Just Give People Money!
People need cash, but Washington is turning to its usual, absurd playbook instead.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of four senators — Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker and Republicans Tim Scott and Ben Sasse — introduced a bill offering a $4,000 tax credit to workers who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus, to be used to offset the cost for “skills training” programs. Almost immediately, the plan won rave reviews from the right-wing Democratic think tank Third Way.
For all of the flak that the left catches about being unflinchingly “purist,” a lot of progressives would kill for the kind of dedication to ideology that the center enjoys.
Aside from the fact the Democrats have leaned on tax credits so much that it spawned an entire genre of mockery, giving people a $4,000 tax credit for “skills training” right now is solving the wrong problem.
People aren’t losing their jobs because those jobs are becoming obsolete, like coal mining or chimney sweeping or delivering milk or whatever. They’re losing their jobs because the coronavirus blew a big fucking hole through the economy and now the unemployment rate is 15 percent. In many cases, the people who’ve lost their jobs don’t need or want new careers or “skills.” They need to be able to pay their bills and eventually return to the jobs they were ejected from during the pandemic.
There’s a few explanations for this insistence on tax credits and job training as a remedy for the coronavirus and whatever ails you, and none of them actually hold any weight.
The first argument is that doing the much easier thing — just giving people money, whether in the form of monthly installments or a one-off payment like the $1,200 “stimulus” we’re seeing — will be politically toxic in November. But this isn’t the 1990s; nearly 39 million people are out of work, and more than 80 percent of the public, according to an April poll, wants a monthly stimulus check.
Furthermore, even if it was politically unpopular, which it isn’t, Republicans have already given up this ground. I’m one of some 80 million people who recently got a letter from Donald Trump in the mail reminding me that he’s responsible for my $1,200 check. Mitt Romney was one of the first people in Congress to suggest stimulus checks, and now he’s proposing hazard pay bonuses. Trump might be pumping the brakes on expanded unemployment insurance and cash assistance now, but there’s no closing this box, especially as states begin to reopen and doubts that the economy will jolt back to its pre-March levels are confirmed.
The second defense of tax credits is that they’re bipartisan, which is probably why someone like Booker who doesn’t have a knee-jerk opposition to direct cash payments is signing onto the bill. It’s true that having Republican cosponsors on a bill might make it marginally more likely to get through the Senate, but if it’s basically just a grant to learn another job rather than help for bills, what’s the point? The job market as a whole sucks and very few businesses are hiring. What’s to be gained from this?
And this assumes that Mitch McConnell would allow a bill headed up by two recent Democratic presidential candidates to pass through his Senate. McConnell said earlier this month he wants to “take a pause” and let the economy rely on the pittance of money Congress has spent helping working people and those who lost their jobs. What’s much more likely is that this is a mere messaging bill from the Serious Voices in the Senate, in which case: Why the fuck do you need Ben Sasse and Tim Scott at all?
This is a crisis. Tax credits do nothing on a macroeconomic level and provide no immediate assistance to people in the short term. Instead of fucking around with these grand plans to remake the workforce by goading people into learning how to code or be HVAC mechanics or whatever, just focus on giving people money. Cut them monthly checks, cancel their rent and mortgages, cancel their student loans, give unemployment insurance to the people who need it and help states update their unemployment systems so those people can actually access it. All of these things would go exponentially further in helping to pull as many people as possible out of the despair brought on by the economic crisis.
The problem is clear and so is the solution. Don’t make this harder than it has to be.