No malign fate or cruel god dictates the number of Americans who must die from contracting COVID-19 or lose their livelihoods because of the necessary shut-down of social activity. Imagination and collective action can both win the Corona War and also create millions of productive new jobs for what is already the largest sudden displacement of the workforce in the history of the United States.
Congress should contemplate what was not done in the 2009 stimulus: create new institutions of government and new public-private partnerships to accomplish concrete goals. Already the existing government bureaucracy has demonstrated it is not well-designed for such purposes as distributing cash or making loans at the scale, say, of any financial technology start-up, a video conferencing firm, or a food delivery app on a smart phone. Instead of railing against 20th century processes, Congress ought to seize the opportunity of the next legislation to guarantee that what it intends actually happens.
Step one is to build the world’s best health care system. Let’s create an independent health care commission that, like the Federal Reserve, stands apart from politics. It should be authorized to command national action including stay-at-home orders and critical supply chain management. As fine a job as some governors are doing, the pandemic is a national problem that requires some national solutions
We also should have a public-private agency for funding and coordinating research and development during and after the Corona crisis. Such entities exist for defense and energy, but the health care system lacks the coordinating framework this and any crisis requires. To set this up an obvious candidate is Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates, who is probably the single most important philanthropist in the health care field on the planet today.
Lastly, federal law should automatically fund state and local public health efforts in the same way that social security and unemployment compensation automatically pay out money on demand. It is absurd that state and local officials have to be lobbying Congress for federal money when they obviously have to carry the burden of defeating disease in their geographic areas.
Step two is to create the public-private partnerships that should create millions of productive new jobs during the long climb back from depression level joblessness to full employment. The three platforms suitable for public-private investment are: an adequate transportation system, clean power system from renewable generation to high voltage transmission to resilient distribution grids, and affordable universal broadband. In each of these markets, public money joined up with two to four times as much private money can create millions of jobs. This technique, sadly rejected in the 2009 stimulus, also can keep federal spending from approximating infinity, bring discipline to actual spending and end the phenomenon of secular stagnation that has denied the country even a three percent growth rate for now a decade.
This is no time for the United States, and especially not the people’s branch, Congress, to think small. Bold, broad, visionary action — legislation that calls us all to act together — is the way to defeat not only the virus but also the sense that America simply cannot solve its problems in or after a crisis.
Franklin Roosevelt assumed the presidency when unemployment was 25 percent. Some thought democracy had proved itself incapable of addressing the economic crisis. His undying inaugural address called the nation to bold action. Under his leadership, new institutions and forms of public-private cooperation were created. Some have since disappeared and others are past their useful life. Now is the time to create a Rooseveltian political consensus and a set of new institutions and business-government understandings that can endure for generations to come.