Business & Money

Stimulus stunts and secret tricks

By Askia Muhammad Senior Editor @askiaphotojourn | Last updated: Apr 21, 2020 - 1:33:09 AM

What's your opinion on this article?

WASHINGTON—Much deserved attention has been focused on the performance breakdowns and structural flaws in the massive $2 trillion federal government Covid-19 economic stimulus plan that was just adopted and almost as quickly spent by banks and corporations in early April. But there are several other provisions, slipped into the law, which favor the big banks and the wealthiest Americans which got far less attention.

As millions of payments rolled out of the treasury, many were surprised to learn that their stimulus payments had been seized by their banks. The $1,200 CARES Act payments Congress approved in response to the coronavirus crisis began appearing in Americans’ bank accounts in mid-April. 

But the money may not make it into the hands of all those who need it to pay bills, buy food, or just survive amid mass unemployment and widespread suffering. Individuals might first have to fend off their own bank, which has been given the power to seize the $1,200 payment and use it to pay off outstanding debt.

Congress did not exempt CARES Act payments from private debt collection, and the Treasury Department has been reluctant to exempt them through its rulemaking authority. This means that individuals could see their payments transferred from their hands into the hands of their creditors, potentially leaving them with nothing.

The Treasury Department effectively blessed this activity on a webinar with banking officials. In audio obtained by the Prospect, Ronda Kent, chief disbursing officer with Treasury’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service, can be heard explaining that banks had posed questions to her about “whether these payments could be subject to collection from the bank to which the money is deposited, if the payee owes an outstanding loan or other payments to the bank.” She responded—twice—that “there’s nothing in the law that precludes that action,” Ms. Kent said.

The vigorous revival of the economy is in fact more important than protecting the lives of citizens, especially the elderly, one Republican member of Congress said. “It is policymakers’ decision to put on our big boy and big girl pants and say it is the lesser of these two evils,” Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-Ind.) told radio station WIBC-FM Indianapolis. “It is not zero evil, but it is the lesser of these two evils, and we intend to move forward that direction.”

Rep. Hollingsworth’s sentiment has been expressed before. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested last month that American seniors should be willing to risk their lives to the virus to preserve the economy. “No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for its children and grandchildren?’ ” Mr. Patrick said March 23 on Fox News. “And if that is the exchange, I’m all in.”

Mr. Hollingsworth said that he’s also willing to push the good life over a longer life. “It is always the American government’s position to say, in the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans and the loss of life, of American lives, we have to always choose the latter,” he said, arguing that looming economic losses are far too severe to continue sheltering-in-place orders designed to limit the person-to-person spread of coronavirus. 

But New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recoiled. “My mother is not expendable,” Mr. Cuomo said.

Then, in what was seen by many as insult added to the injuries caused by the ineffective federal response to the pandemic, Mr. Trump managed to have his name printed on all the checks being sent out. 

This is the first time a president’s name will appear on any IRS disbursement. The president reportedly initially pushed to have his name appear on the signature line; however, presidents are not authorized signers for legal disbursements from the Treasury Department. As a result, the president’s name will appear in the memo line, just below a note saying “Economic Impact Payment,” according to administration officials.

“I’ve only had two or three narcissism cases as a psychologist in therapy,” Prof. Ray Winbush, director of the Institute of Urban Research, Morgan State University said in an interview. “But (Mr. Trump) is pathological. He’s going to delay these checks for a week to thousands, no millions of people just because he wants his name on them?! If you took a survey right now of those who still get a check, nobody knows who signs the checks. Yes, it’s a big scam.”

The money will be used to fatten the pockets of corporations and the wealthy, some observers claim. A congressional committee reports tax provisions in the coronavirus stimulus will overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest Americans. Four out of five tax filers benefiting from the $70 billion temporary tax loophole are millionaires or billionaires. They’ll receive an average windfall of $1.6 million—dwarfing the $1,200 payments for working Americans, the report said.

Furthermore, the relief funds are likely to be diverted into a personal “slush fund” for the president’s political purposes, according to Dr. Winbush. “And that $2 trillion, after he fired the inspector general, that is going to be his personal slush fund. He doesn’t have to ask the Congress for any more money, like for his wall. He could just dip into that,” he said. “I’m telling you that’s going to happen. When this guy gets angry, he takes out his anger in some form, some place. 

“It’s like a big kid,” he continued. “There’s a new book out. It’s called ‘Toddler in Chief,’ and it has a picture on the cover with him looking like a baby. And the guy that wrote the book says that he didn’t think that the so-called ‘Founding Fathers’ anticipated a president like Trump. They didn’t even anticipate because this guy has a contempt for the Constitution and everything else.

“The thing that’s surprised me,” said Dr. Winbush “I’m just amazed as a Black person how all the stuff that this most corrupt government in the history of this country, and arguably one of the most corrupt government in modern era, that they are letting it happen. (Republicans are) letting it happen, and nobody’s doing anything.”