GameStop, COVID and Essential Workers

The pandemic and the GameStop mania should make one thing abundantly clear. There’s something deeply wrong with a society that values hedge fund managers more than the people who keep our hospitals clean, or the agricultural workers who produce food for our families, yet that is the society we live in. 

COVID-19 has been a great clarifier of what kind of labor is important to our society, and what isn’t. Many who for too long have toiled unseen are now viewed for the first time as the essential workers they always were. The GameStop saga has had a similarly clarifying effect. If anyone was still laboring under the illusion that hedge funds and investment banks were staffed by swaggering titans, shifting investments around efficiently, the last couple of weeks should have put that theory to rest once and for all. The mythical wolves of Wall Street have been defanged. 

Ask yourself which is more important: Whether a Melvin Capital trader working remotely from his second home in the Hamptons has a good day shorting GameStop, or whether the workers who clean our hospitals make enough to pay rent and cover their own health care bills? The answer is obvious, and yet we know that many of those workers right here in La Crosse are not paid a living wage. SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin is pushing for that to change at Gundersen and I hope they win. Of course, low wages and the ever escalating cost of health care are problems faced across the entire economy, not just among hospital workers. For example, we have a crisis of affordability and availability of child care in La Crosse, but many of the staff who work in our child care centers also don’t make a living wage.

And yet, you could add the salaries of thousands of child care workers, food service employees, and workers at slaughterhouses and industrial dairies together before they would equal the salary of one Wall Street titan. In 2017, the average pay of the top 25 hedge fund managers in the country was $615 million with four clearing $1 billion in pay. But it is the essential workers who have shown up, often at the most severe cost to their families, day in, day out during this grim pandemic, to make sure our children are taken care of, and our tables have food on them. Meanwhile, Wall Street has gone remote, and continued to gamble recklessly with money generated by the work of others. Hedge funds can afford to play the stock market as if they were gambling in a casino, safe in the knowledge that if they make one bet too far, the federal government will bail them out, as it always does.

The solution is to recognize that wealth is not created at the top, but is built daily by the sweat of workers in our industries and small businesses and on our farms. At the same time, the next generation of workers is being prepared by public school teachers and professors, and when our loved ones fall ill, we rely on the care provided by the nurses and health care workers at our hospitals and long-term care centers. This is the work that matters, these are the essential workers, not the CEOs of BlackRock and Robin Hood or the Silicon Valley “innovators.” Innovation is vital to our economy, but the most important inventions often occur as the result of collective action that emanates from the public sector. Google’s algorithm was funded by the National Science Foundation. GPS, the Internet, and the COVID vaccines our lives now depend on, all owe their origin stories to government-funded programs, not swashbuckling entrepreneurs. Once we finally realize wealth is created by the working class, and impose that fact upon our government, we can distribute that wealth much more broadly and let it trickle up, instead of down. 

The pandemic has shown – perhaps more than at any time since the Second World War – the need for coordinated action and planning to confront our greatest challenges. We’ve proven through programs like the $600 a week increase in employment benefits, if only temporarily, that we can seriously reduce poverty, and increase financial security and wellbeing by using the might of the federal government. We’ve shown yet again that when faced with a true crisis, it isn’t Jeff Bezos, Steve Cohen or Elon Musk who will rush to our rescue, it is the federal government, as it always has been. Yes, we must reform our government to make it more accountable and democratic. But our only true hope in confronting the economic and environmental challenges we face is a much broader public sector, allied with a much stronger labor movement. That is the future we have to fight for.

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Top image: “Wall Street bubbles – Always the same.” American financier J. P. Morgan is depicted as a bull, blowing soap bubbles for eager investors. Several of the bubbles are labeled, “Inflated values.” Seen behind Morgan is a stock ticker, a machine which provided current information on stock prices. Udo Keppler/1901/Public Domain.