Konopacki 5/6

One of the saddest stories I've read during this wrenching coronavirus debacle was buried deep in the New York Times several days ago.

Datelined Berlin, Germany, the story contained interviews with several European political and educational leaders, all asking what in the world has happened to the United States.

"The pandemic sweeping the globe has done more than take lives and livelihoods from New Delhi to New York," it said. "It is shaking fundamental assumptions about American exceptionalism — the special role the United States played for decades after World War II as the reach of its values and power made it a global leader and example to the world."

None of those interviewed would have guessed that they would be witnessing an utter mess in New York City, endless lines of people trying to get food in all parts of the country, and still more endless lines of workers at unemployment offices, even in the face of an enormous health pandemic.

"I feel a desperate sadness," said Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European history at Oxford University, a longtime ardent proponent of a close relationship between the U.S. and Europe.

In the eyes of many of these Europeans, according to the Times, the way the virus has savaged the U.S. exposes two great weaknesses — the erratic leadership of Donald Trump, who has long devalued expertise in government, and the longtime absence of a robust public health care system and social safety net.

That the current crisis has been exacerbated by the administration's slow response and initial denial that we had anything to worry about is a given, but the problem lies much deeper than that. It's a result of decades of national policies that have contributed to the most unequal economy among the civilized world.

For far too long, we as a nation have bowed to the demands of the financial elite, electing to put the short-term interests of big banks and corporations, conglomerates and their stockholders over the interests of building a more just economy that includes every American, especially the welfare of the most vulnerable among us.

Health care is obviously the prime example. For nearly a century now, we've allowed a for-profit system to control how Americans get care, even if it leaves tens of millions without any coverage and costs twice as much to cover those lucky enough to have at least some protection. So now, in a pandemic, countless of our citizens are suffering.

But, that's just a piece of it. Where once we were concerned about monopolies unfairly gaming the economy, we've sat back and allowed merger after merger, concentrating power into fewer and fewer greedy hands, even among the nation's big hospitals. So now, in a pandemic, we have few places to turn to help fight the menace.

Despite the warnings that have been sounded through the years, we looked the other way while American corporations, always looking for cheaper labor and short-term profits, outsourced their production overseas, devastating our own manufacturing industry. So now, in a pandemic, we have to rely on the good graces of China, for one, to help us ramp up testing and protection.

Instead of spending money on infrastructure, including a more robust health system, we've decided to give massive tax cuts to the big corporations, which used the extra money to buy back their stocks and increase dividends to inflate their Wall Street values instead of bolstering their future economic health. So now, in a pandemic, the taxpayers — rich and poor alike — are expected to bail them out.

As I wrote back in early March, the brunt of this crisis would once again fall on the working poor — those who do the grunt work and stand in the face of harm's way. And to think, we can't even muster the will to raise their minimum wage.

No, we see fit to elect people like Donald Trump nationally, and politicians like Robin Vos, Scott Fitzgerald and their ilk locally to continue their shilling for inequality.

Is it a wonder we've lost our luster as the world's leader? Yes, it is sad.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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