US economy

Will We Flunk Pandemic Economics?

So it’s all about helping the economic victims of the coronavirus lockdown. How are we doing?

The good news is that thanks to Democratic pressure, the CARES Act, the $2 trillion not-a-stimulus bill that became law less than three weeks after Trump dismissed the notion that Covid-19 might pose an economic problem, is mostly focused on the right things. The core provisions of the legislation are aid to hospitals, the unemployed and small businesses that maintain their payrolls; these are exactly the kinds of things we should be doing.

What’s especially remarkable is that we got mostly sensible legislation even though the president was talking nonsense, pushing for — what else? — tax cuts as the solution for the economy’s problems. Actually, I can’t think of any other recent example in which Republicans agreed to major fiscal legislation that mainly involved spending to benefit the needy, without any tax cuts for the rich.

The bad news comes in two parts.

First, the bill falls far short of what’s needed on one crucial dimension: aid to state governments, which are on the front line of dealing with the pandemic. Unlike the federal government, states have to balance their budgets each year. Now they’re facing a surge in costs and huge revenue losses; unless they get a lot more aid, they’ll be forced to cut spending sharply, which will directly undermine essential services and indirectly deepen the overall slump.

And it’s not clear when or whether that hole will be filled. Senate Republicans are hostile to the idea of another rescue package; White House officials are reportedly still talking about tax cuts.

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Second, decades of hostility to government have left us poorly positioned to deliver even the aid Congress has voted. State unemployment offices have been underfunded for a long time, and red states have deliberately made it hard to apply for benefits. So the surge in unemployment is overwhelming the benefits system; Congress may have voted disaster relief, but the money isn’t flowing.

The loan program for small businesses is also, by all accounts, off to a shambolic start. And those $1,200 checks everyone is supposed to get? Many Americans won’t get them for weeks or months.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Canada has already set up a special web portal and phone system to provide emergency unemployment benefits. Germans have been pleasantly surprised by how quickly aid is flowing to the self-employed and small businesses.


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