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Does Biden’s $2 trillion plan to rebuild infrastructure and stop climate change go far enough?

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WILMINGTON, DE – SEPTEMBER 14: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks about climate change and the wildfires on the West Coast at the Delaware Museum of Natural History on September 14, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Biden has scheduled campaign stops in Florida, Pennsylvania and Minnesota later this week. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

If implemented, President Joe Biden’s New American Jobs Plan would rank not only as one of the biggest engines for creating good jobs (many of them in construction, which average about $30 an hour) but also as the nation’s most ambitious effort so far to curb greenhouse gas emissions — and put the country on a path to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The plan covers a lot of ground, including $174 billion to boost electric vehicles and shift consumers away from gas-powered cars — funding half a million charging stations by 2030, along with incentives to buy electric vehicles and funds to retool factories and boost domestic supplies of energy-saving materials.

There’s $100 billion to update the electric grid and strengthen it against climate disasters (hello, Texas?), money to retrofit millions of homes with solar panels and better insulation, with a special focus on low-income and minority communities vulnerable to climate change because they’re likely to live in fragile dwellings and in places hard hit by floods, hurricanes and wildfires. Oh, and $16 billion to employ oil and gas workers to cap wells and reclaim coal mines by curbing leaks of methane. And another $10 billion for a “Civilian Climate Corps” to employ people to restore land.   

It would also replace all of America’s lead pipes and update water systems to ensure drinking water is safe. And more. 

It’s an important step in the right direction. To be more accurate, I should say lots of steps. 

And yet … I hate to sound like an ingrate, particularly after spending four painful years watching former President Trump dismember environmental initiatives already in place, but I’ve got to wonder whether Biden’s plan is big enough. I even wonder whether the whole is greater than the sum of its many parts.

In truth, Biden’s New American Jobs Plan has a kind of pray-and-spray quality to it, as if put together by a committee of publicly spirited people each of whom had their own view of what must be done for the environment, infrastructure and jobs. Each had a good idea, which was incorporated into the plan, but the ideas don’t exactly cohere. Lots of new initiatives here without a single all-encompassing, transformative end.   

There’s something for almost everyone, even including the Business Roundtable and Wall Street — which have somehow managed to preserve a big part of their Trump tax cuts. Which raises a host of questions: Why isn’t Biden simply repealing the Trump tax cut? Why isn’t he touching the giant incomes and humongous personal wealth that have ballooned at the top? 

Since it’s almost all public investment which will grow the economy, why concede that it needs to be paid for with tax increases in the first place? As the economy grows, it should pay for itself by reducing the debt as a portion of the total economy. (Note to Democrats: Don’t ever again allow Republican supply-siders to claim “dynamic” scoring on tax cuts. Dynamic scoring is far more appropriate for public investments.)  

Biden had vowed to spend $2 trillion over four years to transition the American economy to net-zero emissions. Well, this plan won’t do it, by a long shot. And it falls way short on his promise to decarbonize the electricity sector.

So, the question I’m left with is: Why such a modest proposal? I’m sure Senate Republicans have been telling Biden to rein in his ambitions, especially in light of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 bill just enacted. But Biden wouldn’t have got a single Republican vote on the New American Jobs Plan even had he halved the size of it. And regardless of its size and ambition, he’ll still have to run the gauntlet of the Senate parliamentarian and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.). 

So why not $3 trillion? Why not a million new high-paying construction jobs? Why not a total repeal of the Trump tax cut plus a tax hike on the super-rich? Why not a green revolution?

Maybe it’s not bigger because there’s another big one coming — Biden’s American Family Plan, focusing on needs like accessible child care, early childhood education and free community college — and he wanted to save some room. 

Yet, time is running out even now. Much of the public thinks the pandemic is over and the economy is mending, losing the sense of urgency Biden needs to get more done. And don’t forget the “For the People Act” addressing voter access and election integrity, which is going to require every bit of political capital he can muster — and may be the most important initiative of all. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled with Biden’s plan, as far as it goes. As I said, it’s lots of steps in the right direction. It just doesn’t go far enough. It’s a good deal for America but not a big deal nor even an exceptionally good deal. Frankly, I was hoping for more. 

Robert B. Reich, who served as secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton, is now chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. His latest book is “The System.” Follow him on Twitter: @RBReich.

Tags Bill Clinton clean energy Climate change Donald Trump Electric vehicles Infrastructure Jobs Joe Biden Joe Manchin public lands Robert Reich
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