Paul Krugman: 2020 was the year that Reaganism finally died

The government was there to help, and it really did.

(Oliver Contreras | The New York Times) Outside the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, Dec. 24, 2020. "It’s hard to know what aspects of reality make it into Donald Trump’s ever-shrinking bubble," writes New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, "but it’s possible that he became aware of how he looked, playing golf as millions of desperate families lost their unemployment benefits."

Maybe it was the visuals that did it. It’s hard to know what aspects of reality make it into Donald Trump’s ever-shrinking bubble — and I’m happy to say that after Jan. 20 we won’t have to care about what goes on in his not-at-all beautiful mind — but it’s possible that he became aware of how he looked, playing golf as millions of desperate families lost their unemployment benefits.

Whatever the reason, on Sunday he finally signed an economic relief bill that will, among other things, extend those benefits for a few months. And it wasn’t just the unemployed who breathed a sigh of relief. Stock market futures — which are not a measure of economic success, but still — rose. Goldman Sachs marked up its forecast of economic growth in 2021.

So this year is closing out with a second demonstration of the lesson we should have learned in the spring: In times of crisis, government aid to people in distress is a good thing, not just for those getting help, but for the nation as a whole. Or to put it a bit differently, 2020 was the year Reaganism died.

What I mean by Reaganism goes beyond voodoo economics, the claim that tax cuts have magical power and can solve all problems. After all, nobody believes in that claim aside from a handful of charlatans and cranks, plus the entire Republican Party.

No, I mean something broader — the belief that aid to those in need always backfires, that the only way to improve ordinary people’s lives is to make the rich richer and wait for the benefits to trickle down. This belief was encapsulated in Ronald Reagan’s famous dictum that the most terrifying words in English are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

Well, in 2020 the government was there to help — and help it did.

True, there were some people who advocated trickle-down policies even in the face of a pandemic. Trump repeatedly pushed for payroll tax cuts, which by definition would do nothing to directly help the jobless, even attempting (unsuccessfully) to slash tax collections through executive action.

Oh, and the new recovery package does include a multibillion-dollar tax break for business meals, as if three-martini lunches were the answer to a pandemic depression.

Reagan-style hostility to helping people in need also persisted. There were some politicians and economists who kept insisting, in the teeth of the evidence, that aid to unemployed workers was actually causing unemployment, by making workers unwilling to accept job offers.

Overall, however — and somewhat shockingly — U.S. economic policy actually responded fairly well to the real needs of a nation forced into lockdown by a deadly virus. Aid to the unemployed and business loans that were forgiven if they were used to maintain payrolls limited the suffering. Direct checks sent to most adults weren’t the best targeted policy ever, but they boosted personal incomes.

All this big-government intervention worked. Despite a lockdown that temporarily eliminated 22 million jobs, poverty actually fell while the assistance lasted.

And there was no visible downside. As I’ve already suggested, there was no indication that helping the unemployed deterred workers from taking jobs when they became available. Most notably, the employment surge from April to July, in which 9 million Americans went back to work, took place while enhanced benefits were still in effect.

Nor did huge government borrowing have the dire consequences deficit scolds always predict. Interest rates stayed low, while inflation remained quiescent.

So the government was there to help, and it really did. The only problem was that it cut off help too soon. Extraordinary aid should have continued as long as the coronavirus was still rampant — a fact implicitly acknowledged by bipartisan willingness to enact a second rescue package, and Trump’s grudging eventual willingness to sign that legislation.

Indeed, some of the aid we provided in 2020 should continue even after we have widespread vaccination. What we should have learned last spring is that adequately funded government programs can greatly reduce poverty. Why forget that lesson as soon as the pandemic is over?

Now, when I say that Reaganism died in 2020 I don’t mean that the usual suspects will stop making the usual arguments. Voodoo economics is too deeply embedded in the modern GOP — and too useful to billionaire donors seeking tax cuts — to be banished by inconvenient facts.

Opposition to helping the unemployed and the poor was never evidence-based; it was always rooted in a mix of elitism and racial hostility. So we’ll still keep hearing about the miraculous power of tax cuts and the evils of the welfare state.

But while Reaganism will still be out there, it will now, even more than before, be zombie Reaganism — a doctrine that should have been killed by its encounter with reality, even if it’s still shambling along, eating politicians’ brains.

For the lesson of 2020 is that in a crisis, and to some extent even in calmer times, the government can do a lot to improve people’s lives. And what we should fear most is a government that refuses to do its job.

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.