You shouldn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out a $660 billion government relief scheme called the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP. I mean, c’mon ... it’s right there in the name! Protect paychecks! Instead of supporting idled workers through unemployment insurance, we’ll keep them on the books, so they’ll remain connected to their jobs and to benefits such as health insurance. Places like Germany and Norway do something similar, and it works.
But America is baffled. Protect workers? How would we even do that?
Several small- and medium-sized businesses recently told the New York Times they don’t understand the logic of paying their workers in businesses that have been ordered shut, and so a ridiculous amount of the $660 billion seems to be sitting in the bank doing nothing as America slides into its second Great Depression in less than a century.
The paper noted that the tavern chain, Coyote Ugly, received hundreds of thousands of dollars through the program but still laid off its managers (the real working stiffs like bartenders were already long gone) because “they didn’t see the point in paying managers to sit around in empty bars, and in any case the funds would be exhausted within a couple of pay cycles.”
I dunno ... maybe so the managers wouldn’t run out of food in a couple of weeks? I empathize with the plight of small business owners, and they make fair points that they also need relief for other costs (rent, protective equipment) besides payroll and that PPP — like any government program — has way too much red tape and confusion. And yet the inability to steer the billions in relief to where it was meant to go speaks to a toxic attitude that’s become a fundamental tenet of late-stage capitalism in America and has poisoned any efforts to save the economy.
The worker — or, in about 33 million cases and counting, the former worker — always comes last.
Look at how the trillions of bailout dollars cascade downhill like a rock-slide on Mt. Everest when large public companies jump in to grab relief money that wasn’t really intended for them, or when billionaires get one more tax cut because, hey, they’ve earned it (not really). Contrast that to the steep cliff-climbing that the average ex-worker has to do just to get a few measly dollars to put some Ramen noodles or mac and cheese on his table tonight.
The fact that a Paycheck Protection Program isn’t protecting their paycheck is just one of middle-class America’s 99 problems these days. Yes, unemployment compensation has been made much more generous in the short run — like the PPP, an actual good idea from Washington — but millions of applicants are still waiting to be approved, especially in states where mostly GOP governors or lawmakers slashed those agencies to the bone. Another stimulus program — that $1,200 check for every middle- and lower-income adult — isn’t just a pittance compared to neighbors like Canada but was set up so the money got to the upper-middle-class right away, while the neediest will wait months, assuming they can be located.
“I think the economy is sort of set up so that you have all of these intermediaries and Wall Street is one of the biggest ones,” Alexis Goldstein, the progressive financial-policy expert who soured on her former Wall Street career, told me. “And it’s not set up to deliver government money to individuals. These were the policy decisions from decades of neoliberalism, or conservatism, or Reaganism.”
The invisible hand of the late Ronald Reagan work has clearly been at work this spring as Senate Republicans led by Sen. Mitch McConnell have worked to shape the federal relief packages to do as much as possible for the GOP’s large corporate patrons. Although furious at the $600 per week bump in unemployment checks — a rare concession to Democrats who control the House — the McConnell gang managed to largely neuter an effort to boost mandatory sick leave (something you might want to boost during a pandemic, right?) and are blocking efforts to expand food stamps, turning their backs on the tens of thousands of Americans who’ve been lining up at pantries.
But blocking any kind of meaningful social-welfare state while allowing billions in corporate welfare is just baked into the American system. In many ways, the PPP is a textbook case. As NPR — which has done some outstanding investigative journalism on the relief program — recently documented, the big banks (remember 2008-09, when they got bailed out and we got sold out?) took in a whopping $10 billion to administer the program, even though the loans carried virtually no risk.
That’s not all. The bank fees were structured so these titans like JP Morgan Chase get bigger fees for bigger loans, which may help explain why actual, struggling small businesses found it hard to access the money before it ran out the first go-round, and why money initially flowed to companies that were neither small nor struggling — for example, Shake Shack or the L.A. Lakers (both of which returned the dough under the glare of bad publicity).
And it’s more likely that Washington will double down rather than learn from the initial mistakes of coronavirus relief. The latest word from Capitol Hill is that while congressional Republicans ignore the hunger pleas of food-stamp recipients, the government is warming up to a massive bailout of Big Oil, the ultimate corporate-welfare queens whose massive profits haven’t stopped the industry from getting sizable tax subsidies for decades, even before its recent fracking “boom” was revealed to be largely yet another American accounting scam.
What’s so frustrating is that there’s no shortage of good ideas on how the federal government — since it is willing to open the cash spigot in the face of the looming Great Depression II — could make sure these dollars actually get to the people who can’t pay their rent, rather than seed money for 2020′s big Christmas bonuses down on Wall Street. The big question is how do we turn around the massive aircraft carrier of Washington bad corporatist policy that’s been set on a course to plow through workers’ rights ever since the election of Reagan in 1980.
In a recent essay, Goldstein — who was economics guru for the Occupy Wall Street movement — argued for everyday-citizen-friendly reforms like a return to postal banking, which would not only help the millions of unbanked lower-income Americans but would also boost the troubled U.S. Postal Service. She also called for an idea long promoted — with little or no fanfare — by progressives in Congress to establish citizen accounts with the Federal Reserve Bank, which would have sped the flow of stimulus payments.
Cornell Law School’s Saule Omarova recently told Congress the problem is that pandemic’s economic crisis calls for measures as bold and expansive as those undertaken during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and yet government lacks the basic mechanisms to carry out such an effort. Instead, she noted the initial relief efforts have led to bad spending decisions that “are bound to have disastrous long-term financial, economic, and political consequences.” She called for creation of a National Investment Authority, or NIA, that would make future decisions on the money flow based on what was good for America’s long-term interests, as opposed to the crony capitalism of big banks.
Sounds great, right? There are just two problems. One is that McConnell’s Senate stands as a roadblock for the next eight more long months to any people-not-big-business-friendly solutions to the crisis, by which time the food-bank car lines may stretch from Philadelphia all the way to the Field of Dreams in Iowa. It’s a reminder that the White House race isn’t the only critical election in November.