The presidency of Donald Trump has placed a mirror in front of the harsh realities of the United States. And what it reveals about who we are as a society during a major crisis is pretty ugly. This week on Intercepted: As the Covid-19 U.S. death toll climbs toward 100,000 and unemployment is nearing 20 percent, House Democrats have offered up a bill that is intended to sharply contrast the corporatist Republican agenda. HuffPost senior reporter Zach Carter analyzes how House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quashed progressive calls for action within her own party and delivered a bill filled with corporate gifts and means-tested crumbs for many, along with some good proposals. Carter also discusses his new book “The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes” and the influence the famed economist maintains to this day. As Trump claims the meat industry is back on track, meat plant workers are getting sick in droves. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the industry consistently maintains the highest workplace injury rate among manufacturing and private industry. Journalist Ted Genoways, author of “The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food,” discusses the lives and deaths of meat workers and looks back at Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” and its parallels to the modern meat industry.
Donald J. Trump: And a lot of good things have come out about the hydroxy. A lot of good things have come out. I happen to be taking it. I happen to be taking it.
Unidentified reporter: Hydroxychloroquine?
Movie trailer narrator: There is a limit even to the imagination, where our greatest creations meet our deepest fears.
DJT: What do you have to lose?
Movie trailer narrator: You are about to go beyond that limit.
DJT: All I can tell you is, so far I seem to be OK.
Geena Davis: Those weird hairs that were growing on your back? I had them analyzed. They were definitely not human.
Joy Boushel: I’m afraid!
Jeff Goldblum: Don’t be afraid.
GD: Hell — Be afraid.
DJT: I take it.
GD: Be very afraid.
DJT: At some point I’ll stop. Every couple of days they want to test me, you know, for obvious reasons. I am the president. I’m not gonna get hurt by it, and I’m still here.
Neil Cavuto: If you are in a risky population here, and you are taking this, it will kill you. I cannot stress enough — this will kill you.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill, coming to you from my basement in New York City. And this is episode 131 of intercepted.
DJT: So when we have a lot of cases, I don’t look at that as a bad thing. I look at that as — in a certain respect, as being a good thing, because it means our testing is much better. So if we were testing a million people instead of 14 million people, we would have far fewer cases. Right? So, I view it as a badge of honor. Really, it’s a badge of honor. It’s a great tribute to the testing and all of the work that a lot of professionals have done, OK?
JS: The presidency of Donald Trump has placed a mirror in front of the harsh realities of the United States. And what it reveals about who we are as a society during a major crisis is pretty ugly. There are some 40 percent of Americans who support Donald Trump and what he stands for, and that in and of itself is a damning moral condemnation of our society. If you look at the racism, the hate, the corruption, the pathological daily — at times, hourly — lies, and you think, “This is what I want in a president,” I don’t know what to tell you.
DJT: What I’d like to do is I’d like to have the cure and/or the vaccine, and that’ll happen, I think, very soon.
Nobody’s seen anything like we’re doing now within our country since the Second World War.
And what has been determined is, it doesn’t harm you. It’s a very powerful drug, I guess, but it doesn’t harm you.
JS: If you watch as we near 100,000 deaths of our fellow humans in this country, and you believe that Donald Trump has acted competently or responsibly in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, then we’re living in an entirely different reality.
DJT: We have to — waterboarding’s fine. And also, if we can go much worse than waterboarding, that’s OK with me, too. Right? Right?
JS: Now, many of us saw Trump for what he was before he took office. And as shocking as this current reality is, it all makes sense, because we know who Trump is, and we know what he’s done openly in public for his career and his presidency. Now, we do not yet know the full extent of his corruption or abuse of power, but the public record — what we already see — tells us it’s already a deadly three-alarm fire masquerading as a head of state. But throughout this era, we have been told by the leaders of the Democratic Party that they are fighting him. Help is on the way. They are the resistance.
Chuck Schumer: Four words describe the administration’s response to the coronavirus: towering and dangerous incompetence.
Adam Schiff: That makes him dangerous to us, to our country.
Nancy Pelosi: If we do not act now, we would be derelict in our duty. It is tragic that the president’s reckless actions make impeachment necessary. He gave us no choice.
JS: But when you look objectively at the horrors of Donald Trump and these three and a half years, and then you study how the Democrats have defined their so-called “resistance” during his presidency, it reveals another harsh reality. Help is not on the way, at least not on the scale that is needed by so many people suffering and dying in this country. Not just because of the coronavirus, but because of the capitalist system. What measure or action can the Democrats point to as their crowning achievement of their resistance? Is it the record-shattering military budgets that have passed the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives? Is it the sweeping authorities given to Trump in the recent FISA reauthorization? It passed 80-16, a major bipartisan majority that gives dangerous spy powers to Attorney General William Barr, of all people, and to the Trump administration.
William Barr: Unfortunately, over the past several decades, we have seen the steady encroachment on executive authority by the other branches of government. This process, I think, has substantially weakened the function of the presidency to the detriment of the nation.
JS: Was it resistance when not a single U.S. senator, including all Democrats, voted for the massive corporate slush fund that masqueraded as a Covid relief bill? Or was it the impeachment proceeding that ignored the overwhelming majority of the crimes committed by this president in full view, in favor of a technicality-filled rabbit hole about Ukraine?
NP: The president has used his office for his own personal gain, and in doing so, undermined the national security of the United States by withholding military assistance to Ukraine to the benefit of the Russians.
JS: I honestly struggled to find any real evidence that the leaders of the Democratic Party actually represent an opposition to Donald Trump, except in platitudes and symbolic stunts from Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer, and other party bosses. Now, it’s true that Trump and the Republicans control almost all entities of the federal government. The Democrats only have a majority in the House of Representatives. So we cannot expect the Democrats to ram through, magically, legislation that would excite the left or progressives in this country. Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump control the arena.
Mitch McConnell: This is not a time for aspirational legislation, this is a time for practical response to the coronavirus pandemic. And so we’re gonna insist on doing narrowly targeted legislation if and when we do legislate again, and we may well.
JS: But this is an election year. And we have watched as Joe Biden, one of the absolute worst possible candidates to run for president at this moment, consolidated the nomination through a combination of factors that also included behind-the-scenes operations by Barack Obama and other powerful Democrats. And then we have Pelosi and Schumer. What have they actually done to resist Trump? What can we point to? Well, when it comes to the public health and economic crisis this country is facing, what are their visions for how to respond?
Today, we’re going to look at the so called HEROES Act. That’s short for the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act. It’s a $3 trillion legislative package that represents what the Democrats believe should be in the next round of stimulus, or Covid relief. The House version of this passed last Friday, and the Democrats know that this bill is not going to clear the Senate, and it’s not going to be signed into law by Donald Trump. So why did they do it? Well, according to Pelosi, it’s to put forward what Democrats believe should be done and to have that stand in contrast to the cruelty, and collective greed, and crisis profiteering of Trump and the Republicans.
So what does this Democratic vision amount to? Now, there are definitely some important and worthwhile initiatives in this bill, and we’re going to talk about that in a moment. But in general, it is yet another onslaught of means-tested crumbs distribution. It is a corporate and lobbyists’ benefits package. It is a neoliberal economic policy and austerity showcase. This bill was the product of Nancy Pelosi and the House Democratic leaders ignoring the times in which we live, ignoring the millions of people who want real change and need real aid, ignoring the ever-swelling ranks of people who want radical change to our economic and health care systems in this country.
Joining me now to discuss all of this is Zach Carter. He is a senior reporter at HuffPost. His first book has just come out. It’s called “The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes.” Zach Carter, thanks so much for being with us here on Intercepted.
Zach Carter: Thanks so much for having me.
JS: So on Friday, the House passed a $3 trillion legislative package that they called the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, or the HEROES Act.
Unidentified voice: On this vote the yeas are 208, and the nays are 199. The HEROES bill is passed.
JS: What is it that the Democrats are putting forward? Because my understanding is that it’s sort of like, “This is our bold vision for how this crisis should be handled right now.” Is that accurate?
ZC: Basically. So for the past couple of months, pretty much all of the legislating that’s been done within the Democratic Party has been handled by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. The leadership has put together deals with the Republican Party, with Mitch McConnell, and President Trump and essentially presented these deals to the rest of the caucus and said, “This is what we’re going to do, get on board.” That’s how you end up with a giant coronavirus bailout package passing the Senate 96-0, passing the House by a voice vote without anybody actually tallying the yeas and nays.
So the party has been on the same page, but only sort of by leadership decree. And this is supposed to be Pelosi reaching out to the rest of her caucus and saying, OK, how should we approach this crisis — which is clearly more severe and devastating then certainly anybody in Congress believed it was going to be a couple of months ago. So this is supposed to be a marker. They’re trying to lay down a message that reaches the rest of the public that says, “Whatever ultimately happens with this legal maneuvering that we have to do to pass legislation, this is what we want to do. This is what we want to provide. This is how we think we can make the world as good as it can be given the coronavirus crisis that’s in front of us.” And I think given that set of goals, it’s a very troubling package.
JS: What is the HEROES Act actually saying in terms of the solutions or ideas that the Democratic leadership and the Democratic Party is offering right now legislatively?
ZC: Well, look, there are things in the package that are good, there’s a trillion dollars in aid to states. When we say aid to states, we just mean this is money that is going to go to state governments to allow them to keep people on state government payrolls. So we’re talking about teachers, and firefighters, and cops, and everybody who works at a municipal building. So, that money is useful. That is not wasted effort. But there’s no sort of grand, uniting vision behind the package. It’s sort of liberal initiatives that you would want to see get into a year-end budget bill, rather than the biggest crisis in any of our lifetimes.
And then there’s also some stuff in there that’s just straight-up bad. There’s a provision to rescue nonprofits that is written deliberately in such a way as to make lobbying groups eligible for relief funding. So we’re talking about places like pharma — lobbying institutions that lobby the government, the government’s going to give them money to lobby them. And they know that this is what’s in there. It’s not a drafting mistake. It’s not like somebody made an error, because there was a lot of reporting on this that happened up until the passage of the bill.
So, it’s not hard to figure out a more comprehensive and reasonable approach to this stuff. It’s not even necessarily a more left-wing approach. There are people on the right, in fact, who have been talking about just doing payroll support. Just provide companies with whatever money you need in order to keep people on payrolls, and make sure they stay on payrolls. Just prohibit them from laying people off, and give them whatever money they need to keep people employed. The reason that economists have been talking about that particular strategy is because there’s no reason to believe that after this crisis, all the people who were currently employed are going to be employed at those same institutions. Places that lay people off in the crisis may decide to automate some jobs in the future. They may decide to offshore jobs. It’s frankly always cheaper for large corporations especially to do that, and in this crisis, most people think that they’re going to use this as an excuse to go ahead and bite the bullet and take the short term hit to offshore or to automate.
And so, these jobs are just going to disappear. There are progressives in the Progressive Caucus, particularly Pramila Jayapal, who wanted to do that. They wanted to take that approach, and it just didn’t even make it into the bill. Whether or not it could have passed the Senate or been signed by President Trump, I don’t know. But Nancy Pelosi didn’t even try. She didn’t even try to make it a point of messaging for the Democratic Party, just said, we’re not doing that, we’re gonna try all these other things instead.
JS: Why is it the Democrats seem to put such a premium on the notion of means testing for the benefits that are being offered to ordinary people?
ZC: There’s a way of doing legislation in Washington that has been standard for the last 30 or so years.
Joe Biden: Paul Ryan was correct. When he did the tax code, what’s the first thing he decided we had to go after? Social Security and Medicare. Now, we need to do something about Social Security and Medicare. That’s the only way you can find room to pay for it. I don’t know a whole lot of people in the top one tenth of 1 percent or the top 1 percent who are relying on Social Security when they retire. I don’t know a lot of them.
ZC: And that legislative approach really says, “We want to provide money to people who need it the most. And so we will target that funding in the cheapest way possible in order to sort of maximize our bang for the buck.” So instead of providing, you know, universal benefits to everybody, like health care or employment relief, we only provide it to the people who are super poor. But you have to be demonstrating that you are struggling in some way in order to qualify for benefits, because otherwise, in this way of thinking, you are giving free health care to Donald Trump’s children — or something like that.
The trick is, when you look at what they’ve done in the overall coronavirus bailout package, they have been extremely, extremely generous with the wealthiest people in the world. The feature provision of the major piece of legislation that has already passed is $4.5 trillion to large corporations with almost no strings attached. That is money that goes straight to shareholders and executives. That is money that is going to the richest people in the world. And there’s really no kind of guardrails that Congress put on that funding to make sure that it’s used responsibly. So on the one hand, they talk a lot about means testing, making sure that ordinary people — you know, we don’t have too many lucky duckies who are making like $70,000 a year accidentally getting a $1,200 check. But the richest people in the world, if they get a multimillion-dollar dividend payout, that’s just fine.
JS: Yeah. I mean, also, you had this kerfuffle over the notion that people could be getting the expanded unemployment benefits and — gasp — also the $1,200 check.
ZC: Right, right. There’s sort of a problem right now — they’re talking about, economically, that this is a stimulus effort, right? We’re going to stimulate the economy, and there’s a long-standing history in Keynesian economics about stimulating the economy. When you go into a downturn, you need to spend money to get things going again. We’re not stimulating the economy right now. We are intentionally shutting down the economy. The point is, in order to solve this public health crisis, we have to shut it down. What we’re providing is income support. So if you accidentally give out a little too much income support, that’s fine. There’s no problem. It’s, “OK. All right. Well, they made $1,200 this month.”
We’ve been running multi trillion-dollar deficits for years now. Dick Cheney said, like, 20 years ago that deficits don’t matter, because he was always running up deficits for war spending. If you’re worried about the amount of money that’s being spent in these packages, and I don’t think you should be, the place you should look is with the trillions of dollars that are being spent on the super rich. A few hundred dollars here or there for somebody who doesn’t have a job — I mean, give me a break. This is not serious legislating.
JS: Let’s talk about what some of the more progressive members of Congress wanted in this HEROES Act that didn’t make it into it. Just lay out some of them — just as a couple of examples, no Paycheck Guarantee Act, no recurring $2,000 stimulus checks each month that are not means-tested, and on and on. But just talk about some of the crucial issues that progressives were fighting for within the Democratic Party in the House that didn’t make it into the HEROES Act.
ZC: Well, I think the most important one of these is something that economists refer to as automatic stabilizers. And they call them automatic because they kick in at a certain level. You don’t have to go back to Congress all the time and ask for more money each time a certain fund is depleted. If something happens in the economy, if the unemployment rate reaches a certain level or if GDP reaches a certain level, it automatically triggers a certain amount of spending, and Congress doesn’t have to reauthorize it all the time. This is what happens with the food stamp program, for instance. It’s what typically happens with unemployment benefits.
The idea was that if we can get some language about automatic stabilizers, we don’t have to just keep coming back over and over again to get Republicans to write $1,200 checks to people every month. It’s just happening, the money’s going out the door. If your income falls below a certain level, if the jobless rate reaches a certain level, the money just goes out the door. And they didn’t even try. They just didn’t even try. And Nancy Pelosi’s explanation for this afterwards — this was a key objective of the Progressive Caucus — she said, look, we wanted to do this. And it wasn’t just progressives who wanted to do this. There were centrists, there were moderates, there were people across the caucus who were interested in the automatic stabilizers idea, but the way that it was scored by the Congressional Budget Office made it look too expensive.
NP: If you have a stabilizer in it, that something will happen next January, and then you’ll have $400, $500 billion worth of unemployment checks going out, it counts in the bill today. It counts in the bill today.
ZC: And I just don’t think that explanation makes any sense.
JS: Wait, wait a minute. So you’re saying that basically, Nancy Pelosi said my entire caucus supports boosting these automatic stabilizers, but we didn’t do it because of an accounting technicality?
ZC: That’s exactly what I’m saying, and that’s exactly what Nancy Pelosi said. There are certain things happening in the Democratic caucus right now that aren’t about the ideas. They’re not even really about the ideology of the different ideas. They’re about who is presenting the ideas. And for whatever reason, it’s become very clear that Nancy Pelosi is not interested in giving legislative victories to people from the Progressive Caucus — in particular, the leader of the Progressive Caucus, Pramila Jayapal. And as a result, even when those lawmakers get support from across the caucus, Pelosi comes up with some reason to shoot down the idea. And in this case, I think the excuse that she gave was this accounting technicality. You know, it’s really kind of wild when you think about a $3 trillion bill being suddenly totally unacceptable, because it would go to like $3.2 trillion or $3.3 trillion. Again, the deficit figures right now are not important. But that aside, even if you do believe in these big deficits, the difference between $3 trillion and $3.2 trillion is kind of silly.
JS: You know, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has quite openly declared that the HEROES Act is dead on arrival in the Senate.
MM: Well, it’s an 1,800-page liberal wish list. It strikes me as hardly salvageable. Just to give you an example of some of the absurdity, there’s money in there for illegal immigrants. It mentions the word “cannabis” — of all things — 68 times more than the word “jobs” or “hire” are mentioned in the entire bill. It’s a parade of absurdities.
JS: Trump has said that he would veto that bill if that was the version that appeared on his desk. Nancy Pelosi fired back at Republicans, saying —
NP: We cannot take a pause. They may think it’s OK to pause. But people are hungry across America. Hunger doesn’t take a pause. People are jobless across America. That doesn’t take a pause. People don’t know how they’re going to pay their rent across the country. We have to address this with humanity.
JS: Zach, what is the Pelosi Democratic strategy here? If you have Mitch McConnell saying this thing is dead on arrival, Trump saying he’s gonna veto it. What is the play here that Pelosi is doing?
ZC: Frankly, I don’t know. It’s not just Mitch McConnell saying it’s dead on arrival. I mean, the Democratic Party caucus is saying, we don’t expect this to make it into law. The thing that’s really been troubling to me about the way Democrats have been going about this legislative process is, leadership is not getting feedback. And the idea that that leadership is just going to magically hit upon the best possible deal, and then tell their caucus, “OK, this is what we have to do,” and not make mistakes somewhere along the way, I think is a little bit silly.
We know, for instance, that when Nancy Pelosi was working on naming someone to the oversight panel for the corporate bailout side of this, she named Donna Shalala, who is a congresswoman from Florida, who Pelosi helped recruit in 2018. Donna Shalala has, it turns out, repeatedly violated the insider trading disclosure provisions of the Stock Act. That is a serious mistake. And I don’t think Nancy Pelosi wanted to nominate somebody who had violated the Stock Act to an oversight position. I think she just kind of goofed. And I worry that with this style of legislating, where they put together this one big package that lays out a marker, and then Nancy Pelosi just goes off and negotiates whatever she wants with Mitch McConnell, we are doomed to be seeing certain other mistakes like that playing out in the future.
JS: You know, for three and a half years, we’ve watched as Democratic leader after Democratic leader tells us that, you know, Donald Trump is in the pocket of Russia. Donald Trump is the most dangerous and most incompetent president in U.S. history, that he represents a dire threat to the existence of our republic. And yet, the Senate votes overwhelmingly on bipartisan lines to give Donald Trump and William Barr sweeping surveillance authorities. And then you have record-shattering military budgets being given to the most dangerous authoritarian in U.S. history, anti-democratic Donald Trump. And then you have these enormous packages that essentially are a legalized form of corruption, or bribery, or grift. It’s stunning.
When we then look at the HEROES Act and say, “OK, in this moment of Donald Trump, this is the Democrats putting forward what they believe the response to this pandemic” — that’s killed, you know, it’s nearing 100,000 Americans. And it’s everything you’re describing here, where it’s this nitpicking at the crumbs for the poor and working people in this country and just unaccountable billions going into the coffers of corporations and the ultra-wealthy. I just really have trouble wrapping my head around how anyone could look at this and not say, “this is not a real opposition to Donald Trump in any way, shape, or form coming out of the Democratic Party, particularly in the Congress.”
ZC: We have a situation right now where there is essentially unlimited money flowing to the richest people in the world, if the Fed chairman and the treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, wanted to. And I think that’s kind of astounding when you consider the fact that the Democratic Party just impeached Donald Trump in January, ostensibly for abusing public funds for political benefit. And so then they pass this massive bailout which gives Donald Trump’s treasury secretary and Donald Trump’s Fed chairman the right to do just about anything they want with that money. That seems pretty wild to me.
And I think it seems pretty wild to a lot of people, which is why the Democratic Party has — almost immediately after that bill was passed, they started talking about “phase four,” implying that there had been three previous phases of relief for this disaster, when of course, there really had just been one kind of bad bailout package that had been put together.
People are losing the plot with where the Democratic Party is right now and what they actually want. It’s pretty clear to most people who are willing to be persuaded that the Trump administration has completely screwed up the pandemic response in just about every possible way. But it’s not clear to me what the Democratic Party’s overall vision for how to deal with this response really is.
And I think one of the problems so far has been that there’s not a whole lot of attention to the public health crisis itself. In the HEROES Act, we sort of start getting to that. There was nothing in the previous legislation that was going to say, you know, “Make masks and ventilators in the United States so that we can actually get them,” you know. We have countries all over the world that the trading system is kind of breaking down on on these public health supplies. It’s a public health crisis. Why wouldn’t we do something about that? Why weren’t we training nurses and doctors? Why wasn’t there funding for contract tracers?
All of that stuff is now sort of making its way into legislation. But it’s a little bit late, and now we’re staring at a depression — we’re certainly in a depression right now. But we don’t know how long this is going to last. The economy is not going to just all of a sudden rebound when the public health menace ends. So we’re looking at years of economic crisis here, and I just don’t think the party was intellectually or politically prepared for it.
JS: What is it that Mitch McConnell and the Trump White House believe is the key to confronting this crisis, both on a health level, but more germane to our conversation, economically in terms of the legislative agenda in the Congress?
ZC: I mean, so far, I haven’t seen anything coherent from either Mitch McConnell or Donald Trump about what the economic response or the public health response should be. All I have been able to decipher from either of them is that this is a PR problem for the White House, or an opportunity for Mitch McConnell to secure long-standing gains that the Republican elite have wanted to see. So you know, when he goes around saying that he doesn’t want to provide aid to states, that that’s a “blue state bailout,” he’s talking about cutting pension funds. He does not want public workers who have spent their lives and careers working, expecting retirement funding from state governments, to get those retirement funds. That’s a long-standing goal from the conservative movement. You can’t pretend that the Democrats are the only bad actors here. I think that would be very silly. But they do have to act like a party that believes in something, something else.
JS: In a piece for Huffington Post that you wrote with the title “The Rich are Having Themselves a Fine Coronavirus,” you write about the fact that banks are still cutting checks to shareholders. And this is part of of that article, “when the terms of the emergency coronavirus legislation were being debated in Congress last month, nobody lifted a finger to halt this miscarriage of capital ? not Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), not House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), not even populist firebrands Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) or Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).” Explain that aspect of it.
ZC: During the financial crisis of 2008, one of the more outrageous of the various outrages that occurred was that banks continued to pay out dividends to shareholders after it was very clear the financial system was in deep trouble. And by paying out this money, the banks did not have capital. They didn’t have money on hand to meet other demands. And as the crisis accelerated, it became clear that these banks needed a lot more money. And they went to the Federal Reserve, and they went ultimately to Congress, for all this money. The Federal Reserve chairman has the power to stop those dividend payments. He has enormous regulatory authority that he could exercise to do almost anything.
But instead of requiring the Fed chairman to exercise that authority, instead of banning dividend payments, things like that, the Democrats in Congress passed a — unanimously, it’s not just the Democrats — the Congress unanimously passed this package that allows Steve Mnuchin to waive restrictions on stock buybacks and dividends. It allows the Federal Reserve chairman to keep letting banks pay out dividends, whether they’ve taken bailout money or not. And you know when the financial system is in trouble. You can tell, because the Federal Reserve starts doing extraordinary things, and the Federal Reserve has done several extraordinary things over the last few months, but it has not halted dividend payments. So money is just going out the door to shareholders, even though, you know, we are not only on the verge of a crisis, we are in the middle of a crisis.
JS: I want to talk for a moment about your new book, which for unfortunate reasons is a remarkably timely historical work. I hope people pick it up. It’s called “The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes,” and it’s out just this week. But in that book, Zach, you explore the life of the famed economist as he dealt with a world in crisis around a century ago. Just explain briefly who Keynes was.
ZC: Well, I think most people encountered John Maynard Keynes — at least certainly I did, at first — through economics introductory classes, where they learned that he’s the guy who said you should spend money in a recession to lift economies sort of out of the doldrums. His life is much, much more interesting. He never wanted to be remembered as sort of a deficit or a fiscal therapist. He was sort of one of the last really serious, I think, philosophers of the Enlightenment, whose friends were people like Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, these big luminaries from the Bloomsbury set in a particular neighborhood in London, very important writers, and painters, and artists.
And Keynes was never a particularly gifted artist, but sort of his artistry ended up being applied to policy making. And I think the thing that people forget about him is that he had a vision of the way the world ought to be that stayed remarkably constant throughout his life. He had a rose-colored, blinkered, idealistic vision of the British Empire, which I think is not too much unlike the way a lot of Americans today think about American exceptionalism. And it’s the shining city on the hill that brings prosperity and democracy everywhere. And when the First World War came along, he sort of learned an uglier truth. And that went in pretty wild directions. He famously became this economist who preached deficit spending during the Depression, but he also successfully socialized British medicine in the 1940s. He was really the legislative steward and the financial architect of the National Health Service in Britain. So he’s a very versatile thinker, but somebody whose life and legacy is about not just economic thinking, but about the roots of economic thinking and why we do economics at all.
JS: Given that you just did this exhaustive study of his life, what could Keynes teach us about the crisis that we’re living through right now?
ZC: Well, I think it’s clear that he would support more government spending. I mean, when the economy disappears, he would want the government to provide the economy, essentially. But I think the thing that’s important about Keynesian thinking is, it’s not so much specific policies. He never wanted to be remembered as this guy who taught governments to spend in a recession.
JS: Hey, listen, he was really passionate about making sure that people did not get increased unemployment benefits and a $1,200 dollar stimulus check. Let’s be honest about the historical record Zach, OK?
ZC: Right. I mean, he was talking about a way of thinking about making policy, a way of thinking about doing economics, that was not about these little things in the weeds here. He wanted people to be able to participate in the type of life that he lived in Bloomsbury. He thought that hanging out and drinking champagne with Virginia Woolf and talking about books with Lytton Strachey was the coolest thing in the world. And he loved going to museums and looking at great pieces of art. And he just thought everybody should be able to do that. And towards the end of his life, he gives this radio address where he’s — Britain’s basically broke after the war, and it’s been totally devastated by the blitz. So many of its citizens are simply dead. It’s not just out of money, it’s out of real resources. And he begins this enormous ambitious project to build theaters in every locality of Britain.
This is before the advent of television. So I mean, he’s trying to create cultural life throughout the country. And it’s that cultural vibrancy that he thinks is so important. It’s not about making equations balance just so. It’s not about making sure people, these “lucky duckies,” don’t get an extra $1,200, as you’re saying. It’s about realizing a vision for democratic health and community that I think, frankly, both parties have lost track of. We really have lost the ability to imagine a world like that, much less go through the policy steps to realize it.
JS: Well, Zach, I want to thank you for writing this book. And as I say, it’s unfortunate that it is so timely, but it is in fact timely, and I encourage people also to follow Zach on Twitter. He’s one of the best, particularly on what’s going on in the U.S. Congress. Zach Carter, thank you very much for being with us on Intercepted.
ZC: Jeremy, thanks so much for having me.
JS: Zach Carter is a senior reporter at HuffPost. His first book, which is just out this week, is called “The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes.” He is on Twitter @zachdcarter.
Upton Sinclair: In the year 1905, there was a strike of the workers in the Chicago stockyard. It was put down with terrible violence, which was customary in those backward, far off days. And the strike was completely broken, and the workers went back to conditions which were described as very terrible. And so I decided that I was going to write a book about the Chicago stockyards from the point of view of labor.
JS: Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” sparked public outrage when it was released in 1906, but not over the plight of meat workers. In response to the conditions that Sinclair detailed, concerns over food safety took center stage, and they brought about the first meat inspection laws to be passed in the United States.
Unidentified narrator: And so it was that in July 1906, a law requiring government control of meat inspection, re-inspection, and supervision of processing and labeling was passed. From that time right up to the present, that law has had a profound effect upon the health and well-being of every American citizen.
JS: Upton Sinclair later wrote, “I aimed for the public’s heart… and by accident hit it in the stomach.” More than 100 years later, jobs in the meatpacking industry remain among the most dangerous in our society. The industry consistently maintains the highest workplace injury rate compared to all other manufacturing and private industry. That’s according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while conditions for workers and wages improved for a period after World War II, decades of deregulation, consolidation, and the shift from cities to rural areas of the country have undermined workers’ ability to organize and unionize for better protections and standards. Like many things, this public health crisis — the coronavirus crisis — has heightened the inequities hardwired into our system. As thousands of workers in meatpacking plants across the country test positive for Covid-19, the responsibility to protect workers rests on the prerogative of companies. And again as in 1906, the action from the government hits in the stomach with demands to keep the processing lines running.
DJT: They had a disproportionately high number of people that had the problem, and that’s going away. The plants are very, very clean now. They’re getting to a level where I think we had some — a report that they’re cleaner than they’ve ever been. That’s a good report, but I don’t know exactly what that means, but they are cleaner than they’ve ever been.
JS: So no interruptions to America’s obsession with meat.
Unidentified meat advertiser 1: There’s nothing quite like the taste of beef, a thick, juicy steak.
Unidentified meat advertiser 2: It’s a real American dish, as American as baseball or an ice cream cone. Incidentally, ground beef is probably the most versatile of any meat you can name.
Unidentified meat advertiser 3: A day of life is getting ready to diminish in the Pacific. There is meat for dinner. Another day of meat for America.
JS: Joining me now to discuss how Covid-19 is affecting workers in the meatpacking industry and the nation’s long history of treating workers as expendable is Ted Genoways. His book “The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food,” was an investigation of Hormel Foods and the effects of increased line speeds on the meatpacking industry. Ted Genoways, thank you so much for joining us on Intercepted.
Ted Genoways: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
JS: Just to begin, according to data from the Food and Environment Reporting Network, as of May 18, “at least 214 meatpacking and processed food plants and 11 farms have confirmed cases of Covid-19. At least two meatpacking plants and four processed-food plants are currently closed.” Ted, of the more than 16,000 workers testing positive, around 90 percent are meatpacking workers, and at least 59 of these workers have died. Why are we seeing such a high rate of infection at meatpacking plants around the country, and why have meatpackers become hot spots for Covid-19?
TG: These are incredibly large facilities. They are open air facilities where there’s a lot of airflow through the plant, and in fact, very often because there are refrigerated areas and hot areas, you’ll hear the workers describe the inside of the plant as being like wind moving through a canyon. And so there’s going to be a kind of perfect environment for an airborne illness to move through that space. And at the same time, you’ve got people — thousands of people — who are crowded in elbow to elbow, working a strenuous job that causes them to breathe heavily. And so, when you’ve got thousands of people crowded in — a lot of exhalations and a lot of the air being recirculated — it’s just exactly the environment that a virus needs to be able to spread from one person to the next.
There’s a simple solution to some of these things in the form of PPE and other sort of protective gear that can be given to workers. I mean, that’s the other side of this is that the response seems to have been extremely slow, and often just not adequate on the part of the meatpacking companies themselves as they responded to the crisis unfolding.
JS: On April 28, Donald Trump issued an executive order under the Defense Production Act, declaring it, “important that processors of beef, pork, and poultry (“meat and poultry”) in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans.”
DJT: I should be signing that over the next hour or so, taking the liability which frees up the entire system, and I fully understand it, not their fault.
JS: How does Trump’s executive order affect the ability of workers to demand or achieve safer conditions, better protections, and compensation?
TG: I think a lot of people have this impression that being declared essential is, you know, being held up as a hero, when in fact what it’s really saying is that your rights are reduced because you are seen as essential to the operation of the country. And so, it is much harder for the workers to not go to work because they have concern of illness. If they have elderly parents or children they are concerned about passing the virus to, none of those concerns are taken into consideration.
There’s also a long-standing problem that has to do with the strength of the UFCW, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, that represents meatpacking workers. They’re just not always in the best position to be able to negotiate, because these companies have gotten so incredibly large. The whole system is built around this idea that the workers are essentially expendable. It was difficult for these companies in some ways to change their mindset. They’re so used to thinking of any individual worker as someone who can be readily replaced that they weren’t really quite prepared for the possibility of hundreds of them being — or thousands even being — out sick at the same time, or in the case of the workers just being afraid to go to work. It’s a really tense situation on both sides, because the workers are clearly not being adequately protected at work. And then on the other side is the nation’s food supply and the question of what happens if these lines stop running.
JS: Give a sense of who the people are that are hired to work at these meat facilities.
TG: Meatpacking has been a job that’s been performed by immigrant labor, really from the beginning of industrial meatpacking. In recent history, that workforce was made up primarily of refugees who were coming in sort of the first wave in the period of deregulation from Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Then, as NAFTA was put in place, we saw a large influx of Mexican workers and workers from other parts of Latin America. But that workforce has really, really diversified in recent years. It’s now very common in a plant to see workers from Somalia, from Sudan, the Karen workers from Burma. It’s not unusual for a plant to see two dozen, three dozen languages spoken on a single shift. This again makes it very difficult for the workers to even communicate with each other about what may be happening when there’s an illness spreading, but it really makes it difficult to organize and to try to put together some sort of concerted effort to lobby on their own behalf.
JS: In a piece that you co-wrote with reporter Esther Honig for Mother Jones, the story begins with Crystal Rodriguez, who works with her father at JBS — that’s a Brazilian-owned multinational corporation and, in fact, the world’s largest meat processor. Her father spent nearly a month in intensive care battling Covid-19. First tell us about Crystal Rodriguez and her father Sergio and how their story compares to other meatpacking workers.
TG: Well, I think it’s a fairly typical story. What you have is a family that has really relied on the packing plant as a source of income for decades. It is the job that has put food on the table for the family. But it’s also made it possible for the kids to get education, to go search for other jobs. The thing that is also not atypical is that there will be some member of the family who decides to go into the packing plant as well. The thing that I thought was interesting about what Crystal told us was that the relationship with a company like JBS is always fraught, that while there’s this kind of loyalty to the company and gratitude for the income that they provided, there’s also the sense of never being valued by the company in the same way that the workers value that work.
Crystal, I thought, put it very aptly when she described this as being like a “bad ex-boyfriend,” someone who you have a hard time getting away from and keep going back to, just because you have a lot of history together. I think that’s a fairly typical relationship that workers have with these plants.
JS: The JBS plant that Crystal and Sergio worked for in Colorado ended up having a major outbreak, with more than 245 workers testing positive, and as of your report that we’re talking about, six people had died. I’ll be curious to see if you have any updates on that. But how did JBS respond to this outbreak? I mean, did they inform their employees that people were testing positive? Did they allow people who may have been exposed to the virus to quarantine?
TG: First of all, that number is up to seven now that we know of that are confirmed who have died of the virus just in that one plant.
Tony Kovaleski: Seventy-eight-year-old Saul Sanchez lost his battle with Covid-19.
Beatrice Rangel: They said it was the virus that killed them.
TK: Friends and family say her father was one of the most popular employees inside the JBS meat plant in Greeley.
TG: It appears that the reason that that plant was so hard-hit was really due to JBS’s reluctance to share information with workers and to provide them with what they needed in terms of protective gear, but also just basics like soap and hand sanitizer to keep themselves relatively safe while working within the plant. But the thing that I think is most damning of all is that once it became clear, once there were people from the health department getting involved — because they were we’re seeing large numbers of people who worked at the plant showing up at urgent care and the emergency rooms with respiratory complaints — JBS still resisted testing the workers and doing contact tracing.
And worst of all, once they were finally convinced that they needed to do this and even got a guarantee directly from Mike Pence that they would have the tests available to them and make it so that they could test all of the workers —
Mike Pence: At this time, our team is working with the governor and working with the senator to ensure that we flow testing resources.
TG: — it was reported locally that they started doing the tests on the managers at the plant. And the rates of positive were so high that they stopped doing the testing. And the union has said, Look, we think that they just didn’t want the workers to know how bad the spread was, because they were afraid that the workers who were well wouldn’t show up either and that the whole plant would go down.
Kim Cordova: Once they started testing their supervisors and it became apparent that the numbers were alarmingly high, they abruptly stopped testing without consulting, you know, Weld County, and then they just stopped testing. They never tested any of the front-line production workers.
TG: If the intention is to withhold information in order to put people at risk, there are some really serious questions that these companies have to answer.
JS: How does the response of JBS compare to other meatpacking companies and how they responded to outbreaks or preventing outbreaks?
TG: It seems to be more typical than atypical. JBS and Tyson — which are together the two largest meatpacking companies and control more than a third of all meat production in the country between the two of them — they’ve both responded very slowly and with a lot of denials. And the thing that I think is most disturbing is to see cases with Tyson where, when they couldn’t get PPE — and I do believe them when they say that they had difficulty locating PPE for their workers — they weren’t willing to shut down the plant. They weren’t willing to go to half speed and spreading people out.
And instead, what they did, we’ve heard from multiple sources, they told people to put hair nets over their faces, which is obviously not going to protect them. In one plant here in Nebraska, at the Tyson plant in Omaha, they told workers that they had a limited amount of PPE available, and so if they wanted it for themselves, they had to buy it from the company. It has all of these echoes to the history of meatpacking, where the workers have always been mistreated and regarded as disposable.
JS: Give us a sense of what it’s like to work at this JBS plant, or for that matter any of these plants, because the stories sound strikingly similar, whether it’s Tyson, or Smithfield, or JBS. But just talk about what it’s like to work at one of these plants.
TG: In the 70s, in the 80s, everything was about trying to consolidate in order to achieve economies of scale. Thousands of plants got squeezed down to a few hundred —
Meat company announcer: — facilities which include the most productive beef slaughtering and processing plants in the world.
TG: But what eventually happens is that you can’t make the operations any more consolidated, so you have to just make them faster.
Maria Hinojosa: The line moves swiftly and rarely stops, and each loin could weigh upwards of 10 to 12 pounds. Further down, workers cut off fat quickly. Off to a different side, others pull sharp knives through large slabs of meat, separating them from the bone.
TG: And that’s really been the objective since the 1990s. And so, that has in some cases meant some automation within the plant, but very often what it means is breaking down complex tasks into simple tasks, making them extremely repetitive, and then making the line run as fast as you possibly can. So what that means just in terms of numbers these days is that a plant like a JBS plant in Colorado may process 5,000 cows in a day. It’s not unusual for pork packing plants to process 10 or 11,000 hogs in a shift, and may run two shifts in a day. And so, everything is aimed at making these tasks as unrelentingly fast as possible. So of course what that means is that you have both repetitive stress injuries that are really common among the workers and you have cut injuries that are extremely common, also.
So even under the best of circumstances, you have a job where the average in the meatpacking industry is that there are two amputations per day. The statistics from the Labor Department tell us that if you work in meatpacking for five years, you have a 50-50 chance of sustaining a workplace injury. That’s all understood to be the given. So now, to layer on top of that this chance that you may be facing a life-threatening illness as well, I think for many workers, they feel that that this is just going too far, that they’re suddenly being asked to bear too much of a burden and especially for what they’re paid and what security and benefits they receive.
JS: These stories about the meat processing industry and hearing from workers about the total disregard for their health and the safety conditions within these companies, as well as statements from elected officials —
Kim Reynolds: Once the virus is introduced into this type of an environment, it’s very difficult to contain. But these also are essential businesses and an essential workforce. And without them, people’s lives and our food supply will be impacted.
Pete Ricketts: You want to talk about some of these protests that are going on right now? Think about how mad people were when they couldn’t get paper products. Think about if they can’t get food.
JS: — I think remind many people of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel “The Jungle.” Remind people what Sinclair revealed, what he was writing about the conditions, about the U.S. meat processing industry at that time.
TG: Sinclair’s goal really was to try to shock readers at the mistreatment of immigrant workers in Chicago slaughterhouses, and by extension in the packing plants across the middle of the country at that time. But what people really zeroed in on were some of the brief passages where there was description of just how tainted the food supply seemed to be. Sinclair was hoping that we would care about the workers and all that people really ended up caring about was, you know, how safe their food was to eat. This has been kind of a recurring problem trying to report these conditions.
People are always asking, and you hear it now, “Is Covid-19 foodborne? is the fact that these workers are getting sick on the line something that could be transmitted to me through my pork or through my chicken?” It shows how quickly we dismiss the concerns about the workers themselves. I always returned to what Sinclair sort of famously grumbled: that he had aimed for the public’s heart, and by accident, hit it in the stomach. I think it’s important to remember that what Sinclair was really writing about was about the exploitation of immigrants in the packing houses and in the communities that surrounded the packing houses, and he was calling for greater worker unity and for people to push back against these companies.
I also think it’s worth noting that the slaughterhouse where Jurgis worked in “The Jungle” was based on the Swift packing plant in Chicago at the time. Swift is the company that was eventually bought up by JBS. All of these concerns that were being described by Upton Sinclair in 1906, as you said, these are conditions that still very much exist. And so, the question I think has to be at what point we start seeing these things as enough of a shared problem that we decide to do something about them. And perhaps a pandemic is that kind of situation.
JS: You know, there were periods where some advancements were made in terms of worker pay, and particularly in the period after World War II. And I’m wondering if you can just talk about how labor unions, how they were able to gain some better wages and working conditions across the industry.
TG: Coming out of World War II, there was not only the sort of industrial might that had been built up, but there was also this kind of emerging middle class that had a great desire to have a more luxurious lifestyle. As strange as it may seem, meat consumption was very much a part of that.
Unidentified voice 1: It is a lovely pot roast.
Unidentified voice 2: Oh dear, I can’t make up my mind. Bill loves pot roast, but those pork chops look wonderful.
Unidentified child’s voice 1: Mom, can we get some weenies in those long buns?
Unidentified voice 2: You said you had one when you got home from school, and you know how you children like pork chops.
Unidentified child’s voice 2: If I can have two!
TG: I think one of the things that’s hard to remember is that before World War II, it was fairly common in the United States for a family to have meat at a single meal per week, and that there might be leftovers, and it would be kind of spread into other dishes, but it was not at all the kind of meat consumption that we have now.
In 1947, the beef industry had a campaign that was, “Eat meat twice a week,” which is hard for us to even fathom now. But as the whole country became sort of meat-hungry, as was said at the time, it created this sustained demand and meant that there were jobs available in these packing plants. And because of some of the things that had changed and some of the prosperity that the country was experiencing at the time, there were a lot of advances that were made. And the unions played a vital role, I also think that there were companies, Hormel Foods —
Meat advertiser: — a display of popular Hormel products. More than 750 different items are produced here, some of which are Spam, cured 81 ham, Hormel chili, Dinty Moore beef stew, Range Brand bacon, and dry sausage.
TG: And Hormel was really an example of a company that during that time period pushed this idea that if we treat our workers well, if we keep them for long periods of time, that it’s a benefit to the whole company. It’s hard to even imagine now, but Jay Hormel, who was one of the founding family members, was sort of derisively referred to by Fortune magazine as the “red capitalist,” because he was seen as being so friendly toward workers at the time. That obviously is not the way that things are anymore.
JS: As we wrap up, I just want to bring people full circle with the Upton Sinclair discussion. Later in his life, he ran for governor of California in 1934.
US: I have been asked to stand as a candidate at the Democratic primary, and to put before the people a program to end poverty in California.
There is no excuse for poverty in a state as rich as California. We can produce so much food that we have to dump it into our Bay.
JS: So Sinclair ran an anti-poverty campaign on the heels of the Great Depression with another striking analogue to the present moment, when crops were burned and healthy livestock simply killed because of the nation’s food system policies. What lessons can we learn from what this public health crisis brings to light about our food systems and supply chains today?
TG: To me, the very first thing is that if we’re worried about the security of the national food supply, then it’s got to be robust and durable enough to withstand other kinds of crises. What we’ve already seen here is that having a public health crisis has very quickly brought us to the point where there are food shortages, and that’s an indication that our system is not nearly as durable as it should be. So then the question becomes, what do you do to improve it? I guess my argument would be that our system has become so concentrated and so consolidated, so that a small number of meatpacking companies are able to exercise tremendous leverage over farmers and also over consumers, while mistreating their workers at the same time.
That is putting way too much power in the hands of too few. So what we need to do is reverse that consolidation. I’ve seen a lot of people who have been arguing for: what we need is a return to local butchers, we need a return to smaller packing plants. I think that that’s true. But I also think that there’s no mistaking that there’s so much political power and so much money that has been consolidated into the hands of these companies as well, that that sort of thing is not going to happen on its own. It has to be a concerted governmental effort. If we’re serious about these things, the thing to look at is this antitrust lawsuit that has just been brought against some of the beef packers and this request by cattle ranchers themselves that the government look at the possibility that these are unfair monopolies. It is worth us considering whether we need to regard these companies as monopolies that need to be broken up, and a new, more decentralized, and durable system established in its place.
JS: Well, Ted, I want to thank you very, very much for being with us. And thank you for all of your great work in your book.
TG: Thank you for having me on. I really appreciate it.
JS: Ted Genoways’s most recent book, “This Blessed Earth,” tells the story of a single year in the life of a family of Nebraska farmers who raised crops and Black Angus cattle. He’s a contributing writer at Mother Jones and the New Republic. You can find him on Twitter at @TedGenoways.
And that does it for this week’s show. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. 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 Ariel Boone. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.