COVID-19 Pandemic Exposes Multiple U.S. Economic System Failures

Interview with Richard D. Wolff, professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, conducted by Scott Harris

The U.S. has more than 5.5 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus and has suffered more than 177,000 deaths from the disease. With the largest numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths of any nation in the world, recent public opinion polls found nearly 60 percent of Americans disapprove of President Trump’s handling of the health crisis and are very worried about the pandemic’s effect on the U.S. economy.

The failure of the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate to act on pending legislation passed by the House in mid-May that would have restored now-expired enhanced federal unemployment checks, and extend a moratorium on tenant evictions, was followed by a breakdown in negotiations and legislators adjourning for a summer recess until September. Inaction by Congress has millions of Americans worried about how they’ll pay for food and rent in the coming weeks.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Richard D. Wolff, professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and currently a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs at New School University, in New York City.  Here Professor Wolff discusses his recent article, The sham of orthodox economics has been exposed in the wake of COVID-19,” and weighs in on the failure of the U.S. government to provide basic assistance to working families in the midst of the worst public health crisis in over 100 years.

RICHARD D. WOLFF: The United States of America has somewhere between 4.5 and 4.75 percent of the world’s population. That is, you take the 320 million Americans, they come up to together about roughly 4.5 percent of the population of this planet. However, if you look at the percentage that the United States accounts for in people infected with this virus and in people who have died from this virus, it’s roughly 25 percent. We have 5 percent of the world’s people. And 25 percent of the world’s deadly virus cases. This is unspeakable. We are a “advanced, industrial wealthy developed economy.”

All those words are supposed to mean that we would be better equipped, better, able, better set up to get through a virus like this than most other countries in the world. And basically I happen to think we do have the capability to do better than most of the rest of the world, but our system is so broken is so incapable of doing what it could and should do.

It’s an unspeakable, inexcusable statement of abject failure. And the failure is shared by the private sector and by the government. What the government does to have us militarily prepared, it could have, it should have done to have us prepared for a virus. But because of the people who run this society need to believe the fairy tale that private enterprise is the greatest thing since sliced bread, that private enterprise does everything best, that private enterprise left alone is the best possible solution to life’s problems — the government didn’t do in the medical field, what it does do in the military field. And so we ended up unprepared for this virus when it hit. It is a testimony that the private sector in this country cannot and does not work well. It’s a proof that the government, which is dominated and shaped by the private enterprises — we all know that — is likewise incapable of compensating for the failures of private capitalism. We’re stuck with a system that has just demonstrated to us, and it is doing that as we talk, that something as absolutely fundamental as our health, our ability to breathe and live is not safe in a capitalist system. And that’s not a theory. That’s not a possibility. That’s not a hypothesis. That’s the reality we’re living through.

SCOTT HARRIS: Professor Wolff, in this particular moment. There’s a really very different outlook from many young people about our system and its capacity to provide for them as they grow and have a career and get older and retire. I think there’s a lot of concern about our system and the conclusion of many that it’s broken. Do you see opportunities right now to rethink our systems that hasn’t been possible in years and decades past?

RICHARD D. WOLFF: Absolutely, young people were told to work hard, study hard, go to college, get your bachelor’s degree. If you can, go on and get more degrees. Nowadays, it’s so expensive. You’re going to have to borrow tens of thousands of dollars, go deeply into debt to get that degree. They did all that. And they discover that they’re not going to get a job. If they do get a job, they’re not going to earn enough money to ever pay those loans back. That means they are in danger of having a bad credit rating. That means they can’t really get married or start a family or buy a home. All of the things that were called the American dream are out of reach and they feel betrayed because they have been. Elderly people are discovering that Social Security you cannot live on, and that the future is very precarious more now than it has been for decades because of the pandemic.

But it was already in trouble before. Mortgage debt, car loans, credit card, and student loans. Those are the four big boulders being carried by a population that is being crushed by them. And I think what you’re seeing is people recognizing that this economic system may make the Jeffrey Bezos of this world super rich, but for the vast majority of people, this economic system isn’t working and something better be done because we’re looking —and I’m talking now literally about weeks from now — we’re looking at a set of conditions that are going to make even what we have now pale in comparison.

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