Why Biden’s Infrastructure Plan Needs to Go Way Bigger

US President Joe Biden walks off Air Force One in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on March 31, 2021, where he will unveil a $2 trillion infrastructure plan aimed at modernizing the United States’ crumbling transport network, creating millions of jobs and enabling the country to “out-compete” China.
US President Joe Biden walks off Air Force One in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on March 31, 2021, where he will unveil a $2 trillion infrastructure plan aimed at modernizing the United States’ crumbling transport network, creating millions of jobs and enabling the country to “out-compete” China.
Photo: Jim Watson (Getty Images)

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden unveiled a plan to make a $2.25 trillion investment in the nation’s infrastructure. By the yardstick of recent history, the long-awaited infrastructure plan is big.

Advertisement

His administration said the $2.25 trillion investment is the largest government spending program the U.S. has seen since the expansion of the space program in the 1960s and the rollout of the interstate highway system in the 1950s. It’s also, in total, more than five times larger than the amount of green spending 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that the Obama administration passed in the wake of the 2008 economic crash.

But past measures aren’t as useful in an era of failing infrastructure and an unhinged climate. The question is whether or not the plan measures up to the investments necessary for the U.S. to meet the crises of our time. And while the plan is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t meet the moment, according to climate activists and economists.

“The most relevant metric is what we have to do to stabilize the climate and stop playing Russian roulette with the environment,” Robert Pollin, a climate economist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said.

One measure to judge the plan against was put forth by the American Society of Civil Engineers earlier this month. In their annual report card assessing physical infrastructure, they gave the nation a C-minus grade and called for $2.59 trillion of investment over the next 10 years. By that measure, Biden’s roadmap looks pretty good. The plan includes $174 billion for boosting the electric vehicles market, $165 billion for public transit and rail, $35 billion in clean energy research and development, $400 billion in clean energy credits, and $100 billion for updating the country’s electric grid to make it more resilient to climate change.

“This is the moment to reimagine and rebuild a new economy,” a White House fact sheet says.

Yet for all the large numbers, the plan might still not be enough. Climate advocates, economists, and progressive members of Congress are calling for something much bigger.

Advertisement

“The president’s ambition in this moment does not meet the scale of the interlocking crises facing our country,” Ashley Thomson, climate campaigner at Greenpeace USA, said in an emailed statement.

That’s because though the ASCE’s recommendations include some climate-friendly measures, the group’s goal in assessing infrastructure needs isn’t to decarbonize the entire U.S. economy. But Biden’s plan should do exactly that.

Advertisement

“The most important question we should be asking is, will this package, help the U.S. meet its emissions targets to limit global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees [Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures] and meet the goals of the Paris Agreement,” Mark Paul, an economist at the New College of Florida who focuses on climate, said. “And the answer to that is a resounding no.”

By Paul’s measure, about $1 trillion of Biden’s proposal are set aside for green investments in particular. That may sound like a lot, but keep in mind, it’s spread over an eight-year period.

Advertisement

By contrast, climate economists have said that full decarbonization will cost several times that. In a 2019 BloombergNEF report, Michael Liebreich estimated it would require $980 billion every year over the next 10 years. An analysis by the New Climate Economy pegs it a little higher, at $1 trillion per year for a decade. A 2019 Roosevelt Institute report by Paul and two co-authors determined also found $1-trillion investment annually is needed. To decarbonize the grid alone, WoodMcKenzie estimated it would take $4.5 trillion.

Those estimates are more in line with another proposal known as the THRIVE Act, which Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Debbie Dingell unveiled earlier this week. The bill, which aims to bolster public health, racial justice, and economic equity while decarbonizing the nation, demands $10 trillion in spending over the next decade. On Wednesday, the Green New Deal Network—a coalition of 15 groups including climate-focused ones like Climate Justice Alliance, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, Greenpeace, Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Sunrise Movement—mobilized tens of thousands of people at events across the country in support of the agenda.

Advertisement

Pollin, who worked on the THRIVE bill, said their proposal is more far-reaching than Biden’s with more investment in the care economy and public health, and also that it includes far larger investments in clean energy. (You can see how the two plans stack up in a spreadsheet put together by the Sierra Club’s Ben Beachy.)

“It is also much closer to what is needed to improve our basic infrastructure,” he said. By the standards of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ report card, he said, “the funding provided in the Markey/Dingell proposal would raise the overall infrastructure grade to B.”

Advertisement

Biden’s plan is particularly disappointing because it’s not even in line with his own campaign promises.

“In his presidential bid, Biden called for a $2 trillion ‘accelerated investment’ over four years,” Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise Movement, said in an emailed statement. “This plan invests that number over 10 years.”

Advertisement

To better meet the scale of the crises we’re facing, Paul said Biden should think bigger. Putting $35 billion into clean energy research and development, he said, is far too little. So is the $10 billion investment in a Civilian Climate Corps, which polls show is one of the most popular climate policies there is.

“If we look back at the Civilian Conservation Corps as originally launched in 1933 by President Roosevelt, that initially employed 500,000 workers,” Paul said. “If we just scale that up for the population, we would need to be employing roughly 1.5 million workers through that program, and that would require nearly $75 billion in investment, which is $65 billion more than the Biden Administration called for.”

Advertisement

The problems aren’t just a question of scale, but also imagination. For instance, Paul applauded Biden for including $165 billion for public transit and rail, but said in addition to being too small an investment, it presented a missed opportunity.

“One thing that’s missing that to me is a just simple no brainer, is why don’t we make public transit and rail free for the American people?” he said. “Not only would this be a progressive step towards improving access for people to move around the country and also to move around their own communities, which could help people take jobs in areas that might otherwise be out of reach for them, but it would also help us rapidly build the buy-in to the public transit system, which is essential if we actually want to decarbonize the economy while also minimizing our resource use.”

Advertisement

That would be unlike anything any president has done in American history, but we’ve never faced a challenge like the climate crisis before. If we’re going to survive the crisis, our leaders are going to have to up the ante.

Earther staff writer. Blogs about energy, animals, why we shouldn't trust the private sector to solve the climate crisis, etc. Has an essay in the 2021 book The World We Need.

DISCUSSION

razorpetti
Spuds MacKenzie

I’ve got a few criticisms of the various viewpoints expressed by people in this article. To start, there seems to be an expectation that the first monetary policy to be proposed by the new administration should fix every problem under the sun. There are some things money can fix, but there are also a lot of things that are burdened by bureaucracy, need to be solved with better regulation, or need private sector buy-in to succeed. Biden’s proposal tries to cover a lot of bases, so if there are complaints that specific issues aren’t being funded enough, it’s likely because there is only so much money to go around without ballooning the overall total.

Which brings me to my second criticism. I’ve been following a lot of economics conversations regarding the theory that the federal government can “print” more money without necessarily causing inflation, helping to justify the recent Covid relief bill’s magnitude. And I’ve also read that Biden’s new proposal claims to offset costs with tax increases on businesses. But the statements made in this article are proposing unimaginable sums of money and claiming things like “public transportation should be free for everyone”. Where is the magical place this money will come from? There is little talk about reducing other government budgets to shift money to these higher priorities. The government doesn’t run like a business in a sense that it’s often spending money on things without expecting a return on investment, but if politicians start going on a spending spree as if they were the 11-year old kid in the movie Blank Check, there will be consequences that eventually catch up to us all. While I’m not advocating for the “fiscal hawk” mentality of conservative politicians who want to cut all spending and cut taxes, I’m extremely worried about the lack of fiscal responsibility in our governing body.