In a Crisis, Bigger Is Better

Paul Krugman explains why Biden’s Covid relief package has to be big (I’ve left out some of the economics discussion, but left in the history):

. . . No, the Biden plan isn’t too big. While [some] pundits’ concern that the size of the package might produce some economic stresses isn’t silly, it’s probably overwrought. And they have the implications of an expansive plan for the future completely backward: Going big now will enhance, not reduce, our ability to do more later.

. . . What policymakers are trying to do here is like fighting a war — a war both against the pandemic itself and against the human fallout from the pandemic slump.

And when you’re fighting a war, you don’t decide how much to spend by asking “How much stimulus do we need to achieve full employment?” You spend what you need to spend to win the war.

Winning, in this case, means providing the resources for a huge vaccination program and for reopening schools safely, while limiting the economic misery of families whose breadwinners can’t work and avoiding gratuitous cuts in public services provided by fiscally constrained state and local governments.

And that’s what the American Rescue Plan mostly involves; it is, as Biden’s economists say, a bottom-up plan that starts with estimated needs. Using numbers from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, here’s the composition of the proposed package:070221krugman1-jumboAlthough discussion is weirdly dominated by those proposed $1400 checks, they’re only a fraction of the total; medical spending, school aid, aid to the unemployed, and help for state and local governments dominate the plan. And there’s a good case for those checks, too; more about that later.

. . . But what about the argument that there are big elements of the Biden plan that aren’t essential relief?

Skepticism about the substance of the Biden plan, as opposed to its size per se, mainly centers on the idea of sending cash to the great majority of American adults — the so-called stimulus checks, although they aren’t stimulus and they aren’t checks. There are other elements; . . . some believe that aid to state and local governments will be bigger than necessary. But the stimulus checks are the big question mark. So let’s focus on them, and with them the broader question of how to set the stage for future policy.

There’s no question that many people receiving stimulus checks will be people who haven’t taken a serious hit to their income and don’t need special help. In that sense the checks will be poorly targeted, certainly as compared to enhanced unemployment benefits.

However, we know that a substantial number of people experiencing significant income losses won’t be helped by unemployment benefits — for example, those who are still working but at reduced hours or wages. Universal basic payments will give such people much-needed help. True, they’re a leaky bucket, and you wouldn’t want them to be the main element of a rescue plan — but they aren’t! They’re a supplement that will do some good.

And they’re also hugely popular, which isn’t an irrelevant consideration.

Actually, every major element in the Biden plan has strong public approval. But support for stimulus checks is through the roof.

[Note: According to a poll taken this month, 68% of voters want Biden and the Democratic Congress to pass a relief package that will do the most to stop the spread of coronavirus and help people economically. Only 32% favor a smaller package that will do less but have bipartisan Republican support.]

Now, policy shouldn’t be driven entirely by opinion polls. But if you care about setting the stage for policy beyond the pandemic, delivering the goods to voters in the first round will be crucial.

Of all the arguments made by critics of a big rescue plan, the one that really has me rubbing my eyes is the suggestion that we should scale the plan back to make room for later policies, like investment in infrastructure. Wasn’t the overwhelming lesson from the Obama years that that’s not how it works? The effective constraint on good policy isn’t financial, it’s political — and as a result underpowered policy in the short run ends up killing the chance of good policy in the years ahead.

A trip down memory lane: Back in 2009 I was more or less frantically warning that the Obama stimulus was too small, and a key part of that warning was my fear that going small would undermine future policy prospects. Here’s what I wrote in January 2009:

“I see the following scenario: a weak stimulus plan, perhaps even weaker than what we’re talking about now, is crafted to win those extra GOP votes. The plan limits the rise in unemployment, but things are still pretty bad, with the rate peaking at something like 9 percent and coming down only slowly. And then Mitch McConnell says “See, government spending doesn’t work.”

“Let’s hope I’ve got this wrong.”

Alas, I didn’t have it wrong.

Circumstances are different now, but the basic logic is the same. If you want effective policy on infrastructure, on the environment, on children and more, Biden has to deliver big, tangible benefits with his rescue plan. Otherwise he’ll squander political capital, and probably lose any chance to do significantly more.

So this plan really needs to go big. The risks, economic and political, of falling short are huge, and should [end the discussion].

A Great Opportunity for the Democrats

Having fifty votes in the Senate and the Vice President gives the Democrats a chance to make real progress and seriously damage the radical right. From Greg Sargent of The Washington Post:

In the early morning hours on Friday, Senate Democrats passed a measure laying the groundwork to move President Biden’s big economic rescue package via the reconciliation process, by a simple majority. Republicans are already thundering with outrage.

The move does indeed pose a serious challenge to Republicans. But it’s one that runs deeper than merely moving toward passing this one package without them. It also suggests a reset in dealing with GOP bad-faith tactics across the board — and even the beginnings of a response to the . . . ideology loosely described as “Trumpism.”

First, the new move suggests a growing recognition that the conventional understanding of how “bipartisanship” works has things exactly backward — and that Republicans have manipulated the public debate on this topic for far too long.

For instance, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is already denouncing this move. The minority leader railed that Democrats have “set the table to ram through their $1.9 trillion rough draft,” adding: “notwithstanding all the talk about bipartisan unity, Democrats are plowing ahead.”

McConnell’s underlying claim is that Democrats should allow their plan to be subject to a supermajority requirement via the filibuster [of 60 Yes votes] to facilitate bipartisanship. The idea is this: If a partisan majority [in this case, the 50 Democrats plus the Vice President] can’t pass things by itself, it must reach out for bipartisan support [from at least ten Republicans] . . .

This is a scam. The reality is the other way around: In McConnell’s hands, the filibuster has actually made bipartisanship less likely.

By preventing a partisan majority from passing things, McConnell has created the conditions for withholding the support necessary to enact them, for the instrumental purpose of casting Democratic presidents (such as Barack Obama) as failed conciliators.

This has worked as follows: GOP senators have withheld support regardless of the concessions made to win them over, because they calculate the president’s party will take the political hit for failing to make bipartisan deals.

The paradox here is that using reconciliation — moving to pass something by a simple majority — actually could bolster the conditions for good-faith bipartisanship. GOP senators who might be gettable will no longer have a built-in incentive to oppose a particular bill. It’s likely passing anyway, so the lure of helping [their own] party by opposing it — because the Democratic president will get blamed for failure — isn’t nearly as strong.

Under those conditions, Biden actually would have an opening to negotiate with Republicans in the quest for bipartisan support. In the conditions McConnell wants, the incentives for moderate GOP senators point in the other direction.

Whether Biden actually will end up negotiating down to win a few Republicans is an open question. But the point is, in McConnell’s cynical scenario, this would be nothing but a fool’s errand, because it would be far less likely to work.

McConnell’s other basic idea — that a supermajority requirement protects the minority — is also nonsense. Adam Gurri makes a key distinction between protecting the rights of the minority party and protecting those of minorities of voters. The latter are protected by many other veto points in the system. Protecting the minority party’s rights by subjecting all Senate business to a supermajority requirement is only about facilitating its ability to obstruct.

Senior Democrats have begun to articulate the idea that the true way to revitalize faith in government — and in democracy — is by successfully delivering on big-ticket items. Achieving bipartisan cooperation for its own sake will do far less to address deep civic division and disillusionment than robust and effective action on behalf of the common good.

The Biden plan now will be written by Congress. But the new move lays the groundwork for passage of a package that could spend as much as $1.9 trillion. . . .

In an interesting column, David Brooks suggests that such large-scale spending could begin to accomplish “social repair.” We should spend far more than what’s merely needed to fill the “output gap.” We should spend to address the deep inequalities and injustices revealed by the pandemic and longer-term structural ills such as flat wages and regional stagnation. Undershooting here, Brooks notes, carries far greater moral and civic risks than overshooting.

I’d go further: Such an approach also contains the seeds of a broader answer to Trumpist populism. Success in using robust government action to charge up the recovery and get the coronavirus under control — including sinking medical resources into rural America — could clear political space for Biden to restore humanity to our immigration system and sanity to our international climate efforts.

Spending effectively toward the common good might begin to defang destructive zero-sum nationalist appeals. That could pave the way for a “new synthesis” that combines bolder progressive economics with a refusal to backpedal on issues that Democrats have long seen as politically perilous in the face of right-wing populist demagoguery. Biden’s ambitious actions so far on immigration and climate suggest just this understanding of the moment.

All this might sound overly optimistic. And there are countless ways Democrats can screw this all up. But the early returns suggest they are constructively breaking with old ways of thinking. And that could portend a serious long-term challenge to the Trumpified [Grotesque Old Party].

Unquote.

Senate Democrats can change the Senate rules whenever they want. They just need the courage to do so (and the cooperation of their least progressive members).

A Few Pertinent Items

From: The Economy Does Much Better Under Democrats. Why? – The New York Times

“A president has only limited control over the economy. And yet there has been a stark pattern in the United States for nearly a century. The economy has grown significantly faster under Democratic presidents than Republican ones.”

“It’s true about almost any major indicator: gross domestic product, employment, incomes, productivity, even stock prices. It’s true if you examine only the precise period when a president is in office, or instead assume that a president’s policies affect the economy only after a lag and don’t start his economic clock until months after he takes office. The gap “holds almost regardless of how you define success,” two economics professors at Princeton, Alan Blinder and Mark Watson, write. They describe it as ‘startlingly large’.”

Untitled

” . . . if the causes are not fully clear, the pattern is. The American economy has performed much better under Democratic administrations than Republican ones, over both the last few decades and the last century.” 

From: AOC isn’t going to forget about the insurrection and move on – The Washington Post

“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says she was told that trauma victims should ‘tell their stories’ as a part of their healing. And that is what she did Monday night . . . The New York congresswoman initiated a live stream on Instagram and . . . recounted what had happened to her during the violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.’

“She talked about flattening herself behind her bathroom door as someone entered her office, screaming, ‘Where is she? Where is she?’ It turned out to be a police officer, but until she learned that, ‘I thought I was going to die’.”

“She talked about eventually escaping to the office of Rep. Katie Porter (Calif.), where the two Democratic congresswomen rifled through staffers’ gym bags, searching for sneakers they could change into in case they needed to jump out a window or run. . . .” 

“Ocasio-Cortez, her voice wavering, revealed during the live stream that she was a survivor of sexual assault, something she said many people did not know, because there were only so many times she’d wanted to tell that story. But she was mentioning it now, she said, because of its relevance to the attack at the Capitol.”

“Almost immediately after Jan. 6, she said, people began implying . . . that reconciliation depended on ‘moving on’. Those words, she said, were the tactics of ‘an abuser’.”

“She compared it to a sexual harasser telling his victim that the quickest path to normalcy would be her forgiving him. Or to parents telling the child they once abused that the mistreatment had happened in the past. . . .”

“There needs to be accountability, she said, because forgiveness does not happen when a perpetrator wants to move on. It happens when a victim is ready. . . .”

From: It’s Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Party Now – The New York Times

“Some decent Republicans imagine they’re in a battle for their party’s soul. Representative Adam Kinzinger, who . . . voted to impeach Txxxx, recently started a PAC devoted to fighting the forces that led . . . the Capitol rampage. “The time has come to choose what kind of party we will be,” he said in an introductory video. The thing is, Republicans already have chosen.

Just look at the party’s state affiliates. On Jan. 4, the Arizona G.O.P. retweeted a “Stop the Steal” activist who’d pronounced himself willing to “give my life” to overturn the election. Said the party’s official account: “He is. Are you?” An Arizona lawmaker has since introduced a bill that would let the Legislature, controlled by Republicans, override the presidential vote of the state’s increasingly Democratic citizenry. The Oregon Republican Party approved a resolution suggesting that the Capitol siege was a “false flag” attack. The Texas Republican Party has adopted the QAnon slogan “We are the storm” as its motto, though it insists there’s no connection. . . . 

[QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor Greene] is not the outlier in this party. Kinzinger is.

“American conservatism — particularly its evangelical strain — has fostered derangement in its ranks for decades, insisting that no source of information outside its own self-reinforcing ideological bubble is trustworthy.”

“If you’re steeped in creationism and believe that elites are lying to you about the origins of life on earth, it’s not a stretch to believe they’re lying to you about a life-threatening virus. If what you know of history is the revisionist version of the Christian right, in which God deeded America to the faithful, then pluralism will feel like the theft of your birthright. If you believe that the last Democratic president was illegitimate, as Trump and other birthers claimed, then it’s not hard to believe that dark forces would foist another unconstitutional leader on the country.”

“There was a moment, after the Capitol riot, when it seemed as if a critical mass of the Republican Party was recoiling at what it had created. But the moment passed, because it would have required the party’s putative leaders to defy too many of their followers.”

From: More than two-thirds of Americans side with Biden on COVID relief — and most support the rest of his agenda – Yahoo News/YouGov Poll

“When asked about the 20 policies that define President Biden’s agenda, more Americans support than oppose all 20 of them, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll.”

“The margins are decisive. The majority of Biden’s proposals garner at least twice as much support as opposition. Nearly half are favored by more than 60 percent of Americans.”

When There’s Disunity About Unity

President Biden spoke a lot about unity in his inaugural address:

Few periods in our nation’s history have been more challenging or difficult than the one we’re in now. . . . To overcome these challenges – to restore the soul and to secure the future of America – requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity. Unity. . . .

Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation. I ask every American to join me in this cause. Uniting to fight the common foes we face: Anger, resentment, hatred. Extremism, lawlessness, violence. Disease, joblessness, hopelessness.

With unity we can do great things. Important things. . . .

I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. . . . Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial. Victory is never assured.

Through the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War, 9/11, . . . enough of us came together to carry all of us forward. And, we can do so now. History, faith, and reason show the way, the way of unity.

We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature.

For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.

In a phrase, I’d say he was asking that we work together for the common good.

Tom Malinowski, the Democrat who represents New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District, put it this way:

Unity doesn’t mean Republicans must become Democrats, or vice versa. We just need unity around telling the truth, respecting the law, defending democratic outcomes, rejecting violence — and restoring some sense of shame and accountability for those who refuse.

The Washington Post editorial board offered their opinion:

The nation’s political system is designed to manage and channel disagreement peacefully and, ideally, with a level of respect and decorum. . . . That system ensures that no one gets everything they want and everyone has a fair chance to appeal to the people.

Unity in such a system requires, first, that the actors within it recognize that one can disagree in good faith. Those with different views are not the enemy of the people, and they should be listened to seriously. Second, unity requires that politicians prioritize achieving things for the country over ruining their political opponents. They should look for win-win scenarios. Third, it requires respect for the process. Leaders should refrain from abusing the system to rout the other side, either when wielding power or obstructing its use.

Mr. Biden appears to be teeing up big initiatives that should appeal to many Republicans, if they intend to meet the president’s calls for unity with good faith. These include further Covid-19 relief, historic investment in U.S. infrastructure and bipartisan immigration reform. . . . 

Republicans should allow Mr. Biden to exercise the usual powers of the presidency without accusations that he is promoting disunity by advancing policies he campaigned on. They can note principled disagreements without resorting to divisive invective. Then they should seek to have their views represented in Covid, infrastructure, immigration and other bills through good-faith negotiation. That’s what unity, in a democracy, should look like.

That all sounds reasonable. But there’s this from Sahil Kapur of NBC News:

When President Joe Biden seeks to fulfill his urgent plea for unity, he will confront a dissonance between the two parties’ definitions of the word . . . Republican leaders have pitched a vision of unity in which Biden refrains from actions that antagonize their base of voters, who, polls say, falsely doubt the legitimacy of his election, give [the former president] high approval ratings and want their leaders to resist Biden’s agenda [or the caricature of Biden’s agenda as “far left” delivered by Fox News]. . .

A poll by the Pew Research Center taken this month captures the asymmetry. Democrats said by a 25-point margin that Biden should work with Republicans to accomplish things, even if it means disappointing some of his voters. But Republicans said the opposite: By a 21-point margin, they said GOP leaders should “stand up to Biden” on big issues even if that makes it harder to tackle critical problems.

“Republicans are saying, ‘We can’t do anything with you if you’re radioactive with our base, so please don’t say anything that makes you radioactive to our base,'” said Republican consultant Michael Steel, a former House leadership aide.

As an example, after Biden lifted the ban on transgender troops imposed by his predecessor, Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas gave a sarcastic response:

Another “unifying” move by the new Administration?

To which Kyle Griffin of MSNBC responded:

The senator is confused. Or uninformed.

Gallup 2019: In U.S., 71% Support Transgender People Serving in Military.

Military Times: Two-thirds of troops support allowing transgender service members in the military, Pentagon study finds.

We have a new president who believes in unity, by which he means working together for the common good. That can be understood to some extent as embracing policies preferred by a majority of Americans (e.g. raising the minimum wage, increasing taxes on the rich, protecting the environment, less military spending, not putting children in cages, and so on).

We also have a cohort of Republican politicians who define “the common good” as whatever pleases their most radical supporters, a minority who wanted four more years like the last four and keep pushing their party further and further to the right.

Nobody said this would be easy, but it would help a lot if we could first unify around a common definition of “unity”. Since the odds are strongly against that, Biden and the Democrats need to constantly and quickly work for the common good, even when that makes Fox News’s audience unhappy.

It’s Getting Better All the Time: A List

Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post celebrates 50 changes since Biden arrived less than a week ago (it’s a good list, not a perfect list): 

1. You can ignore Twitter

2. The White House briefing room is not an Orwellian nightmare of lies

3. We are now confronting white domestic terrorism

4. We are not paying for golf trips

5. There are no presidential relatives in government

6. The tenor of hearings is sober and serious

7. Qualified and knowledgeable nominees have been selected for senior spots

8. We have a first lady who engages with the public

9. We have not heard a word from presidential children

10. We are now tough on Russian human rights abuses

11. We get normal readouts of sane conversations between the president and foreign leaders

12. The White House philosophy is to underpromise and overdeliver, not the other way around

13. Manners are in, bullying is out

14. You feel calmer after hearing the president

15. Fact-checkers are not overworked

16. Quality entertainers want to perform for the White House

17. We have seen the president’s tax records

18. The president is able to articulate policy details, coherently even

19. The worst the press can come up with is the president’s watch

20. We have a White House staff that looks like America

21. We have a national covid-19 plan

22. Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony S. Fauci is liberated, sounds happy and even looks younger

23. Fauci, not the president, briefs on the science of covid-19 and efficacy of vaccines

24. Masks and social distancing in the White House

25. The White House has policy initiatives and proposals, not merely leaving it all to Congress

26. The administration is committed to releasing information, not covering it up, on the slaughter of journalist Jamal Khashoggi

27. The Muslim ban is gone

28. It is the Republicans not the Democrats who are in disarray

29. The national security adviser has not been fired for lying to the FBI

30. No Soviet-style fawning over the president by his subordinates

31. The president takes daily, in-person intelligence briefings

32. The president does not care about Air Force One colors

33. We have a president familiar with the Constitution

34. Real cable news outlets get high ratings, others not so much

35. President Andrew Jackson is out of the Oval Office, Benjamin Franklin is in

36. Voice of America is back in the hands of actual journalists

37. We get memes about Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), not crowd size

38. We are back in the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization

39. Instead of running it like a business, the new administration will try running government competently

40. We have a president who doesn’t think military service is for “suckers” and who doesn’t send his “love” to people assaulting law enforcement

41. The secretary of treasury nominee has her own Hamilton lyrics

42. Amanda Gorman is a household name

43. More than two-thirds of Americans approve of the White House covid-19 approach.

44. No more work-free “executive time” in the presidential living quarters

45. We have a churchgoing president “who has spent a lifetime steeped in Christian rituals and practices.”

46. We have first dogs

47. The vice president’s spouse does not teach at a school that bars LGBTQ students

48. The White House takes the Hatch Act seriously

49. The administration wants as many people as possible to vote

50. The president will talk more to our allies than to Russian President Vladimir Putin