Thinking big while staying at home

Progressive policy wonks on how the pandemic could change everything

Solar rooftop (Photo by Mischa Keijser/Getty Images)

Joel Rogers, University of Wisconsin professor of law, political science, public affairs and sociology and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, was sitting around his house the other day like everyone else in Wisconsin, complying with Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order.

head shot of Joel Rogers
Joel Rogers, courtesy University of Wisconsin

I reached him by phone to ask what he makes of the idea that the coronavirus pandemic and attendant economic crisis might lead to major progressive policy shifts.

After all, Congress is in the midst of passing a historic, multi-trillion-dollar emergency relief bill (the Senate version is called the Coronavirus Aid Recovery and Economic Security Act — CARES), and ideas like universal health care and paid leave, even a universal basic income, are being kicked around by policymakers every day. 

Rogers, who founded the UW’s research-and-practice center, COWS to promote “high-road” economic strategies centered on shared prosperity, environmental sustainability and democracy, has been pushing the idea of a Green New Deal since long before that term became popular.

Does he agree with the group of climate and policy experts who recently signed a letter declaring that now is the time to pass a “green stimulus” to rebuild our economy after the pandemic — with massive investments in renewable energy, public transit, and local food economies? And what are the prospects for such an ambitious plan, anyway?

Rogers sees hope for change, although not coming from the relief package currently making its way through Congress, which he calls an “atrocity.” 

“They’re talking about trillions of dollars for big business without any serious restrictions,” he says of the Senate bill, which passed late Wednesday night, with the House likely to follow suit by the end of the week.

David Dayen, executive editor of the American Prospect, agrees with Rogers’ gloomy assessment. Comparing the Senate bill to the 2008 bank bailout — but “this time for the entire corporate sector” — Dayen calls it a “robbery in progress.” The oversight the Democrats insisted on putting into the bill is exactly the same oversight that was built into the 2008 TARP bailout, Dayen points out, consisting of a five-member oversight panel and an inspector general. 

This puny police force did not prevent fraud at the big banks, and it will be hard-pressed to stop fraud, Dayen notes, in the $4.25 trillion leveraged-lending facility the Senate bill sets up at the Fed. 

That taxpayer-backed lending program the bill establishes through the Fed pushes the price tag for the relief bill from $2 trillion to $6 trillion, by the way, as White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow has acknowledged

None of the money can go to members of Trump’s family or to businesses controlled by Trump, White House officials or members of Congress because of Democrats’ intervention, but it can go to executive compensation, mergers, and other forms of corporate waste. And there’s no requirement that companies refrain from laying off their workers while the public is bailing them out. 

Josh Bivens, director of research for the Economic Policy Institute, embraced provisions of the Senate bill that expand unemployment insurance and payroll support, which, he writes, “expands benefits eligibility to many who have fallen through the cracks of our existing stingy UI system” such as gig workers and the self-employed.

Plus, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program provides an added $600 per week in benefits to workers. “This leaves the program financing essentially 100% replacement of wage income for the bottom half of the workforce,” Bivens points out.

The aid also focuses on small businesses, allowing them to get loans that turn into grants if they use them to maintain their employees’ wages during the crisis — a win for small businesses and their workers.

Laura Dresser head shot
Laura Dresser, courtesy University of Wisconsin

Laura Dresser, a UW economist and associate director of COWS, calls this Small Business Administration fund provision “pretty impressive.”

“These bailouts always give companies money and hope it makes its way down to workers,” she says. “This will allow restaurants and small firms to make payroll while they’re closed. To get the loan forgiven, they have to give the money to their workers. It’s basically pro-worker and pro-small-business.”

This aspect of the bill attracted the ire of a handful of Senate Republicans who objected that the unemployment compensation program could result in workers making more money while laid off than they made at work. 

Rogers calls this objection “nonsense,” noting that wage compression has been a major driver of inequality and increasing desperation among strapped American workers. The idea that low-wage workers might be getting away with something during the pandemic by taking home an extra $600 a month is both cruel and absurd — especially in the context of trillions of dollars in taxpayer money corporations will be getting.

But despite his disgust with the corporate bailout, Rogers is upbeat about the prospect that more pressure for progressive policies could grow out of the current crisis.

“What does COVID show us?” Rogers asks rhetorically, then fires off a rapid series of bullet points:

  • “A good, accountable, and competent government is a nice thing to have. And we don’t have one.” 
  • “Public goods and community structure are essential to our functioning.”
  • “We’re biologically a lot more similar than we like to admit and socially interdependent — we need each other.”
  • “If we want to get anything done, we need to cooperate.”

These are obvious points, Rogers concedes. But “we’ve had a 40- or 50-year illusory, insane departure from all of them — at least since the Reagan administration.”

Not just the federal government, but the state, could enact creative, progressive policies. 

The governor has enormous emergency powers, he points out, and can “go high-road” on procurement and in a host of other areas.

“The state has bonding authority,” Rogers adds. “It can put itself into debt to support local innovations,” including retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, reviving high-speed rail, making a big broadband expansion, and putting people to work on green infrastructure projects like making fuel cells. 

All of that takes courage, and an expansive view of the future.

But that’s just what progressive economists are calling for.

After the current economic relief bill passes, “a large stimulus will still be required to put Americans back to work once public health officials deem it safe,” says Mark Paul, assistant professor of economics and environmental studies at the New College of Florida, and a senior fellow at Data for Progress. “This next round of stimulus, which would be round 4, must focus on green stimulus.”

Paul points to a Data for Progress poll conducted last week that shows broad public support for an ambitious green stimulus plan focused on clean energy and jobs.

Paul and the other climate and social policy experts who are promoting the idea of a green stimulus are calling for smart investments now to “make our society and economy stronger and more resilient in the face of pandemic, recession, and climate emergency in the years ahead.

They want a stimulus bill that will be automatically renewed annually at 4% of GDP per year (about $850 billion) “until the economy is fully decarbonized and the unemployment rate is below 3.5%.”

But is such an ambitious plan remotely feasible, especially after Congress gets done passing trillions in economic relief?  

“Absolutely,” says Paul. “Keep in mind that the current $2 trillon is meant to stabilize the economy since consumer spending, which accounts for 70% of economic activity, is literally in free fall.”

“A new round of stimulus that spends $2 trillion to protect our workers and communities and build a more just, more resilient future is not only affordable, but necessary,” he adds. “This investment would create millions of family-sustaining green jobs, lift standards of living, invest in a low-carbon future, and ensure a controlling stake for the public in all private sector bailout plans.”

That last point comes a little late in the day, given the current debate over economic relief in Congress.

But even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says that the deal he struck with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) for economic relief is “not even a stimulus package.” 

There will be more coming. And green stimulus advocates are determined to push out their policy ideas for future stimulus proposals to Congress and also to officials at the state and local level.

We are not just in a political crisis, a crisis of democracy, and an ecological crisis, says Rogers, “but also a real crisis of meaning and agency.”

People are seeking a vision of a better society, he says, “and to have full, productive lives, deep freedom, and the ability to create something.”  

The very rich and their political allies want that for themselves, he adds, but not for everyone else. 

They live by the “vile maxim” Adam Smith assigned to the “masters of mankind”: “All for ourselves and nothing for other people.”

As we all shelter in place, we have a rare opportunity to consider a better way.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.