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A Crisis for Us Is a Jackpot for Them

The coronavirus stock market scandal is a stark reminder of who Congress is really working for

If you haven’t read the Graham Greene novella or seen the film The Third Man, I highly recommend both. It’s a noir set in the fluidity of occupied Vienna after World War II, when the bombs have stopped falling but corruption and ruthless economics continue to exact a human toll. The villain of the piece (captured unforgettably by Orson Welles for the screen) is a profiteer who swipes penicillin from army hospitals, dilutes it and resells it on the black market. He sees the resulting deaths as insignificant, a theoretical concern in the grand design of his self-enrichment. He is the consummate individualist.

If you hadn’t long ago, it’s time you stop pretending that elected members of Congress feel differently. They are high atop the Ferris wheel, and we are the dots moving about below; any number of us could be sacrificed to grow or protect a fortune. Sensitive material on public health is factored into portfolios yet withheld from the public.

We’ve learned that four U.S. senators altogether sold millions in stocks following briefings on the impact of coronavirus, and before a series of market crashes that would have wiped out those investments. The newest member of the chamber, Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), also bought a stake in Citrix, “a technology company that offers teleworking software” and has enjoyed a bump in price as businesses convert to work-from-home, according to the Daily Beast. Loeffler, whose husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, is chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, later assured her Twitter followers: “The consumer is strong, the economy is strong, & jobs are growing, which puts us in the best economic position to tackle #COVID19 & keep Americans safe.”

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, dumped up to $1.72 million of his vulnerable holdings on February 13th, ProPublica reported. Two weeks later, he warned VIP insiders at the Capitol Hill Club — a private social organization in Washington, D.C. — that COVID-19 was far worse than he’d let on in an optimistic op-ed column, “much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” and even compared it to the 1918 influenza pandemic. He would know, since his powerful committee was receiving daily updates on the matter. The mid-February selloff was his largest in 14 months, and, rather unusually, his disclosure report on market activities included no purchases, only the massive sales.

Now we will embark on a wild goose chase to prove the slippery charge that any of this was illegal, as if to divert us from the immediate recognition that it is immoral. Burr and Loeffler are working hard to deflect scrutiny as they give the appearance of complying with ethical oversight, but can either argue that they acted to the benefit of their constituents in North Carolina and Georgia? They do not work for those people, and chances are, your senators don’t work for you. They are in the game for themselves.

We are going to hear about the complicated ways that these ghouls purport to insulate themselves from financial trades made in their name, the alleged firewalls that keep them from using privileged information to play the market, and to that, we should say: Who fucking cares? You profited.

Why do we allow those in government the chance to tack zeroes onto their bank balances whenever we suffer the kind of crisis volatility that they are uniquely poised to predict and even influence? Why did we need a specific law, 2012’s Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act (or STOCK Act), to gain transparency on such conflicts of interest, and why did we turn a blind eye when Congress eliminated “large parts” of this law the following year? Why do we let them own stocks at all?

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s stock sale in the run-up to plague panic may be innocuous compared to her colleagues’ (she offloaded shares in a biotech at a market low), but the California congresswoman is married to Richard Blum, a billionaire and private equity vulture who lined his pockets by purchasing foreclosed homes in the wake of the 2007–2008 real estate collapse, holding them in a property management firm in which she invested $1 million.

In any disaster, the ruling class wins.

And if they can’t make a quick seven figures — if they are called upon for direct action to aid the voters they claim to represent — they punt, shrug or simply disappear.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi celebrated the passage of a paid-sick-leave guarantee that Republicans had gutted so it applies to roughly “20 percent of private-sector workers,” exempting behemoths like Amazon as well as companies with fewer than 50 employees. It’s unclear when anyone last saw the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Joe Biden, while his last remaining rival in the contest, Sen. Bernie Sanders, has been busy addressing the nation, raising funds for COVID-19 response and proposing universal relief packages. Oh, but don’t worry, Joe’s staff is still pumping out tweets politely asking CEOs not to buy back their own stock for a year. We know appealing to their sense of right and wrong always works! You’d be tempted to conclude he doesn’t quite have a vision for leading this shattered country.

So yeah, I keep thinking of Orson Welles in The Third Man: a character who decides that national identity, borders and alliances are all for show, façades to cover the dirty machinations of raw capitalism. That’s who’s running the show here, and their eyes are on a bottom line that doesn’t reflect what happens to you or me. They don’t see us; they see the Dow. They work for banks, airlines and cruise lines, fossil fuel dinosaurs and every giant, rotting industry that gets an eye-popping bailout before you see a single cent. They remain in power due to that bond and through our defeated indifference. You don’t just lose with these people. You get screwed over again and again.