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Salon - May 2, 2020

The "economy" does not exist. Human beings do. What nearly everyone understands, except Republican officials and economists on television, is that there is no singular, shared experience within one large-scale economic system. Leilani Jordan, a 27-year-old woman with a developmental disability, who worked as a grocery clerk at a satellite store of Giant Food — a chain throughout three states — died from the coronavirus infection she contracted when earning her final paycheck. That check was for $20.64. She worked without a facial mask, and lived in an entirely different universe than Nick Bertram, Giant's CEO, who collects a salary in the high six figures. 

The majority of Americans have less than $500 in savings. They simply do not experience the same "economy" as Rep. Trey Hollingsworth of Indiana, a Republican who described Americans dying as a result of "opening the economy" as the "lesser of two evils." Hollingsworth is the 12th-richest member of Congress, with a net worth of $50.1 million, most of it coming from his father — the "silent partner" in Hollingsworth's investment firm. 

Americans as disparate as Trey Hollingsworth and Leilani Jordan, whose death the congressman would presumably regard as collateral damage, might not share an economy in any substantive sense, but they do share a society.

The ideological disease that cripples the United States is the belief that society does not exist beyond its commercial activity. President Calvin Coolidge famously remarked that "the business of America is business," while Joel Millman, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, once wrote, "America is not a nation … America is a market."

Millman was making a neutral, analytical observation, but a similar thesis has guided America's long succession of disastrous policy decisions that treat the "economy" — meaning profits for corporations and their owners or shareholders — as sacred. An entire set of religious assumptions follow, most significantly that people like Jordan are martyrs for the God of profit. Their deaths are acceptable losses in the name of God and country, which mutate together into the bloodless idol of commerce.

Human sacrifices at the altar of the idol have become almost commonplace. Millions of children of color in the inner cities develop asthma and suffer from other respiratory problems because they breathe heavily polluted air; 26,000 Americans die every year because they lack health insurance; public health experts have concluded that poverty — and the lack of robust social services — causes tens of thousands of deaths a year

The fatalities caused by environmental injustice, denial of health care and outright deprivation never provoke widespread scrutiny because, unlike the daily stock market report or reports of marginal GDP growth rates, they are largely out of sight and out of mind.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the United States to confront its market-based theology. Americans now must consider whether their country is anything more than an engine of commerce, and whether human life has value separate from a financial calculus. For the first time in most of our lifetimes, the question of priorities is direct and implicates almost everyone. ...
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