For Fast Company’s Shape of Tomorrow series, we’re asking business leaders to share their inside perspective on how the COVID-19 era is transforming their industries. Here’s what’s been lost—and what could be gained—in the new world order.
Sarah Miller is the executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, which advocates for antitrust regulation and corporate accountability. She’s the former deputy director of the Open Markets Institute, another prominent anti-monopoly group, and was a policy adviser at the U.S. Treasury during the Obama administration.
One of the biggest challenges—which we have seen exacerbated by the pandemic—is the question of Amazon: just the sheer amount of economic and political power that it has generated for Jeff Bezos. We also do a lot of work on Facebook and Google. These three [companies] are some of the most dangerous monopolies from a societal and democratic perspective. Our regulators—our government—have allowed them to monopolize advertising markets.
You’ve seen the sheer power of Amazon as an intermediary in the economy between businesses and consumers. You’ve seen them make decisions on who can sell and who can’t sell, on what’s essential and what’s not essential. You’ve seen them leverage their political power to abuse workers and prevent them from working safely. Most recently, you saw Amazon tell the House Judiciary Committee [which requested testimony from Bezos on Amazon’s anticompetitive business practices], essentially, to go to hell. That just shows the culture of disrespect for democracy that monopolists tend to carry along with them. And then you top it off with stories that Bezos might become a trillionaire in seven years. Is that really the kind of economic and political power that we want our economy to generate for a single person?
Sarah Miller, American Economic Liberties Project
Whether we like it or not, the economy is getting restructured, and our democratic institutions have a role to play.”
At the same time, there’s more awareness across the board that [concentrating power in the private sector] is a problem, that this crisis is going to make it worse, and that government has a role to play. [There’s awareness] that we’re going to probably come out on the other side of this with a decimated small-business sector and more power in the largest corporations.
Whether we like it or not, the economy is getting restructured, and our democratic institutions have a role to play. There’s not any single-bullet solution to it: There’s no Dodd-Frank Act to deal with concentrated private power. It really is about a reorientation of priorities and relearning how to use and create new tools in government to address it. And that’s going to take a lot of research, a lot of investigations, and a confrontational approach to monopolies. This broadly shared ideology of “Uh, we shouldn’t punish success”—that huge, powerful companies bestow great benefits, or that we can keep them under control through various checks on their power—just isn’t a sustainable or safe path.
The first thing and most easy thing to do is pause mergers during the crisis. We saw legislation that would do that: Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren and David Cicilline sent a letter to the Fed asking for that to be a condition on access to any bailout money. [We also need to look] at trade agreements and see how they benefit the largest corporations and how that entrenches their power. We need to look into a lot of specific corporate actors, and revitalize the FTC and have commissioners in place who will use that authority. Same with the Department of Justice. Same with the Department of Defense.
We’d like Democrats to see this as both a humanitarian crisis and a moment when we are making decisions about who is going to have power in the economy and who is going to lose power.
Demond Drummer is the executive director and cofounder of New Consensus, an organization that promotes a vision of a robust public sector that actively shapes the economy and markets. The group is particularly focused on how the government and public institutions should make investments to create and support a sustainable economy in the form of a Green New Deal.
We had outlined a set of national projects [tied to the Green New Deal] to update this country’s energy system and the way it consumes energy and the way we grow food. But back in February, it was hard to make the case that we needed a jobs program in this country, because people said, “Unemployment is so low.” Well, people had shit jobs—and several jobs, in some cases. And they were gig workers. It was a terrible situation for most people.
Now we don’t have to make the case that we need robust public investments to create and stimulate great jobs, because it’s clear: 40 million people are unemployed, and increasing numbers of people who were employed are now underemployed. Now we can have that jobs conversation.
Demond Drummer, New Consensus
We built the white middle class—we can build the middle class that includes Black people and brown people.”
What else happens? You lose your job, you lose your healthcare. Now there’s a stronger case for some form of universal healthcare. And the federal government picks up the tab, because that can unleash industry to do what it needs to do to advance.
Everything that I would call the Green New Deal package is very much on the table right now, and much more urgent, not only from an economic stimulus standpoint, but from a sustainability standpoint.
This is a beautiful moment to onshore [manufacturing] in a sustainable manner. I think that this a build-it-here, make-it-here, grow-it-here [moment]—and not in some weird, nationalist kind of frame, but in the sense that we need to be able to build the things we need, in case these types of things happen again. And they will. We’ve got to have a more resilient way of getting [manufacturing] done. And if that creates jobs, all the better.
We will be laying out a package of proposals from energy all the way to manufacturing and food that can advance this country to an era of strength and vitality. The tools are there. We built the white middle class—we can build the middle class that includes Black people and brown people.
I’m not optimistic that we’re going to see some natural kind of shift in political thinking and vision, because look what got us into this crisis. I do think we have urgency and a set of immediate data and lived experience that can be exploited to explain to folks and communicate what needs to be done and how we can do it. People may be open to alternative solutions.
David Autor, Ford Professor of Economics at MIT, is a leading labor economist who focuses on inequality and the opportunities facing people without high levels of education, especially in an economy that’s being rapidly altered by technology and automation.
There are two aspects of [the COVID-19 crisis]. One is in the short term: Who’s bearing the burden, and how can it possibly be reduced to some degree? The second is in the long run: What does this mean for the structure of earnings and employment and opportunity for those same groups of workers? Unfortunately, the longer-term prospects are also adverse.
In the long run, my concern is it’s going to change patterns of consumption. One [example] is in business travel, which drives a lot of the money in the hospitality industry because business travelers pay full freight on the airplane. They pay full fare at hotels on weeknights. They may expense-account meals. It’s hard to believe that there won’t be a big reduction in business travel over the long term because people have realized that it’s just not as necessary as they’d thought.
Similarly, people will be going less to offices, which means less cleaning services, less people going out for lunch, less location services, less Uber. That will also affect the demand for services. And, finally, I think that employers are learning, very rapidly, which workers they can do without. And there’s no reason to think that employers would unlearn that as soon as this is over.
[This crisis] will speed up the process of automation. In the long run, that has some benefits: We can raise productivity; technologies that we were only beginning to use before, now we will realize how well we can make them work. But it also means that even though the labor market is slack—with millions of people ready to go back to their jobs—many firms may say, “Actually, we’ve figured out how to do that one without people.” There’s also going to be a shift in the distribution of business activity from small- and medium-sized firms to larger firms, and those larger firms are less labor-intensive. That’s also going to exacerbate exactly the same phenomenon.
The government is the only actor that really has the capacity to act on the scale that’s needed. We just spent 10% of GDP on a bailout; why don’t we spend another 10% on investment? Let’s create a Marshall Plan for the U.S.: Rebuild American infrastructure, invest in schools, and remake ourselves. The U.S. has essentially unlimited borrowing capacity and interest rates are essentially zero. This is the moment to use that.
We have done something quite radical with the social safety net in the last couple months: We decided a bunch of people who weren’t part of the unemployment insurance system should get unemployment insurance benefits. We could do that more broadly: Make the unemployment insurance system more comprehensive. Let’s now formalize that. And then [use the crisis as] an opportunity for skills investment. There are many things that we’ve been doing extensively in the form of in-person education that can potentially be done less expensively and still efficiently. [Let’s] capitalize on that.
Rebecca Henderson, an economics professor at Harvard Business School, is the author of Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire, which explores how a democratically accountable government and a strong civil society can rein in capitalism’s excesses.
Before the pandemic, a lot of businesspeople would say, “I care about inequality and it’s important, but I have a business to run.” It was not so clear that [inequality is] an immediate business problem. Now, it’s much clearer. Businesses can’t just say, “Someone else will deal with this.”
Look at the states bidding against each other for vital medical equipment. Where is the federal task force [putting] the might of America to work? The political system is broken, and the idea that government should take a central role has been delegitimized. We can disagree about how big government should be, and what exactly the edges should be. But the idea that government is a good thing and is fundamental to the health of the society—that, we should not be disagreeing about.
What can businesses do to help? Businesses can stop demonizing the government. Business [leaders have] a role to play in moving our society: First, by doing what you can in your own business to address social and environmental problems, then by cooperating with other firms to address problems like environmental damage and inequality in your industry. But of course we’re not going to solve [an issue like] climate change without appropriate regulation and support for the transition. We’re not going to solve inequality without new labor market policies, without investments in education and health. Government is the answer—government in partnership with business.
I think the pandemic may hopefully have a silver lining. [Historically] major shifts in political systems tend to come at times of crisis. This crisis might be that kind of crisis. But it might be like 2008, where we papered over, and somehow chugged on.
Tom Steyer, a former 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, is the founder of NextGen America, an organization that’s dedicated to mobilizing voters under the age of 35, and co-chair of California’s economic recovery task force.
What does rebooting California look like? We don’t want to go back to January 2020. We want something better, more just, more equitable, more sustainable. And we want to make sure that we have the underresourced communities, the black and brown communities who’ve borne the brunt of the COVID pandemic and the economic freefall, in the front of our minds as we take action in the short run and make policy in the long run.
There’s going to be a big building program. Exactly how that takes place is unclear, but we know doing it in a sustainable fashion is the better way to invest. It creates more jobs in the short run and creates an infrastructure that will sustain us in the long run, in terms of preserving the natural world, but also in terms of having costs be much lower for Americans.
One of the things that’s true in the very near term, but also going forward, is that not having equal access to high-speed internet is a profound source of inequality. If you can’t receive [your education both] online and offline, you’re at a severe disadvantage. As telemedicine becomes more relevant, if you’re unable to access high-speed internet, you’re going to be at a disadvantage. With high unemployment, [we] want to retrain and rescale workers. [But] if you can’t participate online, that’s going to be a severe disadvantage.
Stephanie Kelton, professor of economics and public policy at Stony Brook University, is a leading proponent of Modern Monetary Theory, which posits that the U.S. government can and should spend and invest without having to balance a budget like a private business. She was the chief economist for the Democratic Minority Staff of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee, and was an economic adviser for Bernie Sanders during his 2016 presidential campaign.
People say, We just want to return to normal; we just want to get back to the way things were. Hang on: The way things were is why we’re where we are today.
Look at the inequality. Why are black and brown people bearing a disproportionate amount of pain, both physical and economic, in the coronavirus crisis? Why is it that 30 million people just lost their employer-sponsored health insurance, and [around 40] million lost jobs? Well, we tied healthcare to employment. And now you’ve got people who can’t afford housing and student debt.
Stephanie Kelton, economist
The only way we’re going to get sustained commitment [to fiscal policy] is if everybody can breathe through it, like a Lamaze class for deficit spending.”
These are more than imperfections—they’re deeply rooted flaws in the design. The way that we have constructed our economy over the last almost 40 years has left us vulnerable in many respects. Recent events bring such things into sharper focus for people, but hopefully also, there’s that backdrop that says the way out of this is not through the Federal Reserve. [It’s] going to have to be through sustained commitment to fiscal policy.
And the only way we’re going to get sustained commitment [to fiscal policy] is if everybody can breathe through it, like a Lamaze class for deficit spending. So that we can take a deep breath, exhale, breathe through it, and let the deficit get as big as it needs to get to heal and repair and allow us to rebuild the type of economy that will, to the extent we can, deal with and eliminate those vulnerabilities.
Many of us thought that after the  financial crisis [there was] an opportunity, but this one is bigger. So much is driven by the virus: We could possibly have three or four years with no vaccine. And so, as this thing possibly pops back up periodically and we’re dealing with hotspots and closures, we’ll have a situation where a lot of industries are going to be shadows of their former selves, and some won’t survive at all. Many of the jobs that have been lost will never come back. The economy is going to change, the way we work, how the consumer wants to spend—a lot of things are going to change.
The last thing I want to do is watch everything come apart, and then pick up the pieces and try to reassemble them exactly the way they were assembled before. You want to put it together differently: You want to build better, build smarter, build safer, build stronger, build more resilient.
More from Fast Company’s Shape of Tomorrow series:
- What restaurants will actually be like in a post-COVID-19 world, according to Chipotle, Panera, street food vendors, and others
- The leaders of the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Doctors Without Borders, and more tell us how healthcare is being transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Is advertising really dead? Here’s how the leaders of Droga5, TBWA, Wieden+Kennedy, and more are inching forward.
- The retail Armageddon may have finally arrived. Here’s what top executives at Nike, Athleta, and more think it will take for stores and brands to make it through.
- Insiders at LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and Jobcase tell us who will be hiring, what skills will be important, and how the workplace of the future will change.