Dean of Harvard Kennedy School Douglas Elmendorf discussed the fight to revitalize the U.S. economy during and after the COVID-19 pandemic during a Berkeley Forum event Thursday.
Nearly a year after the pandemic first struck, Elmendorf opened his dialogue with his three-part plan to combat socioeconomic inequality and promote economic recovery in the United States. His plan — shaped by his personal values and perspective on public policy — is centered on relief and stimulus.
“The United States is suffering from a collection of crises, including an economic crisis,” Elmendorf said during the forum. “We have acute crises in our health and well-being, our democracy, our economy, our governance and more, and these acute crises are worse because they come out on top of chronic problems, with our health, our democracy and our economy.”
Elmendorf raised three crucial requirements for moving toward a full economic recovery from the pandemic. Namely, providing economic relief through stimulus payments, empowering people to find work that provides sufficient income and strengthening the safety net for those unable to work.
Reflecting back on the Great Recession era, during which he served as the director of the Congressional Budget Office, Elmendorf noted that the premature economic tightening of fiscal policy following the 2008-2010 stimulus package was a mistake.
“In 2011 and later, that fiscal support turned into fiscal restraint,” Elmendorf said during the forum. “That slowed the economic recovery and kept more people unemployed for longer.”
Elmendorf advocated for immediate increased fiscal spending as the current lower interest rates allow for minimal budgetary consequences.
Elmendorf highlighted factors such as the rise in automation and imports, access to education and different standards of living among states as catalysts for socioeconomic disparities between Americans. Boosting overall income, he said, would be ineffective as the income and wealth gap would leave some citizens short-changed.
Instead, he said the government’s focus should remain on improving the standard of living for lower and middle-class Americans who are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
The last requirement Elmendorf raised was the urgency of providing Americans who are unable to work with a financial safety net, which he noted is a moral responsibility of the government.
Amid the recent approval of President Joe Biden’s lump-sum $1.9 trillion relief package, Elmendorf said a more effective plan would have nuances of economic boosters and reducers to address the varying unemployment rates impacting each state.
After underscoring the social and economic concerns rooted in America’s “acute on chronic” crises, Elmendorf emphasized the need for collective action.
“Democracy only works if people are informed and engaged,” Elmendorf said during the forum. “Our country needs you.”