Biden's Plan Isn't 'Spending' but 'Investing'
It's an echo of how the New Deal built my old high school — and thus invested in me.
To understand why President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan would be so good for America, let me tell you about my old high school in Yamhill, Oregon.
It was conceived in 1935 as a New Deal project to hire 90 workers “taken from relief rolls in Yamhill County.” FDR’s Public Works Administration provided $27,000 to build the school, supplemented by $51,000 in local funding.
That investment in physical infrastructure and human capital is still generating high returns. I attended that school in the 1970s and learned to tackle problems in the world around me. And today, long after those 90 laborers have passed away, kids are still learning in that school and emerging to contribute to society.
A selfie in front of my old school, Yamhill-Carlton High School. Many fond memories here!
The school was a terrific investment in my community, and that’s how we can think of Build Back Better, which includes measures to support children and families, reduce climate change and build “social infrastructure.” There’s much talk about how the Biden plan is expensive, but that’s misleading. It’s not an “expense” but an “investment” — in American kids and in America’s future.
That was a common theme of many of the New Deal programs in the 1930s and of the Biden initiatives today. And if you think hedge funds are a high-return investment, consider the enormous returns from some past public projects.
Most farms in Yamhill didn’t have reliable electricity until the New Deal. Early in the 20th century, some families set up water wheels on creeks to generate enough electricity for a couple of light bulbs, but that worked only when the water flowed in the winter. Then FDR brought in rural electrification, and the result was a better life for rural families and also soaring productivity for the region.
The equivalent today is Internet-for-all, which is why Biden’s investments in digital equity are so important. Our farm gets the Internet through a small satellite dish, and it gets spotty if an owl perches on it. With better Internet, kids will be able to study more effectively, families will gain better access to telehealth, and many people will be able to be far more productive.
These investments won't just transform individuals, but regions as well. The main road through our area is Oregon Highway 47, begun in 1932, knitting together the region and letting products get to market. It’s how I got to school as a kid and how I get to Portland today. Long after it provided jobs desperately needed during the Great Depression, it is a pillar of the local economy.
In short, I’m a poster child of the benefits of the New Deal. I was educated at a school constructed as a New Deal investment, I did my homework by an electric light provided originally through rural electrification, and I still travel daily on a highway created in that era. Those investments empowered me, lifting the potential and productivity of my little town and its people — and the same was true in much of the nation. The returns were extraordinary. The post-war period from 1945 to about 1975 was a time of relatively inclusive growth: The pie got bigger, and at the same time the slices became more similarly sized.
I think that’s in part because it was a time when both political parties understood that public investments were good for the entire society. President Eisenhower helped create the interstate highway system that knitted the country together. Local governments around the country worked to raise high school graduation rates and then expanded four-year colleges and community colleges alike, while working to make college affordable. None of it was as broadly distributed as it should have been, and New Deal programs were often profoundly discriminatory, so this was no golden age to recreate. But it is a reminder that public investments can spur opportunity and generate high returns.
After about 1980, we lost momentum. Other countries increased their investments in education and health, and we stalled. But now with Build Back Better, we have a chance to get back on track.
In particular, Build Back Better focuses on kids — and they’re the highest-return investment available in America today. Three elements are particularly powerful in the legislation: child tax credits to reduce child poverty by up to half; high-quality early childhood programs; and high-quality child care to support both kids and working parents.
All three of these elements are routine in other advanced countries. That’s because the question isn’t “Are these programs affordable” but “Can we afford not to invest in at-risk children?”
In my own new political chapter, I’ve been thinking deeply about how we can do better for Oregon’s kids: How can we offer more opportunities in pre-K, how can we improve education, how can we create good new jobs in geothermal, carbon capture, ocean wave energy and other areas of climate tech? Build Back Better provides resources that would help the next governor to make progress on all these issues.
Most of the attention directed at “Build Back Better” is on Washington and the bill’s struggles to get through Congress. That’s fair enough, but I think historians will judge that that is too narrow a view. Where the plan will be transformative is in towns like Yamhill, and that’s the prism through which it should be judged — not so much the horserace in the House and Senate, but more the impact on ordinary American families.
Almost a century ago, when we were a much poorer nation, far-sighted Americans invested in building high schools, in electrifying the country, in educating veterans and helping them buy homes. We as a nation are still benefiting from that legacy, and now it’s our turn to invest in ways that will build opportunity for generations to come.