Plans to End Social Distancing
Assorted links on policy options.
Spin up new health info-tech systems.
What we need: New digital tools and more personnel to collect and analyze the data we need.
Why? Few health departments in the U.S. have the capacity to locate individual Covid-19 cases and ensure that they remain in isolation. Specifically, they lack the kind of tools South Korea, Singapore and China have used to control the disease, primarily cellphone-based applications and large numbers of personnel. Even if states are already collecting some of the data mentioned above, they aren’t likely to have the scale, expertise and software to crunch and use it in real time. And health departments will also need assistance to undertake the laborious work of ensuring that people with Covid-19 self-isolate and identifying and monitoring their contacts.
Who needs to do it? The CDC needs to immediately provide the criteria needed to develop digital tracking systems, particularly for contact tracing and monitoring known Covid-19 cases. HHS should consider training and deploying returning Peace Corps volunteers, medical or nursing students, and other volunteers, to assist states in monitoring patients. And technology companies should work with the CDC to develop the needed apps and tools.
No doubt some companies will exploit loopholes in government relief plans. Some businesses, more broadly, will disproportionately benefit from the pandemic. While tens of thousands of brick-and-mortar stores are closed, Amazon sales rise. The Seattle-based company is one of the few S&P 500 firms whose stock price is higher today than at the beginning of the year. Cloud computing is exploding. Facebook traffic is booming.
But these windfall profits have a fair, comprehensive and transparent solution: The government should impose excess profits taxes, as it has done several times in the past during periods of crisis. In 1918, all profits made by corporations above and beyond an 8 percent rate of return on their capital were deemed abnormal, and abnormal profits were taxed at progressive rates of up to 80 percent. Similar taxes on excessive profits were applied during World War II and the Korean War. These taxes all had one goal — making sure that no one could benefit outrageously from a situation in which the masses suffered.
To help make this happen, the next bill needs an excess profits tax. If Congress fails to act, the pandemic could well reinforce two of the defining trends of the pre-coronavirus American economy: the rise of business concentration and the upsurge of inequality.