If the biggest news is what’s not being talked about, then my candidate for the most neglected story would be President Joe Biden’s plan for $3.5 trillion in new government spending. Crazy as my hypothesis may seem, given all the stuff about Biden’s agenda on the internet, there has been remarkably little policy debate about it, and remarkably little attempt to persuade the American public that this spending is a good idea.
It’s not just that no one knows yet what exactly will be in the bill(s), which seem to be a combined effort of the White House and congressional Democrats. It’s that America’s intellectual and pundit class isn’t paying full attention. There was more passionate debate about AOC’s “Tax the Rich” dress.
My colleague Arnold Kling put it well: “With the reconciliation bill, there is no attempt to convince the public that it is desirable to enact an enormous child tax credit or to mandate ending use of fossil fuels in a decade. Instead, what we read is that if you’re on the blue team you want the number to be 3.5, but a few Democrats are holding out for something lower.”
The Democrats say they might be considering a carbon tax to fund their spending plans, and also to address climate change. You might have expected this news to be on the front page every day, and a dominant topic on Twitter and Substack. Isn’t the fate of the planet at stake, or perhaps an economic depression, depending on your point of view?
There was a lengthy and well-done article in The Washington Post on the political risks associated with this plan. It appeared on Page A21 of the paper edition.
A permanent child tax credit expansion could cost $1 trillion and alter many lives, for better or worse. The proposal has been the topic of debate, but America — and its intellectuals — hardly seems obsessed with the topic. Paul Krugman’s latest column in The New York Times promotes the Biden agenda based more on its political feasibility than its intrinsic desirability.
The Biden administration also has a “free college” plan, which would require significant expenditure increases from many state governments. I am a college professor and hang out with many other college professors. Yet somehow this proposal has not once taken over our conversations.
The contrast with earlier but still recent times is obvious. As recently as Barack Obama’s presidency, there was a vigorous policy debate on just about every proposal. A fiscal stimulus of $800 billion? That one was hashed out for months, with detailed takes on the multiplier, the liquidity trap and the marginal propensity to consume, coming from all points of view. Then there was Obamacare, which led to even more passionate and detailed debate over the course of years. Who didn’t have an opinion about the “Cadillac tax” or the proper size of the mandate penalty?
It is hard to find a comparable involvement with the terms of the new proposed $3.5 trillion in spending, or even any part of it.
To be sure, the debaters of a decade ago were not always seeking to change their opponents’ minds. More often, they were addressing the unpersuaded, or giving their own side talking points. And some of these debates definitely had a performative aspect. But at least technocratic policy debate was seen as the proper arena for such a performance to occur.
Even apart from economic policy, the relative absence of structured debate is striking. Texas’s recent legislation restricting abortion may lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade and sets up a highly controversial system of private bounties for enforcement. It has certainly attracted widespread attention. Still, as recently as a few years ago I would have expected this story to dominate the news every day for months. In my rather obsessive media diet, it is simply one story of many.
What should we make of all of this?
One possibility is that the substantive conversations are occurring on private channels, such as WhatsApp, or in person. This leaves the public sphere a relatively empty shell. Another possibility, more depressing yet, is that the main debate is now about political power and tactics, rather than policy per se. Squabbles over symbols are more common than disagreements over substance, and the influence of various interest groups matters more than the strength of any argument.
My evidence for all this may be only anecdotal. But I fear it heralds broader and very negative political trends. Is America now more a polity of force than a republic of ideas?