Biden and his trillions

Going like a house on fire, the US president is introducing his US$2t infrastructure plan, just after Congress has passed his US$1.9t Covid relief bill.

MAYBE historians will look back on this as the year of Old Power.

Think about it. Older people, who were some of the first in line for the vaccine shots, are now being celebrated as the leaders of the post-Covid social scene ... "Good news: I just got vaccinated!" tweeted Steve Martin. "Bad news: I got it because I'm 75."

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden, 78, is going like a house on fire. A few weeks ago Congress passed his US$1.9 trillion Covid relief bill. Now he is introducing the world to his US$2 trillion infrastructure plan. Second big whopper of an initiative from a guy lots of Americans expected to be sort of ... mild, like a mellow ageing uncle who might own a very nippy German shepherd.

Everything Mr Biden is big! This infrastructure plan is so large it is going to require a lot of pondering on the part of serious citizens. Your first question is probably going to be:

What exactly is a trillion?

OK, I know it does not come up in your normal cheque-balancing. A trillion is a thousand billion, and the next thing after that would be a quadrillion, which is 1,000 trillion. A quadrillion is ... a lot. If you travelled back in time a quadrillion seconds you would be able to watch the Antarctic ice sheet form. We are talking about 31.7 million years.

The Biden infrastructure plan does not go into quadrillions - some progressives do not think it even goes into enough trillions. ("This is not nearly enough," tweeted Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.) But still, it is a hell of an ambitious enterprise, one that would, as Jim Tankersley reported in The New York Times, "overhaul the economy and remake American capitalism".

OK, question two - what exactly is infrastructure? First, we tend to think about roads. Everybody loves roads. Well, maybe not the one they are planning to run right through your backyard. But the ones you need to get to work, to school, to drive to visit your friends and family.

Dwight Eisenhower will always be remembered as the president who gave us the national highway system, and we still look back on him as a good guy. (True, he was also supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II. Take your pick.)

Will Mr Biden be remembered as the supreme commander of the American Overhaul? Besides fixing up 20,000 miles of roads, he wants to do everything from electrifying the yellow school bus fleets to getting rid of lead pipes that taint the water supply to making a US$400 billion commitment to helping the elderly and disabled.

"A Trojan horse for massive tax hikes and other job-killing left-wing policies," steamed Mitch McConnell, 79. What Mr McConnell hates most is the fact that Mr Biden is actually paying for much of what he wants to spend, through higher taxes on corporations.

The Republican Party used to believe in balanced budgets, but it has been a while. These days a new Republican president, be he George W Bush or Donald Trump, starts off with a sweeping tax cut that leaves the government sloshing in the red. Ronald Reagan theorised that if he cut taxes, Congress would automatically cut spending to match the new bottom line. He called it "starving the beast", although not a single beast even suffered a serious burp.

"'Starve' didn't work, no," said Eric Toder of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. "And by the time Clinton became president, he was really hemmed in."

So, expect resistance from the Republicans on those tax hikes. But there is a whole lot of other stuff that they are going to find very attractive. It is hard to imagine politicians throwing their bodies in front of a plan that is going to fix their downtown bridge and get broadband service out to the folks in remote areas.

One of the many wonderful things about Mr Biden's proposal is the way it differs from Mr Trump's. Remember the first Trump Infrastructure Week? He could not quite figure out what to put in the package, so he started out with a call to privatise the air traffic control system.

Did not work out, although Mr Trump still really loved talking about infrastructure. And having Weeks! Like American Dream Week, which he celebrated with a call for a 50 per cent cut in legal immigration.

In the end, that Infrastructure Week was a bust for highways and trains and such. But Mr Trump figured he was a huge success, since he counted all his spending on the Mexico wall ("one of the largest infrastructure projects in the history of our country").

Then, in 2019, he scheduled an infrastructure meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. They were invited to discuss a US$2 trillion plan! Shades of ... now. But when the president arrived at the meeting, he refused to shake anyone's hand and said he was not going to talk about stuff like road repair until the Democrats stopped investigating his relationships with Russia.

"First he said he wanted to do infrastructure. The minute he walked in he backed off," Mr Schumer recalled.

Before the Democrats were totally shooed out of the meeting, Mr Trump's staff had set up a lectern with a big new sign saying "No Collusion, No Obstruction." Small minds might refer to it as one of his better construction projects. NYTIMES


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