A New Old Vision

It’s not a plan that tinkers around the edges, it’s a once in a generation investment in America. — President Joe Biden, discussing his infrastructure plan, March 31, 2021

Well, finally, the nation has infrastructure week!

Only this time the president is different, and he means it. Former president Donald Trump promised during his 2016 election run that he would spend one-trillion dollars to rebuild America’s road and bridges. He never revealed any plan of substance, and his constant promises of infrastructure-related events all fizzled. “Infrastructure week” became a metaphor for Trumpian plans to do this or that (remember the promises of a soon-to-be-issued plan for replacing Obamacare?). 

President Joe Biden is serious about overhauling the nation’s infrastructure. The need is acute. Any American who has traveled overseas in the last few decades has to be embarrassed about the decrepitude of the nation’s roads, bridges, tunnels, railroads, and airports in comparison to the infrastructure of other countries. And, it is not just the contrast with Europe that is revealing. The Beijing International Airport is a gleaming facility, unlike airports in American cities. The Delhi Metro is a modern wonder, putting such famed metro systems as the New York City Subway to shame. 

Biden’s infrastructure plan is bold. It represents a new way of thinking only because the political orthodoxy of the last four decades rested on Reaganite assumptions about limited government and trickle-down economics. Politicians who do not believe in the efficacy of government accomplish, by definition, little. Even if the need is great, the will to act is lacking. And, reliance on trickle-down economics was based on the erroneous assumption that the private sector would accomplish what the government refused to do. Trickle down was, as George H.W. Bush once said, “voodoo economics.” The evidence is that the vast proportion of the money the wealthy saved from lower taxes became part of their private wealth; little of it was invested in building the nation.

The president’s plan returns American political thought to an earlier age. Biden believes that America can act boldly. He often reflects on the accomplishments of Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson. He knows that in the decades between the Great Depression and the Vietnam War, Americans built a vibrant economy and defeated the Axis threat. Americans constructed the Interstate Highway System, a vision of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, and sent men to the moon. Americans know how to accomplish much.

The infrastructure plan announced this week rests on the old New Deal concept that government can be a force for public good while also returning to the idea that government policy can be a tool for social justice. If enacted, the infrastructure plan to tax major corporations that do not pay their fair share, combined with the provisions in the recently enacted American Rescue Plan, will do much to redress the tremendous inequities in the distribution of wealth in modern America caused by four decades of trickle-down economics.

Biden boasts his plan would “create the strongest, most resilient, innovative economy in the world.” Part of the proposal includes projects to generate millions of jobs and strengthen American competitiveness. The two-trillion dollar program also would accelerate the fight against climate change by hastening the shift to cleaner sources of energy and, by targeted spending and projects, promote racial equality in the economy.

Translating even part of this ambitious and bold plan into law will be a heavy lift. While improving roads and bridges enjoys widespread, bipartisan support, the nitty-gritty details about funding have frustrated progress for years. Republicans are unanimous in opposition to both the cost and raising taxes on big corporations. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell captured the Republican view, calling the infrastructure plan a “Trojan horse [for] more borrowed money and massive tax increases.” McConnell said he would not support Biden’s package “if it’s going to have massive tax increases and trillions more added to the national debt.” Oh, so now McConnell is concerned about the debt?

Some Democrats are opposed to key details of the infrastructure plan. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of coal-producing West Virginia likely will object to parts of the plan that undermine reliance on fossil fuels. Other Democrats want to use the proposal to enact their favored changes in the tax code, changes that are not universally popular. Finally, some progressive Democrats criticize Biden for not being bold enough. “This is not enough” tweeted Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “The important context here is that it’s $2.25T spread out over 10 years. For context, the COVID package was $1.9T for this year *alone,* with some provisions lasting 2 years. Needs to be way bigger.”

Even if Democrats finally unite behind a version of the Biden package, prospects for passage will be dim because of the need to gather 60 votes in the Senate to avoid a filibuster. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is considering a fast-track budget process similar to the one used to pass the stimulus plan, but nothing has been decided yet. Or, Democrats could finally do away with the filibuster, enabling passage of not only the infrastructure package but much needed legislation to secure and protect voting rights for all Americans.

Biden is betting that going bold in the way of FDR and LBJ is what Americans want. So far, he has been right about that bet, judging from his approval ratings. His plan for big spending on infrastructure with tax increases — including on those with incomes over $400,000 annually — has the support of a majority of Americans. But, the president has been in politics long enough to know that high approval ratings last only so long (unease over immigration already may be undermining some of Biden’s popularity). The window for bold action is not unlimited, hence the urgency to pass the infrastructure plan soon. 

Now, it is up to Congress to enact the president’s new old vision.

Posted April 2, 2021

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