While Governor Lamont remarked the other day that state government doesn’t have enough money to rescue every business suffering from the virus epidemic and the curtailment of commerce, most people think the federal government has infinite money and can and should make everyone whole.
Sharing that view, Connecticut U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal this week went to the railroad station in West Haven to join Catherine Rinaldi, president of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, in calling for an emergency $12 billion federal appropriation for the MTA, which runs the Metro-North commuter railroad line from New Haven to New York City. Metro-North has lost 80 percent of its passengers and fares because of business curtailments and the shift to working from home.
There are two problems with the appeal from Blumenthal and Rinaldi.
First, there is no need to keep Metro-North operating on a normal schedule when most passengers are missing. Except for railroad employees, no one is served by running empty trains.
Indeed, curtailment of commuter rail service might make time to renovate the tracks and other facilities. Rather than furloughing railroad employees, hundreds of them might be reassigned temporarily to collect the trash that litters the tracks between New Haven and New York. The savings on electric power from running fewer trains still would be huge.
The second problem is that the federal government’s power of money creation is infinite only technically. While nothing in law forbids the federal government from spending any amount, money is no good by itself. It has value only insofar as it has purchasing power — only insofar as there are things to be purchased, only insofar as there is production, and with so many people out of work or working less during the epidemic, production has fallen measurably. Operating empty trains won’t increase production, but spending $12 billion to operate them may worsen the devaluation of the dollar, whose international value recently has fallen substantially amid so much money creation.
So it might be far better to add that $12 billion to public health purposes.
The $12 billion desired by the MTA is only a tiny part of the largess imagined by the incoming national administration and many members of Congress who will be returning to Washington next month. They are contemplating another trillion dollars in bailouts, and that’s just for starters. Such is the damage done to the national economy by the epidemic and government’s often clumsy responses to it.
Amid all the seemingly free money, some people are starting to enjoy lockdowns or at least finding them tolerable, especially those who, like many government employees, get paid as usual whether they work or not.
This week two Hartford City Council members, Wildaliz Bermudez and Josh Mitchtom, called on the governor to use the state’s $3 billion emergency reserve to pay everybody to stay home for a month and to stop most commercial operations in the name of slowing the spread of the virus. Bermudez and Mitchtom seemed unaware that the emergency reserve is already expected to be consumed by the huge deficits pending in next year’s state budget. The reserve won’t come close to covering all the shortfalls.
But then getting paid for doing or accomplishing nothing is a way of life in Hartford, encouraged by state government’s steady subsidy of so many failures in the city.
Last week a group of 35 doctors went almost as far as those Hartford council members, urging the governor to close gyms and restaurants and to prohibit all “unnecessary” gatherings so as to stop the virus and prevent medical personnel from being overwhelmed. It didn’t seem to bother the doctors that those businesses and their employees already have been overwhelmed by commerce-curtailment orders, suffering enormous losses, including business capital and life savings. The doctors are inconvenienced now and may be more so but they won’t be losing their life savings and livelihoods.
The governor is trying to strike a balance among all these interests. Every day presents him with another difficult judgment call that upsets someone. He may be realizing that Connecticut is just going to have to tough it out and accept some casualties all around.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.