The darkest days of the pandemic are on us. The deadliest December, predicted months ago by epidemiologists and modelers, is, mathematically and relentlessly, now here.
We’ve had plenty of time to get ready for this “last wave” of the pandemic (hopefully it’s the last big one). So it’s beyond maddening that both national and state leaders are flailing to provide much of any immediate economic relief, let alone a vision for how we’re going to dig out when it’s done.
A Seattle reader, Jack Martin, was cast back to another bleak, deadly time.
“If the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics projections are even close to right, we’re looking at the loss of as many Americans to the coronavirus as were killed in World War II,” he wrote. “We should have been mobilized for a national struggle on the scale of a war last spring.”
But Martin also brought up something I’ve been feeling for months now. At the risk of sounding like a black-and-white movie, we need more than just stimulus. We need a mission – a cause. In 2021 and later, we’re going to need to rebuild vast parts of people’s economic lives.
“Is there something we can learn from past efforts to finance a collective struggle, against a deadly foe?” Martin wrote.
“Should Washington issue war bonds?”
War bonds were once a popular way for the federal government to raise money for the military. They’d sell debt directly to the public, giving people a stake in the effort and the government immediate cash for its emergency needs, to be paid off later.
It turns out there’s an idea floating around at the state capital in Olympia that’s sort of similar to this, called a “recovery bond.”
“We’re operating from the premise that the feds are not coming to our rescue,” state Sen. Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes, told me. “So what can we create here, in Washington, that can be our own economic rebuilding effort?”
Lovelett and some other Democrats, along with the green group Carbon Washington, have come up with an idea to sell bonds to pay for a slew of infrastructure projects that could start up right away. It would jump-start local economies as well as “green” up the state.
Examples she gave include installing municipal broadband in far-flung communities so they can capitalize on the shift to more work-from-home jobs, converting the state ferries to electric hybrids, and forest projects such as thinning and replanting, to blunt the rising threat of wildfires.
By next summer, there will be tens if not hundreds of thousands of Washington residents who haven’t worked much in a year and just need a job. We could sell recovery bonds and pay for a modern version of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, which built parks, trails, roads and bridges that are still around today.
Or how about this: I’ve noticed Republicans are all about tree-planting these days. A group of U.S. House Republicans, along with outgoing President Donald Trump, have signed on to the “Trillion Trees” initiative, which has a goal of planting our way out of global warming. This has been dismissed as a green gimmick – and maybe it is. But we need more trees anyway, so why not sell recovery bonds here and then hire out-of-work folks for $20 an hour to plant, say, 10 million trees next summer in Washington state?
Turn the dark days green, in more ways than one.
The controversial part of all this is that these recovery bonds, unlike the war bonds of old, need a dedicated revenue stream to pay them off. So in Lovelett’s plan, that money would come from the dreaded “carbon tax” – a new tax on gasoline and natural gas. I say dreaded not because it’s a bad premise to tax polluting carbon, but because state voters have rejected a similar tax twice in recent years.
Lovelett’s draft proposal, for a carbon tax of $25 per metric ton, translates to about 22 cents more per gallon of gasoline.
She says she’s been discussing it with the state’s big oil refineries, which are located in or near her Anacortes district and which poured millions into defeating a carbon tax here in 2018. But BP, which has a refinery near Bellingham at Cherry Point, has been more open of late to carbon-pricing schemes. The plan also includes rebates for lower-income people who struggle to pay the taxes.
If a carbon tax doesn’t work, though, it seems to me recovery bonds could be financed other ways, such as a levy on the biggest winners of the pandemic economy, namely high tech.
“It isn’t too late to mobilize our state and help employees and businesses get through until the vaccines arrive,” summed up Martin, the guy who has been thinking about how we built our way out once before.
I also said this about building tiny houses for the homeless – that we need some project to rally around in Seattle, a collective action, to help spark us out of the pandemic doldrums. We desperately need one statewide, too. The days are about to get darker, but there is a glimmer of light visible at the end. We’ve got to figure out ways to start moving toward it.
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