$1.9 Trillion: Too Much Help?

I am not an economist. This post isn’t going to be about the nuts and bolts about how government money should or shouldn’t be spent. I’d be out of my league, and there are many other places you could go to get information on that. Of course, the places you choose to go will in all likelihood simply confirm the pre-existing opinion you have on the subject. If you think government spending is out of control and this is just the latest sign of that, I’ve already read plenty of articles that agree with you. If you think we’re in the worst economic, social, and health crisis our nation has seen in decades (at least) and that necessitates extreme measures, then again, I’ve already read plenty of articles that agree with you.

Some people like to point out that the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill is popular, and they’re baffled why no Republicans supported it. Republicans like to point out that just because something’s popular doesn’t make it right, and it’s pretty easy to be popular if you’re handing out money. They express concern that this extreme spending will in turn cause extreme problems for the country in the future. They might be right. As I said: I am not an economist, and I’m not qualified to pass judgement on those sort of things.

No, in the end I’m just a librarian, and so by profession, I’m much more likely to end up on the side of the people trying to help out the general populace than the ones trying to hold onto the purse strings. I have a fair number of opinions about this whole mess we’re in, and they’ve been stewing in my head for a while. I wanted to see if I couldn’t get some of them out of me so I could make more sense of it all.

First, America is a wealthy, wealthy country. The 11th wealthiest country in the world, and the ones ahead of us are much, much smaller. (So it’s easier for the averages of the country to be tipped by a relatively few number of wealthy individuals.) There’s no way to argue we’re a poor country, and I don’t think anyone realistically would. What have other wealthy countries been doing to address the COVID crisis? Is the American response grossly out of line with what other nations have been doing? There are reports that have compiled this sort of information. Let’s break it down for 10 of the top wealthiest countries with significant populations:

NationCOVID Stimulus (in Trillions)GDP (in Trillions)% of GDP
USA$5.6$21.4326%
China$1.4* $14.3410%
Japan$2.1$5.0841%
Germany$1.0**$3.8626%
India$0.1$2.873%
United Kingdom$0.6***$2.8321%
France$0.3**$2.7211%
Italy$0.5**$2.0025%
Brazil$0.1$1.845%
Canada$0.2$1.7411%
*China hasn’t really been forthcoming with exactly what it’s done, so this number is hard to pin down.
**The EU passed a $450 billion dollar COVID relief measure in addition to these separate efforts by countries
***The UK passed several other measures that weren’t immediately clear as to how much they cost

One thing to note is that in the process of trying to fill out this chart, I realized just how difficult it was to compare things across the board. This is my best 5 minute math estimate. Actual economists would no doubt have a better, more reliable number for you. Also, if you take away the lates $1.9 trillion stimulus bill that just went through, then the US’s % of GDP would have dropped to 17%.

Looking at this back-of-the-napkin math, there appears to be a fairly large range of approaches to handling COVID and the fallout from the pandemic. Much has also been done through monetary policy and not just fiscal spending. However, it appears to me that American hasn’t exactly broken the piggybank when it comes to dealing with this crisis. Yes, you could delve into the intricacies of the relief measures, but you could no doubt do that with any of the other countries up there on that list.

Is it a lot of money? Yes. But it’s also a singular problem our nation is facing. The Republican hand-wringing around the subject loses a fair bit of credence for me when I see them now arguing we need to do away with the estate tax and when you keep in mind the Trump tax cuts that skewed heavily to the wealthy. Income inequality is only getting worse in America, but it feels to me like the Republicans have at this point abdicated all hope of actually being any sort of a party that represents people other than strict conservatives and rich people. A large part of my perception is no doubt influenced by the fact that I’m around a slew of college-aged students every day. I talk with them. I’m friends with them. I hear about what they’re worried about and what they hope to accomplish. And then I’m the parent of three school kids. So when I read about pundits and people dismissing these students as snowflakes or uninformed or manipulated, it just doesn’t carry any weight with me.

I’m impressed with the youth of today. I think they’re genuinely interested in making the world a better place, and all they’re looking for in return is a chance at having the sort of life their parents (or grandparents) had. They see real problems with the way minorities are treated in this country, and they’re much more willing to be compassionate and understanding with people who aren’t like them. They’re a generation that has grown up seeing a ton of hypocrisy, and they’re very good at spotting it. Gun violence, income inequality, LGBTQ+ rights, racial injustice, and more. These are all issues they’re passionate about, because they’re issues that affect them.

This is a generation that has been affected by not one, not two, but three separate national crises. Between 9/11, the great recession, and now COVID, that’s a 20 year span of living under extreme measures. It’s going to skew anyone’s perception, but for people who grew up in it, they don’t know any different. The world we live in now is a very different one than the world I grew up in, and yet so many Republicans seem to want to insist that it hasn’t changed, and that our responses to what’s happening don’t need to change.

Is $1.9 trillion too much money? You could argue it is. Maine will be seeing much more coming from the government than it lost in its budget over the past year, to the point that lawmakers are wondering what to do with it all. I have worked steadily throughout the pandemic, and I’ve seen 100% of every stimulus check that’s been available. I know I’m not alone in that. Though at the same time, my position could easily have been much worse. There are universities and colleges that have folded in the last year, after all.

In the end, it’s hard for me to get behind the argument that we don’t have the money to spend, when we spend so much money on things like our military or tax cuts. If we have enough money to fund drone strikes abroad, how can we justify the inequality we have here at home? I realize that as soon as I say that, I risk having a number of Republican friends roll their eyes at my bleeding heart and begin to debate whether it’s worth it to write a comment explaining to me The Way Things Are. And that’s how it comes across when they do it. Like they’re the only reasonable person in the room, and it’s on them to explain why we can’t buy All the Things, but we still have to buy the things they happen to believe we need to buy. Each time this dynamic plays out, I believe there are fewer Republicans at the end of the conversation, as more and more people throw their hands up at the whole thing and start looking into joining a commune.

Speaking from experience at the small university where I work, there are a ton of hard working people who do the best they can with what they’ve been given in terms of a budget. I see the same story played out in libraries across the state and the Northeast and even the country, in my conversations with other librarians in the field. And these are individuals who consistently see their budgets cut (in libraries specifically and higher education for my part of Maine) because they’re deemed non-essential. And yet I also see the first generation students who come here and have their lives changed for the better because of what they experience here. I see the children in public libraries who grow to love reading. I see the community members who can’t afford internet access who are able to suddenly do so much more because of what libraries offer.

And I see that a small slice of the $1.9 trillion is going to libraries. More money than libraries have received from the federal government in years. And I see a chunk of the money going to higher education, a sector that’s been really negatively affected by COVID. This money is desperately needed. The same applies to my local school. And to think that for once, those institutions will be looking at more money than they’ve gotten recently doesn’t make me shake my head and wonder why in the world we’re wasting that money on those places. It makes me excited to think of what they’ll be able to do with it.

If that’s the case with the small piece of the COVID relief bill that I’m actually somewhat qualified to opine on, I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to think it’s the case for much of the rest of it. So I’m not going to stand up and say it’s too much money. If anything, I hope it’s a change. A sign that we might start begin to offer adequate funding to the institutions we rely on as a society to look out for the underprivileged and to enable the framework that makes the American Dream possible. You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have any bootstraps. Education, libraries, infrastructure, and the ability to avoid crippling debt are, in my mind, a basic bootstrap component.

I’m out of time for today. There’s more I’d like to say, but it’ll have to wait for the comments section or a future post. But for today, I’ll just go on the record that I’m grateful the COVID bill passed and leave it at that.

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