Follow the Money: The Infra-structure Bill

The detective shows and movies offer a frequent refrain: follow the money. In fact, the phrase is ubiquitous, appearing in novels and articles and even in the book about Watergate, “All the President’s Men” .

There’s two ways to interpret that suggestion, both good and useful, and they’re both relevant to the recent passage of President Biden’s “Infra-structure Bill”, approved by Congress with some GOP support and some Democratic opposition and without any action taken on the “Build Back Better” super-bill which has served as its companion during the recent debates about it and coverage of it.

To be clear: of course, one should support that trillion dollar infra-structure bill. No reason not to and it makes a lot of important contributions to an ailing infra-structure. I won’t go into what it does; you probably already know for the most part.

What’s most important is that they passed the thing without taking any action on that other bill. Now, from a practical viewpoint, one can understand why the Congress did what it’s almost always done: pass that which is more supported and ignore that which is more controversial. But the question is why is a bill that is so badly needed and so important to the survival of so many people in this country all that controversial?

It’s not the money. At its original cost, the thing would budget in at $350 billion a year for ten years — although not always mentioned, this is a decade-long project with amortized financing. Now that’s about 40 percent of the yearly military budget of nearly $900 billion and a fourth of it if we count in the debt service that drives the yearly military budget to $1.3 trillion. Yes, it’s a lot more than you have in your bank account. No, it’s not all that much when considering how badly the help it offers is needed in a country that spends three times as much to support killing people.

Now that they’ve knocked it down to $1.75 trillion over 10 years…well, come on now! It raises rich people taxes a bit, gives tax breaks to bunches of working peole, feeds millions of school kids, gives people a few months paid leave to take care of their new-born, enhances medical coverage for tens of millions, enacts a real albeit modest program on climate change, builds or improves a million affordable housing units, increases Pell grant levels, broadens Dreamer Benefits and deeends federal contributions to Historic Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and minority-service institutions. Well…on and on. It’s just a good piece of legislation that would be a relief to many people in this country who are currently suffering.

So what’s the problem? It’s sure not popular opinion: every single provision of the recovery bill has majority popular support based on every single poll we’ve seen (and probably every conversation most of us have had with others). It’s a slam-dunk.

The debate about these two bills and their relationship as they totter through the tortured chambers of law-making has focused on everything but what I humbly consider the most important issue: how federal money flows. That, I think, is the difference in the approach of these two parties and why they Infra-structure bill has encountered must less law-making opposition.

The Infra-structure bill proposes to give money first to corporations (through state budget allotments). That means companies will decide how that money is used and where it goes and how many jobs are really created (as few as they can get away with, based on history). The benefit most of us will realize is substantial for sure but it’s long-term. Not one line in that bill will address the immediate needs people have; it won’t make our lives better right now.

The recovery bill, on the other hand, puts the money in the hands of people and that does make a huge difference in the lives of tens if not hundreds of millions of people.

To be clear. Both bills eventually give companies money. All federal benefits do that. There isn’t one penny of federal money that doesn’t end up in the hands of businesses because people get the money and they spend it on things they need or want. The two largest social allotment programs: unemployment and social security, frequent targets of the right, are profit-generating programs for capitalism. They’re a form of wealth redistribution except the wealth that’s redistributed all comes from working people. People who get unemployment checks or social security spend that money!

We can’t really expect anything different from this system. But the difference in choice and immediate impact is a really important one, a difference between focusing on making this country more efficient and making people’s lives more livable and sustainable.

That, and only that, is the reason why many progressive law-makers (including the small collection of socialists we have in Congress) have insisted that the bills be considered together. While coverage in the news treats that insistence as a progressive law-makers infantile obstinacy, it’s really a question of political philosophy. Taken together, the bills address both the long-term issues by weaponizing corporations with funds to do something beneficial (rather than wasteful) and addressing the short-term needs by giving some relief to the people who actually motor the society: us.

Now, for sure, the money law-makers get from companies to do their bidding is important here because the bill they’ve just passed benefits many of those companies immediately. The fund-raising profiles of many GOP politicians and Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are little more than corporate funding balance sheets. So, yeah, follow that money as some media and analysts have done.

But lots of Democrats who support the Build Back better bill get all kinds of corporate money. That corporate support is often important but I don’t think it’s main sticking point here.

The more important money trail that we should follow is how the money in those two bills is supposed to flow. There’s a genuine difference in how each of our two electoral parties views funding this country. It’s a debate over short-term corporate profits, money right into the corporations’ pocket and longer-term systemic financing which works through expenditure and consumption.

That debate isn’t sterile: it impacts people lives in a deep way and it is critical because it’s going to arise with greater frequency as the country deals with the increasing collapse of its economy.

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