When I was a kid, my boss used to say, “do something, even if it is wrong.” While my boss was generally a good manager, this saying was bad advice. Workers ended up doing activities that should not have been done, or doing tasks poorly. In either case, the workers wasted time and effort undoing their previous work, so they were too busy to do important work later. The workers also became so engaged in the fruitless pursuits that they were less likely to spot something that really needed to be done.
Unfortunately, President Trump and Congress seem to be actively implementing my old boss’s advice. In the face of the pandemic, they want to appear to be doing something – anything, even if it is wrong, just so voters think they are putting some effort into solving the problem. The politicians probably hope voters won’t pay close attention to what they are actually doing and just observe their busyness.
The federal government got busy right away. They sent checks to almost everyone who had filed federal income taxes during the last two years. Individuals got $1,200; married couples got $2,400; and additional payments went to families with children. With these payments, people who were thrown out of work received checks. This kind of targeted help is easy to justify – these people needed help. However, people who were still getting paid regularly also received checks. How can this be justified?
Well, people with secure jobs will probably spend their stimulus checks. I know a family who will use this money to buy a new fence and another family who will use it to purchase new appliances. These purchases will do some good for the economy. The businesses that sell fences and appliances will generate more revenue; perhaps, enabling them to stay in business and keep their current workers employed. No doubt, these are good things. But, is this the best way for the government to be spending money? I think not. Much like my former coworkers should have thought about what tasks they should devote their time to, Congress and the president would have benefited the country if they had given more thought to how they should spend money. Now that they have borrowed so much money, the federal government may be unable to pay for other, more worthwhile, endeavors.
Instead of giving everyone a check, the government could have used this money to set up a system to test for the virus, purchasing all of the supplies and paying for all of the personnel necessary to establish a quick and efficient testing system. Now, without an efficient testing system, people who get tested for the virus often have to wait a week for the results. During this week, they will frequently interact with others, since they will find it easy to tell themselves that they probably don’t have the virus, but during their waiting period, they might be spreading it. If we had a system that allowed people to routinely receive their test results in 24 hours, people would quickly know when they present a danger to others and when they should definitely begin to self-quarantine.
An efficient testing system will drive down the infection rate in the U.S., much like they have in several East Asian countries and in Western Europe. If we can curtail the infection rate, people will start to feel safe, so they will engage in commerce. A low infection rate will provide a much greater stimulus to the economy than a government check to people who are still working.
My sense is that citizens need to start putting pressure on their elected officials. This approach has already worked during this pandemic. We did not get a mask mandate in Arkansas until newspaper Op-Eds and constituent complaints made it clear to elected officials that we do not want our politicians to just be busy; we want them to also be effective. Hopefully, potential voters can pressure our elected officials in Washington D.C. to spend money wisely, rather than just spending it to appear busy.