• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Thoughts on the Next Stimulus

Reality shifted, and we have to keep up.

April 7, 2020

In political science, the “Overton window” is the term we use to define the scope of politically acceptable options at any given time. In the U.S., for instance, monarchism and anarchism are outside the Overton window; in other times and places, that wasn’t necessarily true.

The importance of the Overton window is that it moves over time. Since the pandemic struck, I’ve noticed that the Overton window has grown much larger, especially on the left. After years and years of getting upbraided with “how are you going to pay for that?” for any sort of social program, all of a sudden it’s almost banal to assume that a multi-trillion-dollar stimulus will follow a multi-trillion-dollar stimulus within weeks. The window shifted hard and fast. That’s appropriate, though; reality shifted hard and fast, and we need to keep up.

The CARES Act is a hodgepodge, but it’s almost certainly too small for the situation. Which raises the question of what the next stimulus should include.

The HOPE Center issued a few useful suggestions on Monday. First, allow college students listed as dependents to collect some sort of check, along with everyone else. Well, yeah. The Boy was quite vocal on this one last week when he heard that he wouldn’t get anything. Tuition isn’t cheap, and he pays taxes like everybody else. Second, remove work requirements for public benefit programs. Again, yes. With 10 million people having applied for unemployment in the last two weeks alone, a work requirement presumes the existence of work that may not exist. How many restaurants are hiring right now? Requiring people to find work at the same time that businesses are forbidden to open is madness.

If anything, HOPE’s suggestions may err on the side of modesty. They’re smart, but the times call for thinking much bigger.

The core economic issues of the next couple of years, I suspect, will be health care and the utter collapse of state-level tax revenues. A really effective stabilization package would attack those.

Basing health insurance on employment is a terrible idea for plenty of reasons, but the pandemic has shown why with spectacular precision: if you lose your job because of the pandemic, then you lose access to health care during that pandemic. That’s the worst possible time to lose health insurance. Viruses don’t care if you’re employed or not. This should be a time to beef up Medicaid and fund it entirely at the federal level. That would provide coverage to everyone, one way or another, and would relieve states of a massive liability.

Speaking of states, I’d push hard for either bailing them out directly -- offsetting lost sales and income tax revenues -- or federalizing some of the programs that cost them so much. Without efforts to support the states at the scale of the losses they’re about to face, they’ll actually have to cut services at the very moment they’re needed the most. That’s because states can’t run budget deficits. But the federal government can. It, alone, can spend countercyclically at sufficient scale to make a meaningful difference.

Jobs are remarkably effective at stimulating economic activity. Forcing massive layoffs while spending stimulus money is like flooring the accelerator and the brake at the same time. Preserve the jobs states support, and give the capacity to add more.

If the Overton window shifted a little farther, we could take a look at a modern Works Progress Administration focused on climate change mitigation and/or target hardening. (Building seawalls around vulnerable coastal cities would both provide jobs and protect millions of people, for instance.) We may not be there yet, but it’s a good idea to keep in the back pocket. Shifts of the Overton window aren’t always incremental; best to have ideas at hand for those moments when they’re possible.

Until then, though, providing health insurance to people and fiscal stability to states would be a good start.

Wise and worldly readers, how would you target resources to prevent untold suffering in the wake of the pandemic?


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