Elizabeth Warren on coronavirus, the presidency, and the economy 

In January, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the first presidential candidate to release a plan for combating coronavirus. In March, she released a second plan. Days later, with the scale of economic damage increasing, she released a third. Warren’s proposals track the spread of the virus: from a problem happening elsewhere and demanding a surge in global health resources and domestic preparation to a pandemic happening here, demanding not just a public health response, but an all-out effort to save the US economy.

Warren’s penchant for planning stands in particularly stark contrast to this administration, which still has not released a clear coronavirus plan. There is no document you can download, no website you can visit, that details our national strategy to slow the disease, transition back to normalcy, and rebuild the economy.

So I asked Warren to explain what the plan should be, given the grim reality we face. We discussed what, specifically, the federal government should do; the roots of the testing debacle; her idea for mobilizing the post-coronavirus economy around building affordable housing; why she thinks that this is exactly the right time to cancel student loan debt; why America spends so much money preparing for war and so little defending itself against pandemics and climate change; whether the Democratic primary focused on the wrong issues; and how this crisis is recasting Ronald Reagan’s old saw about “the scariest words in the English language.”

You can listen to our full conversation by subscribing to The Ezra Klein Show, available wherever you get your podcasts. A transcript of our discussion, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Ezra Klein

There still isn’t a single coronavirus response plan from the White House — I can’t actually go and look up our strategy as a nation for stopping and recovering from this. During your presidential campaign, you released three plans on coronavirus — one in January and two in March. But the situation has gotten worse since then. What should the plan be now?

Elizabeth Warren

Let’s start with the fact that if you want to get something done, you ought to have a plan. Back in January, I put out a plan that really focused on the importance of getting ready: making sure that we had all the masks and the gowns and the respirators and all the things health care professionals need, and opening up centers to help people if the health care system got overwhelmed. It was also focused on testing because the testing is crucial. We need enough test kits not just to test people who are showing raging symptoms, but enough test kits to be able to test people who appear to be healthy, so you can keep detecting it in the population and identify hotspots.

That’s what a plan should still look like today, even though this thing is huge. We’ve got to keep our doctors and nurses safe. They need personal protective equipment. And we need to have enough test kits so that we’re testing not just people who are being admitted to the hospital or showing high fevers, but we’re testing in the population on a regular basis. That’s our best chance in dealing with it.

But it all comes down to having a plan.

Ezra Klein

The White House has taken the attitude that this is mainly a problem for states and localities to respond to, and to the extent they’re asking for federal help, it reflects failures on their part. What is the specific role for the federal government here? What can they do that others cannot?

Elizabeth Warren

The White House is just simply wrong on the notion that somehow the states can manage this on their own. We need a national response. Think about what I was just talking about. It is the federal government that can order the tests. It is the federal government that can use the Defense Production Act in order to force companies to produce the test kits, the masks, the gowns, the kinds of things that we actually need in a crisis. The states don’t have the power to do that. Only the federal government does.

President Donald Trump after a November 2019 speech.
Ira L. Black/Corbis/Getty Images

Look at what’s happening when the states are out there trying, for example, to buy these masks in a market with no rules. What happens is states end up bidding against each other. New York bids against Massachusetts and they both are bidding against Arizona and California. That’s great for whoever is sitting on a couple of million masks, but it’s sure not good for the states that desperately need these masks and are paying more and more and more just to get basic supplies. It is the federal government that can allocate these masks not based on who bids the highest price, but where there’s a real need. That is what a federal government that has a plan can do.

The other half of this is the economic half. Only the federal government can cushion the economic blow here in a meaningful way. The state of Massachusetts, for example, already predicts that we’re going to have a $3 billion shortfall because expenses have gone up dramatically as we’re trying to support people out of work, those who need shelter, and our hospitals. At the same time, revenue has gone down. Taxes won’t come in until July 1, and with a lot of small businesses closing and a lot of people out of work, tax revenues are likely to be lower.

It is only the federal government that can actually print money in a time of crisis. Only the federal government that can deficit spend. Massachusetts, as a matter of our state constitution, cannot engage in deficit spending. So it’s the federal response that we need both on the health front and on the economic front.

Ezra Klein

I want to pick up on this idea of the federal government as an allocator of resources. It does seem that the government is allocating resources, but Florida is getting everything it has asked for and Kentucky is getting more than it asked, while Massachusetts, among others, is getting less than it asks for.

There have been concerns that the way the Trump administration is allocating these resources is based on which states they feel have been politically friendly to them and which states they feel are important for them in 2020. Do you think that’s true?

Elizabeth Warren

Donald Trump has made clear for years now that he cares about exactly one thing: Donald Trump. It’s all politics all the time. And now he’s focused on how Donald Trump is going to get reelected. That invades every decision that he makes.

So just look at the data you cited. How can it be that Kentucky and Florida get 100 percent or 100 percent-plus of what they need while Massachusetts doesn’t? I think anyone would look at that and say it’s Donald Trump playing politics once again.

Ezra Klein

In your plan earlier you talked about testing and about getting health resources out. But what comes next? I think one of the most damaging parts of there being no clear national plan is that people who are sheltered in place, like me, have no idea how long that will last or what will come after. If you are creating the plan, what would you tell people comes after social distancing? What is phase two of the public health response?

Elizabeth Warren

It’s a great question. The first part of this is to collect as much data as we can. That’s what testing should be all about: so we can keep watching where the hot spots are and how this plays out over time. Who’s most affected? Where do we need to intensify our resources in terms of a response?

A nurse takes a swab at a Covid-19 drive-through testing station in Manchester, UK.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

But there’s the second part to it to think about. Over time, we’re going to have a growing proportion of the population that is immune because they’ve had the coronavirus and they’ll have antibodies. That means there are going to be people who can go out and start engaging in the activities we need, helping restart both our economy and helping support our health care system. We need to start to think of them as a resource, both getting us through the worst part of this crisis and also helping us to restart parts of this economy as quickly as possible. But that only happens if we’re collecting that data.

Ezra Klein

We are, as a country, testing far fewer people per capita than, say, South Korea. What is your view of the testing failure? Why did it take so long to roll the testing out? And what is needed to get this scaled up quickly?

Elizabeth Warren

The reason we didn’t have testing early on was plain old politics. Donald Trump didn’t want to see those numbers.

Remember when [Trump] said that he didn’t want people to disembark from the ship that had an infection? He said he didn’t want the numbers to go up, meaning the confirmed number of cases at that point.

I believe that the reason that the Trump administration wouldn’t buy the World Health Organization test kits was they didn’t want them. They didn’t want to see a crisis here in America. I think this is part of a mindset that a president believes that he can just declare how the world works and somehow the world will conform to him. And, boy, that doesn’t work in reality. It sure doesn’t work in a pandemic.

Ezra Klein

That point about mindset is interesting. When I look back at your January plan, what is striking about it is you were looking at coronavirus at a time when it was not yet primarily here. It was a problem in China. And the question was, can we contain it? That plan was very much about how to surge global public health, how to make sure we are getting good global testing results, how to make sure that we are in good information flows with other countries.

What we’re seeing right now as the Trump administration responds politically to coronavirus is a sharp increase in tensions with China. There is a very aggressive effort to get American companies to stop exporting to other countries, even if that means — in critical ways — other countries will stop giving us things that we need.

Can you talk a bit about the difference between approaching a global health crisis like coronavirus from the perspective that we are in transactional competition with all these other nations, versus a positive-sum perspective?

Elizabeth Warren

What you’re asking is the question we face all the time around climate change: We may be in competition with other countries economically and politically, but when it comes to saving the planet, we have to find a way to work together. There’s no such thing as saving the United States of America and letting the rest of the planet burn up. That won’t happen.

The same is true about a pandemic. We live in a world where if this disease spreads in one country and one region, then it’s going to reach all around the globe. And it’s going to do it fast. Part of the failure of this administration is that their mindset is to build a wall rather than work cooperatively with other countries to address the risks that we all face. Had we helped contain this earlier, the spread might have been slower — it might have been arrested entirely. China is not blameless. But, even so, we should be supporting international information sharing.

I also believe that a big part of foreign relations is a value statement about who we are. Yes, we have terrible problems with Iran and Iran’s development of its plan to develop a nuclear weapon and its support for terrorism. But Iran is in the throes of a true crisis of enormous proportions. This is a moment when we could offer a generous hand to the Iranian people, and demonstrate both to them and to the rest of the world that we want to do our best to build a world where everyone is treated with some dignity and some respect. The idea that the Trump administration wants to use this moment of crisis as a way to sharpen our pressure on other nations and throw elbows economically — I just think is fundamentally the wrong approach.

I don’t think that’s who we want to be as a nation. And, frankly, I don’t think it makes us safer over the long run. I think we build more security for the United States when we try to work with other nations and treat other human beings with respect.

Ezra Klein

I want to hold on this point for a minute, because what you’re saying, something your colleague, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), said to me, which is that if you look at the federal budget, we spend hundreds of billions of dollars every year buying insurance against the possibility of a Russian attack. We spend almost no money buying insurance against the possibility of a global pandemic.

Someone who thinks a lot about issues of risk made the argument to me that we take risk very seriously if we can locate it in an external enemy, like another country or a terrorist group. But when there is a risk that would affect the whole world, that cannot be seen as adversarial — risks like climate change and pandemics — we tend to downplay or ignore them. I’m curious if you think there’s truth to that.

Elizabeth Warren

I very much agree with what you’ve just described, but I think there’s another dimension to understanding it. Think about the two kinds of threat that you’ve just talked about. One is the kind that we’ve understood since the time that human beings lived in caves. And that is punching each other, competing for resources, using ever-sharper weapons.

But the second kind [requires] a better understanding of the world around us, the world of threats to our health and, ultimately, threats to the planet we live on. What troubles me so deeply about the past three years in the Trump administration has been the hostility to science — and not just the science of climate change. Driving the scientists out of the Department of Agriculture. To disregard what our scientists tell us about the world around us puts this country and this world in grave danger.

Ezra Klein

I want to move our conversation to the economy. We saw more than 6 million new unemployment claims this week. For those not used to looking at this data, that is apocalyptic; it makes the Great Recession disappear on a chart.

Christina Animashaun/Vox

There’s been an argument going around that we are facing a choice between our economy and our lives. We’ve heard from some people, including from President Trump, that we cannot let the cure of social distancing be worse than the disease. Do you think that is the choice — our economy or our lives — is the choice we’re facing? Is that the right way to frame it?

Elizabeth Warren

No, that is not the right way to frame it. These two work together. Saving lives strengthens our economy, and strengthening our economy can help us save lives. The idea that there is a choice between those two, and somehow they are in competition with each other, is just flatly wrong.

Let me talk about this at two levels. First, what does it mean to be a nation if we’re not here to take care of our own people? The first job of the president of the United States of America is to help keep Americans safe. What that means in a time of a pandemic, then, is making sure that we have adequate health care — that we have a plan to deal with this crisis.

It is also the case that it’s just false on the economics. There’s a great new white paper out at the Safra Center at Harvard that talks about three possible responses to the pandemic. One is really hardcore sheltering for a truly extended period of time. One is about sheltering to try to flatten the curve and moving back into some economic activity over time. And the third is to just give up and say it’s the economy and nothing more.

It turns out the costliest is to say it is only about the economy and let people go about their business. The reason that is the costliest is that it causes the maximum number of deaths, and deaths are costly. We lose the benefit of those lives. They use what is the standard dollar value we put on a life and show that it will be far more expensive if we just let this pandemic race through our country, without trying to take these measures to protect the lives of people. These two things are not in tension. If we want to strengthen our economy, then we need to solve this medical problem.

Ezra Klein

You were deeply involved not only in the policy response to the financial crisis, but also in making sense of it for people. That was a financial panic that froze much of the real economy, and the problem was in supporting businesses and people to unfreeze. Now we have frozen much of the economy by choice.

What is different in how people need to think about the economic needs and policies here compared to the financial crisis? If you’re coming into this with 2008 as the operative metaphor in your mind, how do you need to change the way you’re looking at it?

Elizabeth Warren

The first thing that changes is there’s such a powerful health overlay to everything we’re looking at. You can’t just say, let’s have an infrastructure package and send everybody to work on this piece of infrastructure. We still have to worry about contagion. That changes everything we think about in terms of getting people back to work.

The second part of it is that it touches the economy in a very different way. In the 2008 crash, everyone could still go to work. The problem was whether or not the money system would freeze up. This time it’s different. Small businesses are leading the shutdown, not because they can’t get access to money, but because they can’t have workers there and can’t access their customers.

So you have to think about this differently. For example, the tool of simply getting money into the hands of tens of millions of people across this country is critically important. Why? Because we want them to buy food. If they buy food, we keep that part of the economy functioning. We need that supply chain to keep working so that the grocery stores are still stocked. And that only happens if customers are coming in. Then the grocery stores buy from the wholesalers and the wholesalers are buying from the farmers and from the canners and other producers. And the truckers are still up and running. We want to keep that supply chain functional — both for the health of the American people and for the health of the economy. And that only happens if people have money to buy food.

People wearing masks wait to enter a Shop Rite supermarket on April 3 in Uniondale, New York.
Al Bello/Getty Images

The question about people being able to stay in shelter is a little different. Do we give people money so they can make their mortgage payment and rent payment, or do we just say we’re going to freeze debt collection so that nobody gets evicted? Nobody gets foreclosed against, nobody gets a bad credit rating during this. But we’re gonna have to hit the pause button here on people making their payments for shelter, and for those owners of those properties making their payments. So you have to think about this structurally in a different way.

One of the lessons from 2008 was that, frankly, the Republicans just wouldn’t go for a big enough stimulus package. And that meant the recovery was slower and more anemic than it would have been had we put more money into stimulus. They were determined not to let Barack Obama have that kind of power in the recovery. And we paid a price for it as a nation. We’re still paying a price for it. Now, it’s the same kind of thing. We’ve got to have a strong enough response to support our families, to support our small businesses, to keep the parts of this economy functioning that are absolutely essential for our physical health and ultimately for our economic security.

Ezra Klein

In the same way that we talked earlier about two phases of public health response, I think we can also think of two distinct phases on the economic side. What you’re talking about is phase one: putting the economy on life support. That means giving people the money to continue buying groceries and paying rent while at home, and potentially give businesses money through forgivable loans to stay open.

But after we do that for some number of months, some parts of that economy are going to come back and some won’t. Unlike the financial crisis, I don’t think we can just unfreeze the economy we had before — there’s going to be too much damage.

To that end, there have been arguments for different kinds of post-virus mobilizations in response to this crisis. One is a public health mobilization. But also there are different mobilization ideas that have been lurking for some time now, around a Green New Deal or on infrastructure. Are we going to need some kind of economic mobilization, in the way we often see them during war time?

Elizabeth Warren

One of the mobilization efforts I would add to your list is housing. We’ve had a real problem in this country and that is that we haven’t built enough housing for middle-class families, for working-class families, for the working poor, for the poor-poor, for people with disabilities, for seniors who want to age in place, for people who are returning from prison, for people who are homeless.

I grew up in a two-bedroom, one-bath house built by a private builder. The garage was converted to hold my three brothers. Private builders aren’t building those houses anymore. They build mansions. I’m not mad at them — that’s where the profits are. But the housing that houses middle-class families is just not being built privately anymore. And there’s a federal law in place now that says for every new unit of public housing brought on, the federal government has to take one old unit off.

So when you ask the question about where should we be thinking about mobilization? I think that in this time of crisis, we see the importance of safe, secure, affordable housing for everyone. Over the next few years, we need to expand our housing availability for folks. This is true in cities. It’s true in small towns. It’s true in rural America. It is a widespread problem and it’s a place where we could make a federal investment that, in the short run, gets people off the street and puts people to work in construction. And then in the long run, creates a stronger, more stable housing supply that takes a lot of economic pressure off families.

Ezra Klein

So as we move out of the economic life-support period of this, Congress and the administration need to think about a more publicly planned economy to rebuild and create a bridge back to a fully functioning economy?

Elizabeth Warren

I think it’s going to be absolutely necessary. This is a chance to upgrade our energy grid, a chance to harden our infrastructure over time against coming climate change, to make a real investment in public transportation. And those have double economic advantages: They put a lot of people to work, but they also reassure markets and investors that we’re going to build our way out of this depression.

When you have a plan and people can see it, they can start making their plans to supplement that — whether it’s small businesses or it’s big Wall Street investors. We’re going to print money for a while to make it happen, but that’s going to get money down into this economy. That’s going to build up demand. That’s how you build a boom. You don’t do it with stock buybacks. You do it by actually investing in people and in the things that people need.

Ezra Klein

There’s a moral dimension of this I want to ask you about. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of solidarity and sacrifice being demanded of working-class people, of young people — many of whom feel, I think correctly, that America hasn’t shown a lot of solidarity and sacrifice when confronted with their needs in the years before this. What needs to be done with this moment so the people from whom we’ve asked the most feel like this is an ethic that extends to them, not just one that is activated to take from them when needed?

Elizabeth Warren

I want to see us cancel student loan debt. Right now, there’s a six-month hiatus. So we’ve got a little breathing room. But I want to see us cancel a big chunk of this debt or all of this debt. And the reason for that is partly economic: We can now track that student loan debt has been having a negative effect on our economy. It depresses small business startup. Young people are not buying homes. So there’s an economic stimulative effect from doing this.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill in 2019, with Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), on legislation to cancel student loan debt for millions of Americans.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Young people have just been left behind. They’ve been cheated. I graduated from a college that cost $50 a semester. I didn’t have a big student loan debt burden because I could go to a school and get an education for a price that you could pay for on a part-time waitressing job. That alternative is just not out there for young people today. And the consequence is young people who try to get an education, who try to invest in their future, have been left out pretty much on their own.

The federal government’s response is to lend you the money at interest and then be your biggest creditor for years and years to come. I think that’s an intergenerational crime. It’s fundamentally wrong. So I think forgiving this debt would not only give a boost to 45 million people, but would also be an acknowledgment that a lot of young folks in this country caught the short end of the stick here.

This economic recession is going to be tough on all of us, but it’s going to be especially tough on people who are graduating into it — on people who are in their first jobs. And I think that canceling out our federal government as their biggest creditor would be a way of acknowledging that and saying: It’s your future that we want to invest in.

Ezra Klein

When you look back on the Democratic primary, given what’s happening now, does it feel like the debate was focused on the wrong things?

Elizabeth Warren

I don’t think so. I think we talked a lot about the role of government — a government that is either working just for the rich and the powerful, or a government that’s working for everyone else. In this crisis, that truly is the issue.

Remember Ronald Reagan’s famous line? “The worst words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” Those are not the worst words in the English language. We’ve seen during this crisis that among the worst words in the English language are, “We’re in a crisis and the government doesn’t have a plan to help us get out of it.”

The idea that somehow we’re all going to be better off with a government that doesn’t invest in science and in long-term planning has been shown not only to be wrong, but to be dangerous. I think that what the election in 2020 is going to be about, in part, is people who want a government that is competent and that is on their side in planning for an uncertain future.

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