Commerce chief on shutdown workers: Let them eat interest!

Wilbur Ross should feel relief that the guillotine has gone out of style. The last time a member of the ruling class allegedly¹ made a comment like this, she eventually found herself without any further need of hats. The Commerce Secretary appeared on CNBC’s Squawk Box earlier today to discuss the safety issues in air travel created by the shutdown and economic pressure on TSA and air-traffic controllers, who have been calling in sick to work other jobs. Ross couldn’t understand why they’d do that, since all they need to do is take out a loan and “pay a little interest” to keep from going broke and unfed.

The hosts couldn’t believe what they were hearing:

Wilbur Ross: Federal workers should take out loans until they get paid from CNBC.

“I know they are [going to homeless shelters] and I don’t really quite understand why because as I mentioned before, the obligations that they would undertake – say borrowing from a bank or credit union – are in effect federally guaranteed,” said Ross. “So the 30 days of pay that people will be out – there’s no real reason why they shouldn’t be able to get a loan against it and we’ve seen a number of ads from the financial institutions doing that.”

“When you think about it, these are basically government-guaranteed loans because the government has committed, these folks will get back pay once this whole thing gets settled down,” Ross said. “So there really is not a good excuse why there should be a liquidity crisis. Now true, the people might have to pay a little bit of interest but the idea that it’s paycheck or zero is not a really valid idea.”

Among all of the ways in which to discuss this issue, Ross chose the absolute worst. Why not embrace the pain the shutdown has caused and the issues it creates and push the responsibility onto Democrats? At least that would make Ross and the administration sound like it has some connection to the working class. Instead, Ross blithely suggests that workers take on the interest associated with short-term loans as though it would have no impact on their finances or their credit rating.

One of the hosts reminded the billionaire industrialist that most of these workers live paycheck to paycheck, not having the luxury that either Ross nor he has to live off an accumulation of wealth for a while. Ross clearly didn’t recognize the rescue attempt. Instead, he extolled private-sector lenders as the solution to the sickouts and expressed amazement that workers might need to line up other work during the pay interruption.

Nancy Pelosi jumped all over the easy Marie Antoinette reference:

Debbie Dingell, whose family has controlled a House seat from Michigan for almost ninety years, issued a more straightforward attack on privilege:

Yeesh. The optics of the shutdown are already bad enough for the White House without wealthy Cabinet officials casually suggesting that federal workers should just increase their debt load to deal with it. Trump himself would never have made this mistake, and it’s likely that this will increase his already-reported dissatisfaction with Ross at Commerce. Will he get the heave-ho before government reopens? Still beats the guillotine.

Note 1: Just for the sake of historical accuracy, the legend that Marie Antoinette ever said “Let them eat cake” as a response to widespread famine has long been debunked. That quote had been attributed in various forms to other royal figures for a century before Marie Antoinette; it just stuck to her the most.

Update: CNBC published a list last week of lending institutions offering low- or no-interest short-term loans to government employees. If you’re in that position, it’s worth checking out.