Recovery First: The American comeback shouldn’t hinge on warmed-over policy agendas
As the nation slowly starts down the road to economic recovery, we hear a steady drumbeat of calls to condition government assistance on meeting pre-virus social justice goals. From implementing regulatory burdens championed by environmentalists to restricting private enterprise by anti-capitalists and demands for protectionist trade policies, those on both the right and the left have taken Rahm Emanuel’s sinister advice following the 2008 Great Recession to heart: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
Life before the pandemic wasn’t perfect, but unemployment was at the lowest rate in fifty years and wages were on the rise. As recently as February, 74 percent of Americans surveyed said they believed they’d be better off financially in a year. And this economic optimism was well-founded. Michael Strain, author and economist, notes that over the past five decades, “the share of low-income households has fallen from 36% to 28%… And the share of households earning over $100,000 has tripled, rising from 10% to 30%.” The middle class was shrinking because many families were moving higher up the economic ladder.
This very recent prosperity might be difficult to remember as the weeks and months have droned on. The human toll, both in lives and livelihoods has been extraordinarily high. We’ve lost 100,000 Americans to this cruel contagion, with many more left unable to receive comfort from their community for fear the virus will spread. And over 38 million unemployment insurance claims have been filed. Families that were making strong financial gains only three months ago now find themselves waiting in long food distribution lines.Although we are by no means out of the woods, we’re no longer seeing the same sort of worrisome projections of overwhelmed hospitals and forecasts of massive ventilator shortages that we witnessed in March.
We must subdue the ravages of the virus through vaccines, therapeutics, testing/tracing, mass production of personal protection equipment, physical distancing, and other safety protocols. And as we learn about this virus and the economic costs of the government response, it is appropriate to consider how we prepare for the next crisis.
But beyond these vital life saving efforts, restoring our society and economy should be our sharp policy focus until American lives and livelihoods achieve a level of normalcy. Revitalizing our economy will be a daunting challenge, but we should not resign ourselves to a “new normal” that permits deeper government entrenchment into American wallets and businesses. We cannot afford to encumber recovery with conditions driven by partisanship and the political ambitions of public officials.
No better time than now for Voodoo
The Economist recently ran a story that Voodoo doctors respond to coronavirus with voodoo. This is a serviceable metaphor for how politicians, policymakers and activists have responded to the virus. It’s become a laugh-line that “there’s no better time than now for [insert pet policy proposal].” But dealing with our dual public health and economic crises requires discipline, focus, and prioritization, not a rehash of tired policies that have virtually nothing to do with the crisis at hand.There are some in Washington that have sought to burden recovery with a grab bag of prior policy proposals, such as bailing out states that had a pre-existing condition of grotesque fiscal mismanagement. These politicians should be reminded that our initial response to the crisis didn’t hinge on first addressing climate change, income inequality or trade concerns and it’s not in the American people’s interest to allow them to hold the recovery hostage by those that are fixated on costly and tangential pet projects.
Conditioning recovery aid on policy proposals that eliminate stock buybacks, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or require national service is a political maneuver in a time when Washington theatrics are the last thing suffering Americans and their businesses need.
Equally egregious are bills like the forthcoming proposal Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have devised. Their plan to ban equity investments during the pandemic would hamper the recovery by depriving struggling businesses with a source of much-needed capital, and prevent companies from gaining efficiencies by joining forces.
Cutting off our nose to spite our faces
On the right, many clanging the “America First” economic protectionism cymbal are advancing their march against trade liberalization. In the words of Scott Lincicome, “One of the most fashionable COVID-19 proposals being circulated by Washington politicians and pundits these days is the ‘repatriating’ of global supply chains for pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and ‘personal protective equipment’ that have been ‘outsourced’ over the past three decades, leaving America utterly dependent on foreign countries, especially China, for these essential products.”Our valid objections to Chinese human rights violations, lack of transparency in the early stages of the pandemic, and certain trade practices do not justify a sweeping backlash against international trade writ large. Today’s isolationists would have us curtail our trade with partners and allies like Canada, Europe, Japan and others. Economic isolation would be self-harming and slow our economic recovery.
There’s no doubt that the Chinese Communist Party is not a trusted friend. A country that gives its own people The Great Leap Forward and Tiananmen Square Massacre isn’t much a friend to any nation or person that prizes liberty. But it does not follow that it is, “in America’s long-term economic interest to disengage, holus-bolus, from a market of 1.4 billion people,” as Sam Gregg notes. There is more to China than it’s authoritarian government and this virus does not make an ipso facto case for decoupling trade with the Chinese people. However, it does make a case for us to become more shrewd in how we engage in trade, refusing to tolerate intellectual property theft and clarifying which products are and aren’t of national security import.There will be plenty of time to return to our pre-virus policy debates after our economy and daily lives achieve a level of normalcy. Until then, we would ask ambitious policymakers to stifle their machinations to reinvent society, at least until the American people have had a chance to return to work and send their children back to school.
Americans have temporarily and sacrificially ceded their economic and personal freedoms to meet the immediate need of flattening the curve. They can and will continue to do an exemplary job of protecting the vulnerable. Now it is time to begin our road to recovery and leave the pre-virus social justice goals for another day.
This article originally appeared in The Hill