Saturday, September 12, 2020

A Post-Pandemic Proposal

A Nation Can Do Well By Doing Good
Nicholas Johnson

The Gazette, September 12, 2020, p. A6

This year brought challenges from an uncontrolled global pandemic and resulting economic collapse, enhanced awareness of racial injustice, political partisanship, and serious derecho damage.

What it also brought was an outpouring of helpers for those in need. [Photo Credit: Jimmy Panetta,]

It was as if an entire community suddenly chose to follow the Biblical command that we provide the needy stranger with food, water, shelter, clothing, healthcare – and chainsaws. The text comes from Matthew 25, with similar sentiments in many religions.

But before the derecho, before COVID-19, there were many in America – including Iowa communities – who were, and still are, food and water insecure, homeless or in unhealthy housing, needing winter clothing, out of work, without reliable transportation, and unable to afford healthcare, let alone childcare. [Photo credit: "Migrant Mother," Library of Congress, wikimedia.]

Why is it that the national compassion that blows into town with a derecho’s winds is soon gone with the wind? More precisely – because local helpers and their organizations remain – why do elected officials fail to see that “we all do better when we ALL do better”? Could it be the poor’s reluctance to make those $2,800 campaign contributions?

Robert Kennedy famously quoted George Bernard Shaw’s line, “Some men see things as they are and say 'Why'? I dream things that never were and say 'Why Not"?"

Why not indeed?

Rather than speculate, let’s address the usual argument: “We can’t afford it.” Clearly that’s not true. There are billions or trillions for the banks, tax cuts for the one percent, defense-related appropriations greater than the next ten nations combined, and boosts to businesses during our virus-crippled economy.

In our capitalist society religious and moral arguments are seldom sufficiently persuasive. Change is unlikely unless it will simultaneously further enrich the politically powerful. Progress requires we tie our reform to the tail of greed if we want to see it run off down the street.

We must prove to the powerful how they can still do well by doing good.

Exhibit One. Consumer spending is 70 percent of Gross Domestic Product. This summer, “trickle up” proved a more effective economic boost than “trickle down.” President Richard Nixon supported a “negative income tax.” Presidential candidate Andrew Yang called it “universal basic income.” As conservative economist Milton Friedman once explained it to me, “there’s nothing wrong with poverty than money won’t cure.”

Exhibit Two. Providing humane treatment can be cheaper. RAND studied Los Angeles’ program moving 3,500 homeless from streets to healthy housing. It saved the county $20 million – returning $1.20 for every dollar spent. Universal healthcare would level the playing field for businesses competing with foreign companies that don’t have to embed employees’ health costs in their prices.

Exhibit Three. Skilled work force. It is cheaper to put someone in a public university ($5,580 to $17,470) than prison ($33,274 to $69,355). Tuition-free community college, available in 17 states, could reduce Iowa’s skilled worker shortage while saving business the cost of finding and training workers.

Exhibit Four. Capitalism can’t provide everyone jobs. In 1933 2.5 million enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps; 46,000 in Iowa helped build our state parks. There are 250 million over 18 and plenty jobs to do. The more employed the greater will be consumer spending and GDP.

Spread the word. We really can all do better by doing better for all.
Nicholas Johnson, former Co-director, Institute for Health, Behavior and Environmental Policy, is the author of Columns of Democracy. Contact:
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Matthew 25. "'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'"

$2,800 political contribution. "During the current two-year election cycle the limit for contributions by individuals to federal candidates for President, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives has increased to $2,800 per election." "FEC announces 2019–2020 campaign cycle contribution limits," Federal Election Commission, February 7, 2019

Dream things that never were. "Robert F. Kennedy," Wikipedia,, note 312 ("Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.")

Defense-related appropriations. "U.S. defense spending may now exceed that of the next 13 nations combined." Lawrence J. Korb, "The Pentagon’s Fiscal Year 2021 Budget More Than Meets U.S. National Security Needs," Foreign Policy and Security, Center for American Progress, May 6, 2020,

Consumer spending. "Falling consumer spending has major effects on overall GDP growth, as it accounts for roughly 68 percent of GDP." "An In-Depth Look at COVID-19’s Early Effects on Consumer Spending and GDP," Council of Economic Advisers, White House, April 29, 2020

Richard Nixon "Negative Income Tax." "In 1971, President Richard Nixon proposed a negative income tax as the centerpiece of his welfare reform program ...." "Negative Income Tax," Wikipedia,

Yang's "Universal Basic Income." Andrew Yang,

RAND, LA homeless. Doug Irving, "Supportive Housing Reduces Homelessness—and Lowers Health Care Costs by Millions," Rand, June 27, 2018,

Prison costs. “Among the 45 states that provided data (representing 1.29 million of the 1.33 million total people incarcerated in all 50 state prison systems), the total cost per inmate averaged $33,274 and ranged from a low of $14,780 in Alabama to a high of $69,355 in New York. “The Price of Prisons; Prison Spending in 2015,” Vera Institute of Justice,

State college costs. "In 2019-20, average published tuition and fee prices for in-state students at public four-year institutions range from $5,580 in Wyoming and $6,350 in Florida to $16,920 in New Hampshire and $17,470 in Vermont." "2019-20 Published In-State Tuition and Fees at Public Four-Year Institutions by State," College Board,

Free community college. (list of 17 named states) Robert Farrington, “These States Offer Tuition-Free Community College,” Forbes, March 25, 2020,

CCC. “Eight Historical CCC Parks in Iowa,” DNR News Releases, March 31, 2015,

U.S. population over 18. Demographics of the United States, Wikipedia,

The (University of Iowa’s) Institute for Health, Behavior and Environmental Policy was in operation from 1990 through 1993, during which time I served as co-director with UI epidemiologist Richard Remington.

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