As soon as the word “infrastructure” shows up in a commentary most readers bail out. Everybody knows it’s crucial to our civilized existence, but could anything be more boring to actually discuss? For the next several months, however, discussion of the Biden-Harris proposal for the greening of the nation’s physical and human infrastructure is going to be ferocious. 

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That’s because Republicans want to make appropriations for infrastructure only about filling potholes, repairing rusty bridges, and adding extra lanes on freeways. Most of the green stuff and especially the environmental justice stuff in the proposal, they want to jettison. Which is no surprise given that, in 2021, we still have 139 members of Congress who are climate science deniers who want to smash what they assert is an authoritarian green agenda. They and most of the rest of the congressional Republicans will justify their opposition to other parts of the infrastructure plan with OMG the debt! and Biden wants to raise your taxes. In other words, we’ll get another round of the typical myopic, devil-take-the-hindmost scam that Republicans have been running on Americans for half a century, all to make the wealthy wealthier as their taxes went from a bite to a nibble and the precariat swelled. They will do all in their ample power to keep as much of the proposal as possible from passing. 

Yes, that $4 trillion or so the Biden-Harris team wants Congress to endorse is a whole lot of money. (Just the first $2 trillion is being presented Wednesday.) The administration’s proposal would head us very much in the right direction, and by 2009 standards it is hugely bold and visionary, in part a product of extensive grassroots input that Biden actively encouraged and obviously listened to. But this $2 trillion spread over eight years isn’t enough. And neither is the full $4 trillion.

Democrats behind the THRIVE Act—Transform, Heal, and Renew by Investing in a Vibrant Economy—are proposing $10 trillion over a decade. Originally introduced as a resolution last September by Interior Secretary Debra Haaland when she was still in Congress, the 2021 legislation was put together with the active participation of the Green New Deal Network and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). It is slated to be introduced in Congress mid-April with at least 100 co-sponsors.

Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, a lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, told Alexander C. Kaufman at HuffPost“The THRIVE Act is the agenda that establishes the pillars for economic renewal in our country. This bill lays out a plan for massive job creation within the United States, so that a younger generation of Americans can think of these jobs as careers.” 

THRIVE’s eight pillars are creating good jobs; protecting workers’ rights to form or join unions; investing in communities of color; rebuilding relationships with Native nations; combating environmental injustice; preventing climate catastrophe; supporting workers through the economic transition; and reinvesting in public institutions and infrastructure.

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“By recovery, let me be clear,” said New York Rep. Yvette Clarke, another of the plan’s sponsors, during a THRIVE Act virtual kickoff on March 16, “I don’t mean a narrowly targeted effort to bring us back to the way things were a year ago. That is not nearly enough, and that in and of itself would be a digression for communities who have been suffering all along.”

Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, another lead sponsor, said the act would help “rebuild our country’s economy with a focus on justice and healing.” Other lead sponsors are Sen. Jeff Merkley (Oregon) and Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Jamaal Bowman (New York), Pramila Jayapal (Washington State), Earl Blumenauer (Oregon), Ro Khanna (California), and Nanette Barragán (California). Based on the co-sponsors of the original resolution, THRIVE has strong support in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the most activist and visible CPC in decades. Grassroots support is strong, too. 

The Green New Deal Network notes:

THRIVE is a clear, actionable blueprint to create millions of good-paying jobs building green infrastructure and providing care—jobs that have access to unions and health care benefits. It’s an agenda to build a future that’s healthy and just for everyone. The THRIVE Agenda includes intersectional policies that invest in Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities and that combat environmental racism, legacy and systemic injustices, and the climate crisis.

Press Secretary Ellen Sciales of the climate activist Sunrise Movement, which is a vigorous backer of the Green New Deal, issued a statement Monday on the THRIVE Act:

“President Biden has a historic opportunity in front of him to pass an FDR-style infrastructure package that jumpstarts our economy to support working people, create good jobs, and combat climate change—and there’s too much at stake for him to squander it. If Biden is serious about building back better, he must act on the climate mandate he was elected on and invest at least $1 trillion per year over the next decade to meet the scale and urgency of the crises we face. In the last year of World War II, America spent 40% of our GDP in one year on the war—equivalent to $8.5 trillion in 2021 alone. The task of transforming our economy and rescuing our planet from the brink of collapse are just as existential to our country now as the war effort was then. $10 trillion over the next decade should be the minimum of what we invest towards that task.

“The last decade has made clear that our infrastructure is weathered from and vulnerable to the climate crisis, and people are yearning for jobs and hungry for big solutions. Biden just passed a historic relief package without even a single Republican vote, and it was incredibly popular. Now, up against the countdown to his 100 day mark and the ever pressing climate clock, Biden must build on his momentum and deliver a groundbreaking infrastructure package that puts people to work in the national interest and halts the climate crisis—no matter what. If Republicans don’t want to get on board, he must do it without them. If the filibuster gets in the way of passing what’s needed, Senate Democrats must abolish it.

“We know and economists know that $3 trillion is not enough and the unveiling of the THRIVE Act today reinforces why a $10 trillion investment is not a choice, but is fundamental to the futures of the young people, working people, people of color and people across this country who are all counting on him to deliver. If we neglect investment now, costs and consequences will only be greater and more destructive. We have a historic opportunity to invest in the future of this country—the risk is that we don’t meet it.”

Sunrise itself is pushing its Good Jobs for All campaign. It also calls for a $10 trillion investment in a green recovery that creates union jobs and combats climate change. Here’s where they would like to see that money go. 

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This investment is predicted not only to accelerate the green transformation that is already—but far too slowly—underway, but also generate as many as 15 million new jobs. This report—Employment Impacts of Proposed U.S. Economic Stimulus Programs: Job Creation, Job Quality, and Demographic Distribution Measures from the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, gives credence to those numbers:

This report by Robert Pollin, Shouvik Chakraborty and Jeannette Wicks-Lim presents estimates of the job creation that would result throughout the U.S. economy from implementing an economy-wide THRIVE investment agenda, as described in a September 2020 resolution of the U.S. Congress. This is a project to “Transform, Heal and Renew by Investing in a Vibrant Economy,” i.e. “THRIVE.” It is a $9.5 trillion, 10-year program designed by the member organizations of the U.S. Green New Deal Network. The THRIVE investment program totals to $9.5 trillion over 10 years, focused on four major investment areas: clean renewable energy and energy efficiency; infrastructure; agriculture and land restoration; and the care economy, public health, and the postal system. The study estimates that, at an average annual investment level of $954 billion, this program will generate about 15.5 million total jobs per year, including direct, indirect, and induced jobs. The study also provides evidence on the quality of jobs created through THRIVE, including data on wages, benefits, and unionization rates. It also reports on educational attainment levels of workers currently employed in the range of industries associated with the THRIVE Agenda, as well as on the shares of women and people of color employed in these activities.

Something else that could be included in a $1 trillion-a-year investment is a permanent federal jobs program. Twelve years ago here, I cited economist L. Randall Wray on this subject. He wrote:

Direct job creation programs have been common in the US and around the world. Americans immediately think of the various New Deal programs such as the Works Progress Administration (which employed about 8 million), the Civilian Conservation Corps (2.75 million employed), and the National Youth Administration (over 2 million part-time jobs for students). Indeed, there have been calls for revival of jobs programs like VISTA and CETA to help provide employment of new high school and college graduates now facing unemployment due to the crisis.

But what I am advocating is something both broader and permanent: a universal jobs program available through the thick and thin of the business cycle. The federal government would ensure a job offer to anyone ready and willing to work, at the established program compensation level, including wages and benefits package. To make matters simple, the program wage could be set at the current minimum wage level, and then adjusted periodically as the minimum wage is raised. The usual benefits would be provided, including vacation and sick leave, and contributions to Social Security.

Note that the program compensation package would set the minimum standard that other (private and public) employers would have to meet. In this way, public policy would effectively establish the basic wage and benefits permitted in our nation–with benefits enhanced as our capacity to provide them increases. I do not imagine that determining the level of compensation will be easy; however, a public debate that brings into the open matters concerning the minimum living standard our nation should provide to its workers is not only necessary but also would be healthy. …

Whether in support of the Biden-Harris proposal or something bigger, we should always be watchful of our messaging and call this green infrastructure money an investment, not spending. As economists are telling us, economic damage from climate change could be gargantuan without strong, prompt action: $1.7 trillion a year by 2025, $30 trillion a year by 2075. $1 trillion a year to help prevent much of that damage sounds like a pretty good investment to me.

When everything relevant is tallied in the U.S. budget, a trillion a year or more is what goes for defense, for national security. Some people would like to see still more money going there to deal with an ever more assertive China, which has been expanding its own military budget. Too bad these New Cold War advocates don’t propose to follow China’s stunning lead in infrastructure. 

Asked what he considered to be the greatest national security threat at the first presidential debate in 2015, Sen. Bernie Sanders said without hesitation: climate change. “The scientific community is telling us that if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy, the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable. That is a major crisis.” 

Shouldn’t we be investing at least as much public money in greening our infrastructure—again both physical and human—as we do on other national security matters? 

I could hear the demurrers long before reaching this point. C’mon, MB, a trillion a year will never pass Congress. It’s ridiculous. So long as the filibuster remains on the Senate’s books, that’s certainly true. But then that’s the case with the Biden-Harris proposal as well. Which tells us we should forget the odds and push for what is really needed. We shouldn’t shy away from long-shot legislation if it is needed legislation. 

Michael Winship at Common Dreams led a conversation with environmental activist and author Bill McKibben a few weeks ago. All of it is worth reading, but here’s one reply relevant to our current topic:

Winship: I was struck by something else you’ve said, that with solar we already are 50 to 100 years ahead of the projections of the International Energy Agency.

McKibben: That’s right. The powers-that-be who are heavily dominated by the fossil fuel industry and places like the International Energy Agency have always predicted that it’s going to be a very long time before we can move to solar power and wind power, and we’ll be stuck with fossil fuel for the foreseeable future and so on. Engineers and markets are changing that calculation.

We can move very fast now. The problem is that if we rely on economics alone in getting the job done, it’ll take us too long, 30 years, 40 years to get to where we need to go. And as I say, if we’d started promptly, when the scientists gave us the warning, that would have been okay, but since we didn’t, and since we have so little time left now, we have to force the spring as it were. We have to move more quickly than it’s going to be economically or politically convenient to do. And thank heaven, the Biden administration is at least trying to start down that path in a way that no other administration in this country ever has.

Yes. We can move very fast now. The question is whether we have the political will and can develop and exercise enough political clout to make it happen. 

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