At age 28, when he was clerking for Roberts in 2008, Hawley’s “Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness” was published; he was elected attorney general of the “Show Me State” in 2016, and two years later defeated Claire McCaskill for the Senate, where the 40-year-old Hawley is its youngest member. He is a student of history and father to two young boys. This last fact has him focused on the country’s far future, not just the next few years. In a decade, his boys won’t even be out of high school, so Hawley and his wife, Erin, are plenty invested in where the nation is heading.
Thus, it shouldn’t surprise that Hawley, the historian with a sense of the past and the dad with his eyes on the future, has proposed that Congress pass what would certainly be one of the biggest fiscal relief packages in its history to address the economic disaster inflicted by the covid-19 pandemic. The plan’s great advantages are its vast size, simplicity, speed and comprehensiveness.
Hawley’s proposal would, in effect, provide business-interruption compensation for every U.S. company affected by the crisis — whether they have one employee or 100,000 — so the businesses can keep those workers on the payroll, “for the duration of the health emergency, until businesses are able to reopen.” He wants the government to pay 80 percent of workers’ wages, up to the national median wage (about $33,000 in 2018, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis). Members of the vast army of gig workers and freelancers — that could mean Uber drivers or ballet dancers — would be entitled to 80 percent replacement of lost income. The credit would also apply to workers “laid off in March who are rehired in April or May by their former employers,”according to Hawley’s office, with additional credits awarded to firms for each returning worker, to incentivize rehiring.
Make no mistake. The proposal would involve an enormous commitment of money the country doesn’t have. Say, in round numbers, that the expected U.S. gross domestic product was set for $24 trillion in 2020, or $2 trillion a month, and that fully 50 percent of employees and businesses have been adversely affected. Those are conservative numbers, so the cost of the Hawley plan would be hundreds of millions of dollars a month, going to businesses or contractors basically to pay employees to not work or at least not work at their earlier levels of productivity.
The “moral hazard” here is high. Some people who are working right now and working very hard, at extraordinary risk and an exhausting pace, would continue their sacrifices on the front lines, while others would receive checks for staying home while the economy sits idling, ready to roar out of its enforced slowdown. Perhaps an added recognition for the front-line people — access to some or all of the GI Bill education and training benefits? — makes sense. Hawley’s plan addresses not the millions of potential objections but the one big truth: We have to shock the economy back to life and quickly, as soon as it is safe to do so.
One approach is to hose the country down with money intended to keep the collective economy in place — all of it, including those parts you don’t believe in or you believe deserve to die or were dying already. They won’t survive the vast disintermediation this dislocation has already worked on “business as usual” anyway, but the government ought not to pick the winners here.
The government ought to act as steward of every American who was working in the booming U.S. economy as of Jan. 1. Hawley is a conservative and therefore hates deficits and subsidies, but this is an unprecedented time, and only a clear, compelling, comprehensive and fair supernova of intervention can clear away partisan maneuvering and special interest slice-of-the-pie thinking. The Hawley proposal is on the White House radar. I hope the president endorses it and that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) rallies every Republican senator, and maybe seven (or 47?) Democrats and independents, to it as well.
Hawley discussed the program with me at length on the radio Monday. Poke all the holes you want. There will be only regret and disaster if Congress doesn’t act with the lightning speed that this economic tsunami requires.