The headlines are daunting. Italy overtaking China's COVID-19 death toll. U.S. gaining confirmed cases on Italy. Trump considering reopening economy over health experts' objections. Trump losing patience with health adviser Anthony Fauci. WHO official warning U.S. could become next virus epicenter. Coronavirus bailout contentious — again.
Daunting actually is far too tame a description for these unfolding events.
President Donald Trump is wrong to want to rush past the health experts, but he's right to urge Congress to act on a stimulus bill — preferably a transparent and far better one than what had been on track. He's right to rally us with a "We will come back strong!" message. He's wrong to keep talking, as it usually just reveals his profound lack of understanding about this pandemic and its ramifications.
The question is how and when do we start coming back strong. Bailouts to corporations won't cut it. Neither would slush funds whose recipients would not be made public for months and months.
Surely we all remember Trump's "greatest" (it wasn't) tax cut that we were all going to see when corporations and employers passed their savings down to the worker bees. They didn't. And, no, we never saw it. Big companies bought back their own stocks. The only folks who saw the returns were CEOs and already rich stockholders.
Now, of course, with the stock market panicked by our government's inability even to get virus testing on track, even those gains are long gone.
If bailouts won't work, what will?
Direct public spending that rebuilds our country and economy is the best stimulus, according to Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, a professor at Brandeis University's Heller School and author, most recently, of "The Stakes: 2020 and the Survival of American Democracy."
In an op-ed written recently for The New York Times, Kuttner notes that "direct public spending is more effective than other forms of fiscal relief because every nickel gets spent and jobs are created directly."
That's what we did in the 1940s after eight or so years of the 1930s New Deal. The New Deal itself made painfully slow gains. The real punch was the Pearl Harbor attack that shocked us into mobilizing for war.
It was the byproduct of that war, Kuttner argues, that pushed us to rebuild production capacity, go on an invention spree and modernize our economy.
"We lived off that investment for much of the postwar boom," Kuttner wrote, adding "What is today's equivalent of the World War II buildup, minus the war?"
Answer: Things that the current stimulus bill doesn't have.
Things like huge investment in hospitals and medical supplies. Things like the seed money to reclaim the supply chains for products like N-95 masks and ventilators that we allowed to move abroad.
"Government has the authority in an emergency to produce these needed materials if contractors can't be found," Kuttner wrote. "In World War II, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation underwrote more than $20 billion in war production plants. Some of these were called GOCOs, for government-owned, contractor-operated. Upgrading our capacity to deal with the public health crisis could be phase one of the plan."
And let's not forget our own infrastructure — a word Donald Trump likes but doesn't understand.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the United States will need $4.5 trillion for deferred maintenance of basic public infrastructure by 2025 — roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, power grids, rail lines, tunnels and public buildings. Talk about creating jobs!
And, yes, part of that is making what Kuttner calls "massive investment" to slow down global climate change and prepare for the massive coming storm surges, hurricanes, tornado outbreaks and coastal flooding. And part of that is planning and building to replace carbon-based energy sources with clean and renewable ones while we also upgrade commercial buildings and homes to make them more energy efficient.
Our conservative friends call these plans liberal "goodies."
But let's be realistic. If government is going to spend billions and trillions of dollars to keep the economy afloat, we — America and Americans — should get something tangible beyond mere survival today. We should also get the tools for our future survival.