The economy is crashing again. This time, let's bail out ordinary Americans.
When the economy collapsed in 2008, the government failed us.
The banks were bailed out. The auto industry was bailed out. And that was the right thing to do — economies don't work very well if there are no banks, and if whole industries collapse overnight. Those efforts were good. They just weren't enough.
Americans — regular folks, not just big businesses — didn't get the bailout they needed. The number of foreclosures skyrocketed. So did the unemployment rate. The government passed an economic stimulus, and it helped, but not enough. People lost their homes, their livelihoods, and their sense of well-being. Suicides, and suicide attempts, increased dramatically. The economy didn't collapse, not completely, but it came close, and uncounted lives were shattered as a result.
The economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic is going to be so much worse.
What we are facing is unprecedented in modern memory. "We've experienced parts of this before, just never all at once," Princeton University historian Keven M. Kruse said Monday on Twitter. "As others noted, it's like the Spanish flu of 1918 and the stock market crash of 1929 at the same time, but overseen by Harding's total incompetence plus Nixon's pettiness and paranoia."
That's a dire assessment, but it's possible he's right. If there is a bright side to this disaster, it's that our leaders can use the lessons of 2008 to make better decisions. They must start by bailing out ordinary Americans. Stimulus should start at the ground level and work its way up.
Luckily, there are some signs that our leaders plan to do just that. The stimulus bill passed by the House is full of loopholes, but it does include expanded unemployment insurance. It also includes paid sick leave provisions, though that detail may face challenges in the GOP-held Senate. What's more, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) on Monday proposed the government send $1,000 to every adult in America — an idea endorsed by, of all people, ultraconservative Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).
"Every American adult should immediately receive $1,000 to help ensure families and workers can meet their short-term obligations and increase spending in the economy," Romney's office said in a release. "While expansions of paid leave, unemployment insurance, and SNAP benefits are crucial, the check will help fill the gaps for Americans that may not quickly navigate different government options."
He's right. There is too much at stake — too many lives and livelihoods that are, even now, being irreparably damaged as the world economy all but shuts down to meet the health emergency. So skip means-testing, skip the bureaucracy, and skip figuring out how to pay for it — giving Americans cash to get them through the rough times is the highest priority, second only to "flattening the curve" of the novel coronavirus infection.
But even that probably won't be enough.
Amazon seems to be doing well in the current crisis — it announced Monday it will hire 100,000 new workers for increased demand for delivery services. Mom-and-pop businesses, the kinds of establishments that make up the backbone of a community, stand to do much worse.
Simply put: There is a good chance your favorite restaurant or coffee shop is going to close permanently because of the health restrictions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and being enforced in places like San Francisco, where a "shelter in place" order went into effect Monday night. They simply can't survive a couple of weeks — or longer — without cash flow. And the promise of federal small business loans is inadequate for entrepreneurs who fear they might not be able to pay the money back.
"This is terrible," restaurateur Tom Colicchio told The New York Times. "This is the end of the restaurant business as we know it."
That means the coronavirus lockdown will do more than damage the economy — it will ravage local culture across the country by robbing us of businesses, owned by our neighbors, that make one town a little bit different from the next. It's not just livelihoods that are threatened, but our very sense of community.
"Our communal businesses will collapse. They should be the focus of bailouts, not airlines," the writer Franklin Foer tweeted Monday night. "Local stores and restaurants are not just a source of jobs, but the binding agents of community. They connect us to people unlike ourselves. They provide a sense of communal identity. Their demise will have human and spiritual costs. Governments need to salvage them."
Instead, the government is looking at bailing out airlines, cruise lines, and casinos.
Those industries are sources of employment for many Americans. We shouldn't dismiss the need to help those workers. But we are facing an unprecedented challenge. What is happening now is not the "creative destruction" lauded by the most-ardent free-market capitalists, but an act of God. In 2008, America tried to rebuild the economy from the top down. It didn't work as well as it needed to. This time, let's get creative and focus the bailouts on individual Americans and the communities where they live. This time, let's build from the ground up.
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