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OPINION

Why giving every American $1,200 is a bad idea

By STEVEN PEARLSTEIN | The Washington Post | Published: March 20, 2020

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It is yet another sign of our political dysfunction that a government that dithered for weeks before getting serious about fighting a global pandemic now can’t take a few days for thoughtful debate about how to spend a trillion dollars to deal with the economic fallout.

Make no mistake: The Senate Republican plan to send every household $1,200 for each adult and $500 for every child is a really dumb idea. It is not just an inefficient and ineffective way to stabilize the economy — it’s also a cynical ploy by President Donald Trump and the Republican leaders in Congress to buy the next election. Even more surprising is that it seems to have won the reflexive support of liberal Democrats who have become so fixated on economic inequality, so addicted to fiscal stimulus and so desperate to win back the white working class that their instinct isn’t to oppose it, but to demand the checks be even larger.

Let’s just do a little simple arithmetic.

There are about 330 million people living in the United States. About 75 million of those are children under the age of 18. There are about 10 million students who spend most of their time studying at colleges and universities. And there are 65 million Americans who live primarily off pensions and monthly checks from the Social Security Administration. Few of those 150 million children, students and seniors will lose much income as a result of layoffs and business closures caused by the pandemic.

In addition, there are, by my count, roughly 100 million workers who are likely to continue to receive most of their normal wage and salary income either because they will continue to show up for work, or work from home, or be paid even though they are not working.

This 100 million includes about 33 million government workers and public school teachers who will continue to be paid. It includes 3 million farmers who will continue to produce our food, 1 million people involved in processing and distributing that food and 3 million workers at grocery and beverage stores who will sell it. And it includes the 3 million people working for information technology, internet and telecommunications companies that will keep us all wired up and entertained, the 9 million working in finance and the 10 million in law, accounting, consulting and other professional firms, most of whom are already working at home.

Let’s not forget the millions of workers who will be kept on the payrolls in the airline, cruise line, hotel and hospitality industries as a result of a $150 billion federal rescue package and millions more at smaller firms that will continue to meet payroll, thanks to $300 billion in loans from the Small Business Administration.

That leaves about 80 million Americans whose income may be in jeopardy. Too be sure, that’s a lot of workers needing help and a big hit to the economy. But those are not challenges best met by sending $1,200 checks to 250 million of their fellow citizens who are still getting paychecks and can’t even spend what they make — they can’t go shopping, or take a vacation or even go out for a nice dinner.

The better strategy is to get money into the hands of cash-strapped businesses that promise to use it to keep workers on their payrolls — or, if that fails, to get it into the hands of laid off workers who will likely spend it on essentials.

As an alternative, if the government were to send those 80 million laid off workers a $500 check (tax free) every week for 8 weeks, that would be $4,000 apiece — enough to keep their collective spending somewhere close to where is now. And at $320 billion, that would be significantly less than the White House and Republican Senate leaders propose to spend.

The only reason this foolish proposal is under serious consideration is that it was cooked up in secret by politicians spooked by the rout on the stock market, worried about losing the next election and desperate to show they are doing something “big” other than bailing out private industries. There was no serious analysis done by professionals at the White House, Treasury or the Congressional Budget Office, no input from congressional committees, no consultation with Democrats and certainly no public debate.

Now we are told by some who ought to know better that if Congress fails to throw a trillion dollars at the problem in the next few days, tens of millions of sales clerks and restaurant waiters and Uber drivers will go hungry, get thrown out of their homes and lose their internet access, and economic Armageddon will be upon us.

“Give Every American $2,000, Immediately,” demanded the very serious people at The New York Times in Thursday’s lead editorial, a mishmash of economic nonsense, liberal grievances and Democratic talking points.

We need to stop for a moment and take a deep breath. This is a scary time. A lot has happened in the past three weeks. People are dying. Panic has overtaken financial markets. Countries are locking down their citizens and closing their borders. The global economy is tumbling into recession. Governments need to pull people together, act boldly and lend and spend freely.

Freely, but not stupidly. The right antidote for not doing any of the right things for too long is not to do too much of the wrong thing too fast. Sending money to millions of voters who don’t need it and can’t spend it may be good politics, but its lousy economics.

Steven Pearlstein is a Washington Post business and economics writer. He is also Robinson Professor of Public Affairs at George Mason University.

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