Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

A recent Colorado Politics story made a number of important points about the economic impact of the current COVID crisis. Simply put, Colorado’s economy is showing signs of recovering from the pandemic, albeit slowly and unevenly. So, in some ways Coloradan’s are fortunate and in others, not so much.

Which, of course, brings me to a bilious and remitting illness…

As our lovely state struggles to recover from the physical, emotional, and economic impacts of COVID, I can’t help but let my mind drift back to an earlier medical scare that raced across society. I bet you thought I was going to talk about the terrible flu pandemic of 1918, right? Well, that was certainly nasty, and my own grandparents — then newly-wed Iowa farmers — took ill but happily recovered. But there was an earlier illness that ravaged parts of the United States in ways that seem remarkably similar to our current situation. Therefore, I would like to turn your attention to the bilious and remitting yellow fever crisis of 1793.

In that year, a mere handful of years after the inauguration of George Washington, a terrifying contagion raced through the then-U.S. capital of Philadelphia and other parts of the new nation. Within just a couple of months of the initial outbreak, roughly 5,000 people had died in that city, out of a population of only 50,000. Until an October frost killed the mosquitoes that were spreading the illness, vast numbers of citizens became sick and a staggeringly large number died, sickened with headache, jaundice (hence: “yellow fever”), fatigue and, well, vomiting that was bilious. 

Not surprisingly businesses in the city were impacted significantly, as one flour miller noted, “I want to do something, but the Fever…has thrown us all out on our Geers.” Just as today, the people wondered where help would come from and how they would get through the crisis.

And guess what? We can take a lesson from those early days of our nascent nation, as the U.S. Mint — a major employer in Philly — took the bold action of continuing to pay its workers so that they could stay home and help stop the spread of the disease. Workers put on furlough got at least half pay for the duration of the epidemic, a policy the Mint would use no less than six more times over the next eight years as yellow fever popped up each summer, although in less severe strains.

So why am I telling you all this (Ed: yes, why?)? 

Overall, I think Gov. Polis has done a particularly good job in a very difficult situation, as COVID runs rampant across much of the nation and our state. But unfortunately, no state-level action will be enough to protect the basic foundations of our business structure, especially small businesses. 

Here in the U.S. the national leadership (such as it is) managed to cobble together a one-time payment of $1,200 to many Americans to help get them through the rough times, and that was a good thing. But unfortunately, no additional direct payments have been approved. The Democrats in the U.S. House proposed legislation back in April that would have sent $2,000 each month to Americans over 16 making less than $130,000 per year, but that bill was ignored in the GOP-controlled Senate. 

Meanwhile, other countries (less impacted by COVID) have created payment programs including a basic income guarantee in Spain; direct aid to small businesses in Germany; salary payments of up to 90% of pre-COVID wages in the Netherlands, and Denmark will pay 75% to 90% of workers’ salaries as long as they are not laid off. There are more examples of dramatic government support around the globe, but you get the point.

Here in the U.S. though, a single $1,200 check.

With Joe Biden elected as the next president (sorry Trumper, it’s over), we only have a brief time before the national Republican Party will remember that they hate deficit spending and care about balanced budgets. And so, ironically, Donald Trump could do a remarkable thing if he really cared about his legacy and doing what’s right for the American people, but I am not holding my breath.

Trump could compel the Republicans in the Senate to take up the long-languishing economic support bills passed in the House, or they could come up with their own direct payment plan to Americans and to small businesses. Either way works for me, and Trump could then claim a major victory on behalf of the American worker. 

Heck, if he is really thinking about “pulling a Grover Cleveland” (I just made up that expression, and I really hope it takes off. Cleveland was the only U.S. president to serve two non-consecutive terms in the White House) and he wants to run again in 2024, then leaving office with having directly helped millions of Americans would be a smart political move.

I do not expect Trump to do the right or noble thing, ever. And I applaud Gov. Polis for his idea of state payments to help people out. But the problem is too big and perhaps, too bilious. Maybe President Biden will be able to get a bill through, but given Moscow Mitch’s motivations, I doubt it. And that’s a pity.

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

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