COVID is devastating the US economy—while the very rich get very richer

Why is this radical economic inequality not at the top of everyone's political agenda—from Joe Biden to Gavin Newsom and London Breed?

My poor puppy hates the fireworks. They’re loud and unpredictable. There are many theories, some of them pretty out there, as to why so many explosions are happening this year.

But I think it’s fair to say that this weekend, a lot of people in San Francisco and other parts of the country are not celebrating American independence – they’re protesting American injustice.

The five richest people in the US got $100 billion richer while millions lost their jobs. IPS graphic

And I’m glad that on Long Island, people are taking the protests to one of the key places they belong:The billionaires. (Yes, those were only plastic pitchforks; nobody was in serious danger. But it made the point.)

Take a look at this data from the Institute for Policy Studies, a widely respected DC think tank that takes accurate data very, very seriously:

This happened at the same time:

As the Federal Reserve reported during the week of June 10th, more than $6.5 trillion in household wealth vanished during the first three months of this year as the pandemic tightened its hold on the global economy.

“This is the biggest economic shock in the U.S. and in the world, really, in living memory,” Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell told reporters on June 10th. “We went from the lowest level of unemployment in 50 years to the highest level in close to 90 years, and we did it in two months.”

So: The wealth of the nation’s roughly 640 billionaires went up by roughly half a trillion dollars while much of the 99 percent lost vast amounts of wealth and income.

The COVID crisis has been just grand for the very rich. And they show no signs at all – zero, really – of wanting to share that wealth to prevent an ongoing, massive recession that could rival the Great Depression.

It wouldn’t take much. The billionaire class (and this doesn’t even include the poor souls who only have $900 million) now has $3.531 trillion in wealth, IPS reports.

Just the $584 billion they have earned (actually no, they haven’t “earned” it, since they didn’t do any extra work; they just got it because they already has it, see this) would save millions of small businesses from failure. Or prevent the ten biggest states from having to cut social services to the bone. Or preserve public education … you get the point: That’s just the money they picked up in the past four months. We could do wonders for this country just by saying that the likes of Jeff Bezos would have to go back to being as rich as they were in February.

I think somehow they would all would survive.

As the COVID crisis forces even more shutdowns and threatens even more jobs and small businesses and livelihoods, we are all being asked to accept less – to go back to staying at home, to keep the bars and cafes and restaurants closed, to lose jobs – and that’s all good and correct, even if it means that half or more of the small businesses in San Francisco will never recover and unemployment will continue to surge. That’s what the science says and what public health requires. I spoke to a local official this week who said that “we just all have to sacrifice.” Which is right.

But why doesn’t Jeff Bezos have to sacrifice anything?

Why don’t the 75 billionaires in San Francisco have to sacrifice anything?

During World War Two, when the idea of “sacrifice” was a shared agenda, the nation had an excess profits tax. Why doesn’t that apply today to the very, very rich who are getting even richer off the collapse of the US economy?

Why can’t this be at the top of the political agenda for everyone, from Joe Biden to Gavin Newson to London Breed?

Why are we allowing this tiny group to control so much of our political system?

That, right now, is what’s making me sick.

The San Francisco supes have shown tremendous political courage and foresight in siding with Black Lives Matter and passing measures denouncing racism in police departments around the country. John Crew, a longtime police-accountability lawyer, is asking them to bring that discussion home. Among other things, he is asking the board to support a new bill that would expand access to police records. And he’s asking the board to direct the city attorney and district attorney to stop arguing that cops have “qualified immunity” when they kill innocent people.

In a powerful letter to the board this week, Crew says:

Thank you for your recent resolutions that, in part, call on others outside of San Francisco to act more effectively and aggressively to fight police misconduct and extreme racial disparities in the criminal legal system and in society in general. I support the sense of urgency — and emergency — behind the resolution that will have the Board declare “war on racism” and I urge you to adopt it.

However, as you well know, there are local fronts in this “war” that are in need of your attention too. I hope you will follow-up very soon with specific resolutions urging various San Francisco officials and bodies to act in the same manner on the same topics you are asking others outside of San Francisco to act.

For example —
1. Full transparency about fatal police shootings and other misconduct records

Thank you for unanimously adopting a resolution (#200628) calling on the City of Vallejo to release the body camera footage of the recent tragic police killing of San Francisco-raised Sean Monterrosa. Please consider adopting a resolution urging the SFPD and Police Commission to be fully transparent about its disciplinary decisions in its own cases involving fatal shootings, uses of force causing death or great bodily injuries, sexual assault and dishonesty.

In calling on Vallejo to be more transparent, your resolution refers briefly to the SFPD killing of Jessica Williams. She was killed by SFPD Sgt. Justin Erb on May 19, 2016 in a shooting that the DPA, SFPD and Police Commission all eventually agreed was unjustified and in violation of department policy. As you’ll recall, she’d been the third person of color killed by SFPD in highly questionable circumstances in just over five months (after the killings of Mario Woods and Luis Gongora Pat). There had been turmoil, intense media scrutiny, marches on City Hall and an extended hunger strike outside Mission Station.

There was very high public interest in how the SFPD discipline system would handle this killing that cost Chief Greg Suhr his job by the end of the day that she’d died. For the sake of community trust and confidence, the US Department of Justice COPS Office has since called on the Commission, DPA and SFPD to be as transparent as the law allows about disciplinary dispositions and a new state law (SB 1421) went into effect on January 1, 2019, making that information about fatal police shootings no longer confidential.

Yet, when the Police Commission decided last September to suspend Sgt. Erb for 45 days rather than terminate him, they did so in closed session and inexplicably voted to not tell the public what they had done. The Commission, DPA and SFPD all kept this information secret for nine months until it was finally released to a reporteras part of the DPA’s full investigative file he’d requested several months prior under the Public Records Act. I believe the Police Commission’s failure to immediately disclose the disciplinary disposition for the unjustified killing of Jessica Williams violated the Brown Act. Even if it did not, they clearly had the legal discretion to release this information — and, per their commitments to implement the USDOJ COPS recommendations, had promised that they would do so. Instead, they kept the news of this 45-day suspension secret for nearly nine months.

Please consider a resolution calling on the Police Commission and SFPD to immediately be fully transparent — per their prior USDOJ COPS commitments and SB 1421 — about what particular disciplinary actions they’ve taken over the last 18 months in cases involving police fatal shootings, uses of force resulting in death or great bodily injury, sexual assault or dishonesty.

His next point is profound:

Thank you for including support for the federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in your resolution (#200683) to be voted on tomorrow and directing that your support be conveyed to our federal representatives. As you may know, led by San Francisco’s own Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, late last week every single House Democrat (and three Republicans) voted in favor of that bill which, among other things, would end use of the judicially- created and arbitrary qualified immunity defense in litigation seeking to remedy federal civil rights violations by police officers and agencies.

Unfortunately, because of opposition from the Trump administration and their allies in the police unions, it appears that bill will not be taken up this year by the Republican-controlled Senate.

However, with the unanimous support from House Democrats for ending the use of the qualified immunity defense, there is no reason to wait until next year for San Francisco to start to live by its stated principles by no longer asserting this now widely-discredited barrier to using federal civil rights litigation to deter and remedy police misconduct.

He cites the Boston Review:

These are tools that the government is permitted, but not required, to use as roadblocks against valid constitutional claims. If progressive officials, at any level of government, are truly committed to accountability and to the Black Lives Matter movement, they can lay down these weapons and let citizens whose constitutional rights have been violated be heard in court.

Then he notes:

Significant benefits would follow if progressive elected officials took this step.

Please consider a resolution calling on the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office and the Police Commission and SFPD (as named defendants in federal civil rights litigation) to immediately stop asserting the qualified immunity defense per the provisions of the proposed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

There is racism and abuse in policing all over the nation – and that includes SF.