The Economy

The New York Times Sells Envy

People line up for taxis across the street from the New York Times building in New York City. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
Envy and ingratitude sell, so Farhad Manjoo gets to misrepresent data, twist facts, and sow resentment in the paper of record.

A product always sure to sell, even on Thanksgiving, and especially amid a pandemic, is envy. So I can hardly blame New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo for capitalizing on a bull market.

Lamenting that the portfolios of America’s richest men and women have made a quicker recovery from the coronavirus-induced recession than they did from the Great Recession a decade ago, Manjoo calls it “depressing” that American billionaires have “amassed” $1 trillion since March. Forget that this is to be expected, since this year’s recession was caused by an exogenous shock but 2008’s by systemic issues. Conveniently, and as is typical of this genre of pandemic-related commentary (Manjoo is far from the first to observe that rich people are making money during the crisis), he chooses to measure these gains beginning on March 18, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 19,898, and not, say, a month earlier, when the Dow sat at 29,232.

It should not surprise us that billionaires, who tend to hold much of their wealth in stock, have regained what they lost when the economy shut down as the coronavirus transformed from a Chinese epidemic into a pandemic. “In the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, American billionaires’ wealth grew by a third,” Manjoo complains. Well sure, if you measure that growth beginning at the low point of the crisis.

And while Manjoo would be happy to let you believe otherwise, the economic prospects of all Americans have brightened since this spring. In April, the Bureau of Labor Statistics measured unemployment at a ghastly 14.7 percent. By October, it had dropped to a still-disappointing, but much-improved 6.9 percent. And while Manjoo and Chuck Collins, the progressive economist on whom Manjoo relies as an expert in his complaint, dismiss the booming stock market as merely a boon to the wealthy, polling from Gallup earlier this year showed that 55 percent of Americans have some stake in it. Sixty-five percent of Americans earning between $40,000 and $99,000 a year — that is, the bulk of the middle class — own stock. Thirty-three percent of Americans without any college experience do as well. One would think, then, that stock-market gains — which do more in absolute terms for the rich, but more on the margin for the average American — would please everyone, Manjoo included. Instead, he endorses Collins’s view that Wall Street’s recovery is proof that “the economy is now wired ‘heads you win, tails I lose,’ to funnel wealth to the top.” Together, Manjoo and Collins do plenty of telling, but very little showing on this point, mostly because the premise that stock-market gains hurt less fortunate Americans is ludicrous.

Manjoo goes on to decry the revenue increases seen by giants such as Amazon, Instacart, Zoom, Target, and Walmart. These increases are supposedly a sign of immorality in our economic system and selfishness on those firms’ part, since they come while smaller, family-owned businesses continue to struggle. But Amazon and others have thrived because they have proven especially valuable during the pandemic. How many more people may have lost their jobs if they were not able to remain productive thanks to Zoom? How many more people would have contracted the virus if Instacart weren’t delivering groceries to various doorsteps (and paying people to do so)? How many more may have died? That these companies have made Americans’ lives just a little bit easier and safer this year is something to be grateful for, not embittered by.

The plight of small businesses is, of course, to be pitied. But it’s the nature of the pandemic and the restrictions put in place by policymakers, not Amazon, Instacart, or their executives, that is to blame for their struggles. Of course mom-and-pop shops that rely on foot traffic and lack the distribution and delivery systems of Amazon, Target, or Walmart are hurting. Of course action should be taken to keep those small businesses on their feet. But larger firms can’t be faulted for being better equipped to handle the pandemic.

Per Manjoo, even the election of Joe Biden must be construed as a blessing to billionaires and a curse to the rest of us, since Biden had the temerity to suggest that the wealthy are “just as patriotic as poor people.” Never mind that Biden’s tax plan would increase the corporate and highest marginal tax rate as well as raise the long-term capital-gains tax on income above $1 million significantly, from 20 percent to 39.6 percent. This is not good enough for Manjoo, as he seeks not policy but punishment.

Manjoo is short on suggestions for reform, and on explanations for why some billionaires recouping their losses from earlier this year, or — in the case of those who manage businesses whose services have proven especially valuable during the pandemic — making more money than they were last year is actually bad for America. His purpose is only to point, shout, “Get’em!,” and fool readers into believing that Zoom and Instacart’s gain is their loss. But envy and ingratitude sell, so Manjoo gets to misrepresent data, twist facts, and sow resentment in the paper of record.

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