IU’s very own billionaire-businessman-turned-reality-TV-star has been doing an unexpected public service: telling Americans why the president is wrong about reopening the economy.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who graduated from IU with a business degree in 1981, is one of several dozen executives and industry leaders advising President Donald Trump as part of the White House’s new Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups panel. In his crisis-era role, Cuban has spent much of the last week giving interviews to pro-Trump news programs, including on Fox News and with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.
Trump said last week he wants the economy to reopen — requiring states to ease COVID-19 restrictions — as soon as May 1. Public health experts, however, have warned that levels of testing and isolation are insufficient for relaxing social distancing orders. Harvard University researchers estimate that testing would need to triple before a reopening.
Fortunately for Americans, Cuban has repeated the same message to Republican media figures: Listen to scientists. He’s also advocated for supporting broad, worker-focused economic relief that mirrors European policies.
It’s an odd moment in a national crisis to see an IU alumnus best known for ruthless business decisions on ABC’s “Shark Tank” work so hard to persuade conservatives on left-leaning public policy. But his voice just might make a difference.
I decided to reach out and ask him why he’s doing it.
“Why not me?” he said in an email. Cuban believes he’s in a good position to be heard.
“People are looking for leadership and insight from someone who has the country’s best interests at heart and who is not a politician,” Cuban wrote. “It doesn't have to be me, but I think ‘Shark Tank’ has given me a platform where people know my business judgement.”
Cuban said he’s urging the president to help small businesses pay for employee wages and other expenses. He wants Trump and state governors not to rush in reopening the economy.
“The biggest mistake they can make is thinking just because they open up that businesses will go back to normal,” he said in the email. “They won’t.”
The U.S. economy is set to face worse outcomes than other advanced economies. European governments have avoided mass unemployment by paying wages and other expenses on behalf of businesses.
The U.S. government's Payroll Protection Program — inspired by the European policies — ran out of funds Friday after just two weeks. The Small Business Administration processed more than 14 years worth of loans in 14 days. Business owners, including Cuban, say layoffs will increase as Americans wait for Congress to act.
Cuban lamented that his proposals have not been taken up by the president.
“But that could be on me,” he wrote. “Maybe he doesn’t like the ideas.”
Beyond what Trump thinks of him, Cuban’s public reputation is complicated.
Cuban has gained notoriety for racking up six-digit bar tabs and millions of dollars in NBA fines. Among Hoosiers, he is less favorably known for partying with students at Bloomington bars and, thanks to now-defunct Kilroy’s Recess, being associated by tweet with “wet T-shirt contests” and “underage girls.” After a 2018 NBA investigation revealed years of sexual harassment and misconduct under his watch at the Mavericks, Cuban paid $10 million to charities. He was accused of sexual assault in 2011 but denied the allegation.
Since Trump took office, Cuban has gained popular support for his political aspirations. A 2017 poll showed him beating Trump for president in Texas. He said last week on "Fox News Sunday" he was still considering a run for president this year, even though many states’ filing deadlines have passed.
Despite initially supporting Trump for president, Cuban has become a vocal critic.
On "Fox News Sunday," Cuban advocated for waiting to reopen the country until scientists say it’s safe enough and medicines are available. He told host Chris Wallace that Trump was wrong in thinking the economic recovery will be quick.
“I wish he was right, but he’s not,” Cuban said on the show.
One reason Trump supporters still listen to Cuban: He can speak their language. In his email to me, Cuban said he tailors his message to the audience. When he’s on cable news, for example, he uses language that appeals to older Americans, he said.
For the Fox News audience, he referred to American exceptionalism to justify following scientists’ recommendations.
“American exceptionalism is outstanding,” Cuban told Wallace. “The scientists are going to come up with solutions.”
On Comedy Central’s left-leaning “The Daily Show,” however, Cuban's tone shifted.
Cuban told host Trevor Noah on Thursday he supports “trickle-up economics,” a phrase meant to contrast with the “trickle-down economics” espoused by former President Ronald Reagan.
He criticized the government’s stimulus as “effectively UBI for rich people.” UBI, which stands for universal basic income, has been derided by conservatives. Cuban also advocated for raising the federal minimum wage and incentivizing companies to give financial assets to employees.
In the same room from which Cuban endorses left-leaning policies via webcam, he also joins video calls with heroes of the alt-right.
Cuban appeared Monday on a live taping of “War Room,” a radio show led by Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist for the Trump administration and executive chairman for Brietbart. Bannon, who identifies politically as a populist, has supported white nationalism through online media, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Bannon asked Cuban why he advocated for “trickle-up economics.”
“I’m not a fan of trickle-down economics, particularly now,” Cuban said. It would be wiser economically to give money to Americans who are likelier to spend it than big businesses, he said.
Bannon was impressed.
“Mark Cuban’s a smart guy, a great guy,” Bannon said. “He’s kind of a populist — I realize he’s a big government populist, some of us are — but he’s from Indiana.”
Cuban leaned into what might be called “Hoosier exceptionalism” and suggested that new entrepreneurs in Indiana and elsewhere could bring America out of the crisis.
“There’s going to be somebody sitting in Bloomington, Indiana, that’s bored because they’re not taking classes right now,” Cuban told Bannon. “There’s going to be somebody in Carmel, Indiana, that’s up in the Region, Indiana — that says, you know what, this is the idea I have.”
It seems unlikely most students' economic well-being will improve from having quarantine ideas. But if Cuban’s theory persuades Republicans to give stimulus checks to college students, he should keep repeating it.
“That’s what makes us different than every country in the world,” Cuban told Bannon. “It’s not just that Hoosier spirit, it’s that American spirit.”
Whatever the “Hoosier spirit” is, I hope it’s something that convinces Americans to listen to scientists and support workers. In this crisis, Cuban’s ability to know his audience is useful. When he talks, pro-business pundits listen, and they keep listening. Let’s hope he keeps telling them to support good policies.
Tom Sweeney (he/him) is a senior studying economics and mathematics and is the treasurer of IU Student Government. He plans to pursue graduate studies in economics.