You will probably be receiving a check from the federal government in the next few months. If you are a single filer and make under $75,000, you will receive the maximum rebate of $1,200. If you make over $75,000, this amount will be cut by 5% per dollar for every dollar over $75,000, before hitting zero at $99,000.1If you make over $75,000 you can see exactly how much you’ll receive by taking your income above $75,000 subtracted from $24,000 and multiply it by 0.05. For example, if you make $80,000: (24,000-5000)*0.05 = $950. Or you can just use this calculator, I guess. Each dependent child will add $500 as well. If you file jointly the income level rises to $150,000 and if you file as a head of household it rises to $112,500. This rebate is one of the results of the “Phase 3” COVID-19 response package that Congress passed on Friday and President Trump signed later that afternoon.2“Phase 1” was the immediate response passed at the beginning of March providing just over $8 billion to health agencies. “Phase 2” was a more thorough piece of legislation addressing sick leave and testing for the uninsured. The goal is to provide immediate aid to Americans who need it and inject a massive stimulus into the economy to counter a rapidly deteriorating economic situation.
You’re probably going to start seeing and reading a lot of articles with advice on what to do with with this money; and while I would love it if the world came to me for their personal financial advice, that is not what I want to do here. Instead I want to lay out the economics of why this rebate is being issued, and why you shouldn’t feel guilty about this money if you receive it but don’t think you need it as much as others might.
First and foremost, this money is intended to support those who need it, many people are finding themselves temporarily out of work and it goes without saying that if you need to pay rent, buy food, cover expenses, or support yourself and your loved ones, you should use the rebate for that. Please, take care of yourself, take care of your family, be responsible, and don’t think that this means you should not continue to heed the CDC guidance and continue social distancing to the extent you are able. This is not just about you, it’s about hundreds of thousands of Americans who could die or become seriously ill if you and your 300 million compatriots do not keep to yourself.
Now that the heavy stuff is over, if you are still employed and your life is carrying on more or less financially stable despite your wistful leering out your window at the forbidden out-of-doors, you may feel a little guilty about the check you’re about to receive. There’s a compelling argument to be made that money should only have gone to those who need it: the unemployed or underemployed, especially in the services industry. I have unwittingly made this argument myself, and while the intention is correct, the economics are not.
Spend, Baby, Spend
With little traditional monetary policy action available (the Federal Reserve has already slashed interest rates to near zero and the required reserve ratio, down to 10% since the Great Recession, was slashed to 0% this month for all depository institutions) and an incredibly unorthodox and indeterminate economic slowdown — the signs of which are emerging rapidly — a massive fiscal response or unconventional monetary policy option is necessary. Former Federal Reserve Chairs Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen have historically endorsed the prospect of “helicopter money”, Federal Reserve-financed drops of money on the American public to encourage spending and break away from a contraction verging on a deflationary spiral. And current Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has noted the high possibility of the economy currently being in recession and promised potentially unlimited lending to keep financial markets operating, though he concedes the Fed’s abilities will be limited while the economy is tempered and will be most impactful “when the recovery does come, to make that recovery as strong as possible.” In the immediate term, however, fiscal stimulus is needed. And the Phase 3 COVID-19 legislation is the first major step to assure temporary financial survival and cash to the millions of Americans increasingly finding themselves out of work. So why? Why pay out billions of dollars to give all Americans, even those who don’t need it as much as others, a cash influx?
Because the more anyone spends money, the better off everyone will be. In economics, there is a metric called the marginal propensity to consume (MPC), which is a number between 0 and 1 that reflects what portion of additional disposable income will be spent. For example, if the marginal propensity to consume is 0.4, for every additional dollar you received, you’d spend $0.40 of it and save $0.60. It is the inverse of the marginal propensity to save (MPS).3There is also MPM, the marginal propensity to import, which is not negligible, though it is likely less pervasive in covering immediate costs such as housing, healthcare, and food, so for simplicity’s sake, I will leave it off. You’re welcome. It’s calculated as a derivative of the consumption function (C) over disposable income (Y), given that the change in C over the change in Y is equal to the MPC. The MPC plus the MPS (a derivative of the savings function (S)) is equal to 1:
The marginal propensity to consume is important because of an economic concept called the fiscal multiplier, a larger part of multiplier theory, which notes that when the government spends a sum of money, the national net income may increase by more than the increase in spending. This was first conceptualized in the early 1930s by a student of John Maynard Keynes named Richard Kahn, is a key component in Keynesian economics and many of its subschools, and was at the heart of many New Deal policies. You can think of it this way: if the US government were to spend $10 billion to build a brand new spaceship for NASA, GDP increases by $10 billion right off the bat in the production of a new creation; but consider the vast majority of that $10 billion is likely going to labor costs, who then pass much of that money in the form of buying new things: a new home, new car, or cups of coffee; then those homebuilders, carmakers, and baristas receive a portion of that money that they would not otherwise have received and go on to buy their own new homes, cars, and cups of coffee, and this multiplies out to actually increase GDP by way more than $10 billion even though only $10 billion was initially spent, possibly two, three, five, or ten times as much.
The MPC is how you calculate the multiplier, K, which is equal to one over one minus the MPC, or, effectively, one over the MPS:
The share of labor compensation in GDP has been around 60% since the Great Recession and it’s been estimated that the marginal propensity to consume is around 0.10 (meaning K = 1.11), so let’s assume that in the example above $6 billion goes to the initial labor, who then spend 10% of their additional income, and so on, increasing GDP by $6 billion * 1.11, or $6.66 billion. That’s an additional $660 million in value purely by virtue of having spent money to begin with. And this is not just wishful thinking, this is really how it works, if to a lesser degree than what the traditional economics textbook might imply.4On another note, there’s also an inverse of this, which is the money multiplier, which reflects how banks perpetually lend given deposits. This creates a massive amount of cash in the process as determined by one over the reserve requirement. Recall that the reserve requirement during the Great Recession was 10%, meaning that for every $100 deposited in a bank, a maximum amount of $1000 would be created in a perfectly functioning financial and economic system. The multiplier did not perform at this level due to banks holding reserves over the required ratio (excess reserves). Since banks are not required to lend out cash, the money multiplier is actually closer to 1.2, falling far short of the economic estimate of 100, even if it could be that high in rough practice. Now that the Federal Reserve has dropped the reserve requirements to 0, an infinite amount of money can be created. How exciting! Of course, the marginal propensity to consume is greater at lower income levels, as consumption increases until all needs are met, which is a good argument for some fiscal restraint in capping the income level that receives the cash rebate. Different degrees of and targets for spending will have different multipliers based on who they impact and their mechanisms. Increasing food stamp benefits is estimated to have a multiplier around 1.73, whereas more regressive tax cuts or policies that crowd out more efficient spending like building sports stadiums are often thought and estimated to have multipliers lower than one, resulting in getting less economic gain than what was spent.5Thank you for clicking me and wanting to know more. Crowding out describes a situation wherein the government, due to spending more, “crowds out” investment because it needs to soak up funds via debt, thus cutting off private investment’s access to capital, or at least making capital more expensive. The crowding out phenomenon is a frequent argument against publicly-funded economic growth and Keynesianism as a long term solution. As for taxes, Ricardian equivalence assumes rational consumers who are aware taxation will be required to finance any such spending either now (so less money to them) or later (paid via bonds, the interest on which must also be paid at a later date, so ultimately also less money to them), so saving would increase, thus reducing the multiplier. Empirical modern research on this theory has refuted it, and many of the assumptions behind it are no longer widely held in all but the most basic economic models. But there is still something to be said for consumers at a certain range of income realizing that this will have to be paid for and being more thrifty, expecting a tax increase or inflationary pressure in the future — the bill comes due.
Nonetheless, because this payout is a no-strings-attached rebate, consumers are empowered to spend it on whatever they’d like, and the government is not spending it on what might be a less productive endeavor, the multiplier will almost certainly be positive. People still have to buy food, pay their rent, and take care of their day-to-day needs, and it’s likely those at the lower end of the income scale (who will benefit the most from this bill) will spend more of it on immediate necessities than those who need it less, multiplying out cash and spending power as this inflates earnings from spender to spender.
There is even precedent for a similar kind of cash handout from not that long ago which gives us an idea of what we can expect. At the onset of the Great Recession, President Bush signed the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008, which gave many Americans between $300-$600 with the aim of encouraging spending so as to provide a floor to the weak economy. These types of refundable lump-sum tax rebates were estimated to have a multiplier of about 1.26, comparatively higher than most other tax cut options, though not as high as various types of spending increases. Though the rebate did boost spending to a degree, it was not as much as expected since most Americans saved the money in lieu of spending it and the checks arrived too late to stave off the recession, which was already well underway by the time they arrived in the later half of the year. Nonetheless, it certainly did not hurt the economy, and the cash injection was valuable towards paying off debts, increasing savings (even if this didn’t effectively improve investment, as banks weren’t loaning much out in these times anyway), and providing some cash to many who may have desperately needed it. The situation in the US was also only getting started: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were taken over by the federal government in September, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt only days later, the Troubled Asset Relief Program would be authorized in October and the Federal Reserve didn’t even drop interest rates to zero until December. And that was all before President Obama was sworn in in January of 2009 and had to address the back half of the crisis, managing the automotive industry bailouts and officially exiting the recession in June of 2009, though of course economic malaise would be persistent for the next several years. Though this initial stimulus was only about $152 billion, successive fiscal support such as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (which authorized $700 billion, of which only about $440 billion was used), and the Recovery Act (which cost $831 billion) made up most of the federal government’s fiscal response to the recession.6To say nothing of the $4.5 trillion dollars the Federal Reserve provided in quantitative easing to inject additional funds into the financial system and lower long-term interest rates. And while history indicates this was probably not enough and the government should have spent more to mitigate the persistent economic torpidity that would follow, you might note all of these successive bills are already dwarfed by the $2.2 trillion spent on the Phase 3 COVID-19 response legislation alone.
A Recession Unlike Any Other
Despite its size, the Phase 3 COVID-19 response legislation will not be enough. The contraction at hand is not because of the traditional reasons economies fall into recession, such as burst asset bubbles, supply shocks (i.e., a sudden increase in energy prices), financial crises, and the like, wherein there is a decrease in aggregate demand. In recessions like these, the federal government often cuts taxes and increases spending, while central banks increase the money supply to lower interest rates. This encourages businesses to take out cheap loans, new public works projects to provide jobs, and consumers to run out and buy things with all that new cash. This recession is different because we don’t want these things to happen, at least not like that. We want businesses to keep their doors closed, schools to stay shuttered, and the last thing we want is consumers running around outside within six feet of each other waving their $1200 checks. Some have argued that the aim of a COVID-19 response should be to “actually decrease demand; a kind of anti-stimulus.” Tax cuts, more spending, and lower interest rates will not help the economy to the degree they historically have, and may even make the economic scenario worse if things abruptly turned around for folks and they started traveling, going back to work, and shopping around only to spread the virus further. Yes, the economy is in trouble because people aren’t spending — but not because they don’t want to or because they had to cut back. Instead it’s a self-imposed slowdown where governments are begging people to stay inside and requiring businesses to close. No matter how much money you have right now, you’re not going to go on that big vacation to Europe you had planned, nor should you. But it’s worth saying, and now saying again, how weird it is for such behavior to be discouraged in the context of your average recession.
While discussing the psychology of markets, Keynes once famously remarked that “animal spirits” encouraged consumption and people would spend when these spirits were lifted, as opposed to precisely calculating exactly when their personal budgetary situation would improve. He wrote, “If the animal spirits are dimmed and spontaneous optimism falters, leaving us to depend on nothing but a mathematical expectation, enterprise will fade and die.” And though Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money came out in 1936 in response to the non-pandemic but still extraordinary economic foibles of its time, it is these insights on human behavior and psychology that have made his work so pervasive and applicable even in times like our own. The peoples’ outlook has to be a positive one and government is the only institution that can provide both the hope and support that the economy will need to improve.
Survival, Not Stimulus
The goal of the Phase 3 legislation is to survive. Send out some cash to help get you through a week or two, massively expand unemployment insurance in both its length and magnitude (the bill provides nearly 100% wage replacement for the average worker, which some might argue is the most important part of the law), freeze federal student loan payments until October, and provide loans to small businesses that will not cripple them for months once the economy rebounds. And it does many of these things very well. But if the goal is to do more than just survive and in fact prevent what could become the worst recession of our lifetimes from getting worse, this will not do the job. There are already voices calling for more nuanced and specific ways to trigger direct economic activity like online-only purchase vouchers, provisions for further payments if the crisis lasts longer than a month, and the digitization of or creating contingencies for essential services like education, mental health, and even elections.
Some of these items may come in a Phase 4 bill, but given Congress’ deteriorating ability to convene, the Senate’s announcement that it will not return until April 20, and the House’s indefinite recess, by the time such a bill even gets moving it will likely be overdue. This brings us back to what we can do now and what those Americans who are still employed and collecting a paycheck but will also be receiving rebates can do. If you really want to help, do not feel guilty about spending it: buy goods online for delivery, support local restaurants even if you can’t go to them by buying gift cards, subscribe to online fitness courses or support artists by buying digital media. Your spending will have a multiplicative effect on the economy to a larger degree than its surface value, and even spending it on something you may think is frivolous or unessential given all that is at stake can have positive effects for those who may need a source of income right now more than you do. Stay safe, take care of yourself, take care of those near you, stay inside to the degree you can, and if you want to buy that new album, that fancy new blender, or a new board game to help get you through these times — don’t feel guilty about it. You have an opportunity to help out a lot of people by helping yourself.