An Economic Case for Building Back Better

May 3, 2021

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Last week, in his first address to Congress, President Joe Biden defended the three legislative initiatives in his “Build Back Better” program. So far at least, the response from the public has been mostly positive. Yet Congressional Republicans seem united in their opposition, leaving the fate of two of the proposals in some doubt. Here I will give a brief overview of the plans, describe how the President intends to pay for them, and discuss some of the pros and cons of implementing them. On balance, I think that the proposals would help rather than hurt the economy.

The Biden plans

The American Rescue Plan is the $1.9 trillion COVID relief and stimulus package that President Biden has already signed into law. It passed Congress very narrowly, without Republican support. Senate opponents could not filibuster the bill because it qualified for passage under budget reconciliation rules.

Included in the plan are direct stimulus payments to households, extended unemployment benefits, a continued moratorium on home evictions and foreclosures, an increased child tax credit (fully refundable for families too poor to pay income taxes), assistance to state and local governments, assistance to schools trying to reopen, and subsidies for COVID vaccination and testing.

The American Jobs Plan is a $2.3 trillion plan to improve infrastructure and create jobs. Some of it relates to infrastructure in the traditional form of roads, bridges, airports, railroads and waterways. It also addresses “community infrastructure”—such things as new schools, VA hospitals, affordable housing, clean drinking water, broadband access for all communities, power grid modernization, and support for energy efficient homes and new sources of energy like wind turbines and charging stations for electric vehicles.

The plan also addresses manufacturing and workforce development, including government investments in research and development, which Biden noted has declined from 2% of GDP to less than 1%. It would also support new jobs in the area of home and community-based care for the elderly and disabled.

Biden defended the plan as an exercise in “public investment,” doing things that only government can do. Private firms will do what is profitable, but they don’t do as good a job providing goods and services that benefit the entire society without regard to ability to pay, such as public education or clean water. The low wages and shortages of eldercare workers suggest a public need greater than the private market can meet.

The American Families Plan is a $1.8 trillion plan to address the health, education and wellbeing of families. It includes $800 billion in tax cuts, especially an extension of the rescue plan’s child tax credit for four additional years. This is intended to cut child poverty in half.

The plan also enables each child to obtain four more years of free public education, two in the form of free preschool and two in the form of free community college. It subsidizes high-quality affordable child care, with payment caps for parents adjusted for income level. It finally does what other industrial countries do, moving from unpaid to paid family and medical leave. The plan makes changes to the Affordable Care Act, lowering deductibles and prescription drug costs, and allows Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. As it is, American often pay more than people in other countries for the same drugs, at least partly because the power of large drug companies is not challenged by the countervailing power of government.

Whether they pass Congress this year or not, these plans represent a fundamental reversal of the trend to disparage and reduce the role of government in the economy and society. Although the current national situation is not as dire as the Great Depression, the proposals are already being compared to those of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Economic costs and benefits

The goals of these plans are fairly popular. Most of the debate over them concerns their economic implications. Democrats say they will help the economy, while Republicans claim they will hurt the economy. Who has the better argument?

The American Recovery Plan is very different from the other two plans because of its obvious benefits and costs. It is responding to a national emergency, but since it is not paid for with new taxes, it does add to the federal deficit, a potential burden on future taxpayers. Last year’s deficit was already $3.1 trillion, or 15.2% of GDP, the largest percentage since 1945.

However, I am not losing too much sleep over that, for two reasons. By its very nature, emergency spending is mostly temporary. But also, deficits and debt normally rise during economic contractions and fall during economic expansions. At the end of World War II, the deficit was 21% of GDP, and the accumulated public debt was 106% of GDP. By the early 1960s, the deficit was down to zero—the budget was balanced—and by 1974 the public debt had fallen to 23% of GDP. The postwar economic boom had boosted GDP and tax revenues, and made the debt relatively smaller and more manageable. Similarly if less dramatically, economic growth in the 1990s eliminated what had been a 5% deficit and brought public debt down from 48% to 32% of GDP. Deficits and debt do matter, but so do economic stimulus and economic growth.

The Jobs Plan and the Families Plan are in a different category, because the President proposes to pay for them by undoing some of the Trump tax cuts on corporations and the wealthy. To the extent that we do that, the plans have the potential to stimulate growth without adding to deficits and debt. Biden would increase the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%, which is still lower than the 35% rate before the 2017 tax cut. He would also impose a 15% minimum rate to stop corporations that have been using tax loopholes to avoid taxes altogether. The Biden plan would go back to taxing personal income over $400,000 at 39.6%, the top-bracket rate before Trump reduced it to 37%. That would affect only the richest 1% of taxpayers. Finally, the plan includes a higher capital gains tax for millionaires. The tax cuts of 2017 did not turn out to be very popular, and a majority of Americans support these increases.

A principal economic argument for these two plans is that the increased spending will stimulate the economy and create more jobs than the 2017 tax cuts did. Government purchases of goods and services boost GDP directly because they are a component of national spending. They also have a multiplier effect, where each dollar spent grows the economy by more than a dollar. Tax cuts, on the other hand, only increase the demand for goods and services to the extent that the increased disposable income is spent rather than saved. As Krugman and Wells say in their macroeconomics text, “In general,…a change in government transfers or taxes shifts the aggregate demand curve by less than an equal-sized change in government purchases, resulting in a smaller effect on real GDP.” Furthermore, the tax cuts that are in Biden’s plans put money in the hands of ordinary families who are more likely to spend it, rather than wealthy families who are more likely to add it to savings. Increasing the child tax credit should boost GDP more than cutting capital-gains or inheritance taxes.

In addition to short-term economic stimulus, the Biden plans are investments in future growth. Addressing our neglected infrastructure, our research and development needs, and our transition to new sources of energy should be good for the economy in the longer run. So should the investments in human capital through wider access to preschool and college education. Addressing parental needs with paid leaves and subsidized child care makes it easier for people to combine parenting with paid employment, adding to the nation’s economic output and income.

Opponents of the plans are almost forced to argue for some form of “trickle-down” or “supply-side” economics. They must claim that low taxes on the wealthy are better for the economy than the proposed government spending. In theory, low taxes on corporations and the wealthy can stimulate the economy from the supply side by making more money available for private investment. Then the benefits trickle down to the rest of us. But that is a tough argument to support when the wealthy are already riding high and the interest rates on funds for investment are already at historic lows. There seems to be no shortage of funds to invest; what is lacking is business confidence because of sluggish growth and weak economic demand. That’s probably why trickle-down economics has not been working and the Trump tax cut was such a fizzle. The tax revenue that we lost by cutting taxes on the already-rich could be better spent “growing the economy from the middle out,” as President Biden said.

Another objection to the plans is that they could produce too much demand-side stimulus and runaway inflation. That is not impossible, and the day may come when we need to cool the economy by raising interest rates or cutting spending. But such policies seem premature when 6% of the workforce is unemployed, many others have dropped out of the labor force, and the economy is running below capacity. Turning from government stimulus to austerity prematurely was the mistake the US and many other countries made back around 2010, when we were still recovering from the last recession.

The Republican alternative

This section can be brief, since Republicans are proposing very little except to keep taxes low and avoid increases in domestic spending. In the official Republican response to the Biden address, Senator Tim Scott rejected all three of Biden’s initiatives, but based his position on worn-out slogans rather than economic arguments.

Senator Scott characterized the American Rescue Plan as a “partisan bill,” ignoring the fact that it is supported by about three out of four Americans. He suggested that it wasn’t needed because Biden had inherited an improving situation from his predecessor. America had already “rounded the bend” on the pandemic and the associated recession.

Scott described the American Jobs Plan as mostly “big government waste,” since only a small part of it involved traditional transportation infrastructure. Either Republicans believe that broader objectives like power-grid modernization and broadband access are a waste of money, or they think the private market will do the job alone. As for the taxes to pay for the plan, he called them “job-killing tax increases,” refusing to acknowledge that the additional tax revenue would be used to create jobs. Republicans want us to believe that tax cuts for the wealthy grow the economy more than spending to address majority needs, but the economic evidence does not support that. Basing policy proposals on facts is not something that Republican leaders have excelled at lately.

Scott dismissed the American Families Plan as an effort to put “Washington in your life from cradle to college.” I wonder how many of today’s struggling families would rather keep the government out of their lives than accept free preschool and community college, affordable child care and paid parental leave, not to mention more established programs like Social Security and unemployment compensation.

Having dispensed with Biden’s proposals with a few derogatory remarks, Senator Scott turned to pleasing the Republican base by arguing that America is not a racist society, and that Republicans really support making it easier to vote, just not to cheat. He didn’t explain why cheaters are so much harder to find than eligible voters standing in long lines in poor urban precincts.

For the last forty years, Republicans have been promoting the same one-size-fits-all economic policy. Always cut taxes, in good times and bad; and always call for domestic spending cuts, even if the actual cuts suggested are too unpopular to be passed. Blame the resulting deficits on “tax and spend” Democrats, not on “don’t tax but still spend” Republicans. Offer few constructive proposals for addressing national problems. Instead, deny the problems or blame them on vague conspiracies, trust the markets, and claim you are saving America from the tyranny of liberal elites and the Deep State. Our politics and policies have served the few better than the many, left the economy with sluggish and erratic growth and the worst inequality since the Gilded Age, and neglected many pressing national needs. The case for a new national direction is strong.