The closures seem to be happening everywhere, hitting communities like a rolling blackout in the midst of a storm. We often hear about consumer confidence and stock markets and financial turmoil, but rarely is it laid bare so clearly. People are hiding, and so is their money. If the experts have any clue, the economic doldrums are here to stay.
In such end times, nothing cuts through the fog quite like the phrase “stimulus” — a funny bit of jargon that can mean a million things and nothing at all. President Donald Trump says his administration is ready to execute one of the largest economic stimulus packages in American history. While the plan last week centered on a massive payroll tax cut and industry bailouts, Trump has shifted the narrative, instead talking up the idea of direct cash payouts to citizens (“within the next two weeks”) as the shiny heart of the stimulus package.
It’s a bit of Trumpian hero ball — a Hail Mary throw that he thinks will save (or at least appear to save) the American populace. But while $1,000 sent to every American feels like a potential boon, I can’t help but wonder if it’s merely the shine on another bloated handout for the status-quo. It remains unclear how much of the proposed $850 billion stimulus would be dedicated to giving regular people cash to spend. It feels more certain that the vast majority of it will just enable tax cuts that only benefit the employed and stable, or serve as life jackets for corporate entities that claim they thrive in the free market. A stimulus package can’t stimulate everyone, after all.
This is a world in which a White House emergency call with the restaurant industry fails to include a single independent small business operator to speak up about their problems. Instead, it’s the same usual Brands® like McDonald’s and Domino’s at the table, cajoling for a bigger piece of the stimulus pie while undoubtedly side-eyeing the hotel and airline industries. “We are so fucked,” as star chef and restaurateur Dave Chang put it on Twitter.
But when you know the history of the federal government prioritizing big-business parachutes over direct aid for American people, “we are so fucked” starts to sound like a mantra, not a reaction. And when you recall that the trickle-down effects of these bailouts disproportionately help investors and the asset-rich while squeezing the working class, it’s enough to make you wonder how many times we’ll reprise this show with a few new set decorations. (You will be shocked to discover that many of the brands getting a seat at the White House table are also the ones currently denying workers paid sick leave.)
Those unprecedented payroll tax cuts that Trump was talking up just last week? While economists disagree on this, many experts claim it’ll be barely felt by many Americans, with zero assistance to anyone who lost their jobs. Meanwhile, it would leave a deep and lasting scar on our Social Security program, which is great news for people who really need their funds back in retirement one day. Meanwhile, my parents, lifelong small-business owners who currently run a small Italian restaurant in Hawaii, are basically losing money every single day they stay open and pay their employees.
Getting $1,000 each and a tax break or two for the business won’t make the next 12 months much easier, really. They fear, with lingering guilt, the possibility of having to cut hours or staff. And it won’t get much easier for the young men and women working the restaurant, either — even with a job and a one-time stimulus check in hand, the damage of the pandemic will leave huge questions hovering over their lives and families. The same story is playing out around the country. The idea of $1,000 sent to everybody sounds radical, until you see the scope of the harm being done. Then it starts to look like not nearly enough at all.
The silver lining is that, for the first time, there appears to be genuine bipartisan energy around direct cash assistance, with people like Mitt Romney, Cory Booker and Tulsi Gabbard rallying around a range of dollar figures to send via check. (Somewhere, Andrew Yang can’t stop smiling.) Yet it’ll take time to unwind the political webbing that’s keeping all these plans, including an aid package passed by the House of Representatives, from getting off the ground. Even now, the Democrats and GOP are squabbling over details on sick leave and other benefits. Even now, we don’t know when we’ll actually see the fruits of all this negotiation. Several Democrats told Politico that the bureaucracy needed to distribute checks to every American “isn’t feasible,” which is a cold-water reality check amid all the memes about free money.
And given that governance in this country often boils down to someone screaming “we can’t pay for it!” over and over again, I wouldn’t be surprised if we get hardly anything but half-measures after all this talk about direct checks. Iran figured it out, but not us, not yet.
Meanwhile, we’re left with an existential question: What’s worse? Believing that a corporate bailout is a cynical ploy to float the industries that fund our political networks, or believing that a corporate bailout is the only way to keep a national economy from crumbling into a devastating recession? The conclusions of either are pretty bleak, even if there remains plenty of evidence that the federal government could actually use its might to lift whole swaths of American humanity out of poverty, if it chose to. But when it comes to negotiating a bailout for the average person in 2020, it looks like it’s still just a matter of a few thousand bucks at best, and not much more.
Until the next pandemic hits, anyway.