Thursday, April 8, 2021

Fast and Loose with the Definition of "Infrastructure"

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) took the bold step of expanding the definition of infrastructure to an unrecognizable state on Wednesday, as she and other Democrats work hard to sell Americans on President Joe Biden's $2 trillion "infrastructure" plan that includes a whole lot of non-infrastructure-related initiatives.

Gillibrand declared on Twitter, "Paid leave is infrastructure. Child care is infrastructure. Caregiving is infrastructure."

However, a quick search reveals that infrastructure "is often considered to refer to transportation, roads, bridges and items of that nature." Merriam-Webster's Dictionary says infrastructure is "the system of public works of a country, state, or region," or "the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization)."

NBC News published an analysis April 7 acknowledging that Biden "threw everything, including the kitchen sink, into his $2 trillion-plus 'infrastructure' proposal," adding that "loading up a bill with Democratic priorities in addition to more bipartisan policy goals, such as rebuilding roads and bridges, has put Biden in danger of capsizing his own plan."

Playing with Financial Fire

By Trish Regan
American Consequences

(April 2, 2021) In 1933, with the country mired in the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt set his sights on creating the most comprehensive infrastructure program in our nation’s history.

It was a “new deal for the American people,” he told voters.

Earlier this week, in an attempt to channel FDR’s legacy, President Joe Biden echoed similar promises.

In an afternoon press conference, 88 years after the New Deal, Joe Biden unveiled his $2 trillion “American Rescue Plan.” The massive proposal includes:
  • $621 billion to modernize transportation infrastructure,
  • $400 billion to help care for the aging and those with disabilities,
  • $300 billion to boost the manufacturing industry,
  • $213 billion on retrofitting and building affordable housing and,
  • $100 billion to expand broadband access.
Additionally, there will be:
  • Twenty thousand miles of roadway modernized and 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations added throughout the country.
  • Lead pipes and service lines will be replaced with new-age alternatives, and home care expansion for the elderly and ill.
  • An energy transition to low-carbon sources, an effort to eliminate carbon emissions by 2035.
It sounds good, right?

But we know better. After all, the government has repeatedly shown us that it is hardly the best allocator of resources.

So, forgive me when I say I have little faith in this $2 trillion plan.

A Raw Deal

In fact, instead of this being an actual “new deal for America,” this economic stimulus will ultimately prove to be a “raw deal” for American taxpayers and American corporations.

Historically, we’ve seen the poor results of too much government invention over and over again. In fact, you have only to look to the aforementioned FDR himself.

FDR’s New Deal was not the brilliant piece of legislation that so many progressive academics believe resurrected the American economy. Instead, his policies held the country back — the massive spending coupled with tons of regulations hindered growth in the end. Despite FDR spending three times the federal budget, unemployment still topped 14% eight years into his Presidency. Meanwhile, industrial production and national income fell by almost one-third during the 30s.

As economic historian Amity Shlaes writes incisively in her book The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, FDR’s big-government policies prolonged America’s financial crisis for years. High taxes on individuals (90% for the highest earners), rules that prevented companies from firing people (and therefore prevented companies from hiring), along with price regulations and large government welfare programs had the unintended effect of slowing growth.

At the time, FDR’s policies expanded the welfare state and stymied actual economic expansion, while the New Deal’s legacy now remains in Social Security checks and unemployment benefits.

It wasn’t until the ramp-up in legitimate manufacturing needed to fight World War II that the American economy began an engine of growth that propelled us into the economic (and military) hegemonic force in the world.

The question now is, will this be deja vu?

I think we can all agree we don’t ever want to see a World War as a catalyst to break a weak economic cycle — so, why not take charge now and demand accountability from lawmakers?

I’m not saying we couldn’t use a bit of a tune up on our infrastructure. Heck, I’m convinced we need massive help on our electric grid front, for instance.

Nonetheless, a trillion here, a trillion there …this adds up to real money. As a reference point, our economy generates about $21 trillion a year in GDP growth. Our national debt level is higher than that, leaving us with a debt to GDP ratio of 102%. All while we continue running a deficit of over $3 trillion.

When we consider spending $2 trillion in infrastructure upgrades on the heels of $1.9 trillion in stimulus soon followed with an estimated $2 trillion for healthcare and childcare in the coming months, it doesn’t take a clairvoyant to see America’s on a dangerous financial course.

Financial Russian Roulette

It’s the reason former Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry Summers cautions that this is the most irresponsible fiscal policy in 40 years and that the U.S. could face, “A dramatic fiscal-monetary collision.”

He recently told my former employer Bloomberg Television that, “What is kindling is now igniting.” We have the former head of the National Economic Council for the Obama Administration explaining that there’s a “one-in-three chance that inflation will accelerate in the coming years” — and the U.S. could face stagflation.

He also said there might be no inflation because the Fed would hit the brakes hard, pushing us into a recession.

He explained that the final possibility is that somehow the Fed and Treasury will get it all right (ahem), and we’ll see rapid growth without inflation.

But why are we playing with such fire? Especially when we’re (fingers crossed) at the end of the coronavirus crisis? And with Summers predicting only a 1-in-3 chance of this stimulus effort working, the odds are decidedly not in our favor.
Caution: Slippery Economic Slope Ahead

And Mr. President, how exactly will we pay for this financial Frankenstein?

Don’t worry, the White House says. The President’s proposal will be paid for over 15 years by simply raising the corporate tax rate to 21% to 28% and increasing taxes on companies’ foreign earnings.

As a free-market capitalist, I will remind you: raising taxes to pay for government projects is typically not a recipe for success. Corporate earnings will be affected — these should theoretically decrease as a result of taxation.

And never forget inflation.

I give the odds of inflation in asset prices, energy and food prices, and housing pricing a near 100% chance of happening.

How could it not? Remember the Obama-Biden years. Though we saw no inflation in real wages, there was plenty in equity markets, leading to a disproportionate increase in the wealth gap and furthering our hourglass economy. The rich got richer. The poor got more government benefits.

And the middle class got squeezed.

If the government pumps more and more money into the Federal Reserve system, the dollar’s value will decline, meaning we’ll all need yet more dollars to buy our stocks. As such, the market will move higher. Bernstein Research had a market prediction this week: 8000 on the S&P 500 by the end of the decade.

I’ll take it one step further — I wouldn’t be surprised to see 10,000 on the S&P 500 by 2030.

Nonetheless, is this “tax and spend” sustainable?

Of course not.

It’s a fragile model that leaves us vulnerable to any looming economic wrong turns. The key as an individual is to protect yourself and your assets. There will be winners and losers in the years ahead, and the government will likely have a big hand in the winners. If you want a real deal, invest accordingly.

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