The biggest mistake policymakers can make as we begin to dig out from the covid-19 shutdown is assuming that we’ll be able to intuit all the answers.
In the initial emergency, as workers were ordered home and businesses closed, our first reaction was to give money to businesses and workers to make up for lost incomes. But this was always a short-term solution. The urgent task was getting money out the door. And we have. Both Congress and the Federal Reserve have made trillions of dollars available to American businesses and families to help get through the shutdown phase of the crisis.
But as we move from the emergency phase of this epidemic to the recovery phase, Congress needs to be more flexible and more inclusive in our policymaking. We need to recognize that there are more solutions than we can craft with government programs and certainly more than we can sustainably finance.
Recovery policy can’t just be a matter of pumping more money into a few programs that were created on the fly at the height of the covid-19 panic. And while Congress should get back to work soon developing more robust and flexible programs for the next phase of pandemic response policy, there are two ideas we could implement this year that would serve as force multipliers for our efforts.
The first would be to greatly enlarge the charitable giving tax deduction. The nonprofit sector of our economy is being hit at least as hard as for-profit businesses. The services our charitable organizations provide will be more urgently needed this year than ever before. Yet in the rush of relief legislation, Congress increased the deduction by only $300 per person. By increasing the charitable deduction, Congress can effectively depute the American people to identify and indeed help the communities who need it most more quickly and efficiently than government programs will be able to. A November 2019 Tax Policy Center study estimated a similar policy would lead to an additional $6.9 billion in charitable contributions per year.
The second is to create a temporary tax credit for billing forbearance. Businesses this spring and summer are going to have trouble making their normal payments for things such as rent, insurance, outstanding loans and expensive equipment. In most cases, this won’t be because the businesses are failing; it’s simply because the government forbid them from doing business for weeks on end.
Banks and investors and utilities know this, and most aren’t jumping in to foreclose. Rather, they are trying to do the right thing, through forbearance — letting renters, lessees and customers miss or reduce certain payments until the economy reopens and they have some revenue to pay those bills. Congress should jump on this opportunity to incentivize as much leniency as we can prudently afford.
Landlords, equipment rental companies and utilities could be given a tax credit — perhaps 50 percent — for discounts they provide on payments through the end of the crisis. Lenders could be given a similar credit for the value of the interest on any deferred installments.
These aren’t catchall substitutes for other state and federal policies. They would be complements — prudent pieces of a more holistic and sustainable relief and recovery policy. Policymakers need to pull every lever we can, and one of the most important levers is the one that harnesses the market economy’s wealth of local knowledge and kinetic speed to public needs.
Providing financial incentives to lenders to help businesses and communities get back on their feet as quickly as possible is a win-win. More charitable giving will mean less demand for government services. More forbearance will mean fewer bankruptcies, layoffs and a quicker recovery. And we can tap the private sector to do this part of the nation’s relief and recovery work for us — at a fraction of the cost Washington would incur and with better outcomes. That also means we in government can focus on the problems the private sector can’t immediately fix.
One-size-fits-all programs aren’t going to fit this time. We need to encourage economic actors to be flexible and creative as we all adjust to our post-pandemic world.
Op Ed originally published by the Washington Post