Tuesday, December 22, 2020

What a Relief


Photo by AFP via a website my computer says I shouldn't trust.

My unpopular opinion on the "stimulus" bill is in the first place that it isn't a stimulus, which is a good thing, because that's not what we need, at the moment, economically; the purpose of a stimulus program is to pump up weak demand, and weak demand isn't our problem. Plenty of us have plenty of money, which we could spend to encourage economic activity and create jobs and make everything boom for everybody, and the reason we aren't spending it isn't that we don't want to, it's that we're scared to go out. There's a pandemic on, people!

The problem we have is a pandemic problem, and the way to fix it is to end the pandemic. That's the only stimulus we need, and we're doing what we can, though we could no doubt be doing it better (and will be, after 20 January), and it's going to take about a year, during which things are just not going to be too lively on the economic front no matter how much we try to goose it. What we need in the meantime is a relief bill, to tide us over and keep us alive while we're waiting, and this is in fact what Congress has just produced—an installment, at any rate—lightly disguised as a stimulus. My unpopular opinion is that Speaker Pelosi has just rolled Majority Leader McConnell, once again, the way President Obama did in 2011, and sneaked a pretty good bill past him.

Which is not obvious mainly because everybody's mind is so focused on that stupid one-off $600 payment, as if it were the only thing in the bill, and it clearly isn't much of a stimulus (for those who don't need the money, couples earning between around $100K and the maximum of $150K, over which you get nothing) or a relief (for the many who can't put the rent money together or face an unexpected medical bill) either. That, however, is policy, and that is not what McConnell is looking at.

What McConnell has been looking at for the last six weeks or so is the politics of his personal position as Senate Majority Leader, which depends on two special election runoffs in Georgia, on 5 January, that ought by rights to have been a shoo-in but don't seem to be, with an energized bloc of Black and young people who carried the state for Democrats in the presidential election, and yielded a couple of really terrible Republican candidates, like cartoons of Republicans, rich, dumb, and criminal, with records of financial skullduggery that seem to get longer every day, and a willingness to parrot whatever Trump says, alongside a couple of unexpectedly attractive, unconventional, Democrats, the genial Black Atlanta pastor Raphael Warnock, who cheerfully poses with puppies, and a Jewish investigative journalist (Jon Ossoff has worked on anti-corruption documentaries for British television, which seems to have taught him how to make a BBC interviewer's face of such stern and unforgiving rectitude that it frightened his corrupt opponent out of debating after the first outing). And then there's Trump's contribution, conditioned by rage over his own election result, which has him supporting his candidates by denouncing the whole Georgia GOP as corrupt and suggesting there's no point in voting there and leaving the two senators sitting in uncomfortable silence for almost the whole of a two-hour rally.

Which is not, once again, to say the Democrats are going to win, but it's a much nearer thing than McConnell likes. And that, I believe, is the whole of the reason for his switch on the $600 plan, without which the bill would not have been allowed on the Senate floor: as a bribe to those who don't need the money, the iffy constituency of white suburbanites, to tell them who the GOP cares about. It's what buying them a beer on Election Day was back in the early 19th century, not a big thing, a lagniappe, but a testimony to where their interests lie, for which McConnell hopes he and Trump will get the credit. Even though the two of them have been fighting against a more stimulating version from the Democrats ($1200 apiece could buy you a couple of really good bicycles, or some very nice furniture) for the past nine months. I like to think most of those who are susceptible to bribery are Republicans already, but if you're on the fence about that, the Democrats' offer is still open.

Meanwhile, the $908-billion package (part of the omnibus spending bill, not a bill in its own right) really does offer a lot of relief as opposed to stimulus. In particular, 20 million people with rent problems are going to get $25 billion to do it with in January, and others will benefit from the extension of the eviction moratorium to 31 January. For food insecurity, there's $13 billion to boost the SNAP program (restoring some cuts made to it during the Trump administration), $13 billion earmarked for aid to farmers, and a $284-billion extension of the Payment Protection Program loans to small businesses to, among other things, pay their employees while they aren't making any money, which we may hope will be administered more honestly than they were the last time. And $15 billion for performing arts organizations. 

The unemployment bonus is restored for 11 weeks (at a level of $300/week instead of the original $600), through 14 March, and the extension of unemployment to include the self-employed and gig and contract workers will continue for the same period. These are to my mind the most radical and important ideas in the original "stimulus", and I'm really happy to see them brought back.

Federal aid for states (in bad financial straits because they are required to balance their budgets) are missing, presumably on Emperor Trump's command; but some of the worst state problems are mitigated by $45 billion for transportation (including $4 billion for New York's MTA, and a billion for AMTRAK), $82 billion for schools, and $69 billion in direct Covid spending, including $22 billion for test-and-trace programs.

And they didn't forget Donald either, who's getting the

 “three-martini lunch” tax provision that would allow businesses to temporarily deduct 100 percent of their corporate meal expenses — carry out food as well as sit-down meals — off their federal taxes, compared to the 50 percent that they are usually able to deduct. For months, Trump has championed the expanded meal deduction through 2022 as a way to help the struggling restaurant industry by increasing spending in restaurants and income for staff, but Democrats have denounced the measure, which they say targets business executives who are not urgently struggling in the current economic climate.

—the struggling restaurant industry including several places he owns, such as The Benjamin bar and grill in the Pennsylvania Avenue hotel, probably one of the last places where the three-martini lunch continues to be a real thing, exactly 50 years after the fictional Don Draper hung it up; or the Mar-a-Lago club, this week hosting the annual gala of Charlie Kirk's "Turning Point USA" organization, attended by thousands of enthusiastic Trump youths and not-so-youths including boldface Republicans like South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, and "MyPillow" Mike Lindell. Trump still squeezing every penny he can out of his awkward situation.

Anyway the other point is that the Covid relief package is basically just for a month in the case of the rental assistance and three months for the unemployment, and it's going to have to be revisited as soon as the new Congress convenes on 3 January, two days before the election that determines whether Mitch McConnell continues to be majority leader or not, members beginning serious negotiation on the bill they will present for consideration to President Joe Biden. If McConnell still is majority leader, as I still assume he probably will be though it remains absolutely neck and neck

he is going to have to deal once again with a president who's happy to put in the work and knows the material backwards and forwards, as well as a new set of very unconservative principles regarding food aid, unemployment, and the right to housing that were reinforced in the bill he passed this week.

Update: This could be hilarious if Trump carries through on his threat to veto the whole bill unless they raise the $600 bribe to $2000.

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