No one can enjoy the spectacle of an antique and floundering president, being overborne by public health events. Nor can one be inspired by his two Democratic opponents, both of whom appear to seriously suffer from hardening of the arteries, manifested in one case by frequent incoherence and in the other by a fixation on the ideals of his youth, coupled with the obliteration of any thoughts inspired by intervening events. The Congressional leadership of both parties is likewise notably unconstructive. The Speaker of the House has one stock in trade: protection of the existing welfare state, even to the point of a rear-guard action against the actuarial tables. The recent utterances of the Senate Minority Leader on the Supreme Court and the crisis make those of the president seem civil by comparison. Obstructionism is the principal talent of the Congressional Republican leadership: there are no contracts with America or constructive Republican alternatives in the manner of the late Senator Robert Taft.
If ‘a crisis is a terrible thing to waste,' the present one presents all seven of these figures with an unexpected opportunity for leadership. The president has expressed interest in economic stimulus through a moratorium on payroll taxation of employees, an idea greeted by derision from many Democrats, who justify Senator Taft’s onetime gibe that when Democrats want to raise serious money, they resort to regressive payroll or production taxes. But a reduction in payroll taxation does provide an opportunity to deal with the problems of unemployed and underemployed youth, of a generation described by Congressman Paul Ryan at the 2012 Republican convention as lying in their parents’ basements, looking at fading Obama posters and waiting for their lives to begin.
The statistics relating to this subject are grim, and are also seriously understated since they do not include those who are imprisoned, who have dropped out of the workforce, or who never contributed. I have three suggestions here:
The first is for an exemption of earnings of workers under a specified age (25?) from payroll taxation (not income taxation). This is done in recent legislation in Poland and Croatia and was once done in Sweden. There are wage subsidies in Germany and the Netherlands that have the same effect; in both countries, unlike this one, rates of youth unemployment are well below general rates of unemployment, and in Germany keeping them that way is a major purpose, because of the political repercussions of youth unemployment in the Weimar Republic. (In the current U.S. the young are too ‘spaced out’ on television and various substances to take much of an interest in politics, as Senator Sanders has learned to his sorrow). The costs of this would be modest. The age cohort makes up only 10 to 15 percent of the labor force, and their average wages when employed are a small fraction of the adult average wage. An increase of perhaps 0.1 or 0.2 percent in payroll taxation would probably defer the cost.
This measure would not have a dramatic immediate effect, but because the rule would be simple, dramatic and easily understood, it should have a substantial effect over time. Previous American efforts in this direction, through ‘targeted’ tax credits and the like have been ineffective because they are complicated, little known, and encumbered with red tape. The persons newly employed would be sufficiently established by age 25 as not to be discharged in favor of newer, younger workers, an action penalized by experience-rated unemployment tax systems.
The second suggestion, involving some but not huge federal expenditures, would be for a revived voluntary Civilian Conservation Corps. At present it is not an exaggeration to say that in cities like Baltimore (and in former Governor Pence’s Indiana and former Governor Shumlin’s Vermont) the only serious vocational opportunities for young men are found in the military and the illegal drug trade. The military is said to reject about three-fourths of its applicants, on account of disease, obesity, body tattoos, illiteracy or criminal records. The original CCC was, along with the repeal of alcohol prohibition, the most popular initiative of the Roosevelt administration and was ended only because of wartime labor shortages. The initial training in it was provided by the military; it was where General Marshall made his reputation as a manager of manpower (see the first two volumes of the Forrest Pogue biography). The calisthenics, work discipline, supervision and dietary improvements should inspire confidence in conservative citizens in a renewed program not run by civilian sociologists in the manner of the Job Corps. The work performed also resonates with contemporary concerns: flood control works, reforestation, reclamation of strip and deep mines, creation of parks and hiking trails. There is currently a bi-partisan National Commission on Military, National and Public Service which is scheduled to report in March 2020 and conclude its work by September 2020; a timely statement by one or more of our superannuated leaders (all younger than me) might have a substantial impact.
Third, we can point out that the president, remarkably enough, is better positioned than his three immediate predecessors to emulate FDR in rationalizing our laws relating to marijuana use. Sumptuary laws directed at 15 percent of the population cannot be enforced, and operate only to create monopolies for the underworld, whose legally unenforceable contracts are given effect by violence. Roosevelt’s Federal Alcohol Administration provided quality control and labeling, much needed as an accompaniment to legalization, together with a 21-year-old minimum purchase age. A teetotal president who has kept his children from adventures with drugs and who can with credibility discuss recognition and prevention of drug problems is a good exemplar in this field, if no other. The virus crisis has little effect on the young; it would be a happy outcome if the need for economic stimulus provided a spur to rescue what is in important ways a lost generation.
George Liebmann is a Baltimore lawyer and the author of numerous works on law and history, most recently America’s Political Inventors: The Lost Art of Legislation (Bloomsbury, 2019).