Viewpoint: Economic plan for coronavirus recovery should amount to a Green New Deal

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Karen Rubin, Columnist

To save millions of lives from the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. economy was put into a medically induced coma.

How we bring the economy out of that coma will shape the future. Will we address the ongoing existential crisis that similarly costs lives and plunders billions from the economy in disaster aid and lost productivity?

Trump and the Republicans have said they are willing for grandparents to sacrifice their lives to reopen the economy early in order to “preserve” America (such as it is) for their grandchildren.

Would that they had the same interest to address the existential climate crisis in order to leave a habitable planet for their grandchildren.

Congress just gave Trump a $2.2 trillion slush fund. They may think they put strings on the $500 billion bailout for insiders, donors and friendly industries and limits on payments to Trump, but Trump, in a signing ceremony that included only Republicans used his sharpie to sign a statement saying “I am the president and you can’t regulate me.”

And Trump has already shown he would make sure that states and localities would have to beg and show fealty to the Dear Leader if they expect to receive life-saving equipment.

Just the day before, I was on The Leap’s webinar with Naomi Klein, famous for documenting the mechanisms behind “crisis capitalism.” She was actually hopeful that day that the gravest crisis the entirety of American society is experiencing may finally be the time to address the systemic forces of inequality in wealth, power, environmental and social justice.

She expressed optimism that all these plans that had been offered up in the past (universal health care, renewable energy) that Republicans shot down saying “where’s the money,” and demanding pay-fors if Obama would have the stimulus money to save the economy from a Great Depression, would finally move forward.

Indeed, Republicans seem not to have any problem at all allocating $6 trillion, when Trump is already running an annual $1 trillion budget deficits and the whole budget is only $3.8 trillion. Where, indeed does that money come from and where will the money for the fourth stimulus bill come from?

If we actually had a functioning federal government and competent leaders capable of organizing a strategy, they would realize that our country is desperate for the manufacture of medical supplies – particularly the Personal Protective Equipment – ventilators, and such. So far, Trump, who has called himself a “wartime president” and taken on war powers, has refused to use a whole-of government strategic strategy to organize procurement and distribution. Instead, he told governors like Cuomo, ‘You’re on your own” so Cuomo has to scour the world to pay $7 for a 75c mask.

They would figure out that while so many service businesses (restaurants, hotels, transportation) have had to all but completely shut down, many other businesses (Amazon, delivery, health care, internet) are dying for workers, and create a mechanism to match. And the government would hire restaurants that have been shuttered to provide delivery of food to needy families, hotels to house people needing to be quarantined, rationalize airline services so communities are not completely cut off and airlines don’t suffer such mammoth losses.

To reduce the number of people on unemployment and bring businesses back faster, but in a prudent way, have mass testing to determine who has developed the antibodies and can go back to work.

The “all-clear” should not come until it is shown to have sufficient numbers for “herd immunity” that stops the transmission of the disease.

Otherwise, the virus will just keep popping up in waves for which communities, municipalities and businesses cannot prepare, keeping uncertainty that keeps investors out of the precious stock market. But tests are coming out that will enable people to determine whether they have developed antibodies.

Indeed, the government should be investing in developing that quick, at-home test and make it available at no cost through insurance.

This is the economic relief and recovery we should be fighting for:

The ship may have sailed on the first step, which should have been to bolster industries collapsing under the pandemic not by just handing out billions of dollars to pals, but purchasing goods and services with a social benefit that would keep people employed, and give taxpayers a stake in the company (as Obama did with the automakers), paying taxpayers dividends until they purchased the stake back.

For example, GM wanted $1 billion to manufacture ventilators in its Indiana plant (FEMA balked at the price tag).

Instead of grants, put out purchase orders for social-benefit: manufacture sustainable energy equipment like wind turbines, batteries for storage, solar panels, electronic vehicles, charging stations, and yes, the Department of Defense can order smart guns in order to get the threshold for economic production of that technology to reduce gun violence.

Funding for drug companies to develop vaccines and therapies should give taxpayers a share in those drugs and ensure prices are kept affordable.

Invest in infrastructure now, when people are stuck home and there would be less disruption: instead of just throwing $1 trillion at companies, our infrastructure needs at least that much in repairs, let along making improvements to meet 21st century challenges, much as FDR did in the New Deal.

Spend now on improvements to roads, mass transit, bridges, airports, ports, telecommunications, broadband – certainly workers can keep proper social distancing, but this way would be least disruptive.

The stimulus now should be in a Green New Deal, when we can make the transition to clean, renewable energy with minimum disruption. $150 billion bailout to oil companies? Require they use the money to transition to producing clean renewable energy.

The next stimulus bill that Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats are developing must give more aid to states and localities for their health care systems and infrastructure, and get rid of the limits on SALT (State and Local Taxes) deduction that primarily hurt blue states (New York, California).
Give real relief to working Americans – require credit card companies to reduce their usurious interest rates that have remained at double-digits despite historically low-interest rates, now down to near zero, to single digits; if the government doesn’t cancel the $45 billion in outstanding student debt altogether (as Sanders and Warren propose), at least forgive the interest (which has remained high) and make easier repayment terms. Also, allow refinancing of mortgages at the lower interest rates without paying all the extra fees (mortgage transfer, etc.).

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