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"Business as usual" is off the table these days — and may be for quite some time. Rising concern and anxiety over our loved ones’ health and financial stability leave most of us yearning for the day when our leaders loosen the lock-downs and let us get on with our lives and livelihoods. But determining when and how to reopen America is more of an art than a science, even with the best guidelines.
The National Coronavirus Recovery Commission recently released a set of 179 recommendations on how to return to normal business activity while slowing the spread of the virus. In developing these recommendations, the commissioners rightly focused on protecting public health, keeping Americans financially afloat and getting people back to work.
But the planning can’t end there. Congress and the administration must also have a plan ready to help sustain and accelerate an economic recovery. What’s needed are pro-growth reforms that will have both immediate and lasting impact.
For instance, removing tariffs and import quotas would act as an immediate tax break for families by lowering the cost of products. From solar cells and washing machines to steel and aluminum, tariffs artificially raise prices on all sorts of consumer goods.
The administration’s recent suspension of tariff payments for some companies harmed by the coronavirus outbreak constitutes a de facto admission that tariffs harm American businesses and families. Tariffs do not make sense during a pandemic or normal times. Eliminating them permanently would provide a quick and lasting economic boost.
Another policy that needs to go is the Renewable Fuel Standard. It requires fuel suppliers to blend increasing amounts of renewable fuel, primarily corn ethanol, into gasoline, year after year. By converting food to fuel (and a less efficient fuel, at that), the mandate has increased both food and fuel prices.
Stay-at-home policies have people driving less and the price of oil tumbling, so pump prices are less of a concern right now. But that will change once the restrictions are eased. Meanwhile, the fuel standard continues to cost American refiners and their workers—more than $1 billion in some years. That’s why the United Steelworkers and other unions involved with refineries have voiced their frustration with the policy.
This substantial burden on refiners, has led five state governors to call on the Environmental Protection Agency to ease the standards. That would be a good start. But Congress would be wise to scrap it altogether.
Yet another commonsense reform would be to remove regulations that keep professionals from providing their services where they are needed most. Pandemic-inspired relaxations of some of these regulations improved access to telemedicine and childcare and enabled healthcare professionals to work across state lines. That should be but the beginning.
For example, when things start opening up, a lot of people are going to need haircuts. There is no public safety justification for retaining costly, time-consuming licensing requirements on those who want to cut hair. Granted, I want my barber to have some expertise, but for a state to require someone to log more than 1,000 hours of training and years of expensive schooling before clipping my locks is ludicrous.
Besides, the market provides its own regulatory check. Someone who’s not very good at cutting hair won’t last long in the barbering business.
Occupational licensing reform will go far toward helping people find work—especially those who want to work for themselves. And the extra competition will help keep customer costs reasonable.
The reforms outlined here affect different sectors of the economy, but they share one thing in common: all are rooted in the concept of economic freedom.
For more than a quarter of a century, The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom has measured, country by country, the advances and retreats in economic freedom around the globe. In the process of doing that, Heritage researchers have established a strong linkage between economic freedom and prosperity (and environmental quality, too).
Many factors contribute to economic freedom: the rule of law, limited government, regulatory efficiency, and open markets among them. Taken together, they allow people to improve their lives and give them the opportunity to innovate and produce what people want.
Keying off the Index, Heritage has just released a Special Report, “Restoring America as the Land of the Free,” which offers policymakers a detailed roadmap to renewed prosperity.
Expanding economic freedom in the U.S. isn’t about just about getting a better grade in next year’s Index. It’s about giving Americans a better life. When America is able to return to work, enacting policies that increase economic freedom will empower them to flourish and succeed as never before. Economic freedom is essential to accelerating and sustaining a post-COVID economic recovery.
Nicolas Loris is the deputy director of The Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.