Carney: Biden Pitches Vision of America on Training Wheels — Forever

President-elect Joe Biden announces members of his climate and energy appointments at the Queen theater on December 19, 2020 in Wilmington, DE. Biden announced his climate and energy team that will advance an ambitious agenda to address the issues of climate change. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)
Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

President Joe Biden used his first joint address to Congress to call for a set of policies aimed at fundamentally transforming and enlarging the government’s role in the lives of American families.

Biden pitched to the American people a vision of a society dominated by a centralized government, unfettered by counterweights or competing sources of security or authority. In Biden’s America, the youngest children will attend government pre-k, the government will deliver their parents child-rearing checks, subsidized child care, and offer tuition-free community college.

It’s an America where the guiding hand of big government is everywhere from the cradle through the diploma.

Here’s how the Associated Press describes Biden’s American Family Plan:

New in his Wednesday speech is a “families” plan that could cement his legacy with $1.8 trillion worth of spending over 10 years.

A significant amount would ensure that eligible families receive at least $250 monthly per child through 2025, extending the enhanced tax credit that was part of Biden’s COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] aid. There would be $200 billion for free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. Another $225 billion would pay for subsidized child care and invest in child care workers.

A national paid family and medical leave program would be started at a cost of $225 billion. Another $200 billion would go to permanently reduce health insurance premiums for people who receive coverage through the Affordable Care Act.

For $109 billion in federal money, people could attend community college tuition-free for two years. There would be $85 billion for Pell Grants to help more people afford higher education. Historically Black and tribal institutions would be eligible to receive $46 billion.

Over at Slate, Jordan Weissmann celebrated this as bringing America’s social order closer to that of our European counterparts:

This is, without question, an ambitious and far-reaching to-do list. But the goals are also humble, in the sense that the plan is really just designed to turn the United States into a normal country for mothers and fathers by providing benefits that much of the developed world already takes for granted.

Gone is American exceptionalism, American leadership, American greatness. We’re now just trying to become a “normal country.”

Underlying this is a philosophical rejection of the idea that ordinary Americans can produce prosperity through their own efforts and ingenuity. It is a vision of an economy that is in a sort of permanent slump — or “dark winter” as Biden has put it in the past. One that would leave too many Americans behind and fail to educate too many at too great a cost.

This resonates in part because American lives have been ravished by the pandemic, an event that reminded many families how precarious their lives have become. But the roots go deeper than the past year. For two decades, Americans have seen too great a share of our growing economy enrich the elites in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and Washington, D.C. Dissatisfaction with this helped elect Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016.

It is, however, ultimately a rejection of the optimism of Donald Trump, who claimed he could Make America Great Again through better trade deals, better approaches to regulation, getting control of immigration, rejecting the politics of racial division, and allowing U.S. businesses to thrive. Trump looked back to the American successes of the past through industry, good jobs, and growing families and sought to recreate the conditions those required.

In place of the American businessman, farmer, and worker, Biden envisions a heroic government lifting up American families. Instead of a private sector creating jobs that make family formation affordable, Biden seeks a government that subsidizes the costs.

Where current social welfare programs are aimed at those who need it most, Biden seeks to expand the welfare state from a safety net to something like a handrail along each step. Or training wheels on a bicycle that can never be removed.

None of the envisioned benefits come with work requirements or any conditions at all because they are rooted in the notion that work is not something that ought to be encouraged. Nor are benefits something to be earned. Both jobs and benefits are provided to those that will take them. Fears of unintended consequences or negative incentives have been declared to be nothing more than scary folk tales.

At its heart, Biden’s vision is a rejection of the idea that we live in a world of scarcity, in which prosperity is a hard-won societal achievement brought about by increases in productivity and innovation. It sees prosperity as permanent but inequitably distributed. The challenge is not to generate wealth and comfort, but only to deliver it into the right hands.

There are echoes of this in Biden’s attitude toward China. He does not understand that China seeks to prosper at the expense of American workers. In fact, he doesn’t see China as a challenge toward American prosperity at all. “China’s gonna eat our lunch? Come on, man!” he said famously. Wealth, for Biden, is self-generating, with the government there to see to its equitable distribution. And so Biden imperils our prosperity by not securing it against the predations of China.

The Democrats seek to swiftly implement this reordering because they understand that their time in power could be perilously short given the slim Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate and the propensity for presidents’ parties to lose seats in midterm elections. They understand that once benefits start flowing, they are hard to curtail.

Obamacare is the model here. Put in place by a swiftly eclipsed Democratic majority, Republicans sought for years to replace it, only to be repeatedly stymied. Even with complete control of the government in the early years of the Trump administration, Republicans could not tear down Obamacare. Once a new national program is in place,  it is very hard to remove.

This is all the more true when the opposition fails to present a credible alternative. Americans wanted affordable healthcare. At least the Democrats gave them Obamacare. The Republicans tried to repeal it with no new plan in place. Similarly, Republicans will be doomed to fail if they once again try to address the problems — like stagnant wages and the increasing unaffordability of a dignified family life — that have created the opening for Bidencare with nothing other than hosannas to free markets or complaints about socialism. This is a moment that calls for a robust economic nationalism and a pro-worker GOP.  Yet today, only a growing few Republican officeholders can speak the language of economic nationalism much less persuasively pitch the policies it would entail.

Earlier on Wednesday, Biden had lunch with several network TV anchors, a customary practice for new presidents on the day of their first joint address. He reportedly told the anchors that “they’re going to write about this point in history.”

If anything like the proposals Biden laid out Wednesday night is enacted, that will undoubtedly be true.


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