In one sense, the Covid-19 era revitalized American federalism. While every U.S. state except South Dakota at first followed the advice of the federal government’s various national public health agencies and their spokesman, Anthony Fauci, M.D., eventually more and more diversity began to emerge in the way individual states responded to the virus.
In September of 2020, after televising a roundtable of non-government scientists from Harvard and Stanford, Governor Ron DeSantis reopened Florida completely and banned local jurisdictions from fining people for noncompliance with mask mandates.
Observing the political gains DeSantis enjoyed from lifting restrictions and the absence of disaster predicted by all opposed to DeSantis politically, Iowa’s governor lifted all restrictions in February 2021, followed closely by Gov. Abbot of Texas the following month.
While states with Republican governors trumpet their states as “free states” due to generally less severe and shorter-lived lockdowns, and proponents of decentralization from across the political spectrum point to this as a triumph of local government, federalism completely failed in the most important respect. Every United States citizen, regardless of the decisions of their state and local elected leaders, is being forced to pay for lockdowns equally.
Although Covid relief was federally funded, it wasn’t paid for with higher taxes. It would have been impossible to collect more taxes from a society producing considerably less wealth. Instead, the money was created by the Federal Reserve and handed out through programs created by the CARES Act and subsequent legislation.
We are feeling the effects of that money creation combined with decreased production now. Although his Republican critics would like to blame President Biden for rising prices today (and he has certainly contributed to them, especially energy prices), the majority of the spending authorized and new money created occurred while Trump was still in office.
M1 showed the supply of dollars at $4 trillion in February 2020. It was $16 trillion by May 2020 and $18 trillion when Trump left office in January 2021. It was just over $20 trillion as of January 2022.
President Biden, on the other hand, has largely failed to get most of the spending he wanted beyond an early Covid relief bill similar in size to the CARES Act. However, due to the mechanics of the way money gets spent by the federal government after it is appropriated by Congress, even much of the money appropriated in 2020 wasn’t spent until 2021.
That and the general lag between new money creation and the resulting rise in consumer prices is why price inflation only began in earnest in 2021. But this is not to lay the blame at Trump’s or Biden’s doorstep. Rather, it was the very bipartisan departure from reality, including by most the American public, that a large percentage of the economy could be turned off while people went on consuming as they did before.
Many otherwise “fiscally conservative” people threw up their hands and justified Covid bailouts on the grounds that those ordered to close their businesses or stay home from their jobs weren’t “at fault,” and therefore were entitled to bailouts.
It doesn’t matter who was at fault for lockdowns. Goods that are not produced cannot be consumed. One cannot consume more than one produces unless someone else provides the difference. Scarcity does not make exceptions for assignment of blame, political theories, or feelings. Even if lockdowns significantly reduced Covid deaths, which they didn’t, one still had to face the reality that producing enough to survive takes priority over avoiding the virus.
The truly “federalist” approach to Covid-19 would have been to allow each state to decide and pay for the policies it chose to implement in response to the virus. Politicians spoke in absolutes, saying lockdowns were “necessary.” Well, producing enough to survive was more necessary. This would have been true even if the virus had turned out to be as deadly as it was originally touted.
Had governors been forced to face reality and decide how to respond to lockdowns without external bailout money, there may not have been any lockdowns at all. If there were, they would have been fewer, of less severity, and of shorter duration.
This would not have made a bit of difference overall in the number of Covid deaths, as the retrospective comparisons of “open” vs. “locked down” states so clearly show.
Like TARP in 2008 and every other bailout, profits have been privatized and costs socialized. People who elected governors who took a more realistic approach to Covid and who themselves balanced the personal risk of contracting the disease more realistically with the responsibility of supporting themselves are paying the same cost in runaway inflation as those whose governors closed their economies completely and kept them closed for much longer periods of time.
Today, Americans are being asked to again support a departure from reality. The U.S. government, the most prolific invader of foreign nations in the past seventy years, has proclaimed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine beyond the pale and imposed drastic sanctions in response. President Biden has acknowledged this will have a cost to American citizens, although he has vastly understated the cost.
The president and others have tried to shift the blame for present economic pain onto Putin. This is dishonest for two reasons. One, it is not Putin’s invasion but the sanctions in response to the that will cause economic hardship, just as it wasn’t “Covid” but the government response to the virus that caused the economic fallout we’re experiencing now.
Most importantly, the economic consequences of Biden’s Russia sanctions have not even begun to be felt by American consumers. They are just now suffering the effects of Covid lockdowns. The Russia sanctions could have far more onerous economic consequences, especially if they result in a new world economic order where a significant portion of the global population no longer uses the U.S. dollar as its reserve currency. That is a reality Americans are not ready to face.
Regardless of whether Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was justified, America may not be able to afford the combined cost of Biden’s sanctions and the Covid lockdowns. Ignoring that reality may have fatal consequences for both America’s economy its political order.