not doing that they suggested they might do and I think is perhaps the most interesting part of this is, what are we going to do with the health sector? Right now, there’s a lot of stuff that’s just “Oh, we’ll pass a bill and we’ll give them some money and we’ll help them out.” Money is an issue for them right now. But more realistically, you got to solve the production problem, right? They need places to put beds, they need medical supplies, they need masks, they need ventilators.
They need material like a war, right, and so you should treat it like a war and to the extent that it’s necessary. You’re going to need to start nationalizing companies that are capable of producing personal protective equipment like gowns and masks, nationalizing companies that have the capacity to produce these medical devices that are necessary, ventilators, whatever, finding new places for beds. You might have to find gyms, you might have to find aircraft hangars, there’s gonna be a lot of places where you’re going to need to add new hospitals. In terms of doctors, we’re going to need to in a sense, deputize medical students who don’t have certificates yet, but we’re going to literally run out of doctors and nurses. So you’re going to have to go down the chain and say, “Hey, I know you’ve only been in med school for two or three years. But this is one disease, you can handle it. You’re now a doctor, at least for the duration of this.”
They’re able to do that through the Defense Production Act. If they invoke that act, they can essentially create a sort of command economy almost, and start directing resources exactly where they need to go, instead of just sort of trying to move money around and hope that it works.
JS: Ralph Nader, you know, the famed consumer rights advocate and former presidential candidate tweeted on March 23, “Who now has the monies, specialists and equipment critically needed to contain the Covid-19 pandemic? The Department of Defense. Return from the Middle East and save the Middle West. DOD can train thousands of medics in eight weeks, build temporary hospitals.” Is that a good idea?
MB: Yes. If this thing continues to increase exponentially, and 15 to 20% of the people who get it need hospitalization, you’re just going to run out, just literally run out of just physical capacity to handle this stuff. And money is not going to solve that problem. You can’t spend your way into more capacity this quickly. The market is not able to respond this quickly. We’ve also shuttered most of the market as it is. It’s got to be planning top down. And to the extent that yes, the military has enormous resources, enormous personnel, enormous facilities, that would be a natural place to try to bring people in to expand the ability of our health sector to absorb all of this need for treatment.
JS: Finally, I wanted to ask you about the notion of exploiting the crisis. We see that big corporate players certainly are trying to do that. We see that Trump is trying to do that and maybe even be trying to do it on a personal level, he won’t answer questions about whether any of his companies would be recipients of any bailout money.
Reporter: Do you expect your family company to seek government assistance if it’s eligible?
DJT: I don’t know. I mean, I just don’t know what the government assistance would be for what I have. I have hotels, everybody knew I had hotels when I got elected. They knew I was a successful person when I got elected. So it’s one of those things.
JS: But I’m wondering if we flip that upside down and we look at this moment as an opportunity to restructure some aspects of how our society is run for the better of the common good, for ordinary people, what sectors would you look at? What institutions would you look at? What would be radical action you would take to try to build a stronger society out of the aftermath of the coronavirus?
MB: The most obvious places social benefits, right? We’re seeing what happens when you don’t have institutions in place that can absorb the shocks of people losing their jobs, people not able to go to school, services shutting down and 20-30% of workers might become unemployed. But unemployment is something that happens all the time, every day to people when businesses fail or they get laid off. This is just a normal experience for most people. The difference is the number of people who are experiencing it. But this is a normal experience, everyday experience, for millions and millions of people. And so there’s no reason why we should only scale up unemployment benefits during some kind of crisis. Unemployment benefits should always be generous and able to reassure people while they go and look for new work.
Health insurance, I mean, we haven’t seen this get too crazy yet, but we have 30 million people who are uninsured. We have all these different payers, are private insurers going to go bankrupt from some of this? I mean, it’s conceivable right that if a ton of people who have private insurance need enormous amount of care that these insurers don’t have the money available to actually provide all that care and then what? Now the government’s got to come in and backstop them. There’s no reason to have a system like that, right? We should have national health insurance just like other countries have. And that doesn’t solve all of your problems. It certainly doesn’t solve your supply side problems where we don’t have enough doctors or beds, but it solves at least some of your problems, including people not getting $30,000 bills because they had coronavirus which we’ve already had at least one instance of.
So the social welfare state, just all that stuff like should just be a permanent fixture and it is a permanent fixture in other countries. And that’s good in and of itself. And you know, the things that you’re experiencing right now, maybe if you’re more affluent and you don’t normally experience them, lower class people are experiencing that stuff all the time, and they should be cared for all the time. But it also gives you extra resilience in a crisis because you’re not having to try to construct this stuff on the fly. I mean, we’re trying to basically figure out how to get checks to everyone in the middle of a crisis. And we don’t even know, necessarily, where everyone lives or if they have bank accounts or anything like that, you know. Setting up a well functioning society in good times makes it better and easier to handle these hard times. And so I would hope that we would learn that lesson though, you know, we’ll see.
JS: Matt Bruenig, thank you very much for joining us.
MB: Thank you.
JS: Matt Bruenig is the president of People’s Policy Project known as 3P. His latest article is “How To Think About Corporate Bailouts Correctly.” You can follow Matt on twitter, his handle is @MattBruenig.
JS: Before we continue on with the show, I just wanted to let our listeners know about an important new podcast that The Intercept is producing in partnership with the Chicago-based journalism nonprofit Invisible Institute, Topic Studios, and Tenderfoot TV. It’s called “Somebody,” and is set to premiere on March 31. It’s a seven-part series and documents Shapearl Wells’s quest to find out what happened to her son, Courtney Copeland, a 22-year-old man who wound up dead with a bullet in his back outside of a Chicago Police station in 2016.
Shapearl Wells: We are the average black family trying to fight against a huge city. And everywhere we turn, we hear the doors getting slammed in our face.
[“Somebody” podcast trailer plays.]
JS: Once again the podcast Somebody premieres on March 31. Look for it wherever you get your podcasts.
Brian Thames: My major concern being in this type of environment, I would be really concerned about people who work within the prisons, whether it’s free staff, correctional officers, or otherwise, coming through and dehumanizing us. And just seeing us as problems and seeing us well potentially this person could potentially get me sick, and therefore treating us as less than human. You know that happens sometimes, anyway.
JS: Incarcerated at Solano State Prison in California, Brian Thames shares his concerns about the coronavirus on the podcast Uncuffed. And his fear is very real.
As of Tuesday, more than 50 people in New York City jails have tested positive for Covid-19, as well as 30 staff members, according to news outlet The City. At New York’s Rikers Island eight incarcerated people were reportedly pepper sprayed after trying to get their temperatures checked at the jail’s clinic. The New York City Board Of Correction has called for the release of people who are at higher risk from infection of Covid-19 and to decrease the overall population in New York City jails, which include more than 600 people locked up due to technical parole violations and more than 500 people serving low level offenses.
We’re also seeing this in cities and municipalities across the country as they try to reduce their prison populations. New York City is not alone. Two people in custody at Cook County Jail in Chicago have tested positive for Covid-19. And The Appeal reports that employees at other local, state, and federal institutions have tested positive in California, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Hampshire, Georgia, New Jersey, and Alabama.
My next guest writes, “Early statements and responses to the coronavirus from our carceral facilities are cause for alarm. Courts are ordering that the temperatures of people in jail be taken so that they can be held back from court if they have fevers. Visitation between those incarcerated and their family members is being rescinded; trials are being delayed. Lawyers are being encouraged to decrease the amount of visits that they make to see clients who are incarcerated, and prisons are putting people on lockdown — locking them inside their cells, sometimes in solitary confinement.”
Premal Dharia’s piece in Slate is called, “The Coronavirus Could Spark a Humanitarian Disaster in Jails and Prisons.” She is the Founder and Director of the Defender Impact Initiative. She has spent the last twenty years dedicated to challenging injustice in the criminal system.
JS: Premal Dharia welcome to Intercepted.
Premal Dharia: Hi, thanks for having me.
JS: How does the coronavirus heighten public health concerns for people who are incarcerated right now? Like why are they at a greater risk than people for instance, in the streets or in their homes in New York City?
PD: The nature of jails and prisons makes those places very, very vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus. And here’s some examples of why: Imagine facilities that are largely comprised of surfaces like concrete and cinder block plastic, cheap plastic, metal, and imagine that there are small cells throughout those facilities where people are sleeping with more than one person in a cell. Toilets that don’t have lids that are open toilets, often joined to the sink, shared bathrooms, shared shower facilities, communal eating areas, communal recreational areas, and importantly, staff, correctional staff, kitchen staff, medical staff, that are seeing all of the people and working with all of the people that are incarcerated in facilities.
Add to that, that people who are incarcerated generally have very little, if any, autonomy over their activities, how they move their bodies, where they move their bodies, when they move their bodies. These are the hallmarks of incarceration, right? We limit the ways that people can move and exercise freedom and liberty. What that means is that people aren’t able to choose to socially distance, right? This is not a thing that we allow people to do when they’re incarcerated. And it’s not given the infrastructure and the setup of these congregate settings, it’s not possible And so the only solution is to decrease the number of people incarcerated because there’s no way inside for people to get the conditions that they need to be able to remain safe and to protect others in the ways that the CDC and other experts have recommended.
JS: Talk about the reality right now on how the governments of states across the country are responding to what could very quickly deteriorate into some of the absolute worst clusters of coronavirus.
PD: I don’t think any of them are doing nearly enough. And we’re talking about public officials at every level in courts, sheriffs, judges, lawyers, governors, mayors, correctional leaders, they all need to be doing far more than they’re doing and they need to be doing it much more quickly than they’re doing it. But I think what’s also getting lost in these conversations is the grave impact that the number of incarcerated people we have, and the risk of transmission in these facilities, is going to have on the broader communities around these jails and prisons. We have jails and prisons in nearly every community across our country. There are thousands of them, many of them in rural places where there’s very little medical infrastructure, or community infrastructure, and the effects of the widespread transmission that’s going to be happening soon, that’s already starting to happen in a lot of these facilities are going to be felt on those communities too. And that’s really being lost in the conversations with public officials and in their actions. Their actions are not reflecting the concern that they should for their communities.
JS: As I’ve been advocating for mass release of prisoners just on social media, a lot of people recognize that that would be the just, moral, sane thing to do in this situation. But the pushback that I have gotten from people are mostly people who say, “Well, if you allow them out, they’re still going to likely get the coronavirus and you’re going to have dangerous criminals on the street.” What is your argument for why prisoners should be released?
PD: Well, to answer the first part of your question, I think that there’s no meaningful way — and it’s not just me thinking this, experts and advocates have been saying this — there’s no meaningful way to contain this virus inside of carceral facilities. That is not a thing that can happen. These are not medical facilities, they’re not medical quarantine facilities. They are carceral facilities with all kinds of issues attendant to carceral facilities, sanitary issues, medical infrastructure issues, physical infrastructure issues, lots of different considerations. It’s a false choice, right, that’s being presented in this narrative. It’s a false choice between release or containment. Containment is not a reasonable option. It’s not going to work. So we have to start releasing people. That’s just, that’s the reality of the situation.
And to answer the second part of your question, I think that this virus is shedding a really harsh light on a lot of the sort of norms that have been institutionalized around who we incarcerate and why and I think it’s creating questions about what is public safety right now, right? What does that mean? What does it mean when we are not giving people the option to do exactly what the CDC is recommending which is to socially distance to avoid community spread? What does it mean when we’re not allowing people to remain safe and we are literally increasing the risk of transmission by continuing to keep people incarcerated in facilities? And I think asking those questions is really important and very, very urgent, and will lead to if answered honestly, given the advice of experts, will lead hopefully immediately to the release of more people.
JS: How are outbreaks like influenza or you know, other extremely contagious situations, how are these typically handled in carceral facilities?
PD: So historically, when there have been outbreaks of H1N1 or the flu or mumps, these are outbreaks that have happened historically in our facilities around the country, facilities have reflexively responded with attempted lockdowns or isolation measures. But what’s important here is that this virus is not like other pre-existing viruses. This is a new, very, very, very contagious infection. Those historical measures that facilities have tried to use are not going to work here. They’re just simply not able to match the scale.
But putting that to the side, they’re also deeply problematic in themselves. For one thing, in carceral facilities, there’s no way to, as I said before, there’s no way to actually contain people. And that’s because there’s a constant flow of staff, who are essential to the function of these kinds of facilities, correctional staff, also kitchen staff and medical staff. Even if you suspended visitation which many facilities have done there are people that are going to continue coming in and out. And so there’s this churn of people that are moving in and out of facilities as advocates have described it. And so that means that containment is going to be very, very difficult and impossible really to maintain.
But also, those measures implicate important rights that people have solitary confinement is widely understood to be torture. It creates long term often permanent mental health issues. It creates trauma for people that lasts well after they’re released from facilities. It also impedes access to the courts, access to counsel, and it’s punishment and many of the people that we incarcerate are not constitutionally allowed to be punished. So there are a host of concerns that are raised by these measures which is why they shouldn’t be what facilities engage in.
JS: Isn’t there a case to be made that right now by not acting to protect the life and well being of people who are in the hands of the state, that the constitutional rights of everyone in a prison and a jail right now are preemptively being violated and their sentences being amended to include death or punishment through the coronavirus? I mean, couldn’t there be a constitutional argument that there is an immediate need for judicial intervention to stop the spread, and it’s willful if they do nothing to stop it, to stop the spread of coronavirus in prisons?
PD: That’s a great point and I think it goes right to the question of safety, right? Everyone’s safety is in jeopardy. Every single person who is incarcerated and beyond’s safety is in jeopardy. And we have an obligation to protect people’s safety particularly when we’ve taken the extraordinary step of incarcerating them.
JS: I just wanted to cite a few examples of some actions that are being taken around the country and then I want to ask you, ultimately in the big picture, what you think we should be doing right now? In San Francisco, California, the district attorney has directed prosecutors to not oppose motions to release pretrial detainees who are facing misdemeanor or drug related felony charges. He also encouraged prosecutors to “strongly consider credit for time served in plea deals to increase jail releases.” In Los Angeles County, the sheriff reported releasing more than 600 people saying that the point was to mitigate the risk of virus transmission in crowded jails. In Baltimore, the state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby is saying she’s going to dismiss pending criminal charges against anyone arrested for drug offenses, trespassing, minor traffic offenses, non-violent offenses. Maine, the state of Maine vacated all outstanding bench warrants that affects over 12,000 people, for unpaid court fines and fees, failure to appear for hearings, again in an effort to reduce admissions. Now obviously, we all agree this isn’t enough. But I’m wondering what you think should be done, what would be possible right now and how we achieve that?
PD: You know, I certainly applaud any efforts to decrease the numbers of people that are incarcerated because I think that has to be our sort of like laser focus priority needs to be on decreasing the numbers of people that are on the inside right now. I think that is not nearly enough, and that we need to urgently, very quickly be doing more. Sheriffs across the country, for example, those who oversee arrests can manage the nature of arrest and stop arresting so many people. Cite and release is an option around the country for lots and lots of law enforcement agencies. They can cite people and release them right away without ever going through the booking process, which is of course in itself, a deeply interpersonal contact-involved enterprise. Prosecutors around the country can decline to prosecute many offenses. They can also stop seeking detention in most cases, if not all. They don’t have to go to court and ask for people to go to jail.
New jail admissions are real contributors to the churn that I was describing earlier, people moving in and out of these facilities, and we need to urgently stop the admission of new people into jail. And that burden lies a lot on police, law enforcement, and prosecutors. Judges can be raising the question, looking at their dockets and raising the question of who can be released, pretrial and people who are awaiting sentence or serving sentences, they can start ordering the release of people. Lawyers are already advocating on behalf of clients all over the country. But this has to be a multi-actor enterprise. There have to be people from all parts of the system involved. The U.S. parole commission can take action. There are tons of people around the country who are incarcerated for violations of parole and probation. Many of these are incarcerated for what we call technical violations, such as missed appointments or missed court dates. These are people that can be released very quickly by whatever agency overseas them. The parole commission or it could be courts in some places. So there are a number of actors that can get involved and start to release people.
I think one of the concerns I have is this sort of distraction that comes from parsing through what exactly is a certain kind of offense? Is it violent or non-violent? What exactly is a certain kind of offense? Is it a misdemeanor or a felony? When what we need to be concerned about here is what’s the safest for our communities? We are in a different era. We are in an era of a global pandemic that is spreading like wildfire. And we need to think first about what is the safest for our communities, for the thousands and thousands of people, if not millions of people that are incarcerated in our country that do not present an immediate specific threat of physical harm to another person. There is no need to go into the weeds of what category of offense some outdated norm prescribes. We need to really be recalibrating our sense of safety right now because what’s safest is going to be a reduced number of people that are incarcerated, and to allow more people to socially distance themselves and to self isolate.
JS: For people who are listening to this around this country, who should they be calling or writing or reaching out to? And what should they be saying, to address the fate of the more than two million people who are locked up in this country right now?
PD: People can be calling their local city councils. They can be calling their sheriffs. They can be calling their prosecutor’s offices. In addition to the wonderful mutual aid and community supports that are happening. There are lots of community efforts underway to organize collective action to call public officials and to sign on to letters. People should get engaged in this and to start reaching out to their public officials. And the most important thing they can urge is to release as many people as possible because what’s important is the numbers. What’s important is the concentration of people inside these facilities and the urgent need to reduce that concentration. And so I would urge people to do that and through whatever means that public official can employ, whether it’s arresting less people, whether it’s incarcerating less people, whether it’s seeking the release of people who are already incarcerated. There are so many different actions that can be taken right now.
JS: Premal Dharia, thank you very much for joining us.
PD: Thank you so much for having me.
JS: Premal Dharia is the founder and director of the Defender Impact Initiative, who you can follow on Twitter @DefenderImpact. If you want to find out about ways you can get involved, we’ll add links to the show page from Demands from Grassroots Organizers Concerning COVID-19 and Justice Collaborative. Those two groups are tracking actions around the country.
JS: And that does it for this show. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @interceptedpodcast. I want to ask everybody to please stay safe, stay healthy, think of the most vulnerable people in your community, around you, and in your family.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Transcription for this program is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.
Special thanks to San Francisco public radio station KALW, whose new program “Uncuffed” was featured in this week’s episode.