Working With Biden on Build Back Better

Biden’s Build Back Better was originally promoted as a Keynesian effort to restore the economy after Covid-19; inflation has undercut that justification. The bill’s revenue provisions carefully forswear the imposition of carbon taxes or taxes on “carried equity,” an apparent attempt to fulfill a campaign promise not to tax persons with incomes of less than $400,000 per year. The tax provisions would provide a winning political formula if the Hamptons and Martha’s Vineyard were given a cumulative 350 electoral college votes.

Discussion of the bill has been confined to its price tag with no assessment of the merits of its programs. Consider here the bill’s largest component, which is intended to fight “climate change.” It is designed to move motor vehicles from gasoline to electricity power. Even Elon Musk, who has reaped his billions from electric-car subsidies, is dubious about the need for the expansion of such subsidies. Since 30 percent of the country still relies on coal as the marginal fuel for power plants, using electricity instead of gasoline to fuel millions of cars will scarcely aid the environment. The bill also does not explain why the natural gas technology used by the Germans during World War II and in bus fleets since is not more promising—if less pure, since it reduces rather than eliminates carbon emissions.

The people of Texas, like past residents of New York City, have learned that interruptions of the electrical grid, even for a few hours or days, results in chaos and lost productivity. The grid, unlike gas-fed automobiles, is subject to weather dislocations and an easy target for cyberwarfare. There are risks not only to society at large but individuals. Failing to fill a gas tank can be remedied within minutes, while failing to flip an electric switch to charge a car can produce a 12-hour delay.

The bill’s proposed investment in personal transportation is strange. Hitherto “progressive” economists like John Kenneth Galbraith have not been devotees of what Mrs. Thatcher called “the great automobile society.” Why would progressive invest in automobiles rather than, say, high school science teaching? It’s also hard to justify the bill’s preference for some renewables, like wind and solar, over others, like nuclear and hydroelectric power.

The entire “global warming” program is the product of a moral panic, not rational planning. One can believe that man-made warming is real without forgetting that its effects will be gradual and are likely to be mitigated by human innovation and adaptation—even in the absence of government action. Inhabitants of low-slung islands and flood plains will move elsewhere. Home-builders will improve insulation against heat. New crop strains and fabrics will be developed, new aquifers discovered, and new taxes imposed against wasteful uses. Diets will change.

Biden’s plan is one-dimensional, and as former Judge Jonathan Sumption of the British Supreme Court recently deplored in the context of the pandemic, one-dimensional thinking is bound to lead to blind spots. Biden’s climate proposals are not the product of national planning like Jean Monnet’s “indicative planning” in post-war France, Albert Gallatin’s Report on Public Roads, the Hoover administration’s study of “Recent Social Trends,” or the aborted work of Franklin Roosevelt’s National Resources Planning Board under Frederick Delano.

Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, and even William Howard Taft were all futurists of a sort, looking to develop new resources: Jefferson through exploration, Adams through physical and social infrastructure, Roosevelt through conservation, and Taft through an abortive free trade agreement with Canada as a response to the closing of the American frontier. There is, by contrast, nothing creative or constructive in the Democrats’ program: no school improvements, no investments in oceanography, desert agriculture, or hydrology. It only gives favors to interest groups.

The global-warming program would be rational if it were directed only at true sore spots in American society. The so-called climate corps, a revived Civilian Conservation Corps, is one potentially useful program. While it is vaguely described in the bill, if it were properly directed—meaning military involvement in initial training and allotments of pay to enrollees’ families to develop pride, responsibility, and increase the take-up rate—it may end the illegal drug trade’s reign as the employer of first (or last) resort for youth in our inner cities and depressed rural areas.

The other provisions in the bill are a mixed bag. As to its childcare provisions, the family tax credit—originally a Republican initiative—reduces the demand and undermines the case for publicly provided day care. The socialization of pre-school, day care, and adult care is ultimately designed to drive unwilling women into the labor force and aggrandize already-too-powerful public-sector labor unions. The bill’s proposed extension of drug-treatment funds to the poorer states that opted out of the latest expansion of Medicaid, by contrast, is a defensible policy, as is its enhanced minimum wage provision, so long as it is accompanied and offset by the exclusion of young workers from payroll taxation. After all, it is alarming that the percentage of national income accounted for by wages declined from 52 percent in 1970 to 43 percent in 2019.

Reflexive opposition is not an adequate Republican program. Salvageable parts of Biden’s program should be enacted as free-standing bills with adequate revenue sources, so long as they move us toward becoming a property-owning democracy whose citizens depend on work rather than welfare. Biden’s crude industrial policy that would replace the motor fleet and its fuel infrastructure is no proper part of such a program.

George Liebmann is president of the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar and author of numerous works on law and history, most recently Vox Clamantis In Deserto: An Iconoclast Looks At Four Failed Administrations.

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