Recent events remind me of an old warning: “Don’t eat your seed corn.” Farmers knew to save a certain amount of their corn harvest. This would be the seed corn the next year. The message is pretty simple — don’t focus only on the short term. Unfortunately, America has spent the better part of 40 years eating our seed corn.
For decades, the GOP has told people, “You know better how to spend your money than the government does.” So over the years, the federal government has not taxed you a few bucks. At the same time, they have not taxed Jeff Bezos billions. So the federal government cuts back on things like public health.
Now we reach a point where you need a COVID-19 test, a ventilator or some other public good. Can you just take the money you saved and run out and buy what you need? Nope. Bezos still can. But you can’t. And the government cannot provide it, because they had to make cuts. See how this works?
There is more. The federal government used to maintain stockpiles of medical supplies. But then came the push to “run government like a business.” Why maintain a warehouse when it can get here from China in a week? How well has that worked?
Obviously, the flaws to that system have now been exposed. But it goes even deeper. The U.S. government is our largest health care provider. There is a huge federal need for medical supplies. Those supplies should have ALWAYS been produced in the United States. The vast majority of cotton swabs are made in other countries. Why would the U.S. government EVER allow that? Even if private providers opt for Chinese products, the U.S. government should have been buying U.S.-made products all along.
The past three years are a perfect example of short-term thinking. With low unemployment, income pooling at the top, and low interest rates, it was a perfect time to think long term. Instead, President Donald Trump led us in the opposite direction.
He should have raised taxes on the wealthy. Instead, he cut them. He should have increased the social safety net. Instead, he cut it. He should have paid down some of the federal debt. Instead, he increased it. He should have spent on infrastructure. He did less. He should have built rural broadband. He did nothing. He should have acted on student loan debt. Instead, he has made it easier for sham “schools” to profit.
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Every step Trump has taken has been for his own short-term benefit. He has been eating our seed corn.
Disasters always have the worst effects on the poorest among us. COVID-19 is no different. The United States is bound to have worse outcomes than other countries. Why? The sad state of the social safety net. Consider the following:
• The lack of paid sick days guarantees that sick people will be going to work, thereby spreading the virus.
• Because insurance is tied to employment, Americans who get laid off get the double whammy of also losing health coverage.
• Low wages mean Americans cannot be off work for any amount of time and still maintain their housing.
• Childcare is a problem for most American families, made worse during the outbreak.
Many people and small businesses will not recover. And that should come as no surprise. The United States has decided that it is important to keep billionaires earning as much as possible, but not important that U.S. workers have sick leave, health insurance and decent wages. We have eaten our seed corn. There is nothing left in reserve.
Rod Sullivan lives in Iowa City.