It’s a pity that it is also the most indefensible part of this bill.
I don’t say, of course, that no one will be helped by getting a $1,400 check. But the same can be said of almost any policy you can imagine, including leaving fully loaded Lamborghinis at randomly selected intersections with the doors unlocked and the keys inside. Giving away sports cars would still be a poor use of government funds; it would cost far more than any conceivable benefit to the car recipients, and the help most likely wouldn’t go to those who need it most.
And if you wondered where this metaphor is going, well, exactly the same thing can be said of borrowing more than $400 billion to send checks to many people who haven’t suffered any financial harm because of the pandemic.
There is a strong case for the government mailing out checks in the face of covid-19. I’ve been making that case since March 2020, and it remains as strong as ever: With a deadly disease rampaging, some normal activities are just too dangerous for public health authorities to allow (or for prudent people to engage in even if the government would allow it). Hotels, airlines, restaurants, bars — these businesses employ a lot of people, and hopefully will again, just as soon as we’re all vaccinated. The government has a strong interest in making sure they survive in the meantime, not least because in many cases, government rules are what put them out of work.
So we should absolutely be beefing up unemployment checks and offering generous grants and subsidies to the kinds of face-to-face businesses that can’t operate right now, or can’t make money at reduced capacity. Yet our new stimulus bill does little for struggling businesses, and actually spends more money on sending checks to the majority of people who still have jobs than it does on the unemployed. How is this justifiable?
Defenders of the checks appear to have two answers, neither of them good.
The first is that the checks will provide economic stimulus. But this is a non sequitur, borrowed from an earlier recession by people who don’t seem to understand the fix we are in at the moment.
Stimulus is a policy to deal with a demand shock — when a vicious cycle of plunging consumer confidence and rising unemployment leads consumers to hunker down and sit on their money, which translates into a sharp contraction in gross domestic product. The idea of stimulus is for government to borrow some money and provide a bit of artificial demand that can halt that cycle.
But we’re not suffering from a demand shock right now — or a crisis of consumer confidence. We’re having a supply shock: The people who are out of work are home largely because we want them to be, because they used to provide some good or service, from oil to restaurant dinners, that just isn’t needed as much for as long as we have to socially distance.
Giving money to someone who still has their job doesn’t make them more likely to go out to dinner if the reason they’ve stopped going out is that they’re afraid of the deadly virus. That’s why household savings have never been healthier; no matter how much money you give people, the extra just piles up unspent in their bank accounts.
Nor is there any evidence that this is needed to restart the economy when everyone’s vaccinated, since again, we’re not suffering a crisis of confidence. We’re suffering a public health crisis with a definite end date, after which people are positively eager to go back to normal and spend.
When this is pointed out, the bill’s defenders retreat to a second position: Oh, well, no bill is perfect, why quibble about this?
But this is 20 percent of the whole bill, a deliberate decision made apparently for no other reason except that voters like getting checks. It’s bad policy now and a dangerous precedent for the future. And it may well do more to seed the next economic crisis than to fix the current one.