Quality, Not Quantity

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Debates in America over major policy initiatives usually focus on cost. When the policies under scrutiny carry a price tag of 100s of billions — even trillions — of dollars, politicians in Washington and the public have good reasons to zoom in on money.

But, monetary quantity is not the sole criterion for judging whether Congress should enact legislation. Quality matters, too, and never more critically than in the debate about to begin on the massive $3.5 trillion proposal on so-called “soft” infrastructure such as universal preschool, paid family leave, expanded child tax credits, and other parts of the legislation that finally would bring the United States into line with other industrial democracies that provide such services and benefits for their citizens. 

Moderate Democrats in the Senate — Krysten Sinema from Arizona and Joe Manchin from West Virginia, among others — complain about the cost of President Joe Biden’s signature legislative proposal. Manchin, in particular, warns that he cannot support legislation that totals more than $1.5 trillion and suggests he would be happy if the final price tag is as low as $1 trillion. 

Manchin, Sinema, and their cohort of moderate Democrats are wrong to base their decisions solely on cost. For one thing, the money will be spent over a decade. For another, Democrats plan on raising taxes on the wealthy and enacting other measures to pay for the infrastructure plan. In no year would spending authorized under the infrastructure package exceed 3.45 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. And, there is no compelling evidence suggesting that the measure would spike an inflationary spiral, as some have worried. 

America can afford the cost. So, the question is: Can America afford not to pass the infrastructure package? If enacted as proposed, the bill would guarantee prekindergarten and community college for every American. It would bolster America’s competitiveness globally and reassert the nation’s role in fighting climate change. The way to think about the massive proposal is to imagine President Franklin Roosevelt stuffing the entire New Deal into one piece of legislation.

The package has widespread public support, regardless of cost. A poll conducted for HuffPost reveals that voters support the infrastructure plan by a two-to-one margin if told it costs $3.5 trillion, $2.5 trillion, or $1.5 trillion! The cost of the package had no influence on the level of support. Obviously, most Americans find these numbers incomprehensible, so the importance of the difference among the price tags may have little relevance. Still, it may be that voters are focusing on what is really important in the package and finding the cost largely irrelevant if the money is spent on the right programs.

The respondents in the poll may intuitively grasp that money spent on early childcare provides benefits far exceeding cost. Studies show, for example, that generous tax credits to families in need reap great benefits in improved health, education, and future earnings. The temporary child tax credits, for example, in President Biden’s initial economic recovery act — passed last spring — have reduced childhood poverty dramatically.

Still, for those who say, yes the bill contains many important parts that deserve serious consideration, but the cost…the cost… for them, I have a modest proposal.

Bear with me. When President Biden spoke of the end of America’s military involvement in Afghanistan, he made the following comment: “$300 million a day for 20 years. What have we lost as a consequence in terms of opportunities?” That comes to over $2 trillion. Obviously, that money cannot be recouped, but America spent it without suffering any serious domestic repercussions. We did not go broke. We did not suffer serious inflationary pressures. And, I have not even mentioned the money spent in Iraq over the same period. Adding that to the Afghan expenditures gives a cost total roughly equal to the $3.5 trillion for the proposed infrastructure plan. Americans should consider the cost of past foreign and military adventures when considering future domestic spending. 

The United States spends $700 billion a year supporting a huge military with bases and responsibilities around the world. Do we really need to spend that much money on the military? When pulling troops out of Afghanistan, Biden suggested that America’s global responsibilities will shrink. If so, that leaves a large question unanswered: What to do with the immense global military machine? If the United States is no longer going to try to impose democratic norms throughout the world, do we really need the huge military we now have? 

I am not suggesting unilateral disarmament. The world in 2021 is still a dangerous place. Russia is a threat, though a much reduced threat from the Soviet era. Still, it is a nation with a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons. China is an even more serous geopolitical threat requiring vigilance on our part. And, international terrorism remains a danger demanding close surveillance and the resources, both personnel and materiel, to respond quickly.

Still, does the United States need to spend more on national defense than China, India, Russia, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Australia — combined? China spends $250 billion annually on its military, second to the United States. But that is little more than a third of U.S. spending.

Cutting 50 percent of military spending would mean the United States would still outspend China by $100 billion while saving $350 billion annually. Over ten years, that savings would amount to $3.5 trillion — the proposed cost of the current infrastructure plan to invest in the nation’s future. I ask again: Can America afford not to pass the infrastructure package? Think about it. The quality of life in the United States and the repercussions globally depend on the answer. 

Posted September 21, 2021

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