In his glorious poem “Advice to a Prophet,” Richard Wilbur begins:
When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city,
Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,
Not proclaiming our fall but begging us
In God’s name to have self-pity,
Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind;
Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,
Unable to fear what is too strange.
Oddly enough, perhaps, I think this is relevant to the proposal that has emerged today to give all Americans a thousand bucks — or, in some proposals, more — to compensate for the afflictions many will experience because of the economic consequences of the coronavirus. The idea of giving everyone in America that much money strikes us, initially and instinctively, as an insane amount of money. But let’s run the numbers.
There are 330 million Americans, more or less. Giving a thousand bucks to each of then would be $330 billion. But the federal budget that Donald Trump has just proposed is $4.8 trillion. So a thousand bucks for everyone is doable — not easily, mind you, but doable. It’s even doable more than once, especially if people like me, who are financially secure, donate our thousand to charity.
It doesn’t feel doable. The numbers “rocket the mind.” But I think we owe it to Andrew Yang that many people are able to overcome their initial feelings — their “unreckoning hearts” — and realize that this is something we can do, if we want to.