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We need a 'pay everything' policy to combat coronavirus recession

We need a 'pay everything' policy to combat coronavirus recession
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The effect of the COVID-19 crisis on the economy differs from recessions of the past, and the tools familiar to policymakers are not designed to address our current situation. For example, cutting interest rates works in most recessions by reducing the cost of new consumer loans. But who needs a loan when people are forced to stay at home, unable to, say, shop for a car or a home?

Interest rate cuts are too indirect to help overcome the economic impact of the virus. And sending people checks to help them pay their own bills is useful. But the amounts that have been reported from the stimulus bill are not going to last long enough to bring much peace of mind. “Pay everything” establishes a principle that allows people to be reassured for as long as the stay-at-home rules apply. 

Inspired by The Atlantic headline “Cancel everything,” the bold policy we need now can be described as “Pay everything.” From March until one month after businesses are allowed to reopen, the government needs to pay all recurring monthly bills for every adult American based on records from February — i.e., rent, mortgages, car payments, student loans, utilities and so on; even Netflix subscriptions. It is the best way to provide economic relief for the many Americans who live paycheck-to-paycheck or those unable to work because of stay-at-home restrictions. Moreover, it is an easily understood policy that can be implemented quickly. Everyone who is owed money will get paid; everyone worried about their monthly expenses knows that they will not lose their home, car, electricity, internet service or ability to pay for the entertainment so desperately needed as we all live under temporary house arrest.

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While this idea may seem surprising at first glance, it is a market-based solution. Right now, the markets are literally prohibited from functioning, and “Pay everything” allows us to freeze the real economy (as opposed to the stock market) as it was in February. After the pandemic recedes, we can restart from where things were. Surely the crisis will have a permanent effect on some spending patterns; not all businesses will regain what they lost. By paying everything for everybody, we will allow the market to sort it out after reopening. Without such drastic action, many businesses will close because they cannot pay their rent. Loans and utilities will go unpaid, forcing default and the closure of businesses. By the time we are out and about again, there will be ghost towns nationwide.

A “Pay everything” policy would supplement other systems to address the full need for economic relief. Food expenses are not covered by recurring bills. Whereas unemployment benefits fall short of what people need to pay all of their bills, the benefits are adequate to pay food expenses if the government covers the rest. While the volume of new unemployment claims may overwhelm the unemployment system, its current design would work in tandem with “Pay everything” to allow people forced out of work to afford food throughout the crisis. For those who are able to keep working, there is no need for this benefit because their regular paychecks will keep coming.

The cost of this proposal is enormous — trillions of dollars if needed for many months. But the cost of not doing it is much greater in both human and economic terms. Without this kind of relief, some unknowingly infected people will be desperate to earn income and defy orders to avoid work, continuing to spread the disease. Meanwhile, forcing a high percentage of individuals and businesses into bankruptcy will prevent any chance of the economy recovering in the foreseeable future.

The cost of “Pay everything” may stretch for generations, but it gives us a chance to come out the other side of the crisis with a functioning economy that can prosper and grow. Furthermore, the government has the power to reduce these bills in a fair way. The government always pays lower interest rates because it has no credit risk, and could justify paying lenders those lower rates for as long as the government is footing the bill. 

Americans’ stress levels are high due to the potential health ramifications of COVID-19, let alone the economic cost. We can remove the complications that come from being unable to pay bills due to not working. This has never been done before because we have never faced a situation akin to the current crisis. Rather than fooling around with existing tools designed for other crises, let’s face the current problem directly and “Pay everything.” 

David Souder is the interim dean of the UConn School of Business, where he has taught courses in strategic management, statistics, and entrepreneurship since 2007.