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We’re Kind of Overwhelmed by Biden’s Infrastructure Plan

It’s massive. It’s ambitious. How much of it makes sense?

Joe Biden gestures with both hands while speaking at a podium with a stack of rusted metal behind him at a facility in Pittsburgh
The president and some infrastructure. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

First there was the American Rescue Plan. Now we have the American Jobs Plan. On Wednesday, the Biden administration unveiled its $2 trillion infrastructure and economic modernization bill, designed to fix the country’s crumbling roads and bridges, speed the transition away from carbon, fund research and development in high-tech industries, provide home care for the elderly and disabled, and, well, the list goes on. During a speech in Pittsburgh, the president described the largest jobs investment since World War II. “It’s big, yes. It’s bold, yes. And we can get it done,” he said. Jordan Weissmann and Henry Grabar took in the details and tried to wrap their minds around this ambitious package.

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Jordan Weissmann: Welcome to infrastructure week, Henry—it’s finally happening! All we had to do was elect a new president. How does it feel?

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Henry Grabar: Like déjà vu to some extent, since I think we can agree that Biden’s plan is a wish list that probably bears little resemblance to what eventually comes out of Congress—if anything comes out of Congress.

Weissmann: So many people seem pessimistic about the possibility of anything passing! I am going to plant a flag on this: I think that not only will Congress produce a bill, but it will look broadly similar to much of what’s in here.

Grabar: Well, that would be very exciting, because my tempering caveat was going to be: This 25-page memo from the Biden admin is much, much more than the eight-page “roads and bridges” prospectus we got used to during the Trump administration.

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Weissmann: I am a little overwhelmed by all of it. I can’t tell if that’s because I’m not really an infrastructure geek, or because it’s an actually overwhelming amount of stuff.

Grabar: It’s everything but the kitchen sink, so I can understand the feeling.

Weissmann: It strikes me that there are three ways you can talk about this thing.

There are the politics of it, which on the one hand seem pretty simple, but also subtle. The simple part is that Biden is showing he can actually deliver what Trump only promised while the GOP obsesses over Dr. Seuss. Democrats are builders. Republicans are grievance-mongers. Etc. The subtle part is that Biden wants to basically meld the infrastructure agenda, which everyone likes, with his climate agenda, which is obviously a little more controversial.

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Second, there are the economics of it. How is this going to affect jobs and the future of the economy? (Short-term answer: I think that if something like this passes, we won’t have any trouble getting to full employment.)

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And third, and probably most important, is what’s actually in the bill, and whether all of it makes sense. Which, given that you actually are a transportation nerd, I’m betting is what you’re most excited to talk about.

Grabar: I am confused about the politics of it. Contrary to what you might expect from a boring old thing like infrastructure, there’s a ton of emphasis on serving low-income people and communities of color, whether it’s a section where that’s pretty obvious (lead abatement, highway removal) or one where you could easily make a race-neutral case for action (climate change). That talk of race and redistribution does not seem intended for Sens. Romney and Murkowski.

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Weissmann: I don’t think anybody really anticipates that this will be a bipartisan bill. Mitch McConnell already says he’s inclined to oppose it because it would undo a lot of the Republicans’ 2017 corporate tax cuts in order to help pay for this thing. And he’s suggested it increases the debt (even though over 15 years it looks like it would actually decrease it). I think everyone’s operating assumption is that, much like the coronavirus bill, this is going to pass with 50 votes via reconciliation—Chuck Schumer certainly seems to be gearing up for it that way.

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And while there isn’t much for Romney and Murkowski, there is definitely fodder for Sen. Joe Manchin. There’s a heap of money for broadband expansion, with an emphasis on nonprofit co-ops, which is a passion project of his. There’s also a section on hiring workers for mine and oil well reclamation efforts (not hard to see how that would be a boon to West Virginia), and lots of money for development of carbon capture and sequestration, which is another must-have as far as Manchin is concerned.

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Grabar: That’s helpful context to understanding what’s actually in here, which is a lot of Democratic priorities shoehorned into the catchall term “infrastructure.”

Weissmann: Right. There’s a little something for almost everybody. If you look closely, there’s a small section about creating a national climate lab at an HBCU, for instance, which obviously is going to make the Congressional Black Caucus happy. The cash for public housing repairs is going to make the New York delegation’s collective heart sing.

Grabar: There’s a long section about health care workers! The infrastructure … of care?

Weissmann: Indeed. The running joke among Twitter wonks is that we all just have to start calling our pet projects “infrastructure.” But anyway, we should probably talk about the big picture. Roads! Bridges!

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Grabar: Blessed am I, for my pet project literally is in the bill: ending parking requirements to ease the construction of multifamily housing. But yes—let’s go to the hard “I” infrastructure.

Weissmann: As our resident infrastructure wonk, are you satisfied with that part of the plan? There’s a ton of stuff in there about water systems and climate mitigation, which I know has to make you happy.

Grabar: Yes—this is crucial. There is nothing about new roads (thank God), and instead priority seems to be for upkeep and revitalization of some long-neglected public works—such as transit, schools, public housing, and drinking water—that, much more than roads or airports, have been grossly neglected.

Weissmann: Interesting. So, if you’re an urbanist, you have to be pretty happy with the basic direction. This is not a highway bill.

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Grabar: Now, a caveat—I haven’t closely studied the numbers, since as I said before, I think they are subject to change. I’ve already seen people saying the rural broadband allocation is a lot of money, and I can’t speak to precisely what’s needed to bring the electrical grid up to par. But I do think the expansive vision of American public works (the proposed Civilian Climate Corps, for example) is great news for both urban and rural communities—neither of which have had the money locally to fund such improvements themselves.

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Weissmann: I know the Civilian Climate Corps idea has been floating around for a long while now (several of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates proposed one). But Biden is really driving hard for the FDR comparisons. One of the most famous New Deal jobs projects was the Civilian Conservation Corps, otherwise known as Roosevelt’s tree-planting army.

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And, I mean, there definitely is a New Deal spirit to the plan. It’s sort of like if you took the Works Progress Administration, the Public Works Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Rural Electrification Act, and everything else that built a bridge, a schoolhouse, a dam, or laid an electrical line in the 1930s, and threw it into one big bill. The difference is that back then vast swaths of rural America were basically operating in premodernity because they lacked electricity and so forth. We’re at a much different starting point, obviously. But still, if you squint, there kinda, sorta, is a similar sweep, in some respects.

Grabar: What’s the biggest single line item in here?

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Weissmann: You’re going to laugh, but depending on how you look at it, it’s actually the long-term care for the elderly and disabled, which is about $400 billion. If you add up all the transportation infrastructure pieces, that comes out to $447 billion. The manufacturing incentives are around $300 billion. So, if you want to be snarky about it, the biggest piece of the infrastructure bill is the thing that has the least to do with infrastructure.

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Grabar: Make it the two biggest pieces—what’s with all this about R&D, innovation hubs, and domestic manufacturing?

Weissmann: This has actually been a major priority for Chuck Schumer. They’ve basically decided to include some bipartisan legislation he was pursuing that’s designed to push the U.S. ahead in industries like A.I. and clean energy. Which actually gets to a philosophical point about this bill: It’s less an “infrastructure” bill, or even a jobs bill, than an economic modernization bill, in terms of our physical roads and bridges, the industry mix in the country, and our carbon footprint. For what it’s worth, that’s actually sort of how I think about the New Deal too—a massive national modernization effort.

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Grabar: If you decide that lead abatement and elder care are both, in their way, investments in affordable housing (not much of a stretch, honestly)—then you’re approaching $750 billion on housing. And housing really is infrastructure, to the extent that it’s the physical underpinnings that determine so many social outcomes.

Weissmann: Medicaid reimbursement for long-term home care is actually housing. Now you’re thinking like a Democrat!

Grabar: And there’s even the aforementioned piece that provides incentives to do away with local housing discrimination such as parking requirements.

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Weissmann: It looks like this plan is going to include a Race to the Top, but for zoning, right? Essentially: It gives states money if they’ll get rid of all their discriminatory, anti-housing laws. That would be a huge victory for the YIMBYs.

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Grabar: Yes, but it’s not the first time Washington has tried to proactively end housing discrimination.

Weissmann: I think the reason wonks are kind of excited about this effort is that Race to the Top was unreasonably successful at getting states to adopt education reforms, given the relatively small amounts of money on the line (granted, that may have had something to do with the fact that we were basically slogging through an economic depression). So there’s hope that maybe, just maybe, we can bribe California to legalize housing. Are you hopeful?

Grabar: Never!

Moving on, what do you think explains the huge investment in elder care? Is that a reaction to the pandemic? An electoral play?

Weissmann: I mean, America is about to get hella old. And as someone with an aging mother, with whom I’ve had a lot of conversations about this stuff, planning long-term care is a really daunting proposition in this country. It’s a massive hole in our safety net.

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Grabar: The Country for Old Men Act (COMA!).

Weissmann: You have a future as a congressional aide if you choose to seize it, Henry.

Grabar: The pandemic has exposed just how bad the conditions are in so many of the for-profit nursing homes that have become the de facto solution there.

Weissmann: Absolutely. Also, allowing people to stay in their homes if they want to and can is just more humane. But anyway, here’s my question for you: Is there anything in this bill that makes you nervous, or that strikes you as a terrible idea?

Grabar: Not on the face of it, no.

Weissmann: I’m nervous about the cost containment stuff. America is wildly inefficient at building infrastructure. The plan basically says it’s going to address that by importing “best practices” from all around the world—which is just incredibly hand-wavy—and then pretty much admits it’s not going to do that by attaching “buy American” requirements to everything. So I’m a bit concerned about how much bang for our buck we’ll receive. But maybe Transportation Secretary Pete will put his McKinsey skills to good use and find some cost savings. Who knows.

Grabar: Too true. There is no constituency for addressing that issue, since one way of seeing “over time and over budget” is: More jobs! And that is … well, it’s right there in the title.

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