When Republicans met this past week in Congress to talk about showering the nation with a record $1 trillion-plus economic stimulus plan, their concern wasn’t so much whether that was fiscally wise. They were worried how to brand it.
Please don’t call it a “bailout,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin asked GOP senators, referring specifically to a $60 billion package requested by Boeing, according to The Washington Post. Industries from cruise companies to airlines to casinos were clamoring for their own relief packages.
OK, then how about “freedom payments?” a senator suggested.
This was presumably a joke (though with this gang you never know). But I hope it sticks, because the name “freedom payments” perfectly captures the fraud at the heart of the decadeslong anti-government movement.
Freedom payments: Start by channeling a cherished American principle. But then warp it in service of doling out subsidies to wealthy corporations and wrecking the nation’s balance sheet.
Last month, before the coronavirus started to shut down the economy, the federal government logged the biggest one-month deficit in its history, $235 billion. I’m old enough to remember when that would have riled conservatives to take to the streets in tricorner hats for a tea party protest.
“The worst thing in the whole world is deficits when Barack Obama was the president,” then-acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney admitted last month. “Then Donald Trump became president, and we’re a lot less interested as a party.”
Well we’re all hypocrites about something, so at least he admitted it. But the real worst thing in the world is that we’re not at all prepared to respond now that an actual crisis is here. We’re in the unprecedented position of running near-record deficits not as we emerge from a crisis, but as we head into one.
“It is beyond distressing that we may be entering a period of national emergency with record-high levels of borrowing,” said Maya MacGuineas, of the never-listened-to Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, who has been warning of this exact scenario for years now.
The moment of truth for that was December 2017, when Trump and the GOP passed the signature accomplishment of his presidency: The $1.9 trillion tax-cut package. There’s nothing wrong with tax cuts, of course, but there were two things radically different about these. One, the economy was already humming and businesses were booking record profits, so no stimulus was needed. Two, the costs were loaded straight onto the national debt.
The tax cuts “are a cash-advance on the nation’s credit card,” I wrote at the time.
Predictably, the deficit ballooned, despite the booming economy. This year the deficit was on track to top $1 trillion before the pandemic hit
“This one’s different,” I wrote in February 2018. “We have never blown up trillion-dollar deficits before during such fat times.”
That decision — to slash taxes and predictably cause an eruption of red ink during an economic boom — is one of the two most reckless federal government actions of my lifetime. The other was going to war over weapons of mass destruction which turned out not to exist (a war that — trend alert — we also didn’t pay for).
The beginning of a pandemic is no time for the government to get frugal. People and businesses need help. But with deficits already so high, and interest rates near zero, there just aren’t a lot of economic tools left to deal with the coronavirus fallout.
This ought to make every American angry, from the tea partyers to the socialists. The stated premise of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 was to goose the economy, which it didn’t do (annual growth was exactly the same in the two years prior to passage as in the two years after — 2.4%). So it didn’t make America stronger.
What it did was weaken the federal government, by looting the treasury to feather the nests mostly of corporations and the already rich. This withering of the government has always been part of the point. It goes back to the conservative mantra of “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”
But where are the adherents of this now — now that we’re in trouble? They’re clamoring for their own freedom payments.
Crises like the coronavirus ought to make plain why we need government in the first place. Will it though? This virus has instantly laid bare how weak and broken the system is. The question now is whether that’s shock enough that we’ll try to heal the underlying malady, too.