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The Soft Bribery of Stimulus Checks
Are politicians using stimulus payments to buy votes?
Typically, we think that it is illegal for American politicians to buy votes. Bribery is a crime. And we are taught in school that patronage and the spoils system ended in the 19th century. The days of political machines bringing drunks to the polls are long gone.
And yet, buying votes still happens all the time.
I am not talking about some Q-inspired, deep-state conspiracy. I am talking about a legal, perfectly acceptable, and common tactic politicians use to buy goodwill from their voters. It has happened three times since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I am talking about stimulus payments.
Direct Cash Payments to Voters
In case anyone has forgotten, the COVID relief packages passed by Congress and signed by Presidents Trump and Biden (in March and December of 2020, and March of 2021) included provisions handing out $1200, $600, and finally $1400 to anyone earning less than $75k annually. Even people who had suffered no financial impact from the pandemic shutdowns.
In some ways, Universal Basic Income is similar. Most famously proposed by Andrew Yang during his ill-fated 2020 presidential run, UBI is essentially a promise politicians make to voters that – if elected – they will hand out cash.
There are legitimate arguments in favor of both stimulus payments and UBI. These arguments have merit. Even many libertarians will admit that circumstances might require some form of stimulus payment to at least some voters. If UBI replaced all other entitlements, there is a strong case that it would reduce government borrowing.
But for many politicians, these arguments are not the reason to vote in favor of such payments. Many politicians just like the fact that direct cash payments are widely popular.
What about Other Entitlements?
Some critics of free college or universal healthcare, or canceling student debt, will argue that these proposals constitute a form of bribery. But these entitlements are not direct, no-strings-attached, cash payments to a majority of American voters.
Moreover, many of the people pushing free college and universal healthcare are not doing so out of a desire to buy votes. Progressive proponents of such measures will deride claims of bribery as a gross mischaracterization. Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and their progressive colleagues actually believe in the necessity of universal healthcare and free college. They are wrong. But they have real reasons.
While some of the people pushing stimulus checks and UBI (including Andrew Yang) have serious reasons for doing so, many do not. Donald Trump almost certainly did not see stimulus checks as anything other than a way to buy favor. Likewise, some progressives who complained last December that $600 checks should have been $2000 were not doing so in good faith.
This is why I argue that, by and large, stimulus payments have been an attempt to buy voters’ goodwill.
The Price is Cheap
With criminal bribery, the actual dollar amounts that bring people to compromise their principles are often surprisingly low. Something similar is at work with stimulus payments.
$600 is not a lot of money if you make $70k a year. While it makes a difference to the truly needy, most Americans will not have their life changed by $600. Perhaps that is one reason why many do not see stimulus payments as bribery.
I recognize that I am being a bit facetious by equating stimulus payments with legalized bribery. But the people pushing for these payments – at least many of them – are acting with great cynicism. In many cases, they know that most people who received payments had no financial need for the money. The petty debates over dollar numbers demonstrated that. Instead of citing research or statistics about the impact of various dollar numbers, progressive politicians argued that that number “should” be higher – simply because it sounded better. They had no sound logic behind their arguments, only optics.
Also, when Congress passed the third COVID-19 relief package in March of 2021, there was no crisis. There may have been in March of 2020, but not a year later. Despite the rhetoric from Democrats, unemployment was no longer high, tens of millions of Americans had already gotten vaccinated, and the economy was bursting with pent-up demand. There was no reason to send most Americans a $1400 check.
My argument may be a tad facetious. But calling the March 2021 stimulus urgent was facetious. And excoriating $600 as too small a payment was facetious as well.
How Do People React to Receiving Stimulus Money?
The theory behind stimulus checks is that people who receive them will go out and spend money, buying goods and services and keeping the economy moving. But in the midst of strict lockdowns, the first stimulus checks did not have that effect. People could not spend the money when they had nowhere to spend it. And as I already mentioned, the third checks hit when there was already high demand in the economy, meaning that any extra spending only contributed to supply shocks – the last thing the economy needed this past spring.
Many people who received a stimulus payment put it in the bank. This is a smart financial decision. But it defeats the expressed purpose for economic stimulus.
I understand why progressive voters would celebrate cash from the government. But I do not understand why small-government conservatives and libertarians would. It seems strange to me that even people who hate government spending and complain about the debt would accept the payments and move on.
Some people who did not need the money donated their stimulus checks to charities that could better use the money to support the people who truly needed it. I suppose some debt-hawks could even donate their checks back to the Treasury Department to pay down the national debt.
But few people stop to think that politicians are trying to earn their goodwill with literal cash handouts.
I term this form of buying voter goodwill soft bribery. And I would urge every reader to ask whether soft bribery has worked on you.
Examine your political positions and favored candidates. Do you really support certain positions because you believe them? Or do you support them because they might affect you monetarily? It is not necessarily a problem to support a policy because you will benefit – that is rational self-interest. But it is a problem to let financial gain alone determine your support for a policy or candidate.
Many people genuinely believe in the value of stimulus payments or UBI. But if someone ridicules government handouts until a check comes in the mail, that is hypocrisy.
When push comes to shove, many people are willing to make soft compromises on their principles. Voters who otherwise support fiscal restraint will complain that they did not receive a check (if they were above the income threshold) or wanted a bigger check (because $1400 is just a drop in the bucket for the federal government).
Other voters, who know that Social Security (and other entitlements) drives the looming debt crisis, and who understand that no retiree actually gets “the money they paid in,” and who know that if they live long enough, they will withdraw more money from Social Security than they ever paid in, and who have very sizable retirement accounts, will still take Social Security payments when they turn 67 (or 65, or 62).
It is easy to make a similar soft compromise with stimulus payments. Whatever you do with the money, it is important not to let it influence your political decision-making.
In order to avoid hypocrisy, I would encourage you to examine all of your political positions. Do you support free college or student loan forgiveness because they would benefit you personally or because you actually believe they are good ideas? It is possible to support these policies for their own sake and still be beneficiaries of them. You do not have to reflexively oppose policies that might benefit you out of fear of conflicts of interest. But you should always examine your motivations.
Above all, do not support a politician simply because they voted for you to receive a stimulus check. For small-government conservatives concerned about the ballooning national debt, I would actually encourage the opposite.
Editor’s Note: To drive the author’s point home, we can look at the ways that both President Trump and President Biden took pains to make their stimulus checks appear as if they were given directly from them to the people. The checks under Trump’s tenure were both ‘signed’ by Trump, and Biden’s check came along with a lengthy letter of self-aggrandizement for granting the money to the people. If these Presidents and their administrations didn’t view stimulus checks as part of their efforts to gain support, or maintain support, from the people (a soft form of bribery and akin to purchasing votes), then neither would have gone to such lengths to attach the payments to their personal and political grandeur. -Justin