April 7, 2021

Biden Can Go Bigger and Not ‘Pay for It’ the Old Way

By Stephanie Kelton

1,979 words

By focusing on how much revenue they hope to raise from tax increases on the well-off, Democrats risk limiting the scope of their ambitions.

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Refreshed on April 13, 2021 at 8:50:23 pm

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- Last week, President Biden introduced a $2.2 trillion infrastructure plan, calling it “a once-in-a-generation investment in America.” In a speech, he outlined many of the package’s details, including how to “pay for” it. A close look at those so-called pay-fors, however, shows Democrats are thinking about fiscal responsibility the wrong way. They could be on the verge of sparking some unpleasant short-term overheating of the economy, in which price increases accelerate and the purchasing power of our dollars falls somewhat. And if the final legislation were to grow much larger — toward the $10 trillion level many progressives in Congress are pushing — it could send such inflation soaring.
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+ Last week, President Biden introduced a $2.2 trillion infrastructure plan in a speech, calling it “a once-in-a-generation investment in America.” And on Wednesday, he and the Treasury Department outlined many of the package’s details, including how to “pay for” it. A close look at those so-called pay-fors, however, shows Democrats are thinking about fiscal responsibility the wrong way. They could be on the verge of sparking some unpleasant short-term overheating of the economy, in which price increases accelerate and the purchasing power of our dollars falls somewhat. If the final legislation were to grow much larger — toward the $10 trillion level many progressives in Congress are pushing — it could send such inflation soaring.
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  In an interview on MSNBC last week, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York explained her mixed feelings about the president’s proposal, saying she has “serious concerns that it’s not enough to realize the very inspiring vision that Mr. Biden has advanced.” Rather than spending roughly $2 trillion over eight years, Ms. Ocasio Cortez and many of her Progressive Caucus colleagues would prefer “to go way higher” and on a shorter timeline.
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  She’s right that it is possible for Congress and the Biden administration to go bigger, faster — but only by shifting to a completely different budgeting framework: Instead of passing legislation that leans on taxing corporations and the rich to keep spending from increasing the deficit, they would have to develop a robust plan with a focus on containing inflationary pressures as that heightened government spending hits the real economy.
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- The president called his plan “fiscally responsible” during his speech simply because it will raise more revenue than what he’s proposing to spend. On paper, and according to conventional wisdom, this a balanced policy. It may satisfy the scorekeepers at the Congressional Budget Office or even earn high marks from deficit hawks. But because these proposed hikes fall exclusively on corporations and more affluent Americans — who have a relatively high marginal propensity to save rather than spend — the taxes may not diminish enough private sector spending to prevent the government’s own increased outlays from igniting some inflationary overheating, especially if Congress does “go way higher.”
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+ The president called his plan “fiscally responsible” during his speech simply because it will raise more revenue than what he’s proposing to spend. On paper, and according to conventional wisdom, this is a balanced policy. It may satisfy the scorekeepers at the Congressional Budget Office or even earn high marks from deficit hawks. But because these proposed hikes fall exclusively on corporations and more affluent Americans — who have a relatively high marginal propensity to save rather than spend — the taxes may not diminish enough private sector spending to prevent the government’s own increased outlays from igniting some inflationary overheating, especially if Congress does “go way higher.”
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  The key to responsibly spending vast sums of money lies in carefully managing the economy’s real productive limitations. Just as my son’s Lego projects are limited by the amount of bricks we have bought for him, we can’t squeeze more goods and services out of our economy once we’ve made use of all available resources.
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  It’s easy to ramp up spending when there are millions of unemployed people who can be hired and plenty of domestic companies eager to supply the government with solar panels and electric vehicles. But what happens when it gets harder to find the idle things and people — construction workers, architects, machinery, raw materials and so on — needed to keep pace with an enormous revamp of our nation’s infrastructure? With the U.S. economy now improving, it would be irresponsible not to develop a rollout plan for those contingencies.
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  Many of Mr. Biden’s proposed tax increases should be defended, and even lauded, for they will promote greater fairness and curb inequality somewhat, but it must be recognized that they will do relatively little to offset spending pressures.
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  Depending on how big Congress ultimately decides to go on infrastructure, and how quickly, it may need to unleash a whole suite of inflation-dampening policies along the way — all of it unrelated to deficit neutrality.
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- These nontax inflation offsets could include industrial policies, like much more aggressively increasing our domestic manufacturing capacity by steering investment back to U.S. shores, using even more “carrot” incentives like direct federal procurement, grants and loans, as well as more “sticks” like levying new taxes to discourage the offshoring of plants. Reforming trade policies is another option: Repealing tariffs would make it easier and cheaper for American businesses to buy supplies manufactured abroad and easier for consumers to spend more of their income on products made outside of our borders, draining off some domestic demand pressures.
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+ These mostly nontax inflation offsets could include industrial policies, like much more aggressively increasing our domestic manufacturing capacity by steering investment back to U.S. shores, using even more “carrot” incentives like direct federal procurement, grants and loans, as well as more “sticks” like levying new taxes to discourage the offshoring of plants. Reforming trade policies is another option: Repealing tariffs would make it easier and cheaper for American businesses to buy supplies manufactured abroad and easier for consumers to spend more of their income on products made outside of our borders, draining off some domestic demand pressures.
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  The Biden team could also consider loosening its legal-immigration policies, so that even once America nears full employment there would still be an adequate labor pool to meet the increased demand for workers. Putting aside the obvious climate benefits of tightening environmental regulations, banning fracking on federal lands and offshore drilling in federal waters could free up people and materials for other activities. Health care reform could have a role too. (Significantly lowering the Medicare eligibility age would sharply reduce aggregate spending in the health care industry, a major source of price pressures in the economy.)
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  Over time, the Biden plan’s investments in our physical and human infrastructure will enhance our economy’s productive capacity, leaving us with a better educated and more productive work force, more efficient railways, less congested roadways, improved technologies and much else. But this can’t happen overnight. It will take years, and it might mean that we start to run out of available capacity as we go — especially if the House Progressive Caucus wins the addition of trillions more dollars. No one can predict exactly when, or across which industries, serious bottlenecks and other shortages might emerge.
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- That’s why to avoid short-run constraints like supply bottlenecks, the U.S. government can look elsewhere for capacity. American businesses can make use of depressed conditions abroad, buying from countries with economies that might be struggling to fully recover from the economic downturn and that will be more than happy to mutually benefit from our boom. There will be no lack of eager foreign producers if we need to relieve some demand pressure on the domestic front.
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+ That’s why to avoid short-run constraints like supply bottlenecks, the U.S. government can look elsewhere for capacity. American businesses can make use of depressed conditions abroad, buying from countries with economies that might be struggling to fully recover from the economic downturn and that will be more than happy to mutually benefit from our boom.
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  So it was unfortunate that in his long-awaited infrastructure speech, President Biden promised “not a contract will go out, that I control” that isn’t for “a company that is an American company with American products, all the way down the line, and American workers.”
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  This “buy American” philosophy is well intentioned but could lead to counterproductive trouble, particularly since the president has promised that “no one making under $400,000 will see their federal taxes go up” — a pledge that takes raising taxes on the middle class, which has a higher marginal propensity to spend, off the table as a potential inflation offset.

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  • Biden Can Go Bigger and Not ‘Pay for It’ the Old Way

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  • American Jobs Plan (2021)
  • Biden, Joseph R Jr
  • Democratic Party
  • Federal Budget (US)
  • Infrastructure (Public Works)
  • United States Economy
  • United States Politics and Government