As children of the 90s and early aughts, millennials came of age beset by problems both too large to ignore and too expensive to fix: debilitating student debt, worsening climate change, skyrocketing inequality.
When we looked to our government to address these problems, political leaders of both parties clutched nervously at their purse strings. “How will you pay for it?” we were asked again and again, less a question than a rhetorical veto. Promised a world of steady abundance—Fukuyama’s end of history, the zenith of global capitalism—we were met instead with an unshakeable austerity. Yes, global ecosystems were careening toward collapse. Yes, the wealth gap was eroding the foundations of our democracy. Yes, our infrastructure was obsolescing, our schools were underfunded, and our medical system kept churning out bankruptcies. But the real threat, we were told, was a hypothetical run of inflation.
This inflation never quite seemed to materialize, but its specter haunted our politics, tying our hands, promising vague but calamitous fallout if we ever so much as implied that our government might spend money to solve problems. But we didn’t have to worry: the market would take care of everything. “When?” we asked, watching the carbon accumulate, the executive compensation packages balloon.
“Soon,” we were told. “Any day now.”
As our generation came into political consciousness, what had seemed like a fail-safe promise began to look more like a pretty raw deal. The market, it appeared, was not coming to save us. Fossil fuels maintained their grip on our present, even as they foreclosed on our future. Our economy, in other words, was eating itself. And according to its most prominent architects, it simply couldn’t afford to stop.
So we began gravitating toward leaders like Bernie Sanders: the lonely few who for decades, and in opposition to the consensus, had called for redistributing wealth away from corporate coffers and into ambitious public works. Larry Summers—perhaps the foremost evangelist of the austere consensus—referred to this as “the politics of envy.” As if what we wanted was a third yacht, a membership in Elon Musk’s pay-to-play Mars colony. But we weren’t envious of those things. The fortunes celebrated by the consensus—the triumphant heights of the neoliberal order–seemed to us grotesque and indefensible. Our demands were far humbler, though they appeared radical in the glare of the consensus.
We wanted jobs that could support a family. We wanted time to spend with that family. We wanted the ability to go on vacation, to take a break, to take care of young children and aging parents. We wanted, one day, to buy a home. And—entitled as we were—we preferred that all of this be made available on a planet that wasn’t hurtling toward catastrophe.
After decades of being sidelined and gaslit, it appears that our demands are starting to be heard. Last week, President Biden released his American Jobs Plan, an eight year, $2 trillion investment program to rebuild our infrastructure, tackle the climate crisis, and redress racial and economic inequity. On Friday, Brian Deese, the Director of the National Economic Council, expounded on the administration’s decision to “go big” and “be bold.” “It’s a difference,” he said, “between trimming your own sails, saying, I think what the country needs is X but I’m only going to call for 0.3 X, and saying, it turns out that that X that the country needs is something that is actually broadly supported across the country.”
This is the attitude young people have been waiting for our leaders to adopt. There’s only one problem. Biden’s plan falls short by exactly the margin Deese says it shouldn’t. At a time when most experts cite $1 trillion per year as the investment needed to decarbonize the U.S. economy, the American Jobs Plan is a 0.3 X proposal. However laudable in scope, it simply doesn’t match the scale of the challenges it seeks to address.
Luckily for us, there’s no reason it can’t. Stephanie Kelton and the economists at the Groundwork Collaborative have demonstrated that, as far as fiscal policy goes, Biden has ample room to run. With the right industrial and trade policies to complement, our government could absolutely pursue the investment levels the planet requires.
If the President wants to cite a more venerable precedent, he can look to John Maynard Keynes, who concluded—after living through two World Wars and the Great Depression—that governments can and should spend what is necessary to solve the crises at hand. And with climate change, the crisis at hand has both a deadline and a threshold. Joe Biden could well spend a hefty sum, but if it’s not enough to transform our economy in time to avert runaway climate change, then his plan will be remembered foremost for its futility.
The ball is now Congress’s court, and thankfully progressives leaders are stepping up. Just this Monday, Senator Ed Markey joined Representatives Debbie Dingell, Nanette Barragán, Yvette Clarke, and many others to formally introduce the THRIVE Act, perhaps the most exciting legislation to gain traction in my lifetime. The THRIVE Act would invest $1 trillion a year for ten years, putting 15 million people to work building renewable energy, retrofitting buildings, restoring ecosystems, farming sustainably, and caring for children, the elderly, and the sick. In the process it would cut climate pollution in half by 2030, strengthen labor standards nationwide, and close our country’s unconscionable racial wealth gap. The acronym says it all: Transform, Heal, and Renew by Investing in a Vibrant Economy.
The THRIVE Agenda—the policy approach developed by grassroots movements that undergirds the soon-to-be-introduced Act—has already garnered the support of over 100 Members of Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. This represents nothing less than a sea change: a new consensus to supplant the old. It is generous where the former was stingy. Visionary where the former was myopic. And it is finally clear-eyed about the immensity of the climate crisis. It does not try to wish it away, relegating it to a mere “externality”, a minor glitch in an otherwise flawless system.
If Biden genuinely wants to serve as a “bridge” to a new “generation of leaders”–as he stated repeatedly during his campaign–then he must leave behind outmoded deficit politics and embrace the THRIVE Act. The Baby Boomer guardians of the old consensus often make the argument that the deficit will crush my generation under its weight. The big irony is that it’s this precise fear that is in fact doing the crushing. To his credit, the President has begun to untether himself from the deficit hawks’ doctrinaire paralysis. But if he wants to rise to the moment, he’ll need to fully commit.
Should Biden throw his weight behind the THRIVE Act, he stands to reap a massive political windfall. The passage of FDR’s New Deal, for instance, cohered a political coalition that lasted decades. Crucially, though, it excluded many women, and almost all people of color. The THRIVE Act reverses that immoral flaw, directing at least 50% of investment to Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities; working-class communities; and communities on the frontlines of environmental injustice. Its passage would birth a coalition led by union workers and tribal nations, new voters and young parents, Black churches and immigrant families. It might even win the allegiance of those working class Republicans who care more about affording a doctor than they do about Dr. Seuss.
But forging this coalition will require winning a contest of ideas. Not just between austerity and abundance, but between those of us who can dream of a radically better future and those whose imaginations remain stuck on the untenable present. In the months ahead, the neoliberal cohort will no doubt call our dreams of stable work and a sustainable future “idealistic”, demanding fealty to the status quo. Let them wring their hands as they fade out of relevance. The rest of us will be too busy anyway, building the future we know we deserve.