It's time for an anti-grizzly stimulus bill

Congress needs to get its act together
brown bear
Photo: Frank Vassen / cc2.0

Some years ago, during a trip to a wilderness fishing lodge, three friends and I were attacked by a grizzly bear. Believe it or not, I actually ended up running away from the bear in a pair of LL Bean slippers. While we all survived, it was way, way too close for comfort and I don’t think I’ll ever forget my reaction when I looked back over my shoulder and saw that massive grizzly racing after me. I was seconds away from being dragged down, mauled and killed, and all I could think of was the soon-to-be inscription on my tombstone:

Here lies Todd Tanner,
the only man in history
dumb enough to try to outrun
a grizzly bear in his slippers.

For those of you who don’t know, you should never try to run away from a bear. And if for some reason you have no other choice, you’ll want to wear your running shoes.

There’s a backstory, of course. My companions and I found ourselves square in the middle of a bear/.44 magnum dispute and my fishing partner and I started jogging away from the unfolding confrontation. We had no clue we were about to be pursued by five hundred pounds of tooth and claw.

Furthermore, the events that led to us running away from the bear were, in and of themselves, relatively innocuous. It’s not like we made a single terrible decision. It was more a confluence of bad luck, unwarranted confidence and a lack of foresight.

Which, come to think of it, sounds an awful lot like the run-up to our current coronavirus pandemic. It also brings to mind our uninspired response to human-caused climate change. The United States, or at least that United States as it exists in 2020, seems incapable of preparing for the major threats on the horizon — and that’s true even when those threats are predictable and obvious.

Still, I’ve learned that when you do find yourself in serious trouble — when you’re being chased by a grizzly bear, or stalked by a mountain lion, or forced to swim across a large, icy river in the middle of winter — you have no choice but to work through things on the fly. You assess the situation as quickly and honestly as you can, then make a decision about the best way to move forward. Which brings me to America’s future stimulus bills.

We have an obvious choice in front of us right now. We can continue down the road that leads to political gridlock, cronyism, partisan bickering, and a general distrust of scientific and medical expertise — in other words, we can opt for the path to the angry grizzly bear — or we can work to get America through this crisis by supporting our families, offering real aid to small businesses, and putting stimulus money where it will do the most good.

As an angler, I favor a stimulus that tips its hat to reality, leans hard on common sense, and offers us a realistic chance of coming through this hell-scape in one piece.

What does that look like? Well, we still need to do way more for our doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, and for our first responders. Let’s make absolutely sure they have the financial support they deserve and the equipment they so desperately need.

At the same time, let’s not forget about the grocery store clerks, truck drivers and other essential service workers who have been putting themselves at risk while they keep America functional.

And then there’s our families. One small check isn’t going to cut it for the 20 million Americans who are out of work. Our families should be a top priority, and that means helping them keep food on the table and a roof over their heads in these perilous times.

Finally, we need to really support our small businesses — including our family farms and ranches — and give a boost to America’s renewable energy sector, which is the source of so many new jobs. Shouldn’t bolstering our rural communities, ensuring the safety of our food supply, and locking in clean energy as we put our country back to work be a no-brainer?

One word of caution. While there are a ton of appropriate landing spots for our stimulus money, from long-term CRP contracts that inject cash into family farms, to imperiled rural hospitals, to direct investments in clean energy and infrastructure modernization, we need to keep our eye on the ball. Our families, our small businesses, and the people on the front lines of the pandemic need to come first. This is not the time for handouts to big corporations, nor is it the time to reward campaign contributors. Americans are hurting, and that’s true from sea to shining sea. Congress has to steer clear of cronyism and corruption, and do the job it was elected to do. That’s the only way we avoid this particular bear.

Contact Congress and share your thoughts on the next round of federal stimulus funding.


Those are excellent thoughts. They are underscored by paying attention to a few principles, lessons, and strategies:
1) One of the proper roles of government actions in times like these is building and rebuilding resilience at a fundamental level. Some of that requires risk-informed, vertical thinking (addressing such topics as vaccine development support, contact tracing techniques, or distribution paths for PPE, ventilators, testing requirements, effective medicines and vaccines and other vital resources), but some is simple—send resources to the most stressed among us, where it will make the most difference.
2) Prior stimulus efforts by this administration have disproportionately benefited citizens and corporations with the most resources and the best lobbyists. Gary Cohn was reportedly stunned in one meeting when he asked corporate leaders what capital investments they had undertaken with the first round of Trump tax cuts, and they replied that money had gone toward stock buybacks, debt reduction, and bonuses. That rewarded stockholders and the wealthy but did nothing for others. Compare the economic benefits of stock buybacks to injecting money to those small business owners and citizens who must spend that money immediately, much of it going to others who will also spend it immediately. If the goal is stimulus, buybacks look pretty stupid in comparison to true small business relief.
3) Credibility counts when a nation is stressed, and it’s in damned short supply. The priorities for this spending should be transparent, defensible, and easily communicated. The fact is, both major parties need credibility, and those who fought for logical, effective stimulus will be remembered in November.

It’s not that hard to survive a lethal threat from a grizzly or other source of danger. It’s also no time for mistakes or wasted effort. The obscene circus in Washington, D.C notwithstanding, there are some situations in which natural selection is still in play.

"Congress has to steer clear of cronyism and corruption, and do the job it was elected to do."
I'm sorry Todd, but Congress is doing exactly what it was elected to do. Supporting and bolstering the big business interests that supply 90% of their campaign money is how they will get reelected, not by listening to you and I. My $50 donation to Bernie won't exactly counter money from Elon Musk, or Charles Koch. Congress is paid to send money to the top 1% and they have learned to do that job very well. Until we get mega-money out of our political system, there will be no change. Problem is, to change the system, you have to use the system.

Our 100-year old education system was designed to produce factory workers who don't think for themselves and it is in the interest of monied interests that the system stay that way. Teachers can't teach science because they will be confronted by angry mobs financed by dark money. If you don't teach science out of fear, you are creating a next generation of teachers who don't (or won't) understand scientific concepts or critical thinking. It is in the best interest of those with the most to maintain the current system that keeps them rich and you and I fat and stupid. Therefore, the stimulus money will go to maintain the current educational system, there will be no free tuition, access to high-quality pre-kindergarten, improved teacher science training, or other paradigm changes. We will continue to produce followers and not leaders.

When the shutdown was first being implemented, my knee-jerk reaction concerning economic stimulus was to invest far, far more in an unemployment compensation system that covered just about anyone in need. I was deeply suspicious of any grants or loans to big businesses because of the likelihood that they would find ways to pocket the federal largesse instead of arranging to have it “trickle down” to workers.

As subsequent events have proven, my suspicions were well-founded, partly because most of the big companies really are overwhelmingly avaricious and, in no small measure, because Congress, under the aegis of the current Republican leadership, was unwilling to restrict the uses of federal money given to big business and to establish an oversight/enforcement provision in the legislation that might have discouraged such misuse of funds.

However, my original idea— to reinforce unemployment compensation— has its own significant down sides. It requires that an applicant be out of work to apply. This means that the applicant has not only lost his/her job but has lost benefits like health insurance. It also means the applicant will eventually have to look for another job or re-apply for the one he/she had. And it means that many businesses could simply fail before we make it out of this mess. Seems to me that all of this will drastically slow any future recovery and further destabilize an already damaged economy.

In response to the Great Recession in 2008, Denmark reinforced its unemployment compensation to give direct help to citizens who had lost their jobs. When the financial situation eased, the Danes found that, in spite of their expenditure, lasting damage had been done to their economy. It took a long time to rebuild.

This time around, Denmark decided to take a different approach— essentially guaranteeing payrolls in private companies. There is speculation that this approach, as expensive as it is, will allow a much quicker startup on the far side of the pandemic. Here are a couple of links:

The obvious risk here is that companies would cash the checks and, once again, misuse the money for stock buy-backs or other schemes that put federal money in the pockets of CEOs and majority stockholders. If such a system were adopted, there would have to be a robust system of oversight with teeth that should include criminal penalties. Still, it’s worth thinking about.

I thank Todd for referring to another idea I've been considering: a drastic expansion of the acreage caps and funding for programs under the conservation title of the farm bill. Establishing permanent cover on marginal ag land not only reduces soil erosion, traps pesticides and fertilizer, improves water quality, and provides wildlife habitat for species that are under exceptional long-term stress but it also sequesters carbon— and it does all this while injecting critically needed income into rural communities, many of which were already in crisis before COVID-19 hit. And, with the disturbance of traditional supply chains for ag commodities, I think more farmers would be interested in the guaranteed revenue stream a contract under the conservation title represents. Hunters and anglers also gain obvious benefits.

As a general rule, I'm not a fan of deficit spending, but America's ability to take on debt exists for just such emergencies as these. Once we get out of this mess, we need to look at the challenge of the federal budget from both ends— paring our spending to fit our means . . . and expanding our means to cover the crucial missions of government. Yes— that means higher taxes, especially for the wealthiest Americans, but for most of the rest of us as well.

That's a good piece. I would only add that the best way the next stimulus bill can help promote clean energy and slow climate change is to NOT BAIL OUT THE OIL INDUSTRY! Force them to face the realities of a future where clean energy and the technology to support it will rise and oil production will fall. The fact that people aren't driving much now isn't so much just a temporary hiccup, but rather a wakeup call for the petroleum industry. They should heed this warning not by receiving bailout money to continue business as usual, but as an opportunity to figure out what the viable alternatives can be.

Todd, as usual, your thoughtful and entertaining take on things bears much wisdom. I'd like to take a brief moment to comment that the pandemic is like an army attacking. Why? An army doesn't just go scorched earth, it picks and chooses targets that are vulnerable and provide strategic advantage. The pandemic is disproportionately impacting people with less than average education, less than average income, and less than average access to resources (banking, savings, mortgages), and who have less than average access to health systems (hospitals, health insurance, etc.). They are disproportinately black and brown people. The historic disadvantages that follow urban and rural communities of color make for target-rich opportunities. And in the future, climate change will disproportinately harm urban and rural communities of color too. With the stimulus, we have an opportunity to think long-term, and build capacities of resilience now that are more inclusive than the status quo. We have the opportunity to take future targets off the table. No community is safe until all are safe. We need to include funding for early education support which has short and long-term benefits (a more able workforce, a more educated family). We need to ensure communities of color are given equal access to stimulus resources. The strategies to reduce food deserts now in these communities can have short-term and long-term positive benefits (urban gardening for example). Ensuring minority and women-owned businesses receive a fair share of stimulus funds will meet two goals - creating more equitable dispersal of funds, AND reaching small and independent businesses.

Stimulus money should be targeted at those affected most, including hourly wage earners in the service industry. And, we need to get everyone back to work. It's impossible to hide from a virus over the long term. We're going to see a terrible suicide rate and bad mental health outcomes if people can't work.

Also, studies show people with metabolic syndrome (evidenced by obesity, diabetes, etc.) are far more likely to die from COVID-19. The stats show only 12% of Americans are metabolically healthy (i.e. thin). It's not politically correct to say it, but Americans need to wake up and starting eating whole foods with no added sugars. Truthfully, this looks more like an indictment of our health habits than anything else. Completely predictable.

Let's take care of our most vulnerable citizens and get everyone else back to work.