Opinion: Biden’s infrastructure plan must look to the future, not wrap itself in a nostalgic view of past American greatness

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Project Syndicate)—President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan is likely to be a watershed moment for the American economy, clearly signaling that the neoliberal era, with its belief that markets work best and are best left alone, is behind us. But while neoliberalism may be dead, it is less clear what will replace it.

The challenges that the United States and other advanced economies face today are fundamentally different from those they faced in the early decades of the 20th century. Those earlier challenges gave rise to the New Deal and the welfare state. Today’s problems—climate change, the disruption of labor markets due to new technologies, and hyper-globalization—require new solutions.

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We need a new economic vision, not nostalgia for a mythicized age of widely shared prosperity at home and global supremacy abroad.

On climate change, Biden’s plan falls short of the Green New Deal advocated by progressive Democrats such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But it contains significant investments in a green economy, such as supporting markets for electric vehicles and other programs to cut carbon-dioxide emissions, making it the largest federal effort ever to curb greenhouse-gases.

Economics is different from an arms race. A strong U.S. economy should not be a threat to China, just as Chinese economic growth need not threaten America.

On jobs, the plan aims to expand employment offering good pay and benefits, focusing, in addition to infrastructure, on manufacturing and the growing and essential care economy.

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The role of government

New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only 1 percentage point of gross domestic product, and is projected to pay for itself eventually.

A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue. Even if the plan were nothing more than a big public investment push financed by taxes on large corporations, it would do a lot of good for the U.S. economy.

We need a new economic vision, not nostalgia for a mythicized age of widely shared prosperity at home and global supremacy abroad.

But Biden’s plan can be much more. It could fundamentally reshape the government’s role in the economy and how that role is perceived.

Traditional skepticism about government’s economic role is rooted in the belief that private markets, driven by the profit motive, are efficient, while governments are wasteful. But the excesses of private markets in recent decades—the rise of monopolies, the follies of private finance, extreme concentration of income, and rising economic insecurity—have taken the shine off the private sector.

At the same time, it is better understood today that in a complex economy characterized by so much uncertainty, top-down regulation is unlikely to work. Regardless of the specific domain—promoting green technologies, developing new institutional arrangements for home-care workers, deepening domestic supply chains for high-tech manufacturing, or building on successful workforce development programs—government collaboration with nongovernmental actors will be essential.

If it succeeds, the example it sets of markets and governments acting as complements, not substitutes—demonstrating that each works better when the other pulls its weight—could be its most important and enduring legacy.

In all these areas, the government will have to work with markets and private businesses, as well as other stakeholders such as unions and community groups. New models of governance will be required to ensure public objectives are pursued with the full participation of those actors who have the knowledge and capacity to achieve them. The government will have to become a trusted partner; and it will have to trust other social actors in turn.

In the past, each excessive swing in the state-market balance has eventually prompted an excessive swing in the opposite direction. The Biden plan can break this cycle. If it succeeds, the example it sets of markets and governments acting as complements, not substitutes—demonstrating that each works better when the other pulls its weight—could be its most important and enduring legacy.

Biden’s unhelpful framing

In this regard, it is unhelpful to view the Biden plan as a way to restore America’s competitive position in the world, especially vis-à-vis China. Unfortunately, Biden himself is guilty of this framing. The package will “put us in a position to win the global competition with China in the coming years,” he recently argued.

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It may be politically tempting to market the infrastructure plan in this fashion. In an earlier era, the prevailing fear that the U.S. was losing its edge to the Soviet Union in ballistic missiles and in the space race helped catalyze a national technological mobilization.

But there is much less reason for fearmongering today. It is unlikely to buy much Republican support for the plan, given the intensity of partisan polarization. And it diverts attention from the real action: if the plan increases incomes and opportunities for ordinary Americans, as it should, it will have been worth doing, regardless of the effects on America’s geopolitical status.

Moreover, economics is different from an arms race. A strong U.S. economy should not be a threat to China, just as Chinese economic growth need not threaten America. Biden’s framing is damaging insofar as it turns good economics at home into an instrument of aggressive, zero-sum policies abroad. Can we blame China if it tightens restrictions on U.S. corporations as a defensive measure against the Biden plan?

The plan could transform the U.S. and set an important example for other developed countries to follow. But to achieve its potential, it must avoid misleading state-versus-market dichotomies and outdated Cold War tropes. Only by leaving behind the models of the past can it chart a new vision for the future.

This commentary was published with permission of Project SyndicateBiden Must Fix the Future, Not the Past.

Dani Rodrik, professor of international political economy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is the author of “Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy.”

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NC HOPE Program: Thousands in North Carolina approved for rental assistance but have been waiting months for money

The North Carolina HOPE Program is supposed to help pay rent and utilities of Triangle residents struggling during the pandemic, yet millions of dollars that the state has in the fund continue to sit unspent.

As of Thursday, out of the $167 million in HOPE funding, only $59.4 million of that has actually been paid out to landlords and utility providers since the program launched in October.

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Troubleshooter Diane Wilson has heard from more than a dozen landlords and tenants who have been waiting weeks, some even more than a month to get their promised funds.

“It’s a whole lot of stress”

“I applied the second day the program opened,” said Durham renter Kymberlee Devine.

HOPE (Housing Opportunity to Prevent Evictions) is a statewide rental assistance program funded by the federal government and opened to applicants in October. The program closed to new applicants just weeks after launching after receiving more than 42,000 applications.

Devine got her application in time and was approved for both utility and rental assistance right away.

While the utility assistance was paid, the promised rental assistance was not.

Her rent continued to be unpaid, her landlord growing impatient for the promised funds.

“I am not getting any answers,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been given the runaround. It’s a whole lot of stress.”


Clayton resident Raimey Cooke faced the same frustrations when trying to get answers from her HOPE representative.

“There is so much miscommunication,” she said.

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Despite the Cooke family having their HOPE approval letter for utility assistance, their lights were shut off not once, but twice due to nonpayment.

“It’s been a HOPE nightmare,” Cooke said.

She says she and her landlord faced the same obstacle in getting answers. The promised rental assistance from HOPE was set to arrive after she applied in October and was approved, but by the beginning of February — still no funds.

She says calls to 211, the number HOPE applicants are asked to call, and calls and emails to her caseworkers got her nowhere.

“I just need answers to be able to tell my landlord what’s going on because, at this point, he thinks it’s a scam,” Cooke said.

Not only are Triangle renters frustrated with HOPE, but also landlords want to know, “where’s the money?”

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Fayetteville landlord Kim Holland hasn’t received any rent since October from her tenant who was approved for $4,500 from HOPE.

“What about people that this is part of their income to pay bills?” Holland asked.

She says not having any rent since October has been tough and just having an approval letter from HOPE doesn’t pay her bills.

“It’s becoming a hardship for me, you go five months without any pay,” she said.

Holland says she’s called and emailed HOPE and 211 for weeks to find out when she will get the five months of back rent but has gotten no answers.

“If you’re all are going to give this money out, it’s a great program, but you still need to communicate with the people and let them know exactly how you’re going to get their funds,” Holland said.

Where’s the money?

As of Thursday, HOPE administrators say, out of the $167 million they have to give in rent and utility assistance, more than $138 million have been awarded, but only $59.4 million of that has actually been paid out to landlords and utility providers since the program launched in October.

“What we did in the program is to front-load the agreement,” said Laura Hogshead, Chief Operating Officer for the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which runs the program. “So our primary concern was making sure landlords and tenants got the agreements so everyone knew what was coming. People could sleep at night and know the award was made.”

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Hogshead acknowledges that payments on those agreements are taking time and that landlords need their money.

“When we started this last fall, we did not know that within the course of three weeks we were going to have 42,000 applications. We were quickly swamped as were our community partners and that’s why we’ve hired 170 people. That’s why we have streamlined every process we can possibly streamline and still remain compliant because that is a concern we want to make sure that federal government doesn’t come back and ask for this money back later,” Hogshead said.

HOPE is assisting thousands of people here in the state. The $138.7 million amounts to 55,856 rent and utility awards to help 36,213 households impacted by the pandemic. Despite only $59.4 million paid to landlords and utility companies statewide, administrators say those numbers are increasing, literally, by the hour.

“We’re trying very hard to make sure that we’re complying on the front end that we’re acting with all due haste and with incredible empathy, but understanding that these are still federal processes and they still do take time,” Hogshead said. “The payments are catching up, we know that folks are waiting on them and we have sped up enormously.”

Once we brought these cases to the attention of administrators with HOPE, along with the other cases in this story where viewers were also waiting for HOPE money, all but one landlord got their thousands of promised in HOPE funding.

For the one landlord who is still waiting, HOPE administrators say they are looking into the issue.

“Now that the weight has been lifted and the nightmare is over,” Cooke said after her landlord got the money.

Help on the way?

Administrators at HOPE stress that if you were approved and have a signed agreement, you will get the money as quickly as they can process it.

Hogshead says if tenants or landlords are having issues she encourages them to call 211.

She does understand there may be delays in getting answers, but they are working hard to work through the cases.

“We know it’s never going to be fast enough, but we keep improving, we keep getting better, and we are eagerly anticipating the next round of funding so that we can help more people.,” she said.

Right now HOPE is closed to new applicants.

The program will eventually reopen once the state gets guidance from the US Treasury on the new rules for the latest stimulus bill that Congress passed in December, which includes North Carolina getting about $700 million to help with COVID relief efforts.

Hogshead says her agency will oversee a large portion of those funds for rent and utility assistance once federal guidance is given.

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