States pushed back on a plan to take back some of their stimulus money to fund President Biden’s emergency spending request. Now Congress is trying to find other ways to offset the cost.FRANKFORT, Ky. — Gov. Andy Beshear has been toting oversize checks around his state in recent weeks, handing them out to city and county officials for desperately needed water improvements.The tiny city of Mortons Gap got $109,000 to bring running water to six families who do not have it. The people of Martin County, whose water has been too contaminated to drink since a coal slurry spill two decades ago, got $411,000. The checks bear Mr. Beshear’s signature, but the money comes from the federal government, part of a huge infusion of coronavirus relief aid that is helping to fuel record budget surpluses in Kentucky and many other states.Therein lies a Washington controversy. The funds, which Congress approved at a moment when the pandemic was still raging, are allowed to be used for far broader purposes than combating the virus, including water projects like those in Kentucky. Most states will get another round of “fiscal recovery funds” — part of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan — next month.But in Washington, Mr. Biden is out of money to pay for the most basic means of protecting people during the pandemic — medications, vaccines, testing and reimbursement for care. Republicans have refused to sign off on new spending, citing the state recovery funds as an example of money that could be repurposed for urgent national priorities.“These states are awash in money — everybody from Kentucky to California,” said Scott Jennings, a former aide to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. “People are like: ‘We’ve printed all this money; we’ve sent it out. These states have these massive surpluses, and now you need more?’”Republicans were never fans of Mr. Biden’s rescue plan, which Democrats muscled through Congress without their support. Despite the many ways it is benefiting his state, Mr. McConnell once called it a “multitrillion-dollar, nontargeted Band-Aid” that would dump “another huge mountain of debt on our grandkids.”On Capitol Hill on Thursday, a day after Mr. Biden made a public appeal to Congress for more money, Senate Republicans and Democrats were nearing a deal on a $10 billion emergency aid package — less than half of Mr. Biden’s initial request. But they had not resolved crucial differences over the size and how to pay for it. Republicans want to use unspent money already approved by Congress, but the parties have been unable to agree on which programs should be tapped.Since the outset of the pandemic, the Trump and Biden administrations have injected $5 trillion into the American economy, including the rescue plan. With midterm elections approaching, the gush of federal stimulus spending will draw even greater scrutiny as Republicans accuse Democrats of wasting funds and fueling inflation, and demand a precise accounting of how the money has been spent.David Adkins, the executive director and chief executive of the Council of State Governments, said such questions were inevitable now that policymakers could catch their collective breath.“We have to lean into the notion that states are laboratories of democracy,” Mr. Adkins said. “Some of these things will fail; some of this money will not be spent well. But that is the nature of trying to navigate disruptive times.”The rescue plan set aside $195 billion to help states recover from the economic and health effects of the pandemic. When Mr. Biden made his initial aid request, senior lawmakers in both parties negotiated a plan to pay for it partly by taking back $7 billion from states, as part of a $1.5 trillion spending bill.Governors and rank-and-file Democrats balked, saying that to do so would disproportionately hurt the 31 states that have not yet gotten all their rescue funds, and the deal fell apart. Now it appears the state funds will be spared, though the fracas has cast a sharp spotlight on how the fiscal recovery funds are being spent.“I was never for giving this money to the states, but I was always of the belief that once you gave it to them, politics would not allow you to get it back,” Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the top Republican on the subcommittee that controls health spending, said in a recent interview.All told, the White House says 93 percent of the American Rescue Plan dollars that are currently available have been “legally obligated,” meaning they have either already been spent or are committed to being spent.Most states have either started spending their fiscal recovery funds, or have plans to do so. A recent analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that while most states are still developing budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, states have already budgeted 78 percent of their fiscal recovery fund allocation.Kentucky, where Mr. Beshear, a Democrat, is promoting record job growth and economic boom times, ended 2021 with a record $1.1 billion surplus, and another surplus is expected this year. The state has already received $1.1 billion in federal funds and expects another $1 billion in May. It is spending the money on broadband, bolstering tourism and shoring up the unemployment insurance fund as well as coronavirus testing, in addition to water improvements.Martin County recently received $411,000 in federal stimulus funds to help pay for desperately needed water improvements.Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times“These dollars are too important and too transformational to get caught up in a partisan fight,” Mr. Beshear said in an interview, adding: “These are dollars that are helping us as we emerge from Covid. We’ve got a choice to limp out of the pandemic or sprint out of the pandemic, and cutting off this aid only hurts the people that need it.”Congress specified four broad purposes for the money: to respond to the pandemic’s health and economic impacts; to provide bonus pay to essential workers; to prevent cuts in public services; and to invest in sewer, water or broadband infrastructure. But states can also use the funds to replace lost revenues, which gives them great flexibility in spending the money.Arkansas, for instance, has awarded $374,000 to a rape crisis center; $6.3 million to the Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault; and another $6.3 million to the Arkansas Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs. But the bulk of the money has gone toward improving broadband access and addressing the needs of the health care system.“The Omicron variant came in, cases skyrocketed, hospitals filled up and so we had to utilize a significant amount of our ARPA money for expanding hospital space, home testing and other public health response,” said Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, using the acronym for the rescue plan. “So that’s obviously the first responsibility, and then we looked at these other needs.”Other states are using the money in ways that are only tangentially related to Covid-19, but that are permissible under guidelines issued by the Treasury Department.Alabama devoted $400 million of its allocation, or roughly one-fifth, to building two new prisons, despite a public outcry from advocates for racial justice and civil liberties. Florida devoted $2 billion, nearly one-quarter of its $8.8 billion allotment, to highway construction — a decision that has drawn criticism from the nonpartisan Florida Policy Institute.“The intended purpose of the American Rescue Plan Act dollars was to ensure that individuals and communities could recover from the pandemic, and I think in many ways there were better uses for this money,” said Esteban Leonardo Santis, the group’s tax and revenue analyst.Twenty states, including Kentucky, spent a total of $15 billion to build up their depleted unemployment insurance trust funds. Independent analysts say that is effectively a tax break for businesses, which otherwise may have had to make up for the lost revenues. But Mr. Beshear defended it, saying that Kentucky businesses stepped up during the pandemic. A local Toyota plant made face shields, and bourbon distillers manufactured hand sanitizer, he said.The governor’s Twitter feed is rife with photos of big checks and smiling city and county officials; he is running for re-election in 2023.“If there’s one thing a governor knows how to do, it’s drive around their state and hand out huge checks and cut big ribbons with oversized scissors,” Mr. Jennings said. “They’re like game show hosts out there.”Chris McDaniel, a Kentucky state senator, spent much of this week immersed in budget talks, including planning how to use Kentucky’s next tranche of fiscal recovery funds.Luke Sharrett for The New York TimesExperts say, and the White House acknowledges, that the fiscal recovery funds have helped create state budget surpluses. Gene B. Sperling, a senior adviser to the president who is overseeing the American Rescue Plan, said the surpluses were proof that Mr. Biden’s stimulus package was working — and this was no time to pare back.“Ensuring that states and localities have a cushion for some pretty serious bumps in the road is smart policy,” Mr. Sperling said, “and a lesson learned from what happened after the Great Recession.”But those surpluses are likely to be temporary, and how states are using them has played into the controversy over Covid relief funds. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says 14 states are using temporary budget surpluses “to call for costly and permanent tax cuts targeted more to wealthy people” — a move the center described as a “bad choice.”Here in Frankfort, the state capital, Kentucky lawmakers in a hurry to wrap up their 2022 legislative session were working on pushing through a hefty income tax cut this week. But a proposal to use the state’s budget surplus to give Kentuckians a tax rebate of up to $500 seemed unlikely to pass, said its author, State Senator Chris McDaniel, the appropriations committee chairman.Mr. McDaniel, a Republican, spent much of this week immersed in budget talks, including planning how to use Kentucky’s next tranche of fiscal recovery funds. Another $1 billion is coming, and despite some philosophical misgivings, he said he saw no reason not to spend it.“I believe firmly that it was too much money that came down,” Mr. McDaniel said. “But I also believe that Kentuckians will bear the tax burden eventually, just like everyone else down the line, and I am not going to disadvantage future Kentuckians out of a point of philosophical pride.”Emily Cochrane More
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Last June, a meeting of the Dutchess County Legislature in New York’s Hudson Valley quickly turned heated over how to spend some of the county’s $57 million in federal pandemic relief aid.For more than two hours, residents and Democratic lawmakers implored the Republican majority to address longstanding problems that the pandemic had exacerbated. They cited opioid abuse, poverty and food insecurity. Some pointed to decrepit sewer systems and inadequate high-speed internet. Democrats offered up amendments directing funds to addiction recovery and mental health services.In the end, the Legislature rebuffed their appeals. It voted 15 to 10 to devote $12.5 million to renovate a minor-league baseball stadium that’s home to the Hudson Valley Renegades, a Yankees affiliate.“Who created this plan? Some legislators?” asked Carole Pickering, a resident of Hyde Park. “These funds were intended to rescue our citizens to the extent possible, not to upgrade a baseball field.”“I think we should be a little bit ashamed,” Brennan Kearney, a Democrat in the Legislature, told her fellow lawmakers.Cities and counties across the United States have found themselves in the surprisingly uncomfortable position of deciding how best to spend a windfall of federal relief funds intended to help keep them afloat amid deadly waves of Covid-19 infections.The pandemic, which is showing signs of waning as it enters its third year, prompted the largest infusion of federal money into the U.S. economy since the New Deal. President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump got Congress to approve roughly $5 trillion to help support families, shop owners, unemployed workers, schools and businesses.Where $5 Trillion in Pandemic Stimulus Money WentIt is the largest government relief effort in recorded history, and two years after Covid-19 crisis began, money is still flowing to communities. Here’s where it went and how it was spent.A large portion of the aid went to state, local and tribal governments, many of which had projected revenue losses of as much as 20 percent at the pandemic’s onset. The largest chunk came from Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion recovery bill, the American Rescue Plan, which earmarked $350 billion. That money is just beginning to flow to communities, which have until 2026 to spend it.“We’ve sent you a whole hell of a lot of money,” Mr. Biden said during a meeting with the nation’s governors in January.In many cases, the money has become an unusually public and contentious marker of what matters most to a place — and who gets to make those decisions. The debates are sometimes partisan, but not always divided by ideology. They pit colleagues against each other, neighbors against neighbors, people who want infrastructure improvements against those who want to help people experiencing homelessness.“It’s both breathtaking in its magnitude but it still requires some hard and strategic choices,” said Brad Whitehead, who is a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings Metro, a metropolitan policy project, and advises cities on how to use their funds. “One of the difficulties for elected leaders is everyone has a claim and a thought for how these dollars should be used.”Poughkeepsie, N.Y., part of Dutchess County. At a meeting last summer, county residents implored leaders to use pandemic aid to address longstanding problems.Amir Hamja for The New York TimesA person who is homeless in Poughkeepsie. Homelessness and poverty were among the issues that residents said deserved funding.Amir Hamja for The New York TimesLocal governments were given broad discretion over how to use the money. In addition to addressing immediate health needs, they were allowed to make up for pandemic-related revenue losses from empty transit systems, tourist attractions and other areas that suffered financially.That money is often equivalent to a third or nearly half of a city’s annual budget. St. Louis, for instance, will receive $498 million, more than 40 percent of its 2021 budget of $1.1 billion. Cleveland, with a city budget of $1.8 billion, will get $511 million.But the relief comes with strings: Governments are prohibited from using the funds to subsidize tax cuts or to make up for pension shortfalls. And because the aid is essentially a one-time installment, it wouldn’t necessarily help cover salaries for new teachers or other recurring costs.Several states have sued the Biden administration over the tax cut restriction, claiming it violates state sovereignty. Some governments have refused to take the money over concerns that it would give the federal government power to control local decision-making.In Saginaw, Mich., the mayor formed a 15-person advisory group to recommend ways to spend the city’s $52 million allotment. Harrisburg, Pa., which received $49 million, has held public events seeking input from residents. Massillon, Ohio, identified the biggest source of public complaints — flooding and sanitation issues — and proposed using its $16 million share to address those areas.“We listened to the people, and we’re trying to make improvements for them,” said Kathy Catazaro-Perry, Massillon’s mayor. “Our city is old. We have a lot of areas that did not have storm drains, and so for us, this is going to be huge because we’re going to be able to rectify some of those older neighborhoods.”But many have found their communities mired in clashes over who has the power to spend the money.Poughkeepsie residents picked up free meals at the Family Partnership Center in February. The food was distributed through the Lunch Box, a program that provides hot meals in Dutchess County five days a week.Amir Hamja for The New York TimesIn New York’s Onondaga County, which includes Syracuse, legislators from both parties have been trying to claw back spending authority from the county executive, Ryan McMahon, a Republican.When the first half of the county’s $89 million stimulus share arrived last spring, Mr. McMahon placed it into an account that he controlled and began committing funds to projects, including a $1 million restaurant voucher program, $5 million in incentives for filmmakers to produce in the area and $25 million for a multisport complex featuring 10 synthetic turf fields.Lawmakers, who questioned why they were not being asked to vote on the spending, were told by the county attorney’s office that they had ceded that authority in December 2020 when they approved an emergency resolution that gave the county executive authority “to address budget issues specifically related to Covid-19 global pandemic.”Legislators argued that they had never intended for that control to extend beyond the immediate pandemic response.James Rowley, who was elected chair of the Onondaga County Legislature in January, hired a lawyer and spent $11,000 preparing a lawsuit to challenge Mr. McMahon.“We have the power of the purse,” Mr. Rowley, a Republican, said in an interview. “I didn’t want to set a precedent that gave the county executive power to spend county money.”Mr. McMahon did not respond to a request for comment. On Feb. 22, he sent a letter to the Legislature proposing that it regain control of the stimulus funds that had not yet been allocated.“I recognize your concern,” he wrote, noting that “our cooperative actions should comport with county charter principles of separation of powers.” An abandoned property in Poughkeepsie. One county legislator called the investment in the baseball stadium “a betrayal of our community.”Boarded-up buildings in Poughkeepsie. Local governments were given broad discretion in how the pandemic aid could be spent.The rush of money from the federal government is in part an attempt to avoid the mistakes of the last recession, when state and local governments cut spending and fired workers, prolonging America’s economic recovery. But analysts say it will take years to fully assess whether all the spending this time was successful. Critics argue that the overall $5 trillion effort has added to a ballooning federal deficit and helped propel rapid inflation. And many states report increasing revenue, and even surpluses, as the economy strengthens.The money has led to ideological fights over the role of the federal government.In January, dozens of residents crowded into a City Council meeting in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where they demanded that the mayor and other officials turn down the city’s $8.6 million share of stimulus funds, saying it was a ruse by Washington to take control of the town.Residents booed and called the Council members “fascists.” Several referred to the money as a Trojan horse, lamenting that taking it would allow the federal government to impose restrictions on Idaho, including establishing vaccine checkpoints. Amid cries of “Recall!” one woman shouted repeatedly that “you have given up our sovereignty.”“Nobody wants this money,” Mark Salazar, a resident, said to applause. “I don’t want to be under the chains of the federal government. Nobody does.”The council eventually voted 5 to 1 to accept the funds, saying they would go toward expanding a police station and other areas.Dutchess County residents were similarly agitated, if less rowdy, at their June 14 meeting about the stadium. Guidance on using the funds issued by the Treasury Department specifically cited stadiums as “generally not reasonably proportional to addressing the negative economic impacts of the pandemic.”So why, those in attendance asked, was this happening?Marc Molinaro, the county executive, defended the spending, saying Dutchess County had identified $33 million in lost revenue as a result of the pandemic and that, according to the Biden administration’s guidance, stimulus funds could indeed go toward investing in things like the stadium.“It’s basically any structure, facility, thing you own as a government, you can invest these dollars in with broad latitude,” Mr. Molinaro said.In a recent interview, Mr. Molinaro said that because the funds were one-time money, the county needed to be careful not to create expenses that could not be paid for once the federal funds ran out.He added that investing in the stadium would produce an ongoing revenue stream for Dutchess County — money that he said would allow the government to pay for the types of programs that Democrats wanted.The investment, he said, “allows us to create 25 years of revenue that we can invest in the expansion of mental health services, homelessness and substance abuse.”That explanation has not mollified everyone.“I was just devastated that we spent the money that way,” Ms. Kearney, the Democratic legislator, said in an interview. “It was such a betrayal of our community. So grossly inappropriate and grossly tone deaf to the needs of the people in Dutchess who have suffered.” More
At the outset of the pandemic, governments used the funds largely to cover virus-related costs.
As the months dragged on, they found themselves covering unexpected shortfalls created by the pandemic, including lost revenue from parking garages and museums where attendance dropped off. They also funded longstanding priorities like upgrading sewer systems and other infrastructure projects.
K-12 schools used early funds to transition to remote learning, and they received $122 billion from the American Rescue Plan that was intended to help them pay salaries, facilitate vaccinations and upgrade buildings and ventilation systems to reduce the virus’s spread. At least 20 percent must be spent on helping students recover academically from the pandemic.
While not all of the state and local aid has been spent, the scope of the funding has been expansive:
Utah set aside $100 million for “water conservation” as it faces historic drought conditions.
Texas has designated $100 million to “maintain” the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.
The San Antonio Independent School District in Texas plans to spend $9.4 million on increasing staff compensation, giving all permanent full-time employees a 2 percent pay raise and lifting minimum wages to $16 an hour, from $15.
Alabama approved $400 million to help fund 4,000-bed prisons.
Summerville, S.C., allocated more than $1.3 million for premium pay for essential workers.
What was the impact?
The aim of the money was to prevent the kind of painful budget cuts that state and local governments were forced to make in the wake of the Great Recession, when revenues plunged and costs soared, a recipe that prolonged America’s sluggish recovery and hampered some local economies for years.
Economists largely agree that the money helped local governments shoulder significant pandemic-related costs, and many governments avoided deep budget cuts. Many states have even reported surpluses.
But federal rules prevented local governments from using CARES Act funds to fill budget shortfalls, and state and local governments wound up slashing hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs anyway. Several states have sued the Biden administration over restrictions it imposed on the use of funds.
What hasn’t been spent?
A significant portion has yet to be spent, in part because more than $100 billion remains to be distributed by the Treasury Department. Only 19 states, plus Washington, D.C., received their entire allotments of American Rescue Plan funds in 2021. A second batch will be distributed this year.
Governments have until 2026 tospend the funds, and disagreements over where the money should go and who has authority to spend it have slowed planning in some communities.
School districts have until January 2025 to spend the money allocated to them. But even with several years left, schools have voiced concerns about meeting that deadline as many districts struggle with labor shortages and supply-chain delays. More
Lawsuits from white farmers have blocked $4 billion of pandemic aid that was allocated to Black farmers in the American Rescue Plan.WASHINGTON — For Brandon Smith, a fourth-generation cattle rancher from Texas, the $1.9 trillion stimulus package that President Biden signed into law nearly a year ago was long-awaited relief.Little did he know how much longer he would have to wait.The legislation included $4 billion of debt forgiveness for Black and other “socially disadvantaged” farmers, a group that has endured decades of discrimination from banks and the federal government. Mr. Smith, a Black father of four who owes about $200,000 in outstanding loans on his ranch, quickly signed and returned documents to the Agriculture Department last year, formally accepting the debt relief. He then purchased more equipment for his ranch, believing that he had been given a financial lifeline.Instead, Mr. Smith has fallen deeper into debt. Months after signing the paperwork he received a notice informing him that the federal government intended to “accelerate” foreclosure on his 46-acre property and cattle if he did not start making payments on the loans he believed had been forgiven.“I trusted the government that we had a deal, and down here at the end of the day, the rug gets pulled out from under me,” Mr. Smith, 43, said in an interview.Black farmers across the nation have yet to see any of Mr. Biden’s promised relief. While the president has pledged to pursue policies to promote racial equity and correct decades of discrimination, legal issues have complicated that goal.In May 2021, the Agriculture Department started sending letters to borrowers who were eligible to have their debt cleared, asking them to sign and return forms confirming their balances. The payments, which also are supposed to cover tax liabilities and fees associated with clearing the debt, were expected to come in phases beginning in June.But the entire initiative has been stymied amid lawsuits from white farmers and groups representing them that questioned whether the government could offer debt relief based on race.Courts in Wisconsin and Florida have issued preliminary injunctions against the initiative, siding with plaintiffs who argued that the debt relief amounted to discrimination and could therefore be illegal. A class-action lawsuit against the U.S.D.A. is proceeding in Texas this year.The Biden administration has not appealed the injunctions but a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department said it was continuing to defend the program in the courts as the cases move forward.The legal limbo has created new and unexpected financial strains for Black farmers, many of whom have been unable to make investments in their businesses given ongoing uncertainty about their debt loads. It also poses a political problem for Mr. Biden, who was propelled to power by Black voters and now must make good on promises to improve their fortunes.The law was intended to help remedy years of discrimination that nonwhite farmers have endured, including land theft and the rejection of loan applications by banks and the federal government. The program designated aid to about 15,000 borrowers who receive loans directly from the federal government or have their bank loans guaranteed by the U.S.D.A. Those eligible included farmers and ranchers who have been subject to racial or ethnic prejudice, including those who are Black, Native American, Alaskan Native, Asian American, Pacific Islander or Hispanic.After the initiative was rolled out last year, it met swift opposition.Banks were unhappy that the loans would be repaid early, depriving them of interest payments. Groups of white farmers in Wisconsin, North Dakota, Oregon and Illinois sued the Agriculture Department, arguing that offering debt relief on the basis of skin color is discriminatory, suggesting that a successful Black farmer could have his debts cleared while a struggling white farm could go out of business. America First Legal, a group led by the former Trump administration official Stephen Miller, filed a lawsuit making a similar argument in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas.Last June, before the money started flowing, a federal judge in Florida blocked the program on the basis that it applied “strictly on racial grounds” irrespective of any other factor.The delays have angered the Black farmers that the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress were trying to help. They argue that the law was poorly written and that the White House is not defending it forcefully enough in court out of fear that a legal defeat could undermine other policies that are predicated on race.Those concerns became even more pronounced late last year when the government sent thousands of letters to minority farmers who were behind on their loan payments warning that they faced foreclosure. The letters were sent automatically to any borrowers who were past due on their loans, including about a third of the 15,000 socially disadvantaged farmers who applied for the debt relief, according to the Agriculture Department.Leonard Jackson, a cattle farmer in Muskogee, Okla., received such a letter despite being told by the U.S.D.A. that he did not need to make loan payments because his $235,000 in debt would be paid off by the government. The letter was jarring for Mr. Jackson, whose father, a wheat and soybean farmer, had his farm equipment foreclosed on by the government years earlier. The prospect of losing his 33 cows, house and trailer was unfathomable.“They said that they were paying off everybody’s loans and not to make payments and then they sent this,” Mr. Jackson, 55, said.The legal fight over the funds has stirred widespread confusion, with Black and other farmers stuck in the middle. This year, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives has been fielding calls from minority farmers who said their financial problems have been compounded. It has become even harder for them to get access to credit now, they say, that the fate of the debt relief is unclear.“It has definitely caused a very significant panic and a lot of distress among our members,” said Dãnia Davy, director of land retention and advocacy at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.Mr. Smith bought more equipment for his ranch when he thought aid was finally on the way. But now he’s deeper in debt.Montinique Monroe for The New York TimesThe Agriculture Department said that it was required by law to send the warnings but that the government had no intention of foreclosing on farms, citing a moratorium on such action that was put in place early last year because of the pandemic. After The New York Times inquired about the foreclosure letters, the U.S.D.A. sent borrowers who had received notices another letter late last month telling them to disregard the foreclosure threat.“We want borrowers to know the bottom line is, actions such as acceleration and foreclosure remain suspended for direct loan borrowers due to the pandemic,” Kate Waters, a department spokeswoman, said. “We remain under the moratorium, and we will continue to communicate with our borrowers so they understand their rights and understand their debt servicing options.”The more than 2,000 minority farmers who receive private loans that are guaranteed by the U.S.D.A. are not protected by the federal moratorium and could still face foreclosure. Once the moratorium ends, farmers will need to resume making their payments if the debt relief program or an alternative is not in place.Some Black farmers argue that the Agriculture Department, led by Secretary Tom Vilsack, was too slow to disburse the debt relief and allowed critics time to mount a legal assault on the law.The Biden administration has been left with few options but to let the legal process play out, which could take months or years. The White House had been hopeful that a new measure in Mr. Biden’s sweeping social policy and climate bill would ultimately provide the farmers the debt relief they have been expecting. But that bill has stalled in the Senate and is unlikely to pass in its current form.“While we continue to defend in court the relief in the American Rescue Plan, getting the broader relief provision that the House passed signed into law remains the surest and quickest way to help farmers in economic distress across the nation, including thousands and thousands of farmers of color,” Gene Sperling, the White House’s pandemic relief czar, said in a statement.For Black farmers, who have seen their ranks fall from more than a million to fewer than 40,000 in the last century amid industry consolidation and onerous loan terms, the disappointment is not surprising. John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, said that rather than hearing about more government reports on racial equity, Black farmers want to see results.“We need implementation, action and resources to farm,” Mr. Boyd said. More
The sun was sinking low over Long Island Sound as Stephanie Kelton, wearing the bright red suit jacket she had donned to give a virtual guest lecture to university students in London that morning, perched before a pillow fort she had constructed atop the heavy wooden desk in her home office.The setup was meant to keep out noise as she recorded the podcast she co-hosts, a MarketWatch production called the “Best New Ideas in Money.” The room was hushed except for Ms. Kelton, who bantered energetically with the producers she was hearing through noise-blocking headphones, sang a Terri Gibbs song and made occasional edits to the script. At one point, she muttered, “That sounds like Stephanie.”What Stephanie Kelton sounds like, circa early 2022, is the star architect of a movement that is on something of a victory lap. A victory lap with an asterisk.Ms. Kelton, 52, is the most familiar public face of Modern Monetary Theory, which posits that if a government controls its own currency and needs money — to make sure its citizens have food and places to live when, say, a global pandemic pushes many out of work — it can just print it, as long as its economy has the ability to churn out the needed goods and services.In the M.M.T. view of the world, “How will you pay for it?” is a vapid policy question. Real-world resources and political priorities determine how much lawmakers can and should spend.It is an idea that was forged, and put to something of a test, during a low-inflation era.When Ms. Kelton’s book, “The Deficit Myth,” was published in June 2020 and shot onto best seller lists, inflation had been weak for decades and had dropped below 1 percent as consumers retrenched in the pandemic. The government had begun to spend rapidly to try to prop up flailing households.When Ms. Kelton appeared on a Bloomberg podcast episode, “How M.M.T. Won the Fiscal Policy Debate,” in early 2021, inflation had bounced back to around 2 percent.But by a chilly January afternoon, as ducks flew over the frosty estuary outside Ms. Kelton’s house near Stony Brook University, where she teaches, inflation had rocketed up to 7 percent. The government’s debt pile has exploded to $30 trillion, up from about $10 trillion at the start of the 2008 downturn and $5 trillion in the mid-1990s.The good news: The government has had no trouble selling bonds to fund its spending, contrary to the direst projections of deficit scolds.The bad news: Some economists blame big spending in the pandemic for today’s rapid price increases. The government will release fresh Consumer Price Index data this week, and it is expected to show inflation running at its fastest pace since 1982.And that may be why Ms. Kelton, and the movement she has come to represent, now seem anxious to control the narrative. The pandemic spending wasn’t entirely consistent with M.M.T principles, they say — it wasn’t assessed carefully for its inflationary effects as it was being drawn up, because it was crisis policy. But the situation has underlined how hard it is to know just where the economy’s constraints lay, and how difficult it is to fix things once you run into them.Last summer, Ms. Kelton called inflation a temporary sign of “growing pains.” By the fall, she painted it as a good problem to solve, compared with a continued weak economy. As it lingers, she has argued that diagnosing what is causing it is key.“Can we blame ‘MMT’ for the run-up in inflation?” she tweeted rhetorically last month, just hours before her podcast recording.Understand Inflation in the U.S.Inflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.Your Questions, Answered: We asked readers to send questions about inflation. Top experts and economists weighed in.What’s to Blame: Did the stimulus cause prices to rise? Or did pandemic lockdowns and shortages lead to inflation? A debate is heating up in Washington.Supply Chain’s Role: A key factor in rising inflation is the continuing turmoil in the global supply chain. Here’s how the crisis unfolded.“Of course not.”Emon Hassan for The New York TimesThe economy is the limitTo understand how M.M.T. fits in with other dominant ways of thinking, it’s helpful to take a trip to the beach.In economics, there’s a school of thought sometimes called “freshwater.” It’s the set of ideas that became popular at inland universities in the 1970s, when they began to embrace rational markets and limited government intervention to fight recessions. There’s also “saltwater” thinking, an updated version of Keynesianism that argues that the government occasionally needs to jump-start the economy. It has traditionally been championed in the Ivy League and other top-ranked schools on the coasts.You might call the school of thought Ms. Kelton is popularizing, from a bay that feeds into the East River, brackish economics.M.M.T. theorists argue that society should feel capable of spending to achieve its goals to the extent that there are resources available to fulfill them. Deficit spending need not be constrained to recessions, even theoretically. Want to build a road? No problem, so long as you have asphalt and construction workers. Want to feed children free lunches? Also not a problem, so long as you have the food and the cafeteria workers.What became Modern Monetary Theory began to percolate among a small group of academics when Ms. Kelton, a former military brat and one-time furniture saleswoman, was a graduate student.She had a gap period between graduating with a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Sacramento and attending Cambridge University on a Rotary scholarship, and her college economics professor recommended that she spend the time studying with L. Randall Wray, an early pioneer in the set of ideas.They hit it off. She remained in Mr. Wray’s circle, and he — and Warren Mosler, a hedge fund manager who had written a book on what we get wrong about money — convinced her that the way America understood cash, revenues and budgeting was all backward.Ms. Kelton earned her doctorate at The New School, long a booster of out-of-mainstream economic thinking, and went on to teach at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She, Mr. Wray, who was there at the time, and their colleagues mentored doctoral students and began to write academic papers on the new way of thinking.But academic missives reached only a small circle of readers. After the 2008 financial crisis punched a hole in the economy that would take more than a decade to fill, Ms. Kelton and her colleagues, invigorated with a new urgency, began a blog called “New Economic Perspectives.” It was a bare bones white, red and black layout, using a standard WordPress template, that served as a place for M.M.T. writers to make their case (and, in its early days, featured a #Occupy[YourCityHere] tab).The theory picked up some fervent followers but limited popular acceptance, charitably, and outright derision, uncharitably. Mainstream economists panned it as overly simplistic. Many were confused about what it was arguing.“I have heard pretty extreme claims attributed to that framework and I don’t know whether that’s fair or not,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said in 2019. “The idea that deficits don’t matter for countries that can borrow in their own currency is just wrong.”Ms. Kelton kept the faith. She and her colleagues held conferences, including one in 2018 at The New School where she gave a lecture on “mainstreaming M.M.T.”Rohan Grey organized the conference and a media reception afterward at an Irish pub (“‘Shades of Green,’ monetary pun intended,” he said). It was attended by organizers, academics, “lay people” and lots of journalists. At the happy hour — which lasted until 1 a.m. — Ms. Kelton was mobbed when she walked in the door. “She was already on her way to super celebrity status at that point,” said Mr. Grey, an assistant professor at Willamette Law.When she gave presentations on her ideas, Ms. Kelton would occasionally display a quote often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you. Then you win.”And her star was rising more broadly. She advised Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, getting to know the Vermont senator. He never fully publicly embraced M.M.T., but he nevertheless advanced policies — like Medicare for All — that reflected its ideals.She amassed a following of tens of thousands, later growing to 140,000, on Twitter. Her first handle, @deficitowl, prompted ardent fans to gift her wise bird figurines, some of which are still on display in her home office. She cultivated a small coterie of prominent journalists who were interested in the idea, most notably Joe Weisenthal at Bloomberg. She signed a book deal. She was regularly talking to Democratic lawmakers, sometimes in groups.Her idea percolated through Washington’s media and liberal policy circles. Mainstream economic predictions that huge debt loads would come back to haunt nations like Japan had not played out, the anemic rebound from 2008 had scarred society and called the size of the crisis response into question. Ms. Kelton and her colleagues were ensuring that their theory on benign deficits was an ever-present feature of the blossoming debate.Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly the theoretical question of just how much the government could spend before it ran into limits faced a real-world experiment.The $1.9 Trillion FloorWithout thinking about paying for it, Donald J. Trump’s government quickly passed a $2.3 trillion relief package in late March 2020. In December, it followed that up with another $900 billion. President Biden took office in early 2021, and promptly added $1.9 trillion more.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 6What is inflation? More
Politicians are placing more blame on greedy companies as prices stay high. But booming consumer demand is enabling firms to charge more.Inflation remains rapid as the economy enters 2022, and Democrats have begun pointing to a new culprit for the high and lasting price increases: Greedy corporations.Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and the White House spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, have been among those pointing to excessive profits in certain industries as one thing jacking up costs for consumers. They don’t blame overall inflation on price-gouging businesses — but the implication is that higher prices are partly the product of corporate opportunism.The explanation for inflation is the latest in a string Democrats have offered since price gains shot up to uncomfortably high levels last year. It is partly grounded in economic reality, partly in political necessity: Rising prices are burdening and unsettling consumers, making them a liability for a party with a tenuous hold on Congressional control headed into 2022 midterm elections.Prices are increasing at the fastest pace since 1982, and while inflation is broadly expected to fade in the year ahead, the speed and extent of that moderation is uncertain. Even if price gains slow down, they could remain a headache for the Biden administration if they continue to rise more rapidly than was normal before the pandemic — which is what economists increasingly expect. They had hovered around or below 2 percent for years, but Federal Reserve officials think they will reach an average of 2.6 percent by the end of this year.The administration has limited power over prices: It is making tweaks around the edges to help to tamp them down, but keeping a lid on inflation is mostly the job of the Fed, which has signaled it expects to begin raising interest rates this year to help control it.Still, as consumers feel the pinch of higher prices for food, gas and household goods, it’s creating a political messaging problem for Democrats. Lawmakers and the White House had initially argued that fast inflation was a sign that airfares and hotel rates were bouncing back and would fade quickly, but supply chain snarls and booming consumer demand for goods kept them elevated throughout 2021. More recently, price pressures have begun to broaden to service categories, like rent, in which increases tend to be long-lasting — and as wages climb swiftly, it raises the possibility that companies will keep lifting prices to cover their costs.As inflation proves stubbornly sticky, administration officials and prominent lawmakers have refined their message to focus more blame on corporations, especially those in concentrated industries with a handful of powerful firms, like meat processing or gas.Many companies — from car dealerships to beauty stores and beef sellers — are raking in bigger profits as they successfully raise their prices or discount less while still managing to sell as much or more. But economists have pointed out that in many cases, blaming big firms for worsening inflation is overly simplistic. Industries have been relatively concentrated for years, but businesses now have the wherewithal to charge more because consumers are spending strongly. That owes partly to government stimulus checks and other benefits that have put more money in shoppers’ pockets.“It’s what you would fully expect when demand goes up,” said Jason Furman, a Harvard economist and a former chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration.The laws of supply and demand have not stopped many on the political left from calling companies out.What to Know About Inflation in the U.S.Inflation, Explained: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? We answered some common questions.The Fed’s Pivot: Jerome Powell’s abrupt change of course moved the central bank into inflation-fighting mode.Fastest Inflation in Decades: The Consumer Price Index rose 6.8 percent in November from a year earlier, its sharpest increase since 1982.Why Washington Is Worried: Policymakers are acknowledging that price increases have been proving more persistent than expected.The Psychology of Inflation: Americans are flush with cash and jobs, but they also think the economy is awful.“Profits at the biggest U.S. companies shot above $3 trillion this year, and the margins keep growing,” Mr. Brown, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said during a recent hearing. “Mega corporations would rather pass higher costs on to consumers than cut into their profits.”Ms. Warren has pointed to robust corporate profits as a sign that companies are partly to blame for rising costs.“Corporations are exploiting the pandemic to gouge consumers with higher prices on everyday essentials, from milk to gasoline,” she posted on Twitter on Nov. 26. “American families shouldn’t be bankrolling corporate America’s record-high profits.”And White House economic advisers have pointed to what they have called price gouging behavior in a few specific, concentrated industries. Mr. Biden has publicly encouraged an examination of oil company pricing, and the administration has announced measures to try to combat price fixing in meat processing, pointing out that four large companies control 85 percent of the beef market.“When too few companies control such a large portion of the market, our food supply chains are susceptible to shocks,” the administration said in a Jan. 3 release, repeating an argument administration officials have increasingly highlighted. “Mega corporations would rather pass higher costs on to consumers than cut into their profits,” Senator Sherrod Brown has said.Tom Brenner for The New York Times“I would say there are some areas where we have seen corporations benefit, profit from the pandemic,” Ms. Psaki said at a news conference in December.It is the case that big company profits are surging across many industries, a sign that companies are either selling more goods and services or are managing to eke more profit out of each unit that they are selling thanks to higher prices or better productivity. Based on corporate earnings calls and a spate of data, it’s likely a combination of those factors.Using data reported by Standard & Poor’s, the market analyst Edward Yardeni estimates that 2021 was a year of robust profit margins — the amount companies earn after subtracting their costs. After contracting sharply early in the pandemic, margins jumped to a record-high 13.7 percent in the second quarter before ticking down to 13.6 percent in the third.He thinks that owes partly to efficiency improvements, and partly to the fact that some firms have raised prices by more than their costs have climbed, something that they had previously struggled to do without losing customers.“It kind of became culturally acceptable to raise prices,” Mr. Yardeni said. “Consumers could understand that many corporations are under pressure to pass on their costs.”Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 6What is inflation? More
A pandemic benefit that many progressives hoped to make permanent has lapsed in a congressional standoff. Researchers say it spared many from poverty.For millions of American families with children, the 15th of the month took on a special significance in 2021: It was the day they received their monthly child benefit, part of the Biden administration’s response to the pandemic.The payments, which started in July and amounted to hundreds of dollars a month for most families, have helped millions of American families pay for food, rent and child care; kept millions of children out of poverty; and injected billions of dollars into the U.S. economy, according to government data and independent research.Now, the benefit — an expansion of the existing child tax credit — is ending, just as the latest wave of coronavirus cases is keeping people home from work and threatening to set off a new round of furloughs. Economists warn that the one-two punch of expiring aid and rising cases could put a chill on the once red-hot economic recovery and cause severe hardship for millions of families already living close to the poverty line.“It’s going to be hard next month, and just thinking about it, it really makes me want to bite my nails to the quick,” said Anna Lara, a mother of two young children in Huntington, W.Va. “Honestly, it’s going to be scary. It’s gong to be hard going back to not having it.”Ms. Lara, 32, lost her job in the pandemic, and with the cost of child care rising, she has not been able to return to work. Her partner kept his job, but the child benefit helped the couple make ends meet at a time of reduced income and rising prices.“Your children watch you, and if you worry, they catch on to that,” she said. “With that extra cushion, we didn’t have to worry all the time.”The end of the extra assistance for parents is the latest in a long line of benefits “cliffs” that Americans have encountered as pandemic aid programs have expired. The Paycheck Protection Program, which supported hundreds of thousands of small businesses, ended in March. Expanded unemployment benefits ended in September, and earlier in some states. The federal eviction moratorium expired last summer. The last round of stimulus payments landed in Americans’ bank accounts last spring.Relative to those programs, the rollback in the child tax credit is small. The Treasury Department paid out about $80 billion over six months in the form of checks and direct deposits of up to $300 per child each month. That is far less than the more than $240 billion in stimulus payments issued on a single day last March.Unlike most other programs created in response to the pandemic, the child benefit was never intended to be temporary, at least according to many of its backers. Congress approved it for a single year as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, but many progressives hoped that the payments, once started, would prove too popular to stop.That didn’t happen. Polls found the public roughly divided over whether the program should be extended, with opinions splitting along partisan and generational lines. And the expanded tax credit failed to win over the individual whose opinion mattered most: Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, who cited concerns over the cost and structure of the program in his decision to oppose Mr. Biden’s climate, tax and social policy bill. The bill, known as the Build Back Better Act, cannot proceed in the evenly divided Senate without Mr. Manchin’s support.To supporters of the child benefit, the failure to extend it is especially frustrating because, according to most analyses, the program itself has been a remarkable success. Researchers at Columbia University estimate that the payments kept 3.8 million children out of poverty in November, a nearly 30 percent reduction in the child poverty rate. Other studies have found that the benefit reduced hunger, lowered financial stress among recipients and increased overall consumer spending, especially in rural states that received the most money per capita.Congress last spring expanded the existing child tax credit in three ways. First, it made the benefit more generous, providing as much as $3,600 per child, up from $2,000. Second, it began paying the credit in monthly installments, usually deposited directly into recipients’ bank accounts, turning the once-yearly windfall into something closer to the children’s allowances common in Europe.Finally, the bill made the full benefit available to millions who had previously been unable to take full advantage of the credit because they earned too little to qualify. Poverty experts say that change, known in tax jargon as “full refundability,” was particularly significant because without it, a third of children — including half of all Black and Hispanic children, and 70 percent of children being raised by single mothers — did not receive the full credit. Mr. Biden’s plan would have made that provision permanent.“What we’ve seen with the child tax credit is a policy success story that was unfolding, but it’s a success story that we risk stoping in its tracks just as it was getting started,” said Megan Curran, director of policy at Columbia’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy. “The weight of the evidence is clear here in terms of what the policy is doing. It’s reducing child poverty and food insufficiency.”But the expanded tax credit doesn’t just go to the poor. Couples earning as much as $150,000 a year could receive the full $3,600 benefit — $3,000 for children 6 and older — and even wealthier families qualify for the original $2,000 credit. Critics of the policy, including Mr. Manchin, have argued that it makes little sense to provide aid to relatively well-off families. Many supporters of the credit say they’d happily limit its availability to wealthier households in return for maintaining it for poorer ones.Mr. Manchin has also publicly questioned the wisdom of unconditional cash payments, and has privately voiced concerns that recipients could spend the money on opioids, comments that were first reported by The Wall Street Journal and confirmed by a person familiar with the discussion. But a survey conducted by the Census Bureau found that most recipients used the money to buy food, clothing or other necessities, and many saved some of the money or paid down debt. Other surveys have found similar results.For one of Mr. Manchin’s constituents, Ms. Lara, the first monthly check last year arrived at an opportune moment. Her dishwasher had broken days earlier, and the $550 a month that she and her family received from the federal government meant they could replace it.Ms. Lara, who has a 6-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son and whose partner earns about $40,000 a year, said the family had long lived “right on the edge of need” — not poor, but never able to save enough to withstand more than a modest setback.The monthly child benefit, she said, let them step a bit further back from the edge. It allowed her to get new shoes and a new car seat for her daughter, stock up on laundry detergent when she found it on sale and fix the brakes on her car.A line at a Covid testing site in Atlanta on Friday. The child tax benefit is ending just as the latest wave of coronavirus cases is keeping people home from work.Nicole Craine for The New York Times“None of the dash lights are on, which is amazing,” she said.Some researchers have questioned the policy’s effectiveness, particularly over the long term. Bruce D. Meyer, an economist at the University of Chicago who studies poverty, said that whatever the merits of direct cash payments at the height of the pandemic-induced disruptions, a permanent policy of providing unconditional cash to parents could have unintended consequences. He and several co-authors recently published a working paper finding that the child benefit could discourage people from working, in part because it eliminated the work incentives built into the previous version of the tax credit.“Early on, we just wanted to get cash in people’s hands — we were worried about a recession, we were worried about people being able to pay for their groceries,” Mr. Meyer said. Now, he said, “we certainly should be more focused on the longer-term effects, which include likely larger effects on labor supply.”Analyses of the data since the new child benefit took effect, however, have found no evidence that it has done much to discourage people from working, and some researchers say it could actually lead more people to work by making it easier for parents of young children to afford child care.“There’s every reason to believe that in the current labor market, the child tax credit is work-enabling, and no evidence to the contrary has been presented,” said Samuel Hammond, director of poverty and welfare policy at the Niskanen Center, a research organization in Washington.Mr. Hammond said the child benefit should also have broader economic benefits. In a report last summer, he estimated that the expansion would increase consumer spending by $27 billion nationally and create the equivalent of 500,000 full-time jobs. The biggest impact, on a percentage basis, would come in rural, mostly Republican-voting states where families are larger and incomes are lower, on average.Some Republican critics of the expanded child tax credit, including Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, have argued that it has essentially done too much to increase spending — that by giving people more money to spend when the supply chain is already strained, the government is contributing to faster inflation.But many economists are skeptical that the tax credit has played much of a role in causing high inflation, in part because it is small compared with both the economy and the earlier rounds of aid distributed during the pandemic.“That’s a noninflationary program,” said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at the accounting firm RSM. “That’s dedicated toward necessities, not luxuries.”For those receiving the benefit, inflation is an argument for maintaining it. Ms. Lara said she had noticed prices going up for groceries, utilities and especially gas, stretching her budget even thinner.“Right now, both of my vehicles need gas and I can’t put gas in the car,” she said. “But it’s OK, because I’ve got groceries in the house and the kids can play outside.”Emily Cochrane More
For once, the government tried overheating the economy. For better and worse, it succeeded.For people who study the vicissitudes of the economy, 2021 has been the most interesting year of the 2000s.It hasn’t been the most dramatic (that would be 2008 or 2020), and neither the best (2000 or 2019) nor the worst (2009). Rather, it has been a year in which economic dynamics that had seemed entrenched for decades came apart, or changed in fundamental ways. Workers attained the upper hand over employers; supply chains broke; inflation surged; and the economy rebuilt itself from its depressed pandemic levels with astounding speed.In contrast to the last economic cycle, the government tried overheating the economy for once. For better and worse, it succeeded.The unemployment rate, 6.7 percent in December 2020, fell to 4.2 percent 11 months later. That same shift took three and a half years in the last expansion, from March 2014 to September 2017.But the flip side has been soaring prices and many goods in short supply. Inflation has reached its highest levels in four decades. In surveys, Americans are remarkably unsatisfied with economic conditions. The growth numbers have been good. The vibes have been bad.These are the most important things to learn from a year in which the economic ground beneath our feet shifted.Yes, you can overheat the economyIn the early months of 2021, there was vigorous disagreement between people in the centrist and left-of-center economics worlds. Was the $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue plan the Biden administration enacted, on the heels of a $900 billion bipartisan package passed in the final weeks of the Trump administration, too big relative to the hole the economy was in?For example, in February the Congressional Budget Office projected that the 2021 output gap — the economy’s shortfall relative to its full potential — was only $360 billion. Even if you think the C.B.O. numbers are too cautious, estimates like that implied that the pandemic relief that passed a month later would send too much money coursing through the economy and result in inflation.That, anyway, was the interpretation by traditional models of how fiscal stimulus works. Defenders of the Biden approach emphasized, among other things, risk management — doing everything possible to get money into Americans’ hands, aggressively roll out vaccination, and get the economy back to its prepandemic path as quickly as possible.These views were shaped in large part by the experience of the last expansion. Fiscal austerity was a major reason for a painfully long slog out of the global financial crisis. After years, or arguably decades, in which the central crisis was an under-heated economy, the experience of 2021 is a reminder that overheating can cause its own discontents.What to Know About Inflation in the U.S.Inflation, Explained: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? We answered some common questions.The Fed’s Pivot: Jerome Powell’s abrupt change of course moved the central bank into inflation-fighting mode.Fastest Inflation in Decades: The Consumer Price Index rose 6.8 percent in November from a year earlier, its sharpest increase since 1982.Why Washington Is Worried: Policymakers are acknowledging that price increases have been proving more persistent than expected.The Psychology of Inflation: Americans are flush with cash and jobs, but they also think the economy is awful.With demand for goods exceeding supply, especially for physical items, it is clear that the surging prices and other related problems (shortages and shadow inflation) are now America’s central economic problems. Economists will debate how much they are attributable to excess stimulus for years to come. But regardless of where one comes down on that question, the events of the last few quarters are a reminder that just because the risks of overheating were dormant for a long time doesn’t mean they’ve gone away.When supply chains get messed up, it is hard to un-mess themThe disruptions to supplies of all sorts of goods have their roots in the earliest weeks of the pandemic, when manufacturers the world over pulled back on production amid collapsing demand and a public health crisis.But things didn’t play out as in past recessions. Demand for physical goods surged in late 2020 and into 2021 — not like a typical recession in which demand for cars and other big-ticket items is depressed.That happened because consumers shifted their spending toward physical goods and away from services, and government support kept incomes stable, preventing a collapse in overall demand.The result: an economywide occurrence of the “bullwhip effect,” a phenomenon from the field of operations management in which small shifts in demand ripple through supply chains to cause wild swings.The complexity of modern global supply chains and the fact that this bullwhip effect has played out across countless industries has made it a fiendishly difficult problem to solve. The issue is not just a shortage of semiconductors, or shipping containers, or any other single item. It is shortages of all these things crashing together in ways that make the feeling of scarcity and shortages more intense.More power for workers doesn’t necessarily make workers happyThe tension between soaring demand and pandemic-limited supply showed up in the labor market in 2021 as well. The result was that workers were in command to a degree not seen in at least two decades.This showed up across multiple dimensions. Wages have been rising rapidly. Companies have been forced to be more creative, flexible and aggressive in attracting a work force. The rate of people quitting their jobs soared. After two decades in which employers were mostly able to have their pick of workers, the tables had turned.And people hated it.That’s an exaggeration, of course. The Great Resignation is real, and plenty of people have taken advantage of this moment to secure a better, more rewarding employment arrangement. But in the aggregate, people view the state of the economy as horrendous.In a Gallup poll in early December, 67 percent of adults said the economy was getting worse. Overall economic confidence matched its lowest levels from the early days of the pandemic and was lower than it was in the very weak economy of 2010 and 2011.Some of this is surely tied to the fact that prices are rising more quickly than average wages, which means an average worker’s purchasing power is declining. Wage gains have been highest, in percentage terms, in lower-paying industries. In effect, hourly workers have been securing raises, while middle-managers and white collar workers are, on average, losing significant ground.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 6What is inflation? More