March 23, 2020
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Coronavirus relief should be big, fast and prioritize American families and small businesses

Evan Vucci | AP
Evan Vucci | AP
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, right, listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a press briefing with the coronavirus task force, at the White House, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Washington.

Last February, more than 70 percent of business economists polled in a survey predicted that a recession would happen by 2021. That recession is now on America’s doorstep.

The cause of this rapid economic downturn — the global coronavirus pandemic — was less expected. Unlike the recent recessions of the early and late 2000s, this is not the bursting of a dot com bubble or a long-building banking crisis.

This is a crisis of confidence. It has resulted in part from the necessary but economically painful public health imperative to deal with the spread of the virus. That has meant urging people to stay home, and has cratered demand for many goods and services. The situation demands immediate and immense action to attempt to soften to blow and set the stage for recovery.

The idea of direct payments to everyday Americans, thankfully, has proven popular with both parties in Washington as the White House and Congress look to address the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Getting money directly to all Americans, with some reduction or cutoff for wealthier individuals, won’t end this crisis. It can, however, help relieve some of the significant pressure on American workers and small business owners, and help chart a course to recovery.

“We are going to need to get large amounts of money — you might call it ‘helicopter money’ — to those people who are going to be under enormous stress,” economist and nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz said recently on CNBC, pointing to Hong Kong’s coronavirus response, which has included a roughly $1,200 cash payout to all permanent residents over the age of 18.

The US Treasury Department and Republicans like Mitt Romney have somewhat surprisingly embraced this concept with appreciated vigor. For all the Trump administration’s missteps in managing the response to this outbreak, the president’s desire this week to “ go big” with direct payments as part of a $1 trillion stimulus package is encouraging after his initial proposal for payroll tax relief deservedly fell flat.

The speed of the federal response could be as important as its size. Congress and the White House must move quickly.

The House of Representatives and Senate have passed and the president has signed an initial $100 billion package of sick pay, emergency food and testing funding. But that is just one of several needed steps. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised to move with “warp speed” on a larger stimulus package. Sen. Susan Collins is leading a proposal for $300 billion in small business relief as part of this phase of the response.

“In the last three days in the State of Maine, there were more claims for unemployment compensation than all of March last year,” Collins said in a statement Wednesday. “That shows that businesses are already feeling the cash-flow problems, seeing declining revenues, losing customers, and being forced to lay off their employees. That is why we feel so strongly that we must act and we must act immediately.”

The developing stimulus package is likely to include billions for major industries as well. While we should learn from previous corporate bailouts and take steps to make sure that companies receiving assistance are restricted in their ability to shift work overseas, give big executive bonuses or engage in stock buybacks, this isn’t the time to abandon the travel industry — especially as it, and its workers — take a hit from consumers doing the responsible thing by staying home during this coronavirus pandemic.

But, above all, targeting money directly to small businesses and individuals, rather than bailouts for large industry, should be the main focus of Congress’ next move.

Sen. Angus King has made a push for direct cash payments, joining a group of Democrats in sending a letter on Wednesday to Senate leadership calling for quarterly payments to American workers and families, starting immediately at $2,000 and decreasing in the future depending on economic and public health conditions.

“In addition to presenting a massive public health challenge, the Coronavirus will cause a severe economic shock, the immediacy and magnitude of which we may never have seen. Over the course of just one week, most of America went from business-as-usual to a virtual shutdown,” King and his Senate colleagues said in the letter. “We must provide direct cash support to the American workers and families who need it most – to help them purchase essentials; pay the rent, mortgage, and bills; and otherwise weather the coming weeks and months.”

It’s not a stretch to think of this type of cash assistance as an emergency version of universal basic income, an idea championed by former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Exploring universal basic income made sense to us back in October when the economy was in good shape.

Getting money directly in the hands of consumers during this time of hardship and uncertainty not only makes sense now on the edge of a recession — it’s a necessity.

 


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