If government asks for a COVID-19 war economy, let’s do it right
Wartime presidents: If Trump wants to be thought of as a "wartime president," he needs to treat the COVID-19 pandemic like the battle it is. He could learn from the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the War Production Board during WWII. | AP photos

President Trump is portraying himself as a “wartime president” in the battle against COVID-19, saying the pandemic will require a response unseen since World War II. “We must sacrifice together because we are all in this together,” he said.

Instead of Trump’s reality show, a real war on COVID-19 is needed, including strong economic measures.

There are many differences between the challenges facing us now, and those during World War II. To begin with, the U.S. economy is very different, and the threats posed by today’s pandemic are different from the Nazi/fascist threat. But there are valid analogies, stemming from the need in both cases for a strong and unified national response.

What are some lessons for today from World War II?

Tax the Rich

During World War II, the tax on income over $200,000 per year (about $2.9 million today) was 94%. President Franklin D. Roosevelt went further, proposing a tax of 100% on all income over $25,000 (about $480,000 today). When Congress rejected the proposal, Roosevelt issued an executive order imposing a salary cap on companies getting government contracts.

In addition, during WWII, an “excess profits tax” was passed as a measure to combat profiteering from shortages and lucrative war contracts. Up to 95% of profits above pre-war levels were taken to fund the war effort.

Trump says, “We must sacrifice together.” Demand Trump put his money (and that of his super-rich friends) where his mouth is. Prosecute pharmaceutical companies and medical equipment suppliers for extortion when they jack up the prices of essential medicines, equipment, and supplies.

Redirect the economy

In WWII, steps were taken to reorient the U.S. economy to the war effort, while ensuring the needs of the home front. Under the direction of a War Production Board, factories were converted to make military equipment, and raw materials and other inputs were coordinated. Some consumer goods were rationed, including gasoline and food. This made sure that everyone got at least something. Prices were controlled to limit profiteering from scarce goods. Child care centers were set up for women workers coming into the workforce.

To battle COVID-19, universities, hospitals, individuals, and companies are scrambling to meet the demand for medical equipment and supplies. But there still seems to be no central coordination for tracking supplies, for coordinating existing and potential production facilities, and for ensuring that such facilities get the supplies they need to make the products needed to fight the virus.

Instead, Trump has left hospitals, states, and FEMA to bid against one another for scarce ventilators, while doing nothing to stop the open profiteering by existing suppliers. He has left it to “the market” to decide who produces what, how much they charge, and whom they sell it to.

Longtime Trump supporter Mike Francesa, a prominent New York sports radio personality, summed it up in a blast at the president: “Get the stuff made, get the stuff where it needs to go and get the boots on the ground! Treat this like the crisis it is!”

A real mobilization would go further. Working through federal, state and local governments and agencies, there should be national coordination and funding to reassign workers, laid off from non-essential jobs, to support jobs in essential sectors including health care, distribution, retail, agriculture, child care, and government. Trump could start by reassigning ICE, whose agents continue their raids on immigrant communities, to useful jobs alongside the National Guard.

Workers’ rights

In war, soldiers get combat pay, and they and their families get veterans’ benefits. In this war, the front-line troops are the healthcare workers, from the doctors to the cleaners to the contract workers in the hospital cafeteria or parking lot. They are the grocery store workers, the warehouse workers. They are anyone who has to leave their house to do their job, exposed to other workers and the public.

Many supermarket and other retail workers already have received a modest pay increase during the crisis. But all workers who are required to remain and risk exposure should receive hazardous duty pay of at least $5/hour, with a guarantee of complete medical care for themselves and their family and continued pay if they get sick, and with support for child care if necessary.

In this April 3, 1944, photo guns used by the Army and Navy are shown lined up at the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio. | AP

Some protections have already been enacted. But the strongest guarantee of actually getting what is due, as well as safe working conditions on the job, is a strong union. In WWII, unions played a major role in converting factories to war production, and in boosting production while maintaining workers’ rights.

This can be done today. On March 30, union workers in Lynn, Mass., walked off the job, demanding that GE convert its jet engine factories to make ventilators.

Rather than continuing the Trump administration’s union-busting policy, directed especially against government unions, the fight against COVID-19 requires supporting and working with them to keep all government operations running as smoothly as possible.

An injury to one is an injury to all

“We are all in this together,” says Trump. That’s especially true in fighting a pandemic. If one person is infected, we all can become infected. Never was the union slogan more true, summed up as: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Trump’s racism, misogyny, xenophobia, open contempt for low-income workers, and his glorification of individualism and greed severely undermine the solidarity that is needed in this crisis.


Art Perlo
Art Perlo

Art Perlo lived in New Haven, Conn., where he was active in labor and community struggles. He did research and writing on economic issues in Connecticut, including work with the Coalition to End Child Poverty in Connecticut which helped pave the way for the movement for progressive tax reform in the state. He wrote on national economic issues for the People's World and was a member of the CPUSA Economic Commission.