Don’t let coronavirus lessons go to waste

You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

That phrase was most famously said in recent history by Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff. In the wake of the so-called Great Recession, it became a clarion call built atop the Obama campaign’s “hope” and “change” slogan.

So what did the White House do? They pushed hard on “Obamacare,” and managed to get a Republican elected in Massachusetts to replace Sen. Ted Kennedy. Oops.

The GOP seized upon Emanuel’s quote. It sounds Machiavellian, turning a cynical eye towards apparent suffering in order to achieve some long-sought political or policy objective.

But Machiavelli wasn’t wrong. And, as we begin to come out of the coronavirus pandemic, we shouldn’t let its lessons go to waste.

There are a few faults in our economy and our safety net that have been highlighted through this process. Health insurance is chief among them. Why the heck is our ability to insure against health risks tied to our employers?

We’ve looked at that question before. The answer was Big Labor. And Big Business. And Big Government. All working together to accomplish something that, at the time, was invariably good.

One of the good aspects of the Affordable Care Act was an effort to try to open up the “individual market” and let people buy their health insurance the same way they buy their car insurance. They pick the plan they like and, if they pay the premium, its theirs; their job never enters into the picture.

Given that Washington has buried itself into the market, correcting the errors of eras past will take federal leadership.

A sign announces a coronavirus-related closure at a flower shop in Jay. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The same analysis applies to several of our entitlement programs. “Stimulus” efforts required jury-rigging the IRS. Trying to protect people through enhanced unemployment benefits has completely upended the market in some places — a single person can receive the median statewide household income by not working right now. A young couple, both out of work, could get more than $2,000 a week in unemployment benefits, through late July. That is more than double the “living wage” in our state for two adults with no children.

If this is the world in crisis, we should probably fix it so things can work better lest another pandemic arise in the future. “Negative income taxes” — or “freedom dividends,” or “universal basic income” — could be an enduring solution to the issue. It could eliminate the need for state departments of labor to try to reprogram their entire systems in the middle of a pandemic.

And businesses — particularly small businesses — have a significant challenge preparing for a worldwide, economy-stopping pandemic. While a few federal initiatives, most notably the “Paycheck Protection Program,” have been a herculean effort and done a lot of good, the whirlwind around it left some collateral damage. It has some gaps and some challenges.

So maybe the federal government could fashion a new reinsurance program, similar to its efforts for floods. Businesses routinely buy “business interruption” insurance. The problem is that it won’t cover a pandemic or government shutdowns. But, given that the U.S. Constitution requires the government to pay “just compensation” when it takes private property, maybe it could be a little more thought-out while providing small businesses the ability to make their own assessments on risk-reward.

If insurance was available and they chose not to take it? A little bit of sympathy would slough off, and we wouldn’t need to have races to the bank for advantageous loans.

In short, we shouldn’t waste the lessons of this crisis. But if we are going to do something about it, we will need people in Washington who have proven they can move the ball forward, even if the solution isn’t perfect.

The race for the U.S. Senate is heating up, and we have an individual running who has often found ways to get to “yes.” Susan Collins has done it countless times over her career, and she even did it with Rahm Emanuel back in 2009.

It would be a shame if we wasted someone who gets things done in the wake of a crisis.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.