Where do you find $600 a week – or at least much of that – for all the Americans who’ve been laid off because of the coronavirus pandemic? It seems easy.
The federal unemployment benefit was created by the $2.2 trillion CARES Act after state governments shut down the economy because of the coronavirus pandemic. At the moment, the benefit expires at the end of July.
The weekly $600 check comes on top of the state benefits unemployed Americans also receive. Three University of Chicago economists estimated that 68 percent of recipients were making more money staying home than they did while working.
For the benefits to continue, congressional Republicans and Democrats along with the Trump administration must agree on a compromise.
They’re far apart at the moment in their proposed stimulus packages that would include the unemployment benefits, among other provisions. Republicans want $1 trillion, while Democrats want $3 trillion. Republicans want to reduce the size of the unemployment checks. Some are wary of all this new spending, while business leaders say such a generous benefit creates a disincentive for people to work.
Some Senate Republicans are also concerned about a giant blinking red light most people are ignoring, which is the fact that more than half of the new money we’re borrowing during this crisis has been purchased by the Federal Reserve, the government’s bank for bankers, because apparently not enough other debt buyers have existed. This kind of funny money – new money without actual new wealth – could lead to inflation and higher interest rates.
Even with their differences, the one thing Republicans and Democrats do well is cobbling together majorities to add debt – with society’s blessing and in fact its demanding. Even before this crisis, the federal government was projected to spend $1 trillion it did not have this year – and that was when the economy was good.
So despite their differences, expect Republicans and Democrats to agree on something this week or soon after that’s less than $600 but still substantial. Before too long, they’ll agree on a wider stimulus package that includes another $1,200 check for most adults on top of that.
I’m a “deficit hawk,” meaning that issue takes precedence over other priorities. But even I recognize this is an extraordinary time. Unemployment benefits and other stimulus measures were necessary because the economy was shut down, and people have been hurting and still must pay their bills.
People shouldn’t have been given a pay raise for not working, and perhaps the shutdown should have been more targeted, though I don’t know that. But it also was the beginning of a crisis, when mistakes are understandable.
But all this started in March, and this is late July. Members of Congress and the Trump administration have known about this deadline for four months, and they should have known the virus would still be with us. Yet here we are, days from when the checks stop coming.
Since March 12, the national debt has increased more than $3 trillion, to more than $26.5 trillion. To put that into perspective, that’s more debt added in three months than the nation accumulated in its first 200 years of existence, not adjusted for inflation.
The debt was going to increase during this pandemic, but there were ways to lessen the impact that seem harder but in the long run are easier than playing with funny money. We could have paid for unemployment benefits partly by raising taxes on wealthier Americans such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. According to Forbes magazine, he was worth $188.2 billion on July 9, which was $5.6 billion more than he was worth the day before.
Or perhaps the government could have raised money by selling some of its assets. Uncle Sam owns 28 percent of all the land in the United States, including roughly 80 percent of Nevada and 9.4 percent of Arkansas. Maybe the CARES Act could have included a provision to cut government spending and raise taxes three to five years from now in order to gradually pay back the money we’ve borrowed during this crisis.
None of these solutions are perfect, but neither is doing what we’ve almost always done in recent decades: We’re borrowing from tomorrow for today’s needs with no plan to pay it back, ever.
And why do we do that? Because, for the moment, it seems the easiest thing to do.