Something I’ve been saying for the last few weeks is that the most important thing the U.S. government can do to support the economy is to fight the coronavirus pandemic as effectively as possible. The pandemic is what’s bringing the economy toward a sudden stop, and the more quickly and effectively we fight it, the easier a time we will have getting back toward normal.
At the same time, I want to note that a robust fiscal package to support the economy is an essential element of the fight against the virus. Yes, we need a big spending package to protect families against destitution, and we need it so that impacted businesses can stay afloat through this crisis and reopen their doors when it ends to find customers willing to buy their products. But I think there hasn’t been enough focus on the fact that we also need the spending if we hope to retain public cooperation with anti-virus measures that are epidemiologically necessary but very costly — often economically devastating — to households and businesses.
The forecasts coming from Wall Street economists seem to get worse by the day, and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis president James Bullard has an even more dire outlook than they do, saying this weekend he expects unemployment to reach around 30 percent. Virus-fighting measures that cause significant economic pain will be needed for an extended period, even if the precise nature of the measures changes over time. The necessity of continued compliance with these measures may outrun the patience of the public, especially if members of the public start finding it much more difficult than usual to afford basic necessities. The more the government does to promote financial normalcy at households and firms, the more we are likely to get persistent public compliance with stay-home orders and other instructions that interfere with the normal moneymaking activities of Americans.
There are roughly two categories of ways for the government to address the financial strain that the virus response is placing and will place on American families and firms. One set works from the top down, waiving interest payments, utility payments, tax payments, rent payments, and the like, so businesses and families with less cash coming in can better cope with their bills. Related to this are measures to forestall responsive actions to defaults, such as moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures. The other set works from the bottom up, giving or lending cash to families and firms to replace lost income, so they can better meet their ordinary obligations. Each of these approaches is sure to be imperfect and incomplete, so we’re going to need some combination of both. Government solutions are especially necessary here because the community institutions that are also a key part of how we address financial hardships and crises — churches, nonprofits, informal networks of friends and neighbors — are themselves impacted by the crisis and may not be as effective as they would be in other circumstances.
As members of Congress haggle over the precise terms of this fiscal response, I would encourage them to focus on keeping life as financially normal as it can be during this period when non-financial aspects of life are becoming very strange. Foremost, this means the government needs to make sure that people who lose their labor income owing to this crisis get replacement income; Allison Schrager has good thoughts on the need to make unemployment insurance much more generous and more flexible during this crisis.
That’s not the end of the fiscal needs — we need support for the self-employed, for owners of small businesses, and likely for large firms in various specific sectors especially hard hit by the shutdowns. But it’s an appropriate place to start. It is not important to cover every possible need in the bill that is being worked on right now. There are surely unforeseen needs that won’t get addressed in this bill no matter how thoughtfully our representatives write it, so I expect additional rounds of fiscal response to be necessary anyway. They should just make a good start now and then come back and add more as necessary.