The Guardian view on Biden’s 100 days: going big, but not big enough

The US president is right to spend, but shrinking the federal deficit is not the priority

Last modified on Fri 30 Apr 2021 12.52 EDT

Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office signalled that the future does not have to be a rerun of the past. The US president’s speech to Congress this week made it clear that Trumpism was a warning from history, a reminder that no republic is guaranteed to last. The US remains in danger – its decline accelerated by an iniquitous economic model, and by leaders unable or unwilling to remedy it. It is a relief to find in the White House a president who wants to bridge divisions rather than widen them. Mr Biden should be praised for saying he will stop the rot and recognising the challenge to democracy posed by autocracy. But his response risks being undone by an obsession with containing non-existent fiscal risks.

The Biden White House proposes spending $4trn, with about half the money used to rewrite the social contract. The rest will create jobs, with infrastructure investments to repurpose the post-Covid economy for a zero-carbon world. The problem is not that money is being spent to fix a broken society. Neither is it wrong to ask the rich to pay their fair share of tax. The problem is that Mr Biden says spending must be balanced by tax rises or savings from other government programmes.

This is a self-imposed and self-defeating constraint. It seems bad economics to pay for every dollar invested in early childhood education when each greenback yields $7.30 in benefits. A number of centrist Democrats have already signalled their opposition to the proposed tax hikes. If Mr Biden wanted cash, he could back the Internal Revenue Service to go after the $1tn in unpaid taxes every year. With a razor-thin Democratic majority in the US Senate, there is a risk that privileging arbitrary fiscal limits will lead to laws not being enacted or spending being pared back to match reduced revenues.

Mr Biden’s intention to bust a failed economic paradigm is a good one. It would be a scandal if it were sacrificed on the altar of budget neutrality. The threat to liberal democracy is not from fiscal incontinence but political polarisation. America has spent decades running up large deficits with no adverse macroeconomic consequences. In Washington, a debt crisis always seems to be coming. Yet it never arrives. The nation is increasingly endangered by growing levels of inequality, financial instability and ecological calamity. The Gilded Age looks egalitarian compared with the emerging concentration of riches. Either democracy must be renewed by freeing the state from ideological restrictions or wealth is likely to cement a less democratic regime.

It makes little sense for Mr Biden to elevate balanced budgets when the country faces existential choices, a point recently made by two Obama-era White House economic advisers. No one doubts the sincerity of the Biden team. The question is whether they have subordinated the scale of the crises to congressional politicking. Columbia University’s Adam Tooze pointed out that the president’s climate spending amounts to about 0.5% of US GDP, an amount 10 times smaller than that required to decarbonise the economy. The economist Stephanie Kelton wrote that to accommodate such large expenditures, the Biden administration “would have to develop a robust plan with a focus on containing inflationary pressures”. These are the arguments that Mr Biden should be having with his party, not whether the wealthiest ought to pay for anti-poverty programmes.

It is better to let the government’s fiscal balance settle to whatever level is required to deal with the multiple emergencies the US faces, given the spending and portfolio decisions of the private sector. It is not the case that the government’s ability to spend is constrained by budgetary accounting or temporary while interest rates remain low. The US Federal Reserve’s bond-purchasing programmes can control yields. Mr Biden’s economic team understands that a strong economy benefits the bottom half of America most. However, his spending plans threaten to centre the debate on reducing the deficit rather than rescuing the country.

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