Thursday, July 09, 2020

The Backlash Against PPP Is Why the U.S. Can’t Have Nice Things

The Backlash Against PPP Is Why the U.S. Can’t Have Nice Things
A government program intended to put money in the hands of workers is now being faulted for the breadth of its success.
JULY 7, 2020

Staff writer at The Atlantic

The pandemic is out of control, the economy is in the toilet, and the weather is unpleasant, but at least the schadenfreude is excellent this week.
Yesterday the Small Business Administration released a list of loan recipients under the Paycheck Protection Program, part of the hastily passed CARES Act stimulus. The list is full of targets ripe for naming and shaming. There are plutocrats (country clubs! private-jet companies!), kleptocrats (various Trump associates), and Kanye (whose Yeezy brand received between $2 and $5 million). There are some particularly humorous examples of groups that decry people taking from the government who are, well, taking from the government: the Ayn Rand Institute, Americans for Tax Reform. This is the second round of this process of ridicule. The first also provided lots of red meat, from the literal (Ruth’s Chris Steak House) to the figurative (the crimson crowd at Harvard, which accepted CARES Act funding, though not PPP cash).
Raging at the wealthy receiving these funds, or simply mocking the hypocrisies, is understandable, but doing so misses the point. The CARES Act was quick-and-dirty legislation, full of rules and conditions that allowed these recipients to claim money, which might have been ironed out in a bill that moved slowly, or an application process that built in more rigorous review. The whole point was that the stimulus needed to be passed quickly, and that allowing a coarser filter was worth it for the economic boost. And while CARES was not without flaws, every indication is it helped the sagging economy—just as intended.

The point of PPP was to get money to businesses so that they didn’t lay off workers—or in some cases, so that they would bring them back. The money was structured as long-term, forgivable loans. More workers receiving paychecks meant that economic demand wouldn’t collapse as swiftly. Even if major companies with celebrity CEOs were taking in the money, each dollar they passed along to employees was a dollar injected into the American economy, which was the goal.
In April, just after PPP was enacted, the NBC and MSNBC journalist Stephanie Ruhle predicted this backlash and announced her intention to lead it:
Here’s the thing, though: The loan was intended for them, or at least they were plainly eligible for it under the law. Hedge funds, boutique law firms, and the like don’t need me or anyone else defending them, and it’s unsavory to see Harvard sitting on a $41 billion endowment while also taking government stimulus money. (The school changed course and returned the funds after public pressure. So did Ruth’s Chris.) But why should a business or institution that is legally allowed to seek public stimulus funds forgo them?
Legislation written with more time might have excluded some of these recipients, but time was of the essence in late March when Congress and the Trump administration cobbled together the stimulus package, which has since been expanded. The longer Congress waited, the worse the damage to the economy would have been. If the price of supporting a sagging private sector was that a portion of the money would go to recipients some find undeserving, it was worth paying.
Although Democrats are stereotypically eager to spend government money, the White House seemed to grasp this more fully than Democrats in Congress. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who led the administration’s efforts on the stimulus, emphasized the need for speed.
“We’re going to have a new program up by next Friday where banks can lend. I mean that—that would be a historic achievement that is just incredibly aggressive,” Mnuchin said in March. “This is a brand-new program, the Treasury working with the SBA. We’re doing everything we can because Americans need that money now. They can’t wait for government to take three or four or six months like we normally do.”
The same dynamic prevailed with another provision of the CARES Act, the tax-credit payments made to individuals. Senator Mitt Romney even endorsed Andrew Yang–style checks to all Americans, though other Republicans called for limiting how much aid the poorest Americans might receive, a bizarre and punitive idea.
Democratic leaders, however, were much warier than Mnuchin, and during the early stages of pandemic-relief planning argued for means testing, making sure that only the neediest Americans received money. This may well have been good politics, because it played defense against caricatures of tax-and-spend liberalism and appealed to widespread public beliefs that government budgets are bloated by waste, fraud, and abuse, but it was dubious policy.
For one thing, as Eric Schnurer wrote in The Atlantic in 2013, there really isn’t that much waste, fraud, and abuse in the system. For another, means testing threatens to undermine the point in this case. It’s wise to be concerned about benefits accruing disproportionately to the wealthy—but that’s a matter for broader, more deliberate changes in policy, not for a crisis. “In (very rough) figurative terms, Pelosi was evincing a preference for allowing some of those drowning to go without life preservers, if that’s what it took to prevent wasting preservers on those who were perfectly capable of swimming to shore on their own,” Eric Levitz wrote at New York magazine.
The question of politically unpalatable but eligible businesses receiving money under PPP is separate from actual fraud. The Trump administration’s efforts to stifle oversight of the PPP money and circumvent inspectors general raise alarms, but legal recipients are legal recipients. Some businesses may have provided false certifications, or failed to live up to the terms of the program, but that’s not the focus of the current backlash.
Also, much is still unknown about the government response to the pandemic, just as not all of the flaws in the response to the 2008 financial crash were immediately plain. Some of the problems are already emerging, though. Many businesses were unable to obtain PPP funding, at least initially—especially ones owned by people of color.
But the problem there is less a lack of money than a lack of political will. In other words, the issue is less that Ruth’s Chris got money that Acme Neighborhood Restaurant should have gotten, than that Congress should have appropriated, and still should appropriate, more money in stimulus so that any eligible business could receive a loan promptly. The government’s ability to spend in this situation is really only constrained by its own imagination.
Even with these flaws, the stimulus so far has gone pretty well. Many Americans are hurting, and not every small business got the money it received—but the spending gave the economy a shot in the arm. As Tom Gara writes, the first rounds have helped prop up the economy, but several key programs are due to run out soon.
The danger of this kind of naming and shaming is that it will imperil the government’s next round of stimulus. If businesses are afraid of political backlash, they might not take government funds, and instead make deeper cuts. (It doesn’t matter whether a given institution “should” find money elsewhere, but whether they will.) If Congress is afraid of backlash, it may narrow its future stimulus efforts—which already seem grievously small—wagering that potential pain in the form of a prolonged recession is easier to pass off than acute pain in the form of political controversy. The backlash against a successful government program is why the United States can’t have nice things.

Tammy Duckworth: Tucker Carlson Doesn’t Know What Patriotism Is

Tammy Duckworth: Tucker Carlson Doesn’t Know What Patriotism Is
Neither does President Trump.

By Tammy Duckworth

Ms. Duckworth is a Democratic senator from Illinois.

·         July 9, 2020, 5:41 p.m. ET

A little over 240 years ago, two of my ancestors put on the uniform of George Washington’s Continental Army and marched into battle, willing to die if it meant bringing their fledgling nation inches closer to independence. Centuries later, in 1992, I followed in their footsteps and joined the Army.

Even knowing how my tour in Iraq would turn out, even knowing that I’d lose both my legs in a battlefield just north of Baghdad in late 2004, I would do it all over again. Because if there’s anything that my ancestors’ service taught me, it’s the importance of protecting our founding values, including every American’s right to speak out. In a nation born out of an act of protest, there is nothing more patriotic than standing up for what you believe in, even if it goes against those in power.

Our founders’ refusal to blindly follow their leader was what I was reflecting on this Fourth of July weekend, when some on the far right started attacking me for suggesting that all Americans should be heard, even those whose opinions differ from our own. Led by the Fox News host Tucker Carlson and egged on by President Trump, they began questioning my love for the country I went to war to protect, using words I never actually said and ascribing a position to me that I do not actually hold.

Mr. Carlson disingenuously claimed that because I expressed an openness to “a national dialogue” about our founders’ complex legacies, people like me “actually hate America.” One night later, he claimed that I called George Washington a traitor even though I had unambiguously answered no when asked whether anyone could justify saying that he was.

 Then he argued that changes to monuments of our founders “deserve a debate,” which, somehow, was different and more acceptable to him than the “national dialogue” that led him to question my patriotism just 24 hours earlier.

Setting aside the fact that the right wing’s right to lie about me is one of the rights I fought to defend, let me be clear: I don’t want George Washington’s statue to be pulled down any more than I want the Purple Heart that he established to be ripped off my chest. I never said that I did.

But while I would risk my own safety to protect a statue of his from harm, I’ll fight to my last breath to defend every American’s freedom to have his or her own opinion about Washington’s flawed history. What some on the other side don’t seem to understand is that we can honor our founders while acknowledging their serious faults, including the undeniable fact that many of them enslaved Black Americans.

Because while we have never been a perfect union, we have always sought to be a more perfect union — and in order to do so, we cannot whitewash our missteps and mistakes. We must learn from them instead.

But what I actually said isn’t the reason Mr. Carlson and Mr. Trump are questioning my patriotism, nor is it why they’re using the same racist insults against me that have been slung my way time and again in years past, though they have never worked on me.

They’re doing it because they’re desperate for America’s attention to be on anything other than Donald Trump’s failure to lead our nation, and because they think that Mr. Trump’s electoral prospects will be better if they can turn us against one another. Their goal isn’t to make — or keep — America great. It’s to keep Mr. Trump in power, whatever the cost.

It’s better for Mr. Trump to have you focused on whether an Asian-American woman is sufficiently American than to have you mourning the 130,000 Americans killed by a virus he claimed would disappear in February. It’s better for his campaign to distract Americans with whether a combat veteran is sufficiently patriotic than for people to recall that this failed commander in chief has still apparently done nothing about reports of Russia putting bounties on the heads of American troops in Afghanistan.

Mr. Trump and his team have made the political calculation that, no matter what, they can’t let Americans remember that so many of his decisions suggest that he cares more about lining his pockets and bolstering his political prospects than he does about protecting our troops or our nation.

They should know, though, that attacks from self-serving, insecure men who can’t tell the difference between true patriotism and hateful nationalism will never diminish my love for this country — or my willingness to sacrifice for it so they don’t have to. These titanium legs don’t buckle.

The hateful vision for America parroted by Mr. Trump and Mr. Carlson will not win. Their relentless efforts to drive wedges between us will not work forever. We are too resilient a nation, too diverse a people, to let them.

In his farewell address, George Washington not only recognized his own imperfections, he also urged Americans to “guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism” and be wary of excessive partisanship. In the generations since, too many patriots, including many in my own family, have sacrificed too much to let our guard down now.

So when Tucker Carlson questions the patriotism of those willing to sacrifice for his freedom, or when Donald Trump promotes those smears — after having threatened to veto a pay raise for our troops to try to ensure the military continues honoring Confederate traitors who took up arms against our Union — remember Washington’s words.

Remember that part of what has always made America not just great but good is that every American has the right to question those in charge. Anyone claiming to stand up for “patriotic” values should recognize that, because, without it, the country these impostor patriots claim to love so much would not exist.

Our nation deserves leaders mature and secure enough not to race-bait or swift-boat anyone who dares disagree with them. After these past four years, and especially after these past four months, it’s clearer than ever that we must choose public servants who will focus on the serious issues facing our country — from the spread of the coronavirus to systemic racism to foreign adversaries threatening our troops’ lives — rather than cynical bullies who use schoolyard tactics to distract from their own shortcomings.

So while I would put on my old uniform and go to war all over again to protect the right of Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump to say offensive things on TV and Twitter, I will also spend every moment I can from now until November fighting to elect leaders who would rather do good for their country than do well for themselves.

Tammy Duckworth (@SenDuckworth) is a Democratic senator from Illinois.

The Twins in Wicked

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Rubin: The Trump-made calamity is getting worse

The Trump-made calamity is getting worse

Opinion by 
July 8, 2020 at 2:19 p.m. CDT
The news on the coronavirus front is so appallingly bad that it’s hard to know where to start. We now have recorded more than 3 million cases. “More than a fifth of the country’s population now lives in a county where the high was reached on Monday,” my colleague Philip Bump writes. “If it’s a tide threatening the body politic, it’s at our knees.”

Millions in bailouts already dispensed went to “small government” conservative groups and billionaires while the Republican-controlled Senate drags its feet on new funds for testing, state and local government, and continued direct assistance to unemployed workers (of which there will be many more as states are compelled to shut down again).

Much of the blame rests with President Trump, who has downplayed the virus, eschewed mask wearing, held mass gatherings, misrepresented the facts and egged on governors to open up their states too soon. What else could be worse? Oh, threatening to cut off funding unless schools open without regard to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. This might be one of the rare instances in which an ad claiming the incumbent might kill your children would not be an exaggeration. If you think women hate Trump now, wait until mothers and K-12 schoolteachers — more than three-fourths of whom are women — learn that Trump voices no qualms putting children in obvious danger.)

Former vice president Joe Biden was remarkably restrained in responding to the latest news on Wednesday. (I suspect ad makers from the Lincoln Project will not be.) In a written statement, Biden denounced Trump’s nonexistent leadership. “Today’s awful — and avoidable — news that America surpassed three million COVID-19 cases is yet another sad reminder of the cost our country is paying for President Trump’s failure to lead us through this crisis,” Biden wrote. He continued:

While other countries safely re-open their economies and their citizens get back to work, businesses in America are being forced to shut down — again — as Donald Trump’s failures make countless workers and families face an uncertain future.
President Trump claimed to the American people that he was a wartime leader, but instead of taking responsibility, Trump has waved a white flag, revealing that he ordered the slowing of testing and having his administration tell Americans that they simply need to “live with it.”
Biden essentially declared Trump AWOL and pleaded with him to “ramp up testing, get protective equipment to first responders, health care workers, and other essential workers, and ... finally provide science-based leadership on re-opening safely.” Biden rightly called Trump out for spending so much time on racist rhetoric (“devoting what energy he has left to dividing our nation, the opposite of a commander in chief’s duty at all times, let alone a moment of historic crisis”).

We have gone far beyond the Katrina disaster, for example, in terms of lives lost, economic ruin and a leadership void. Unlike President George W. Bush, Trump disregards expert advice in favor of his own ignorant hunches and refuses to accept the federal responsibility of responding to the crisis (e.g., purchasing needed material, setting up a testing and tracing program). Where the Katrina debacle failed to break a presidency, a raging and containable pandemic might succeed. Even some Republicans, especially those in states where cases are spiking, will be horrified by an economy screeching to a halt (again) and the thought of sending children back to school without meticulous planning and adherence to rigorous protocols.

There is no sly political tactic at work here. There is no campaign playbook that says: “Override experts on children’s health.” Perhaps Trump is in full denial about the extent of the problem. Perhaps he does not have a clue how to address it. Perhaps he thinks people will not hold him accountable for preventable deaths.

In any event, his unfitness was never so evident, nor has the refusal among Republicans to dump him been more irresponsible.


Friedman - Debate

Biden Should Not Debate Trump Unless …
Here are two conditions the Democrat should set.

Opinion Columnist
·         July 7, 2020

I worry about Joe Biden debating Donald Trump. He should do it only under two conditions. Otherwise, he’s giving Trump unfair advantages.

First, Biden should declare that he will take part in a debate only if Trump releases his tax returns for 2016 through 2018. Biden has already done so, and they are on his website. Trump must, too. No more gifting Trump something he can attack while hiding his own questionable finances.

And second, Biden should insist that a real-time fact-checking team approved by both candidates be hired by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates — and that 10 minutes before the scheduled conclusion of the debate this team report on any misleading statements, phony numbers or outright lies either candidate had uttered. That way no one in that massive television audience can go away easily misled.

Debates always have ground rules. Why can’t telling the truth and equal transparency on taxes be conditions for this one?

Yes, the fact that we have to make truth-telling an explicit condition is an incredibly sad statement about our time; normally such things are unspoken and understood. But if the past teaches us anything, Trump might very well lie and mislead for the entire debate, forcing Biden to have to spend a majority of his time correcting Trump before making his own points.

That is not a good way for Biden to reintroduce himself to the American people. And, let’s not kid ourselves, these debates will be his reintroduction to most Americans, who have neither seen nor heard from him for months if not years.

Because of Covid-19, Biden has been sticking close to home, wearing a mask and social distancing. And with the coronavirus now spreading further, and Biden being a responsible individual and role model, it’s likely that he won’t be able to engage with any large groups of voters before Election Day. Therefore, the three scheduled televised debates, which will garner huge audiences, will carry more weight for him than ever.

He should not go into such a high-stakes moment ceding any advantages to Trump. Trump is badly trailing in the polls, and he needs these debates much more than Biden does to win over undecided voters. So Biden needs to make Trump pay for them in the currency of transparency and fact-checking — universal principles that will level the playing field for him and illuminate and enrich the debates for all citizens.

Of course, Trump will stomp and protest and say, “No way.” Fine. Let Trump cancel. Let Trump look American voters in the eye and say: “There will be no debate, because I should be able to continue hiding my tax returns from you all, even though I promised that I wouldn’t and even though Biden has shown you his. And there will be no debate, because I should be able to make any statement I want without any independent fact-checking.”

If Trump says that, Biden can retort: “Well, that’s not a debate then, that’s a circus. If that’s what you want, why don’t we just arm wrestle or flip a coin to see who wins?”

I get why Republican senators and Fox News don’t press Trump on his taxes or call out his lies. They’re afraid of him and his base and unconcerned about the truth. But why should Biden, or the rest of us, play along?

After all, these issues around taxes and truth are more vital than ever for voters to make an informed choice.

Trump, you will recall, never sold his Trump Organization holdings or put them into a blind trust — as past presidents did with their investments — to avoid any conflicts of interest. Rather, his assets are in a revocable trust, whose trustees are his eldest son, Donald Jr., and Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer. Which is a joke.

Trump promised during the last campaign to release his tax returns after an I.R.S. “audit” was finished. Which turned out to have been another joke.

Once elected, Trump claimed that the American people were not interested in seeing his tax returns. Actually, we are now more interested than ever — and not just because it’s utterly unfair that Biden go into the debate with all his income exposed (he and his wife, Jill, earned more than $15 million in the two years after they left the Obama administration, largely from speaking engagements and books) while Trump doesn’t have to do the same.

There must be something in those tax returns that Trump really does not want the American public to see. It may be just silly — that he’s actually not all that rich. It may have to do with the fact that foreign delegations and domestic lobbyists, who want to curry favor with him, stay in his hotel in Washington or use it for corporate entertaining.

Or, more ominously, it may be related to Trump’s incomprehensible willingness to give Russian President Vladimir Putin the benefit of every doubt for the last three-plus years. Virtually every time there has been a major public dispute between Putin and U.S. intelligence agencies alleging Russian misdeeds — including, of late, that the Kremlin offered bounties for the killing of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan — Trump has sided with Putin.

The notion that Putin may have leverage over him is not crazy, given little previous hints by his sons.

As Michael Hirsh recalled in a 2018 article in Foreign Policy about how Russian money helped to save the Trump empire from bankruptcy: “In September 2008, at the ‘Bridging U.S. and Emerging Markets Real Estate’ conference in New York, the president’s eldest son, Donald Jr., said: ‘In terms of high-end product influx into the United States, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. Say, in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo, and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.’”

The American people need to know if Trump is in debt in any way to Russian banks and financiers who might be close to Putin. Because if Trump is re-elected, and unconstrained from needing to run again, he will most likely act even more slavishly toward Putin, and that is a national security threat.

At the same time, debating Trump is unlike debating any other human being. Trump literally lies as he breathes, and because he has absolutely no shamethere are no guardrails. According to the Fact Checker team at The Washington Post, between Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, and May 29, 2020, he made 19,127 false or misleading claims.

Biden has been dogged by bone-headed issues of plagiarism in his career, but nothing compared to Trump’s daily fire hose of dishonesty, which has no rival in U.S. presidential history. That’s why it’s so important to insist that the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates hire independent fact-checkers who, after the two candidates give their closing arguments — but before the debate goes off the air — would present a rundown of any statements that were false or only partly true.

Only if leading into the debate, American voters have a clear picture of Trump’s tax returns alongside Biden’s, and only if, coming out of the debate, they have a clear picture of who was telling the truth and who was not, will they be able to make a fair judgment between the two candidates.

That kind of debate and only that kind of debate would be worthy of voters’ consideration and Biden’s participation.

Otherwise, Joe, stay in your basement.

Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist. He joined the paper in 1981, and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award. @tomfriedman  Facebook

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