Anti-government protestors have been aggressively railing against stay-at-home orders in Michigan and other states, demanding their freedom. But what is “freedom”? Is it their right to own an assault rifle? Does it equate to refusing vaccinations for their children? Is it being unencumbered by any type of government action whatsoever? Or is freedom synonymous with economic and health care security?
The Libertarian Party reveres freedom. Its motto is: Less Government, More Freedom. Actually, many members of the GOP are Libertarians, perhaps because they have more influence as Republicans. These ultraconservatives want to abolish income taxes and the IRS, outlaw labor unions and limit government to police and national security duties. Sure, who needs the EPA and the Department of Education anyway?
The “give me liberty” protests, however, got me thinking a lot about freedom and who really has it.
Certainly, the top one tenth of one percent of wealth holders – those with a net worth starting at around $43 million – have plenty of freedom. Many of them own one or more jet aircraft. Hey, who hasn’t thought about how great it would be to own a private plane? Well, during my working years, I frequently flew on company aircraft. And I can attest; it’s the ultimate in stress free travel.
No need to worry about a security check, TSA agents or crowded gate areas. On a morning flight, the pilots take your luggage and provide a hot cup of coffee and a freshly made donut as you relax in a first-class seat. When returning in the afternoon, a cocktail, cold beer or glass of wine helps smooth out the trip home. You can fly from Chicago to New York City, hold some meetings and be home in time for dinner.
Yet, luxurious travel is not the only freedom the ultra-wealthy enjoy. Most have multiple homes; many have luxurious yachts; and some even own a private island. Their real freedom, however, comes from access. If they want to meet privately with their representative, senator or even the president, no problem. A generous campaign contribution facilitates getting special treatment. No doubt, multi-millionaires and billionaires have the ultimate in freedom.
Those households in the top one percent with a net worth starting at $10.4 million have it pretty cushy too. They get preferential service wherever they go and have no worries about getting the very best in medical care. Even folks at the lower end of the top 10 percent with a net worth of a little over $1 million have a reasonable amount of freedom; their main worry is running out of cash before they run out of time.
Retirees above age 65 with a modest net worth also have a fair amount of freedom if they own their home and are collecting Social Security. At a minimum they have a roof over their head, a guaranteed income and Medicare.
I would submit, however, that freedom for a majority of Americans is very tenuous, even if they have a job and company provided health insurance. A recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Urban Institute estimates that 43 million of these folks could lose their job and their health insurance due to the coronavirus crisis.
As we learned from a 2019 Federal Reserve study, 27 percent of Americans would have to borrow or sell something to cover an unexpected $400 expense and 12 percent would not be able to cover it at all. That’s almost 40 percent of Americans – roughly 130 million – who are in poor financial shape. How much freedom do they have?
A New York Times article by Nicholas Kristoff about Denmark’s response to the current pandemic and a McDonald’s employee there is illustrative of the stark contrast to a similar American worker. According to Kristoff, the humblest Danish burger-flipper at McDonald’s makes about $22 per hour, which includes various pay supplements. He or she also gets six weeks of paid vacation a year, life insurance, a year’s paid maternity leave and a pension plan. Plus, all Danes enjoy universal medical insurance and paid sick leave.
Kristoff states that the cost of living in Denmark is around 30 percent higher than in the United States. But U.S. McDonald’s employees are currently fighting for $15 per hour and that wouldn’t include all the other benefits the Danes have. Who has more freedom, the guy or gal in Denmark who asks “Do you want fries with that?” or his or her counterpart in the U.S.?
Around five years ago, McDonald’s employees in the U.S. were seeking a $10 per hour minimum wage. I was trying to discuss this movement with a conservative friend, but he dismissed it with, “Well, if McDonald’s has to pay that, they’ll use machines to make burgers.” I thought, how callous is that? Still, it’s a typical Republican mindset regarding minimum wages; working-class Americans must either accept low pay or risk being replaced by a robot.
Yes, those protesting against stay-at-home orders in Michigan and elsewhere can wave their assault rifles and their flags. They can claim the government is being tyrannical and Nazi-like, as they have. They can angerly vent about being robbed of their freedom. But no matter what the involved governors do, if these protestors don’t have adequate savings, a secure job and affordable health insurance – the only freedom they’ll actually have is in their mind.
Above photo by Paul Sancya/AP