Sen. Rubio: Post-coronavirus world needs economy for the common good

rubio shutterstock Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). | Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.

When the coronavirus epidemic passes, Americans can't simply return to their old habits, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has said.

"We won't properly absorb the lessons from the coronavirus crisis if we fall back into the traditional Republican and Democratic model of politics. We need a new vision to create a more resilient economy," the Florida Republican said in an April 20 column in the New York Times.

"The economy should be at the service of the common good," Rubio said. "It should work for us, not people for the economy."

The senator called for a renewed focus on the common good, a shift in priorities from short-term economic efficiency to long-term resiliency, and a better model of manufacturing to evaluate and address shortcomings in the response to the COVID-19 virus.

As of Tuesday, the spread of the coronavirus has killed more than 45,400 people in the U.S., with more than 810,000 known to be infected since early March. The virus usually causes mild or moderate flu-like symptoms, but severe cases can require hospitalization and become fatal.

Civil authorities, fearing that rapid increase in severe cases could overwhelm hospitals, ordered public health measures including orders for most people to stay at home.

Both the arrival of the virus and its response have had major effects on the U.S. economy, with 22 million Americans known to have filed for unemployment claims in recent weeks, CNN reports. Only last week did the Trump administration release a three-stage plan to remove restrictions on social and economic life while also limiting contagion and responding to new cases.

The coronavirus medical response has been severely hindered by a shortage of appropriate protective gear and other medical equipment.

Rubio argued that some of the problems revealed in the epidemic are the consequences of decades-long trends.

"Over the past several decades, our nation's political and economic leaders, Democratic and Republican, made choices about how to structure our society - choosing to prize economic efficiency over resiliency, financial gains over Main Street investment, individual enrichment over the common good," Rubio said.

"Any prudent policymaker should recognize that both efficiency and resiliency are values we should prioritize and seek to balance. But that's not what we have done in recent decades," he said.

The senator warned that in a crisis, a lack of resilience in the economy can be "devastating."

"Though I believe resilience is one of the defining traits of an American, I also believe it's been absent from our public policy for too long. And this has become devastatingly clear in the current crisis," he said.

Rubio connected the outsourcing of U.S. manufacturing to the rise of a national economy dominated by service industries. These services rely on person-to-person activity, which is now restricted.

"And unlike industrial economies, service-based economies lack the flexibility that comes with producing physical goods that can either be sold later or repurposed to meet a sudden shortage. This makes us especially vulnerable to this kind of shock," he said.

Another factor hampering resiliency was U.S. corporations' shift away from investing in workers, equipment and facilities and towards "short-term financial gains to shareholders."

Rubio faulted financial and economic policy for worsening the coronavirus response.

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"Why didn't we have enough N95 masks or ventilators on hand for a pandemic? Because buffer stocks don't maximize financial return, and there was no shareholder reward for protecting against risk," he said. The senator characterized both business and government as focused more on "just-in-time" supply models rather than "just in case" models prepared for disruptions.

"Today, we see the consequences of this short-term, hyperindividualistic ethos," Rubio argued. "Americans cannot leave their homes. Neighbors are unable to shake hands. Places of worship are closed. The labor market, especially for working-class Americans in those service industries, is in free-fall."

In his recent writings on the subject, Rubio has become perhaps the first U.S. senator to cite Pope Leo XIII as an inspiration for his economic vision, highlighting especially the 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum.

"It was an interesting encyclical because he wrote it in reaction to the disruptions the world was facing after industrialization – there were some of the same fears then, machines replacing people, mass economic displacement. He wrote about that balance of obligations between the worker and the employer and I think this is a good time to revisit that balance in the light of the post-industrial disruptions we now face," the senator told CNA last year.

Rubio, himself a Catholic, told CNA that Catholic social teaching influences his own concept of dignity and work "more than it used to."

"The more you dig into it, you realize that there is an extraordinary wisdom. For example, St. John Paul II wrote about the obligation of a worker to work - which is something that people on the political right, myself included, have talked about – but it is built upon the assumption that such work has dignity. It's something you can only insist upon if the economy we've put in place fosters the creation of those jobs."

Rubio's April 20 essay strongly criticized China's politics and U.S. policy towards China. His experience on the Senate Intelligence Committee, he said, made clear to him that many serious problems originate in the United States' relationship with China.

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"As did many, I believed capitalism would change China for the better; instead, China changed capitalism for the worse," he said.

Rubio was critical of policies and choices to outsource manufacturing to China, often in search of cheap labor. He said China's government, unlike the United States, provided more business assistance in "long-term capital development," which seemed irrational at the time. Rubio was also critical of the decision to allow China into the World Trade Organization.

The consequences of these changes were revealed in the COVID-19 pandemic, Rubio said. He charged that the Chinese government had monopolized "critical supply chains" and directed supplies to its own country.

"It ensured that face masks being manufactured in China, for example, went to domestic consumption and their own fight against the virus," he said.

"Largely unable to import supplies from China, America has been left scrambling because we by and large lack the ability to make things, as well as the state capacity needed for reorienting production to do so," he continued.

These failures in imports and in production, Rubio said, forced medical staff to ration key medical equipment, to the point where they worked without critical protective equipment.

The senator's New York Times essay on a more resilient economy echoed his previous remarks. In November 2019, he told CNA that there are problems in the asymmetrical nature of prosperity in the U.S. Rubio said a new economic vision is needed to respond to contemporary realities.

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