Traditionally, every new Democratic President starts out by passing a big economic package (and every new Republican President starts out by passing a tax cut). Jimmy Carter’s, in 1977, cost twenty billion dollars. Bill Clinton’s, in 1993, was mainly a tax increase, aimed at eliminating the federal deficit. Barack Obama’s, in 2009, which passed during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, cost eight hundred billion, some of it spending increases, some tax relief.
The American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed last week, is on an entirely different scale. It will cost the government $1.9 trillion, even though the economy today is in better shape than it was when Obama took office; and, unlike Clinton’s opening economic initiative, it is proudly indifferent to the size of the federal deficit. The law’s most famous feature, its fourteen-hundred-dollar payments to individuals (meaning that many families will wind up with much more), is only the beginning. There are also extensions of eligibility for unemployment benefits and food stamps; debt relief for renters; subsidies for state and local governments that are out of money, so that they can continue to provide services; a bailout for insolvent pension funds; health-care subsidies; and a nearly universal child-care benefit.
The left’s disappointments with the adjustments necessary to get the bill through the Senate—it doesn’t raise the federal minimum wage, and the cash value of unemployment benefits was reduced—should not obscure the important point. This is the most economically liberal piece of legislation in decades. It is not just much bigger than but different in kind from the Obama Administration’s version, which helped people mainly through end-of-year tax credits. Biden’s bill was designed to send regular monthly checks to millions of American families, so it will be palpable that the government is helping them in a tough moment. Gone are the work requirements, the sensitivity to the risk of inflation, and other centrist concerns that have been at the heart of Democratic programs for decades. The side that always seemed to lose the argument within the Democratic Party has finally won.
In 2009 and again in 2020, the Federal Reserve drew the assignment of staving off a depression, which it did by keeping interest rates low and by buying many billions of dollars in financial instruments to prevent the markets from collapsing. Those maneuvers meant that people in finance, and, more broadly, people who have secure employment and assets in the markets, were spared the severe pain felt by millions of working people. Only Congress has the tools to provide direct help to the people most in need. That it is now able to act, quickly and effectively, is a sign that our democracy isn’t as completely broken as a lot of people have been assuming, and that government can moderate the grotesquely unequal effects of the pandemic on people’s well-being.
A year ago, nobody was predicting that Joe Biden would be presiding over a neo-New Deal. His long career didn’t seem to indicate it, and he was clearly not on the way to having large majorities in both houses of Congress, as Franklin Roosevelt did. So how did this happen? The obvious answer is the pandemic, which generated the sense of urgent, universal crisis that the American system requires in order to make major changes. It’s less obvious, but just as pertinent, that the response to the 2008 financial crisis is now seen as having been woefully insufficient, in ways that led to years of unnecessary suffering and a populist political revolt that disrupted both parties. It feels as if half a century’s effort to reorient the political economy away from the state and toward the market may finally have run its course.
No Republicans voted for the American Rescue Plan—it would not have passed if the U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia had turned out differently—but the G.O.P. still played a part in what happened last week. The Party’s new sense of itself as a competitor for working-class votes meant that it was supporting major covid-relief programs through last year; the Democrats had to top the Republicans’ performance. And, their votes aside, the Republicans have chosen not to wage a full-scale rhetorical war on the new law, perhaps because polls show it to be highly popular. Because the law provides such immediate and tangible help to most Americans, it’s more difficult to campaign against than the 2009 relief effort was. Two generations’ worth of modest Democratic anti-poverty programs have foundered because their opponents portrayed them as mainly benefitting minorities; Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and the welfare benefit that primarily assisted children of single mothers that Bill Clinton ended, both representing tiny fractions of the federal budget, are leading examples. Now, because the economic pain is so widespread, the new law has a very large and racially diverse group of beneficiaries, which ought to make it less vulnerable to the familiar attacks on social programs.
Yet the American Rescue Plan is actually a kind of economic appetizer. Its most progressive provisions—notably the child allowance, a monthly check of up to three hundred dollars per child, which would be the first true guaranteed family-income program in the United States, and would cut child poverty nearly in half—are temporary, expiring by the end of the year. The main course is what may be called “the Build Back Better bill,” soon to be unveiled by the White House. It will be bigger and more permanent, representing a real remaking of the government’s role in the economic lives of ordinary Americans. But that’s only if it passes.
The bill that Biden signed into law last week had the advantage of a deadline, because the Trump Administration’s pandemic-aid programs were due to expire in March. Build Back Better may contain large infrastructure programs, green-energy programs, and wealth taxes—a long list, with most of its items lacking the rescue plan’s pandemic-induced sense of crisis management. The new bill’s fate will depend on Americans embracing the idea that the reason the misery of the pandemic may finally be abating is that government can solve problems. Republicans, accustomed to caricaturing Democratic programs as élitist schemes created by a party that doesn’t care about ordinary people, will have to feel too intimidated by their constituents’ appreciation for the American Rescue Plan to stage an all-out assault on the new bill.
It is not yet time to celebrate. It is time to prepare for a months-long campaign with the highest possible stakes: a new social compact, which might finally bring an end to forty years of rising inequality.
Let’s get it over with.
This is my last column for the Miami Herald. I didn’t plan to write about that because there’s actual news to be covered, but my dear friend Dave Barry told me I’d look like a jerk if I didn’t say some sort of goodbye.
So here goes. I grew up reading the Herald and what was then the Fort Lauderdale News, my parents holding this radical notion that being factually informed would help us develop into conscientious, fully functioning citizens.
I fell for newspapers and ended up at the University of Florida’s journalism school, still one of the best. The Herald shelved my first job application, but in the summer of 1976 I got hired as a city desk reporter.
Reubin Askew was governor, and a harmless fellow named Gerald Ford was president only because the paranoid criminal who preceded him had been forced to resign, and the criminal president’s criminal vice president had also quit after getting busted for taking bribes.
Those were the days when all of us wanted to be Woodward or Bernstein.
Meanwhile, South Florida was growing into an outrageously fertile news mecca — weird, violent, drug-soaked, exuberantly corrupt — and eventually I landed on the Herald’s epic investigations team.
Years later, my oldest son, Scott, was doing that same job for the paper. I wasn’t always good at telling him how proud I was, so I’m telling him again now.
I was equally proud of my only brother, Rob, a columnist and editor who was murdered with four co-workers when an angry gunman charged into the Annapolis Capital Gazette newsroom on June 28, 2018. Rob’s family and mine will be forever grateful to the hundreds of you who reached out to us after that heart-crushing day.
Most opinion columnists start out as street reporters, an experience vital to understanding how things really work as opposed to how they should. My own approach to the column — drawn from the incomparable Pete Hamill, Mike Royko and others — was simple: If what I wrote wasn’t pissing off somebody, I probably wasn’t doing my job.
Take a sharp-edged stand on any issue, and the other side seethes. Show me a columnist who doesn’t get hate mail, and I’ll show you someone who’s writing about the pesky worms on his tomato plants. The detestable first-person pronoun will likely appear in this column more times than in the archive of my last three decades combined.
Nobody becomes a journalist because they yearn for mass adoration. Donald Trump didn’t turn the public against the mainstream media; the news business has never been popular. We’re tasked with delivering information that some readers don’t want to hear, and will claim not to believe.
Lyndon Johnson blamed the press for turning Americans against the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon blamed the press for overblowing Watergate. Trump blamed the press for everything except his bronzer.
The internet has made it easier to wage war on the truth. Yet, as shown by the Capitol uprising of selfie-snapping Trump rioters, social media also serves to lure the dumb, deluded and dangerous into the open. Seeing them all offers important, if unsettling, clarity.
I’ve done this column since 1985. No idea how many. No particular favorites, no regrets. Slash-and-burn was the only way I knew to do it.
Even the satirical pieces could be scalding, but that’s what those who betray the public trust deserve. When somebody got caught selling their commission vote under the table, or stealing outright, I felt morally obliged to write something that would make them choke on their corn flakes the next morning.
Once I called Miami City Hall a “bribe factory,” and another time described Tallahassee as a “festival of whores.” Too subtle? Possibly.
One time, the Legislature authorized random drug tests for state employees. Lawmakers mysteriously exempted themselves, so I offered to personally pay a big lab so that every one of them, including the governor, could pee in a cup.
No volunteers. Wonder why.
Another time the then-publisher of the Herald, a very decent guy named Dave Lawrence, said he might run for governor. I wrote a piece suggesting he’d “lost his marbles,” and nicknamed him Publisher Loco.
I didn’t get fired, and Dave let the column run exactly as written. A different publisher once did try to kill one of my columns, failed, and soon departed for a new career in a new line of work.
That wouldn’t happen at most papers, which is one reason I never wanted to go anywhere else. Another reason: It’s hard to put your heart in this job if you don’t have lifetime roots. My friend Hamill never gave up on New York, and that’s how I feel about Florida.
Progress, if it happens, is slow. When I was a kid, hardly anyone running for office talked about the Everglades. Meanwhile, the part that wasn’t disappearing under pavement was being used as a free latrine by corporate agriculture and subdivisions.
These days, billions are being spent trying to save the besieged River of Grass, and every ambitious candidate — Democrat or Republican — waxes rapturously about it. A few of them might actually be sincere, but all of them know how to read the polls.
It would be lovely to report that other things have also changed for the better, but Florida’s wild places and clearest waters are still under assault from overdevelopment, opioids are killing more people than coke or street heroin ever did, racism thrives likes a fungal rash and corruption is more rampant than ever.
Millions of worried seniors are still awaiting COVID inoculations because they don’t live in gated communities full of rich Republicans writing checks to the governor’s re-election committee. Then again, who’s really surprised that a resort like Ocean Reef gets special vaccine shipments while regular folks in nearby Florida City get to sit in their cars for hours, praying the supply doesn’t run out?
As you read these words, some scrofulous tunnel rat in public office is busy selling your best interests down the road. It might be happening at your town council, zoning board, water district, or county commission — but it is happening.
Certainly there are those with guts and unshakeable integrity in both political parties, but theirs is an uphill slog — and often they don’t last long.
Retail corruption is now a breeze, since newspapers and other media can no longer afford enough reporters to cover all the key government meetings. You wake up one day, and they’re bulldozing 20 acres of pines at the end of your block to put up a Costco. Your kids ask what’s going on, and you can’t tell them because you don’t have a clue.
That’s what happens when hometown journalism fades — neighborhood stories don’t get reported until it’s too late, after the deal’s gone down. Most local papers are gasping for life, and if they die it will be their readers who lose the most.
The decision to leave now is mine. It’ll be strange not having my Thursday deadline, but I’ll never stop writing about this bent, beautiful, infuriating state. Fortunately, all the scammers and greedheads remain vastly outnumbered by caring, thoughtful people who fiercely love what’s left of this place.
Thanks to all of you who buy enough of my gonzo novels that I don’t have to depend on a pauperizing newspaper pension. Thanks also for the heaps of mail, including the letters with prison postmarks.
I owe a special debt to Bob Radziewicz, who retired from the newsroom years ago but has continued editing my column out of friendship and perhaps sentimental curiosity. Same goes for my op-ed page editor, Nancy Ancrum, who’s always been there to gently remind me this is a family newspaper — please calm down and keep it clean.
Finally and most important, I’ve got to thank the Herald and its streaming cast of talented, tenacious editors and reporters. Their superb, solid work always made my job easier.
Now someone else can come along and do it better.