One thing our new normal has made inarguably clear: The gap between the haves and have-nots is becoming more painful and more intractable with each passing day.
Our latest example comes courtesy of Harvard University, wealthiest in the nation, with an endowment of $40 billion.
Guess which institute of higher learning is getting a coronavirus bailout?
Yep. Harvard has been granted, and is accepting, $8.7 million in federal aid — and only half of that must be reserved for emergency financial aid for students. Consider that in fiscal year 2019, Harvard spent $1.9 billion of its endowment covering the gaps for students in need and ended the year with a nearly $300 million surplus.
Meanwhile, 22 million Americans are suddenly unemployed, many waiting on a $1,200 federal rescue check — which Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin implied could hold most Americans over for 10 weeks. Newly jobless New Yorkers in particular have struggled to even file for unemployment, so overloaded is the state Department of Labor system.
Amid this devastation to the lower and middle classes, big businesses have availed themselves of money designated for the small business program, which hit its (current) $350 million cap three days ago. Anyone who missed out — and many did, due to the Small Business Administration website crashing, structural logjams and dense amounts of paperwork required — need not apply anytime soon.
“The SBA is currently unable to accept new applications for the Paycheck Protection Program based on available appropriations,” said SBA spokeswoman Jennifer Kelly. “Similarly, we are unable to enroll new PPP lenders at this time.”
Know who didn’t miss out on SBA loans? Large chain restaurants such as Ruth’s Chris steakhouse ($20 million loan, $468 million in sales last year, approximately 5,600 employees), Potbelly ($10 million loan, sales of $410 million last year, 6,000 employees — and, the same day that loan came through, the company paid a $100,000 signing bonus to a new executive), and Shake Shack ($10 million loan, sales of $574.6 million last year, 6,101 employees).
Only Shake Shack, in a face-saving move, is returning its PPP loan, “so that those restaurants that need it most can get it now,” said CEO Randy Garutti, even as he argued that Shake Shack, with about 45 workers per restaurant, “could and should apply to protect as many of our employees’ jobs as possible.”
Technically, that may be true, but the optics and the reality — true small-business owners desperately trying to navigate a complex, bureaucratically sclerotic network while national multimillion corporations easily swoop in and make off with millions — are grotesque.
It all feels far too reminiscent of 2008, the federal government bailing out big banks while millions of ordinary Americans lost their jobs, their health insurance, their savings, their homes. We were supposed to learn a lesson from that kind of top-down safety net.
As Lev Menand and Ganesh Sitaraman recently wrote in The American Prospect, the federal government must not miss this chance to prioritize Main Street. “Stabilizing household balance sheets,” they write, “will address one of the roots of [this] crisis and lay the foundation for economic recovery.”
Yet in the kind of illogic specific to the federal government, it’s not like the Congressional Oversight Commission has any oversight here. Commission member Bharat Ramamurti told NPR over the weekend that the commission “does not have jurisdiction over the small-business program.” Then what’s it for?
Furthermore, Ramamurti said he sent a letter to the chairman of the Federal Reserve last week, asking for details as to which companies they’re lending money to and how they are managing these loans.
But just like a laid-off waitress or bartender calling the unemployment office, Ramamurti has gotten no answer.
Over the weekend, PBS reran “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” the stupendous multi-part documentary by Ken Burns. One episode chronicled, in terrifying detail, how close FDR — and the Americans who so desperately relied on his New Deal — came to losing minimum wage, the National Labor Relations Act, Social Security.
Watching from our new vantage point, a diseased America on the verge of experiencing an economic apocalypse more savage than the Great Depression, it no longer seems unthinkable that such resistance, such callousness, would again befall the neediest among us.
Yet nearly a century later, the little guy still struggles to get through.