Warren Buffet once said, “Only when the tide goes out do you see who’s been swimming naked.” Today, our country’s inadequate economic policies lie bare. We can’t look away.
The tide hasn’t been this far out in a very long time. We’re hitting pause on regular life to have a prayer that our health systems can withstand an unprecedented health crisis.
The worst of this is still ahead, but months from now, we’ll face a new normal. The only certainty: There will be a lot more economic uncertainty in the years to come.
But as unclear as our future might be, we know how we recover will define what our economic future will look like. Years from now, we will be measured by how we insulated as many people as possible from the effects of this pause and how we restarted our economy when we hit play.
In the months to come, we’re going to approve many new approaches to relief and stimulus: new funding streams, tax credits and exemptions, new workforce programs, new benefit rules. The ideas and values we debate during this time will shape our approach to all of this. How we design and administer policy after the COVID-19 pause will define our next chapter of American economic life.
Here are four ideas to kick things off:
Consider circumstances, not just needs
In the run-up to this pandemic it was not uncommon for our caring workforce — our child care providers, our teachers and our home care workers — to qualify for safety net programs to make ends meet.
College students who may have received financial assistance to attend college would find themselves without food or adequate technology. Our blind spots for people’s circumstances defeated our desire to meet their needs.
Now, as we face this pandemic, we see clearly that our circumstances — the roofs over our heads, the neighborhoods we live in, the kinds of jobs we have, the health of our health care providers and workplace protections in our service sector — all shape our outcomes, and our outcomes affect each other’s outcomes.
We never know whose work is going to be deemed “essential” at any given time. We are all essential to someone at some point. Let’s look past the static present and consider how our choices ripple across a multi-generational future.
Pool risk and insure against the unforeseen
We all get sick. We all want to retire. We all want to be able to take care of our families. But tragedy happens. Unforeseen meteors land in all of our lives. Let’s stop acting like they don’t and that they don’t affect other people when they do.
These meteors don’t always have to have a meteoric impact on our lives. They don’t need to traumatize us, our communities or our businesses. It’s not like we don’t know how to set up insurance systems to lessen the impact of the unforeseen. Let’s set these systems up before the next shock, not muse about how useful they would’ve been when it’s too late.
Don’t ignore our tattered employment benefit and protection system
How many articles about the changing nature of work did we need to read to know our unemployment system would need radical expansion and bailing out?
We’ve known for a long time that work is changing. Employment today is a complex patchwork of employers and tax statuses. This fragmentation has weakened worker protections and eroded social benefit coverage across our country.
Business wants capital to flow toward innovation and efficiency, but we all rely on a healthy, nimble and innovative labor force to grow our economies. We need that workforce to be that way between booms and busts.
In the recovery ahead, let’s guard against misclassification, but also be proactive about opportunities for sectoral bargaining, financial empowerment and portable social benefits as we rebuild.
Stop kicking the can down the road
Underinvestment in our public priorities has led to the major public deficiencies we’ve documented for years. When we don’t pay into our public health infrastructure, our unemployment trust funds, our state general funds and our infrastructure, debt-driving bailouts down the line become all the more necessary.
Having only just recovered from the last recession, Colorado now faces somewhere over a $2 billion hole in its general fund budget next year. This means that the very institutions we will all rely upon in the months to come — our schools, our health care safety net and our community colleges — will lack the funding they need to serve us.
The smallest tax increases during the good times would have made the biggest difference during the rough ones we’re in now. By avoiding conversations about tax fairness and modernization, we found ourselves with an upside-down tax code that did little to meet our pre-COVID needs, let alone manage our post-COVID recovery.
Yes, we need our economies to grow, but we also need them to grow in ways that are healthy, sustainable and resilient. We always pay the price when they don’t.
Above all else, we need to seriously and respectfully debate these ideas across the entire political spectrum. Before the pandemic, we filtered these issues through a sharp and dismissive ideological lens, content to delay action and avoid the tough calls that made any change to our status quo.
We cannot return to the old political taxonomy, wherein some problems are the concern among those on the left and others are the top priorities for the right.
The economic damage resulting from this pandemic transcends our political tribes or sectoral perspectives. Let’s stop debating whether or not these unresolved structural issues exist and start grappling with how we plan to resolve them in time to prepare for the next low tide coming our way.
Scott Wasserman is the president of the Bell Policy Center in Denver.