Friday, April 23, 2021

What Should and Shouldn’t Our Government Do? Nine Possible Policy Changes Briefly Assessed

 A year’s worth of Covid-19 has given us at least a year’s worth of proposals.  What are they and how good would they be?

In the August 11th New York Times, per Lauren Frias, “It’s time to implement a 4-day workweek, Andrew Yang says.  The pandemic has made it important now more than ever.”  From a former Democratic presidential candidate and current one for New York City mayor, this thought, now in its second half-century, would only have a chance if each day would be ten hours or more, as businesses are getting thoroughly acclimated to unpaid extra time from their fearful cubicle workers.  That isn’t worth as much money to them than they think, but it’s too beneficial to them to agree to relinquish.

From the same source, we have a thought of more recent vintage (“Andrew Yang Wants You to Own and Sell Your Data,” Hannah Klein,, June 23rd) that may get traction someday.  It’s hardly nonexistent now, as in 2020 “Facebook paid some of its users $5 for voice recordings in order to improve its speech recognition technology.”  That general idea was formally proposed in Congress the previous year by a Republican, one John Kennedy of Louisiana, so if bipartisanism were more valued we could hear more on it.  It also has plenty of merit, and could well end up law.

“How Can Biden Bring Back Manufacturing Jobs?  Weaken the Dollar,” posed Noam Scheiber in the March 1st New York Times.  Sure, that would get us there, but at the cost of more expensive imports and lower overall prosperity.  Each political side has its own detrimental subconstituencies, and this one, rooting for a return to the 1950s and 1960s, is harmful to the party now in power.  Helping a small minority of Americans at the expense of the majority, by propping up otherwise noncompetitive businesses, is not what we need.

Another losing Democratic idea was well and fairly debunked by George F. Will’s “Will:  Student loan forgiveness is a gift to the well-off,” reprinted in The Roanoke Times on February 11th.  Aside from insulting this blogger, who chose to pay off his five-figure university obligation twelve years ago and worked during previous college and graduate school experiences to prevent more of that, this intensely proposed notion would help those with higher income (as 56% of such debt “is owed by those with masters or professional degrees, and almost 35 percent of loan balances are owed by individuals in the top 20 percent of income distribution”), and, beyond that, would work to worsen our situation where “the nation is overproducing college graduates.”  Let “the typical college graduate with debt ($28,500) … retire it in 20 years with $181 monthly payments.”  Most of such people can, and I suspect the doctors and lawyers could handle that as well.

“Who Will Pay to Get America Back on Its Feet?,” asked Kara Swisher in the January 27th New York Times, and answered it with “an immediate, one-time “wealth tax” covering the last year.”  A direct if crude and grabby way of using the pools of money in private and corporate hands, it is tempting, as it would let us, when during the pandemic “those who have sacrificed the most so far are the disadvantaged,” “flip that script,” but is it right?  Debatable – and, with the merit here, we should do just that.

Easy to agree with on the surface is “Bernie Sanders supporters call for postal banking,” by Brittany De Lea in the December 8th Fox Business.  In such a system, here from 1911 to 1967 and in place in France, Germany, and a dozen or more countries worldwide, “local Post Office locations would be authorized to provide financial services,” possibly including “low-interest loans, checking and savings accounts, debit cards, check cashing, bill payment, ATM services, online banking services and electronic money transfers.”  It is a true populist idea, and would help numerous unwanted-by-banks people now subject to high fees and rates get personal business done locally.  It has, though, two large downsides:  the expense, as such would not be profitable, and conflict with probable removal or consolidation of small local post offices.  Once again, a worthy idea that could be explored and appropriately accepted or rejected.

“Should the Feds Guarantee You a Job”?  This question, here from Eduardo Porter in the February 18th New York Times, has been asked for most of the past century, and its best answer is still “no.”  Our government is marginally extended at best with much less massive and dauntingly complicated efforts, which would need to deal with such matters as promotions, poor workers, and transfers as well as establishing and maintaining tens of millions of constructive assignments.  There are better ways, even those in place now, of keeping people working.

We can all see the existence of “America’s Amazon Problems” (Ross Douthat, The New York Times, April 20th), but can we agree on what they are?  Douthat tried to show how what is really an antitrust issue is fundamentally different from those before and didn’t quite get there, leaving us with the unsettling prospect of punishing a company for superbly providing what its customers wanted.  We’re never going back to using dozens of online vendors for routine products, let alone widespread in-person shopping on old-fashioned Main Streets, and trying to legislatively accomplish either is futile and damaging.  Perhaps Amazon should be broken up by separating its online hosting services from its interest-conflicting product offerings, but not because it has been too successful.

That brings us back to Andrew Yang, and to his signature policy change proposal.  Early in the coronavirus era, Ishaan Tharoor maintained in The Washington Post that “The pandemic strengthens the cast for universal basic income” (April 10, 2020), though that has now faded.  Three weeks later, Chris Hughes sought to explain in The New York Times “Why Americans Need a Guaranteed Income,” but had little new.  On March 3rd we had Paul Davidson’s USA Today “Is universal income closer to reality?  Cities from Stockton to St. Paul are already testing monthly checks for residents.”  We wouldn’t know from these efforts, as they, being directed to people with lower income, are not guaranteed income but welfare.  We can argue the merits of giving more money to those who need it, but “universal” means just that.  A real test, perhaps by randomly choosing a zip code and giving all residents, say, $1,000 per month, would take more political will than we have seen.  Otherwise, it’s still too early for universal basic income, but not to soon to discuss and socialize it – we may discover within our lifetimes that we must decide, like it or not.  The same goes, though to a lesser extent, for the other policy changes described here – so let’s move along. 

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