Insights from “Our Democracy in a Time of Pandemic: A Conversation with U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown”

The Corporations and Society Initiative hosted Senator Sherrod Brown for a public webinar on May 27th, 2020. We were delighted to hear his perspectives on the impact of Covid-19, perspectives on the upcoming 2020 election, and the many urgent challenges facing our country today. We invite you to watch the recording of Susannah Shattuck’s interview with Senator Brown on C-SPAN here or embedded below.

We have summarized seven ideas we heard from the Senator below (cue listicle!).

  1. The United States should re-invest in public health. Senator Brown emphasized how the United States previously led efforts to eradicate and prevent infectious diseases like smallpox, polio, diphtheria, and Ebola. Comparing the United States’ reaction to the current pandemic to that of South Korea, Senator Brown argued that this was not a failure of our scientists or doctors, but rather a lack of strong public health leadership. He noted that the US makes up 5% of the global population and 31% of worldwide Covid-19 deaths. In his closing remarks, he urged MBAs to apply their understanding and learnings to public health problems.
  2. We should shift back to the stakeholder instead of the shareholder. As he discussed stakeholder capitalism, Senator Brown noted that in the past, managers would feel like they owed something to their communities, employees, and customers. But in the current state of capitalism, he remarked, there seems to be a mentality, “Why should I think about other people?” amongst business leaders. He is encouraged, however, by recent statements on corporate responsibility and stakeholder capitalism from corporate leaders like J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. 
  3. American workers need a better safety net. Senator Brown underscored the need to upend the “devolution of benefits.” He spoke about how the $600 per week unemployment benefit currently aids contract workers and gig economy workers, but this generous benefit likely will not exist after the crisis. With a significant portion of the American population putting half of their paycheck towards rent every month, it is important in Senator Brown’s perspective that real money gets into the pockets of people who need it the most. In thinking about additional economic recovery support for Americans, Senator Brown cited three new measures in addition to continuing the current support: 1) protecting people’s credit ratings 2) expanding the earned income tax credit, and 3) providing far more relief to states. 
  4. Conflicts of interest in government hurt democracy. In thinking about reforms on Capitol Hill, Senator Brown mentioned a policy he worked on that would prohibit sitting members of Congress from owning corporate stocks. This issue has come to the forefront given the current investigation into Senator Richard Burr’s stock trades at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
  5. It has been a long journey to protect labor rights—and there’s still more work to be done. As part of the introduction to Senator Brown, Professor Admati mentioned that he wears a canary lapel pin, harkening back to the days where miners, working in unsafe conditions, had to bring a canary in a coal mine notion; if the canary died, that meant there were dangerous levels of gas and the miners needed to evacuate. Today, he wears the pin as a reminder of his responsibility to fight for the retention and extension of workers’ rights. In tying this sentiment to Covid-19, Senator Brown mentioned that it is important for essential workers to be treated as essential, through measures like worker bonuses and hero pay, as well as by having the right protection and safety measures as businesses reopen. 
  6. Policymakers should think about the impact of trade agreements on workers. Senator Brown highlighted his emphasis on workers in regards to free trade agreements, noting that he has “fought with every president I’ve served on trade.” He was skeptical of businesses’ plans to move operations overseas to exploit cheap labor and less stringent regulation, calling such moves “morally bankrupt.” 
  7. Reading list: Lastly, he recommended three books: The Color of Law, Evicted, and The Banker’s New Clothes.

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