The Canada Emergency Response Benefit, what now? Government policy as the economy re-opens should be rules-based

We have learned from past experience that public policy proceeds through two phases during major crises: first, as one influential economist has said, “whatever it takes”; then, “Oh my God, what have we done!”

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit represents the best of whatever-it-takes policy. The speed, the depth, and the sheer uncertainty of the duration and aftermath of the COVID19 crisis called for maximum flexibility in the making of public policy, and full discretion for leaders to respond quickly. This is equally the “In it altogether” phase. It motivates significant, widely available, and easy to get income support intended to avert a liquidity crisis and ensure the survival of many asset-poor households.

The CERB is a generous payment, minimally targeted, with an on-off eligibility rule that would normally create a significant work disincentive, a program totally appropriate for times when the standard rules of economic policy are flipped upside down. The work disincentives of this program are a feature, not a bug. For many there is no work to be had, while for others work should be avoided to maximize the physical distancing necessary to reduce the reproduction rate of the virus, and flatten the curve. Survival, not stimulus, is the watchword for policy.

But re-opening the economy in stages, according to risks of re-infection and flare-ups, makes clear that we are in-it-together only until we are not. And yet uncertainty continues to prevail: will the recovery be V, U, W, or L-shaped? At what point do temporary layoffs morph into permanent layoffs that lengthen spells of unemployment, and further depress consumer confidence?

In the “OMG, what have we done” phase, giving maximum flexibility and discretion to government may even add to uncertainty.

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