There’s no doubt that Congress often hands over pork barrel spending to big corporations while the most disadvantaged among us feel slighted. Large lobbying interests representing every center of power in the nation ranging from healthcare unions, to defense corporations, to the government itself dominate political discourse, and the populist revolt erupting in our time is a justified response to this expansion of influence.
But how should those of us truly concerned with the common good of the nation, and with the well-being of the American people, go about accomplishing our agenda?
Empty populist rhetoric coupled with policies that sound nice but make little sense are not a real solution, though they do capitalize on genuine feelings of resentment.
A real populism must see through the cloud of Twitter trends and move on to substance. It must be intent on achieving results over landing catchy punchlines. It must repudiate the elite consensus that prioritizes image over substance and substitutes genuine political discourse for empty symposiums that ignore the great American middle.
Any criticism of uncurtailed government spending and wasteful uses of hard-earned taxpayer dollars cannot be met with accusations of austerity. For instance, the $435 billion that a potential expansion of individual stimulus checks to $2,000 per person would cost could be easily spent making “the existing Child Tax Credit fully-refundable” for 18 years, as center-left economist Samuel Hammond pointed out via Tweet.
Additionally the stimulus provided by Congress has expanded unemployment insurance generously, as well as programs like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) which have saved many small businesses from bankruptcy and workers from joblessness. In fact, a recent report from the federal government shows that the PPP saved up to 55 million American jobs. Expanding these targeted programs may prove even more effective in saving careers, livelihoods, and even lives.
This is not to say that more may not be necessary, but that there are other avenues by which Congress can choose to bridge the gap between now and the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Also spinning about the Twitterverse and Facebook sphere are accusations that the federal government can bail out foreign nations but not provide for its own people.
Firstly, there’s total legitimacy in questioning our national stance abroad, particularly in our burden-sharing and propping up of traditionally wasteful bureaucratic entities. But we mustn’t treat our limited international aid spending — which is not even a part of the stimulus package itself — as a line-item preventing Congress from giving further relief to the American people.
Foreign aid constitutes less than 1% of the American federal budget, and it is often extremely efficient as a tool of leverage and economic development which reduces threats to American interests abroad and mitigates armed conflict (and therefore the deaths of American men and women in-uniform).
The Real Priorities
But what should those of us intent on a better populism champion when it comes to stimulus in times of economic hardship?
Well, primarily, the focus must be on maximizing the efficiency of taxpayer dollars towards the common good of our society. That means prioritizing programs like the Child Tax Credit, food stamps, and direct monetary assistance to the most vulnerable (TANF is a great example). These sorts of initiatives line up with conservative principles such as:
- defending the family as an institution;
- using a social safety net to expand socioeconomic mobility and a sense of personal responsibility for oneself and those around them;
- and protecting the sanctity of life.
Hard-earned taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be wasted on programs that will have less net-benefit to our society — and therefore on taxpayers — than other policies on the table. We need not be penny-pinchers, particularly when the economy has hit a deep rut, but we also must remain wary of transforming an austere fiscal conservative orthodoxy into a liberal fiscal orthodoxy.
A discussion regarding a Universal Basic Income, or UBI for short, should certainly be in the cards as a replacement for our welfare state. But this discussion will take time, and it must be predicated on an analysis of how efficient such a system is at getting help to those who need it most.
Do the populists of our time seek real results for working people — do they seek to do the hard work of governance and setting our ship-of-state on course — or do they wish to fold into the politics-as-usual they claim to repudiate?
Time will tell, but as for me, I will dedicate less time to Twitter and more to the real work that needs to be done. For there is little time, and we’ve a nation to recover.