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Hypothetical scenario: You are a sitting U.S. senator and member of the Health Committee (congratulations!). Way back in January, you attend a top-secret Health Committee briefing on the novel coronavirus. After the meeting, while publicly professing overwhelming confidence in the United States’, and the president’s, capacity to handle an outbreak, you privately sell your stock in companies that are likely to take a hit from impending mass disruption of travel, like hotel chains. Or you buy stock in companies likely to make money during a pandemic crisis, like one that offers videoconferencing. Remember that the briefing you went to was supersecret and private and that the American people didn’t get to go, many of whom in the next few weeks would be losing their jobs and begging for unemployment assistance.
I know I’m just a girl with a computer, but this seems like deeply unethical behavior which should probably be illegal. Actually, it definitely is illegal, via the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, signed into law in 2012 to prohibit members of Congress, the executive branch, and their staffs from trading on nonpublic information — essentially insider trading. Which is why as the news broke last night that senators Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler had been accused of doing exactly the above, the collective reaction was swift: They should resign. And also probably leave polite society.
According to ProPublica, Burr (who is not only a member of the Health Committee but the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and who also received daily classified briefings on the state of the coronavirus at the time of the meeting), sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his stock holdings on February 13. The biggest sales were in companies including Wyndham Hotels & Resorts and Extended Stay America, shares in which are now, due to coronavirus disruption, worth a fraction of what they were. This was just a week after Burr wrote an op-ed for Fox News in which he assured the public that the “United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public-health threats, like the coronavirus.” Today, Burr said (extremely dubiously) that he “relied solely on public news reports” to guide his decision.
Per the Daily Beast, on the very same day of the Health Committee meeting, Loeffler sold stocks in a company called Resideo Technologies, which has now seen its value cut in half. She and her husband continued to make 29 stock transactions through February — including buying some in Citrix, a teleconferencing software company that has enjoyed a bump in value since we have all been ordered to work from home. Loeffler claims that she does not make sales for her own portfolio. Weeks after the transactions, on March 10, Loeffler tweeted that “the consumer is strong, the economy is strong, & jobs are growing, which puts us in the best economic position to tackle #COVID19 & keep Americans safe.”
Perhaps we all would feel that “the consumer is strong” if we, too, had been able to attend an extremely high-level briefing on COVID-19 weeks before it began severely impacting the economy. The utter contempt for the public good on the part of these senators is so brazen, it would be almost funny if it wasn’t so cruel. It brings to mind one of my favorite memes: “Stonks,” which depicts a placid, smiling business mannequin beaming tranquilly at an arrow pointing upward against meaningless numbers.
The deliberate misspelling of “stocks” and the man’s stupid expression distills how removed most of us feel about the world of high finance, despite our lives being very much affected by its highs and lows. The idea that the people making money in this system are doing it for personal gain as the rest of us wait for another recession is too galling to absorb at this time. Instead, I will take another sip of my coffee and pretend to call my stonk adviser. “Sell, sell, sell!” I scream to no one.