Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam argued in “Bowling Alone” (2000) that Americans were spending less time together. Today, Americans aren’t merely alone—they’re not even bowling. Sports, theaters and restaurants are shut down, and the coronavirus is scaring off frequent flyers. This makes for prudent health policy and a brutal business environment.
Rather than pass an indiscriminate payroll tax cut that drip-feeds dollars and doesn’t ensure recovery in battered sectors, Congress and the White House should target the most vulnerable parts of the economy, which often employ the most vulnerable workers—janitors, ushers, baggage handlers, busboys. We propose that the federal government mail to each American household a debit card preloaded with $500 that can be used for services in the “out of home,” experience economy. Call it a “Menu and Venue Voucher.”
The card would have a start date of July 1, 2020, if public-health authorities relax social-distancing requirements by then, and expire a year later. A school trip to a Picasso exhibit, a bus ride to a bowling tournament, or petting sled dogs from a cruise ship in Alaska would qualify. A Netflix subscription wouldn’t. The point is not to make judgments about taste but to restore the nerve to go out.
Every stimulus plan raises doubts. While this plan, which would cost $64 billion, would not immediately inject cash, it would assure employers and their lenders that a rebound is on the way, so that business owners could receive bridge loans and keep going through the crisis. Targeting industries usually fails because lobbyists who make the fattest political contributions tend to grab the biggest bonuses. In this case, it’s obvious which industries are feeling the most pain. The share price of Invesco’s Dynamic Leisure and Entertainment ETF (PEJ) has, as of Wednesday’s close, plunged by 56% since Feb. 19, nearly twice as much as the S&P 500’s 29% decline over the same period. The same activities targeted by health officials should be beneficiaries of this fiscal offset.
This program wouldn’t be difficult to administer, and there are precedents. During the 2007-09 recession, Taiwan sent coupons to its citizens, which spurred buying during a worrisome time. In the U.S., health savings accounts often issue debit cards for consumers to buy medicines and treatments. The food-stamp program now uses a debit-card equivalent, too. What if some clever person began buying up the Menu Venue Vouchers? That would be fine, for families that sell their vouchers would be choosing to spend that money on priorities they deem more urgent.
Some economists might warn that such a program would kindle inflation in 2021. But we’ve been listening to such cries since 2009, with nary a blip, while as of Wednesday the yield on the inflation-protected 10-year U.S. Treasury note implies inflation of only 0.63%. And industries in the experience economy expanded capacity during the economic recovery, with sleek new hotels and cruise ships coming on line to accommodate demand. It’s highly unlikely they will be in a position to jack up prices, even with vouchers in place.
The government’s first priority is getting testing, treatment and aid to hospitals and clinics. Still, the coronavirus threatens not only our bodies, but the body politic. This proposal would aid those parts of the economy that can lift spirits and bring us closer together once the need for social distancing has passed. It would give Americans something to look forward to. Let’s make America fun again and save jobs while we’re at it.
Mr. Buchholz is former White House director of economic policy and author of “New Ideas from Dead Economists.” Ms. Buchholz is director of marketing strategy and special projects at Princess Cruises.