America’s political parties are in flux. Factions rise and fall in the hierarchies, and sometimes drop out of party structures or vanish altogether. Sometimes, leadership can move such transitions along much faster. In the case of America’s fiscal conservatives, Trump’s transformation of the Republican Party into his personal vehicle excised the fiscal conservatives (along with the business conservatives and national security conservatives) from the Republican coalition altogether. It is entirely reasonable to expect the fiscal conservatives to eventually find a new home, but for now the brake that they have institutionally imposed upon government spending is simply not present.
Which makes the next few years a time for big-ticket ideas. There are plenty of them bouncing around in the American political space. Many are near-and-dear to the Left, who at their core see the government as a change-agent which has the right and duty to uproot and remake society. Yet these days the Right is hardly aghast at big spending either. After all, America’s biggest (pre-COVID) budget deficits happened under the Trump administration. Let’s take a look at the most likely culprits:
This one is not only a perennial favorite, but its time has finally come. Typically, hang ups have included pork barrel politics, general ideological clashes over the nature and goals of this or that piece of infrastructure, state v federal decision-making authority and fund sourcing. But mostly it has been about cost. If you disagree with someone’s infrastructure plan on any non-cost point, you can always oppose it as being “wasteful”. That argument just vanished. And since everyone agrees in general that infrastructure spending is good (it’s just the other guys’ specific ideas that are kooky) expect a lot of it in the not-so-distant future.
Updating America’s interstate road, rail and water infrastructure would run a cool $3 trillion. A nationwide 5G effort would add another trillion. And that doesn’t even touch municipal infrastructure which could easily add another $2 trillion.
Universal basic income:
The concept of UBI is that government should provide every citizen with a monthly or weekly payment for “basic” expenses such as rent and food and power. As the argument goes, as automation erases more and more job categories, some sort of universal payout is the least disruptive and cheapest-to-administer method of wealth redistribution.
Many criticize the very concept because it would denigrate the work ethic. Others like the fact that it would introduce a sharp class distinction between earners who pay taxes and a loafing class that simply subsists (many of these folk in this second camp assume – probably correctly – that over time UBI would introduce different tiers of political rights, with those who do not pay into the system losing full voting rights).
One of the biggest reasons no one has really tried UBI is that it is expensive to attempt, and no one knows if it’ll work because no one has ever really tried it at scale. Well, as part of the coronavirus stimulus and bailout packages, most citizens received a $1200 check and anyone on unemployment gets another $600 per week on top of their standard benefits (meaning many on unemployment are now making more than they did while working). More cash payments are all but certain for the next couple of months, and an extension of unemployment benefits are pretty much baked in as well.
Functionally, the United States is trying UBI out right now. A few months from now we’ll finally have a real-world, at-scale example of how UBI works. And if it works well, expect a massive push to implement it on a permanent basis.
I’ve always found the process of deciding defense spending fascinating. Even in the days after the Sept 11 attacks, it was ridiculous to think that Islamic terror posed a more existential threat to the United States than the Soviet nuclear arsenal. And yet US defense spending today – with the Global War on Terror largely wound down – is higher than it ever was during the Cold War. Defense specialists are bracing for what they see as the inevitable spending drawdown. I simply don’t think it is going to happen.
Today the annual budget of the Defense Department is just shy of $750 billion, plus another $52 billion for Homeland Security and $63 billion for the intelligence agencies. If there is going to be a budget reduction, it will come from American forces being fully brought home. Although, honestly, closing America’s overseas bases means future deployments likely will cost more because the military will need to launch from the homeland rather from a foreign footprint closer to the action.
A partial solution to that imbroglio? Don’t cut funding at all. In fact, invest in more long-range deployment capacity.
Universal health care:
America’s health care system is the world’s most expensive, but from the quality of the care provided (not to mention the system more or less falling on its face during COVID) you wouldn’t guess it. The smart conversation would be how to institute real health care reform (as opposed to Obamacare which simply introduced health care payment reform), but that unfortunately isn’t the conversation that’s starting.
Instead, the passion from politicians such as Bernie Sanders is for free health care for all, based on the Medicare model, which is by far the least efficient, lowest quality, most expensive option possible. Leaving aside both the financial estimates of the Sanders crowd and their detractors, most independent estimates put the cost for Medicare for All at least $2 trillion. Per year. Normally, such proposals would founder on the rocks of cost. Not anymore.
Green New Deal:
Contrary to much rhetoric (which I guess is the case with all these ideas), the GND is less a well thought out plan and more an ideological grab bag of Green/socialist concepts. That has been enough of a deal killer to turn most moderate Democrats against it, as well as those within the Green movement who think that math needs to be part of the discussion (which would include me). Bottom line? There really isn’t a real plan yet, but with Americans shifting into a price-as-myth mindset, I bet there will be one soon.
Any meaningful GND would need to require the near-complete overhaul of nearly every economic sector ranging from automotive to construction to power to agriculture to raw materials. We haven’t even invented many of the technologies that would be required, which, at present, makes any brass-tacks budget proposal impossible. But suffice to say if it could be done for $10 trillion, that would be really, really cheap.
It doesn’t take much imagination to foresee a potential political alignment in Congress to dump a few supertankers of twenties on this or that Green-friendly policy. At a minimum, I expect much increased subsidies for this or that greentech, even if (especially if) they haven’t yet proven to be market ready.
While I expect much of the country to be returned to work by mid-July, there is much about the coronavirus we do not yet know. For example, if it turns out that everyone who gets it can be re-infected a few weeks down the road, then the fundamental structure of the American economy will have to adapt to a fundamentally new reality. Such changes in circumstance will not impact all sectors or firms equally, generating scads of winners and losers. Without financial assistance, some sectors will shrivel and firms within those sectors will simply die.
But with a bottomless supply of funding available? Not so much.
Some of these are pretty obvious. Just off the top of my head, tourism, aerospace, child-care, education and restaurants look particularly endangered. The question is where to draw the line.
Consider air travel. Of course, we’ll bail out the airlines. What about airports? What about aircraft manufacturers like Boeing, or aircraft maintenance firms? Do we bail out all their hundreds of component manufacturers as well? What if key components are manufactured in other countries? Are those firms rescued? Normally, the fear of not knowing when to stop establishes a natural firebreak on bailouts. But that fear is rooted in the fear of cost. That fear no longer applies.
State and municipal bailouts:
Most American states have balanced budget amendments, and most gain their income from sales and income taxes which have pretty much gone to shit during the coronavirus crisis. Add in that many have wildly out-of-control pension funding issues and many states faced financial catastrophe before COVID. With COVID its more like financial Armageddon.