In every heist movie, there’s an “Aha!” moment. Think thieves disguised as SWAT team members escaping the casino in Ocean’s Eleven. Or watercolor paint washing away in The Thomas Crown Affair. The curtain rises, the misdirection reveals itself, and the audience finally sees the game like the players do.
Recently, American politics has felt like an over-acted drama most of the time and a dark comedy the rest of the time. As so-called “economic impact payments” and boosted unemployment checks flood into bank accounts across the country, we can finally see the game like the players do.
It’s a heist movie. And this is the “Aha!” moment.
Of course, there’s the issue of the current stimulus package’s name. As many have pointed out, the “American Rescue Plan” of 2021 is not a real COVID-19 relief bill. It sends billions to states without budget shortfalls. It doubles down on the broken foundation of Obamacare with more insurance subsidies. And it makes unemployment even more attractive to workers, even as small businesses struggle to reopen.
But that’s not the “Aha!” moment. Plenty of bad and unpopular ideas have passed into law under a clever name.
Politicians have found an even more effective shortcut to break gridlock. They’re sending money straight to the source — the voters.
No, this was true misdirection. The reason the public still broadly supports the bill — and why so many on the right have only tepid criticism — is that most Americans will only feel the bill’s effect when they see stimulus checks land in their bank account.
The SWAT team members were the thieves. They switched the briefcases. They bought our tolerance of government borrowing and spending on the scale of several world wars — in a time of financial uncertainty — by giving us a cut.
We simply can’t hear the reasonable voices warning us of inflationary effects, a growing welfare state, and deepening disincentives to work over the sound of all that cha-ching.
And that’s exactly why they might get away with it.
In a simpler time, politicians scratched each other’s backs with earmarks — pork projects attached to specific legislative districts that could create broad support for fractious policy packages. Don’t like the latest spending bill, congressman? How about we set aside $2.5 million of it for a bridge in your district?
Ten years have passed since earmarks were banned in 2011. They’re making a comeback now.
But politicians hardly need them anymore. They’ve found an even more effective shortcut to break gridlock. They’re sending money straight to the source — the voters.
Of course, earmarks were only banned in the first place as part of the fallout from bailouts full of moral hazard and stimulus packages full of delay and waste.
Americans wanted sustainable, real economic growth based on work and earned income, not corporate welfare. We understood that a republic grounded in self-government cannot survive if we treat the public treasury like a personal ATM.
If we don’t return to that principle again — and soon — this story can only end in one place. Want to boost support and silence opposition for the public option in Medicare? Just send checks to everyone. Want to make it more difficult to vote against the Green New Deal? Add checks.
Infrastructure package? Federal jobs guarantee? Free college tuition? Checks, checks, checks.
If the American Rescue Plan of 2021 does not generate fallout similar to the bailouts and stimulus in the wake of the Great Recession, politicians will gravitate toward this far more destructive workaround.
Stimulus checks are the new earmarks.
Will we smile as we get our cut of the new welfare state? Will we ignore the damage we’re doing to the truly needy, not to mention future Americans paying interest on this debt?
How will this heist movie end?
Scott Centorino is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability.
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