Biden’s Gambit: A Finger in the Dike

Is it unclear whether Joe Biden’s presidency and the Democratic control of Congress will survive the Afghanistan debacle.  Recalling Malcolm X’s great warning following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, “The chickens are coming how to roost,” the U.S.’s military-driven foreign policy may have hit a wall.

The systematic failure of the military and intelligence bureaucracies has begun to be exposed for its incompetency after 20 years of failed “nation building.” Unfortunately, one can expect no long-term consequences as to the control the military-industrial complex domination of U.S. domestic and foreign policy.

Biden has built his presidency on an assertive domestic policy, one recalling Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts during the Great Depression.  He took office amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and a recession, inheriting the Trump administration’s failed policies.

The Great Depression began in 1929 and peaked in 1932, the year FDR was elected.  He took office in ’33 and the Depression dragged on until 1938 but unemployment remained above 10 percent until 1941 – when the U.S. entered World War II and the economy began to fully recover. It was only the “investment” in the war effort that fostered the postwar consumer revolution, the mythic American Dream.

Biden and Congressional Democrats know that the U.S. is beset by critical social and economic challenges.  To address the Covid pandemic, the Biden administration introduced the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, a $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package upon taking office.

Looking beyond the immediate pandemic to the long-term, systemic challenges besetting the nation, Biden proposed the Build Back Better plan that includes the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan.  In early August, Senate Democrats passed a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and began debate on a $3.5 trillion budget resolution to address climate change, universal preschool, affordable housing and income inequality without Republican votes.

For all the Republicans huffing-and-puffing over the costs – and resulting increase in the federal debt while opposing all tax increases on the rich — associated with coronavirus rescue package, they sought to benefit from it.

The Associated Press reports that “Republican from New York and Indiana to Texas and Washington state have promoted elements of the legislation they fought to defeat.”  One can expect the same Republican response with regard to the $3.5 trillion plan.

More consequential, securing passage of these legislations will serve as Biden and Democrats key policy achievements in the upcoming 2022 congressional elections and the 2024 presidential election, especially if Donald Trump runs as head of the Republicans.  Unless, of course, the U.S. military’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan determines the 2022 elections.

But will these legislative initiatives, even when implemented, be sufficient to really address the deeper systemic problems that haunt American capitalism? Or are they no more than Biden’s finger in the dike?

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The challenges the U.S. faces are numerous, including the ongoing Covid pandemic, infrastructure problems, military-industrial war machine and accompanying foreign-war failures, racial discrimination, the mounting climate catastrophe, globalization (especially competition from China) and ever-deepening income inequality.  Examining a few of these issues illuminates the deeper, more systemic challenges the nation faces.

Decades of under-investment has contributed to the infrastructure crisis.  The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its 2021 infrastructure “report card for America” giving the nation the grade of “C-,“ with grades for drinking water (C+), energy (C+), levees (D), rail (B), roads (D+) and transit (D).

The Council on Foreign Relations shares ASCE’s assessment, warning “the systems currently in place were built decades ago, and economists say that delays and rising maintenance costs are holding economic performance back.”  And the investment bank, McKinsey & Co., noted, “investment in public goods, from education, training, and skills for human capital development to foundational R&D and infrastructure, has declined relative both to what is needed to enable individuals to have equality of opportunity and participate fully in the economy and to what is required for productivity, growth, and competitiveness.”

One part of the infrastructure plan involves broadband.  “Broadband internet is the new electricity,” Biden proclaimed when he introduced The American Jobs Plan.” The White House Statement noted:

It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, health care, and to stay connected. Yet, by one definition, more than 30 million Americans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds.

Going further, it warned, “Americans in rural areas and on tribal lands particularly lack adequate access.”

Invoking Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Plan of 1936 in scope and vision, the Statement announced: “The President believes that we can bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American through a historic investment of $100 billion.” In the months since Biden introduced his plan, the Senate’s bill shrinks the broadband budget to $65 billion.  The politics of political compromise led the Democrats to drop Biden’s original call for “universal” broadband and support for community broadband services.  Sadly, a decade from now one can expect digital inequality to persist.

Biden’s American Families Plan seeks to address a second — and more systemic – issue, income inequality. The White House notes, “Rising income inequality and the fact that low- and middle-income-families spend a higher share of their budgets on necessities mean that low- and middle-income families are more exposed to these cost increases.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) recently spoke-out against rising inequality.  In a tweet, she wrote that “the average family in the US used to double their income once every 23 years. Today it takes over 100 years.” She added: “We are in an absolute crisis of inequality.” Looking deeper, she reports, “A family’s income will not double in their lifetime, or in one working generation, but three or four working generations. … Not once in one generation, or once in one lifetime, but once in a century.”

From 1948 to 1973, the typical American family’s income grew by 3 percent annually, doubling roughly once a generation. Since 1973, the median family income has risen just 0.6 percent per year, a very slow rate.

Wages and salaries made up a shrinking share of U.S. gross domestic product since peaking in 1968 at 51.6 percent; in 2014, it fell to 41.9 percent; in 2019, it grew to 43.4 percent.  The Business Insider pulls no punches: ”Put simply, US economic growth has benefitted the American worker less and less since the late 1960s.”

The Economic Policy Institute reports that “from 1978 to 2020, CEO pay based on realized compensation grew by 1,322%, far outstripping S&P stock market growth (817%) and top 0.1% earnings growth (which was 341% between 1978 and 2019, the latest data available).” It adds, “In contrast, compensation of the typical worker grew by just 18.0% from 1978 to 2020.”

The Covid pandemic and recession set the stage for a slow and spotty recovery, one that finds poorer Americans suffering the most.  The Biden-Democrats recovery plans may provide much need band-aids assistance to many.  However, the rise in hospitalizations and deaths due to the renewed Delta variant Covid pandemic puts an enormous drag on the economy and people’s spirit.  More troubling, the looming rent crisis, with the possible eviction of over a million families throughout the country, sets the stage for a return to the Hooverville’s of the Great Depression.

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Biden’s presidency and the Democratic control of Congress will be determined by a number very different factors.  One is how Biden’s team handles the Afghanistan debacle, not only with the botched withdrawal (especially the plight of Afghan contactors and other U.S. “assets”) but how the defeat ripples through the Central Asia.

On a second front is the domestic challenges facing the nation. In terms of

short-term challenges are containing the Covid pandemic (i.e., achieving “heard immunity” with 75-85 percent vaccinations) and addressing middle- and lower-class people’s economic concerns.  Among the long-term structural issues confronting U.S. capitalism are the reconfiguring the nature of work, shrinking income inequality, providing universal health care, the changing demographic composition of the American people and the climate catastrophe.  How will capitalism rationalize, justify, is ongoing legitimacy in a low-growth or no-growth world?

American politics is all about power – whose who got it and those that don’t.  Unfortunately, those with political power also command economic power.  Biden and the Democrats are unlikely to address the long-term, structural or system issues deforming postmodern, globalized capitalism.

At best, Biden is putting a finger in the dike. But a finger in the dike is better than letting the flood waters suffocate the people.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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