While it’s a good idea for a normal economic crisis, a stimulus to increase economic activity is the opposite of what the country needs. Much of the economy needs to shut down to fight the novel coronavirus. Congress should use more dollars now to help the millions who are about to lose their jobs and save their stimulus for later.
On Sunday, Senate Democrats blocked a $1.8 trillion stimulus package that included a provision to send up to $1,200 to each adult and $500 per child, with disbursements that would begin to diminish for people with incomes of $75,000 and above. Democrats blocked the legislation for a second day on Monday. Each party blames the other, but any final bill appears to include these checks as a centerpiece, along with loans to struggling businesses and potentially expanding unemployment insurance. For the millions about to lose their jobs through no fault of their own, $1,200 will not be nearly enough.
President Trump has argued that the United States should bail out the airlines since the virus is “not their fault.” But that argument is far stronger for aiding mainly lower-skilled workers about to lose their jobs, not for sending a check to everyone. It is essential that jobs involving high levels of in-person interaction cease as the nation attempts to limit the number of infected individuals, so the health-care system is not overwhelmed.
This social distancing will likely be necessary for a minimum of several months, which means many workers will lose their jobs. Those workers will desperately need help. And while a part of the coming stimulus bill will likely expand the period of time from three months to four, that won’t be enough for the coming wave of unemployment.
In light of this, the money meant to be sent to every American should be redirected toward temporarily increasing the number of unemployment benefits and expanding the definition of unemployment (including furloughed workers) while the pandemic is brought under control. It is entirely possible that increasing unemployment benefits could hasten firings as small businesses see it as the best option for them and their workers. But there are no great alternatives in an unprecedented mandate to cease economic activity.
In addition, bolstering unemployment insurance is both better targeted and logistically easier, since the system is already in place. While crises like this are often times when politicians experiment with new forms of economic relief, this time, reliability and consistency of existing welfare programs supersede innovation. While sending checks to everyone sounds easy, it is actually a massive lift for the federal government and the IRS, which itself is having its employees practice social distancing. And the IRS extending the tax filing deadline until July could further complicate the efforts, since it will be processing tax returns at the same time it tries to send out checks.
Under more normal circumstances, direct transfers could be a great idea and far more effective than letting companies borrow at ultralow interest rates, which was the policy implemented by the Federal Reserve after the Great Recession.
But right now, normal economic rules don’t apply. In many ways, the goal is to actually decrease demand; a kind of anti-stimulus. To the extent the checks would stimulate the economy, consumer spending would be concentrated in giant companies like Amazon, Walmart, and grocers, the very companies already struggling to meet increased demand due to a combination of decreased supply and a shortage of healthy workers. Amazon has already ceased ordering nonessential items to its warehouses. An injection of discretionary consumer orders won’t help the situation. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Once social distancing is no longer needed, sending checks is a great idea. A massive injection of discretionary income will help restaurants and other businesses restart operations. But we don’t know when that day will come and we need to keep the focus on the unemployed.
The government has limited resources and thus needs to think carefully about how to use its firepower. Some traders are already concerned about whether the bond market will be able to absorb $1.8 trillion worth of new government debt while markets are already not functioning well. Those dollars can’t be wasted.
While a lot of people will lose their jobs, many won’t. That’s especially true of the higher-educated, higher-paid, professional class who will be able to work from home, get paid, and keep the lights on. Once we win the war on the coronavirus pandemic, businesses will reopen, and the checks will light a fire of new economic activity. But not right now. For now, Congress should focus on the people hurting. The people lucky enough to keep their jobs can wait.