Viewpoint: Dollars and sense of Biden’s Build Back Better $1.9 trillion infrastructure plan

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Karen Rubin, Columnist

President Joe Biden laid out a bold vision, a blueprint for rebuilding America after decades of decline by the tax-cutting-obsessed, trickle-down economics, “starve-the-beast” Republicans.

“If we act now, in 50 years, people are going to look back and say this was the moment that America won the future,” Biden declared.

The $1.9 trillion “American Jobs Plan” Biden is proposing would rebuild 20,000 miles of highways, roads and main streets, replace the 10 most economically significant but dangerous bridges and the worst 10,000 smaller bridges, invest in high-speed trains; replace all lead pipes carrying drinking water; bring down the cost of internet and expand broadband to under-served communities; and produce, preserve and retrofit 2 million homes and commercial buildings to be resilient against climate change; while hastening transition to clean renewable energy. Add to that bringing back America’s investment in R&D, now at less than 1 percent, to 2 percent of GDP level that had made the USA a technological leader and global juggernaut.

Government spending on space exploration, for example, has resulted in 2000 commercial products that benefit all of society and created new industries and jobs – GPS, computer chips, video conferencing, even food processing.

Oh yes, and the other, “soft” infrastructure that greases the wheels of commerce and productivity: investing in education, child care and care-giving, and addressing the impacts of systemic racism in housing, education and economic development.

Sounds pretty radical, indeed! McConnell calls this a Democratic wish list. (Reminder: 81 million people voted for Biden’s agenda, a significant majority; McConnell used to say, when convenient to his purpose, “elections have consequences.”).

But there are also consequences of going from first to 13th in among industrialized countries in infrastructure investment – in lives and livelihoods, technological innovation and economic growth.

Decades of declining public investment has left roads, bridges, rail, and transit systems with a trillion-dollar backlog of needed repairs. More than 35,000 people die in traffic crashes on US roads each year and millions more are seriously, often permanently injured; delays caused by traffic congestion alone cost the economy $160 billion per year.

“With each $5,000 investment replacing a line, that can mean up to $22,000 in healthcare costs saved — a chance to protect our children, help them learn and thrive,” Biden said.

And then there are the costs of rebuilding after climate catastrophes, amounting to $100 billion a year.

Infrastructure spending is an investment in the future – just like purchasing a home by taking out a mortgage (and interest rates are at historic lows). This one-time capital investment would be spent over 8 years time (so actually less annual spending, amortized, than we spend on Defense in what is supposed to be a “peacetime” budget).

Biden said he would use the federal government’s purchasing power to require products to be made in the US and assist the shift to electric vehicles by purchasing electric vehicles for government fleets, building 500,000 charging stations and giving rebates or incentives to consumers.

In contrast, the 2017 Republican tax scam cost the Treasury $2 trillion, with 83 percent of that going to the top 1 percent, while incentivizing companies to offshore jobs and profits.

Why is it Republicans are so eager to spend unlimited amounts for the military, even in peacetime (the next war will be fought in cyberspace over resources rendered scant because of climate change), but become Scrooge when it comes to improving the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Americans?

“What I’m proposing is a one-time capital investment of roughly $2 trillion in America’s future, spread largely over eight years. It will generate historic job growth, historic economic growth, help businesses to compete internationally, create more revenue as well. They are among the highest-value investments we can make in the nation — investing in our infrastructure.

“But put it another way, failing to make these investments adds to our debt and effectively puts our children at a disadvantage relative to our competitors. That’s what crumbling infrastructure does.”

If you think about it, the $2 trillion Biden is proposing to spend over 8 years still works out to less than is the annual defense budget allocation. In fact, progressives including Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez insist Biden’s plan is too little, that the price tag should be $10 trillion, and spend a whole lot more to accelerate the response to climate change and build affordable housing.

Indeed, Biden’s plan is historic in ways that go beyond the size and scope, but in how it fundamentally emphasizes economic and social equity – steering resources into undeserved communities and marginalized people (unlike prior infrastructure investments which disadvantaged minorities). When you think about it, would be the more rational and productive way of addressing the controversial call for reparations due after centuries of systemic racism; it would redress such generational inequity as government mandated red-lining and housing discrimination (the approach Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed).

“It’s the largest American jobs investment since World War Two. It will create millions of jobs, good-paying jobs,” Biden declared. “It will grow the economy, make us more competitive around the world, promote our national security interests, and put us in a position to win the global competition with China in the upcoming years. Is it big? Yes. Is it bold? Yes. And we can get it done.”

The infrastructure plan goes beyond rebuilding sustainable roads and bridges, putting 19 million people to work and redressing systemic inequities: the United States is embroiled in a galactic battle of Democracy v. Autocracy.

“There’s a lot of autocrats in the world who think the reason why they’re going to win is democracies can’t reach consensus any longer; autocracies do. That’s what competition between America and China and the rest of the world is all about. It’s a basic question: Can democracies still deliver for their people? Can they get a majority? I believe we can. I believe we must.”

Biden noted that China’s leader Xi Jinping had remarked, “You’ve always said, Mr. President, that you can define America in one word: possibilities.”

“That’s who we are,” Biden said. “In America, anything is possible…We just have to imagine again.”

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