Joe Biden entered office with grand ambitions, many of which he and his allies have promoted by emphasizing the large price tag attached to them.
Biden’s first order of business was to get Congress to pass the “American Rescue Plan,” a $1.9 trillion COVID-relief proposal loaded with hundreds of millions in giveaways to Democratic interest groups. It was, Biden crowed, the “biggest investment” in Democratic priorities since the end of the Second World War. Left-wing advocacy groups agreed, hailing the package’s “largest-ever one-time federal investment” in agenda items like K-12 education.
Biden followed this with a demand for $2.3 trillion in “infrastructure” spending, only a portion of which was dedicated to the development of infrastructure. The White House pitched the effort not just as a “historic investment” in roads and bridges, but as an “investment” in “racial justice,” the “care economy,” “clean energy,” “learning environments,” “research and development,” “federal buying power,” job training and “adult literacy,” “labor protections,” and more. Once again, Biden advertised his proposal as “the largest American jobs investment since World War II.”
Infrastructure negotiations were still ongoing when Biden addressed a joint session of Congress this week, where he sought support for a $1.8 trillion spending bill focused on education, childcare, and paid leave. Once more, the president said, the time had come to make a “once in a generation investment in our families and our children.” His allies in media agreed with the premise. “[I]f passed,” Vox.com observed, the bill “would be the largest American investment in child care, paid leave, and early education in recent history—if not ever.”
Lost—or, perhaps, forgotten—in much of the intramural Democratic discussion about the quantitative value of these proposals is the quality of what we’re supposedly buying.
Are massive federal expenditures that crowd out private borrowing creating better employment opportunities than those generated by entropic economic activity? Are “buy American” mandates, which already constrain most of the federal government’s purchasing power, valuable even if they contribute to the rising cost of consumer goods and direct resources away from more productive sectors of the economy? And is pouring money into the public-education system really sufficient to win the great power competitions America will face in the 21st century? Are all these platitudinous nostrums deserving of any scrutiny?
Not if you were to survey the liberal opinion landscape. There, critical analyses of what exactly it is that we’re purchasing have long been subordinated to the presumed value of spending in and of itself. Think back to the Democratic presidential primaries ahead of the 2020 election cycle, a competition that devolved into a bidding war in which candidates sought to distinguish themselves by finding ever more creative ways to empty the federal treasury.
“No one inside the Beltway seems to ask how much the status quo costs,” Sen. Bernie Sanders would say in the effort to deflect questions about the price tag associated with his multi-trillion-dollar plans. “We have the resources,” he would insist, “to pass Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal.” We need “$2 trillion,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposed, for research into climate change alone. We should plug “$2 trillion into investing in our [historically black colleges and universities] for teachers,” Vice President Kamala Harris promised. “Baby bonds,” a “universal basic income,” slavery reparations, wiping out $1.6 trillion in student loan debt, et cetera; Democrats knew what their audience wanted, and what they wanted was spending.
The efficacy of these proposed programs—indeed, whether they could achieve their stated aims at all—is rarely the focus of the debate. The expenditure alone sufficed for an argument.
Rarely did any candidates push back against this liberal tick in the way that now-Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg did when he attacked the “Washington mentality that suggests that the bigness of plans only consists of how many trillions of dollars they put through the treasury.” But even that admonition was occasioned by progressive attacks on Buttigieg’s health-care proposal, which, at $2.85 trillion, was deemed insufficient.
Even now, with the biggest spender in our lifetimes occupying the Oval Office, it’s still not enough. For example, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reluctantly applauded Biden’s “very inspiring vision” on infrastructure, but $2.3 trillion just wasn’t enough. It should be “way higher.” How much is “way higher?” “We’re talking about, realistically, $10 trillion over 10 years.”
$10 trillion in deficit spending. On what exactly? Ocasio-Cortez outlined a variety of vague categories in which we should “invest,” but the specifics she itemized—electric-vehicle fleets, affordable-housing improvements, and the like—hardly merit the price tag.
Perhaps the price tag is the whole point.