Debating Stimulus Checks


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The idea to send $2,000 checks to most Americans began circulating in the spring, pushed by progressive Democrats like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Pramila Jayapal. But the proposal has never fit into a neat ideological box.

Some moderate Democrats also saw the checks as a good way to help people during the pandemic. And some Republicans liked that the checks went directly to Americans, rather than being filtered through a government program. By the end of last year, Josh Hawley, a conservative Republican senator, and President Donald Trump were backing the idea, as well.

The checks have since become a centerpiece of President Biden’s coronavirus response plan, accounting for $465 billion of his proposed $1.9 trillion in spending. Polls show that the idea is popular.

And yet some economists — and politicians, in both parties — have deep reservations. Today, I want to lay out three main arguments both for and against the idea, based on my conversations with experts and people on Capitol Hill and in the Biden administration. I hope these points will help you decide what you think.

First, the basic facts: Because the virus-response bill that passed in December included $600 checks, Biden is now proposing $1,400 checks, with bonuses for children. A typical family with two parents and three children could receive $4,600. Families making less than $150,000 a year would likely be eligible for the full amount.

1. People need help. Almost 10 million fewer Americans are working now than when the pandemic began, and normal life is still months from returning. “Doing too little has enormous downside cost,” Sharon Parrott, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told me.

Many households are also coping with the long-term effects of slow-growing incomes and wealth over the past four decades. The checks will let people decide for themselves how to spend the money — be it to cover medical expenses, pay tuition, save for retirement or buy a car. Much of this spending will stimulate the economy and create jobs.

2. It’s simple. At a time when many people don’t trust the government, easy-to-understand policies can build trust. Matthew Yglesias, author of the Slow Boring newsletter, calls this the “does exactly what it says on the tin” principle. The Obama administration designed a complex stimulus program in 2009 and didn’t get much political credit for it. The Biden administration can heed this lesson.

3. It’s surprisingly progressive. A $4,600 check means much more to a poor or working-class family than it does to an upper-middle-class family. (Very affluent families don’t qualify for the checks.)

Consider this chart, which shows how the two rounds of pandemic checks that the government sent last year — equaling $1,800 combined for many people — affected after-tax incomes:

The checks aren’t simply a stimulus program. They are an important part of Biden’s ambitious effort to fight poverty.

1. Many people don’t need the money. The current recession is a strange one. Neither house prices nor stock prices have fallen — and many people’s expenses have declined — leaving most Americans financially better off than a year ago:

As a result, many people will save the money the government sends them, which won’t help put other people back to work. “I think the checks are an abomination,” Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute told me.

2. It’s possible to target the money. Biden’s stimulus could instead increase unemployment benefits even more than it now proposes. Or it could do more to help small businesses stay open. Or more to expand child care.

3. F.D.R. wouldn’t have done it. Sending people money does little to address the country’s deepest problems — like climate change and the underlying causes of inequality. Those problems require coordinated government action. So why has Biden embraced an expensive, Trump-backed idea that’s basically a big tax cut?

“I don’t ever remember F.D.R. recommending sending a damn penny to a human being. He gave ’em a job and gave ’em a paycheck,” Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has said. “Can’t we start some infrastructure program to help people, get ’em back on their feet?”

The checks will be a central part of the debate over Biden’s first virus bill. Many Senate Republicans oppose the checks, which means they may fall short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

In that case, Democrats would have to choose between altering their plan and passing the bill through a process known as reconciliation, which requires only 51 votes.

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From Opinion: The columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens hold their first Conversation of the Biden presidency.

Lives Lived: Junior Mance began playing the upright piano in his family’s apartment when he was 5. His buoyant, bluesy style put him alongside Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie and other big names in jazz. Mance died at 92.

Once, Netflix’s original content consisted largely of prestige series like “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black.” In 2015, The Verge’s Julia Alexander has pointed out, one of the company’s executives referred to reality television as “disposable.”

But as Netflix tries to dominate streaming, its view of the genre has changed.

The latest evidence is “Bling Empire,” a spiritual successor to the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” that follows a circle of wealthy Asian-Americans in Los Angeles. The executive producer is an alum of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”

Other popular recent shows on the platform include “Love Is Blind,” about dating; “Selling Sunset,” about high-end real estate; and “The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives.”

As Yomi Adegoke writes in The Guardian, Netflix’s recent string of hits has helped cement its place as a competitor for reality-driven networks like Bravo. Netflix executives acknowledge as much. “If we’re trying to become more of your go-to destination for entertainment,” one said on an earnings call last year, “to ignore a form of programming that kind of dominates broadcast would be silly of us.”

The pangrams from Friday’s Spelling Bee were connective, convection, convective, convenient, convention, eviction and inconvenient. Today’s puzzle is above — or you can play online if you have a Games subscription.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: “Just a ___!” (three letters).

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. Recent U.S. presidents have all had short names: Bush, Obama, Trump and now Biden. But in the 1950s, The Times narrowed the letters in “Eisenhower” to accommodate the president’s name in headlines. A 2016 story in The Atlantic tells the tale.

You can see today’s print front page here.

Today’s episode of “The Daily” is about the Russian dissident Aleksei Navalny. On the Book Review podcast, Gabrielle Glaser talks about adoption, and Kenneth Rosen discusses behavioral treatment for young people.

Lalena Fisher, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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