Logan Swan is a member of Ironworkers Local 86 in Seattle.
Devastating hurricanes whip the Southeast, floods sweep through Texas and the Midwest, and the smoke from massive West Coast wildfires cloud skies across the country. Climate change projections estimate the displacement of 143 million people by 2050. Every scientific update predicts a bleaker future within a shorter time frame, further underscoring the dramatic change needed and the inability of the capitalist system to provide it.
This is the context for Biden’s “transformational” $2.25 trillion infrastructure package, which is billed as “once in a generation” climate legislation. The dollar amount is spread across ten years so amounts to $225 billion per year which shows immediately the limitations. If it were as transformative as the corporate media would like us to believe, it would include a widespread public jobs programs, fully funded and publicly run research and development into sustainable new technologies, a massive expansion of high-speed public transit, bringing the fossil fuel industry into public ownership, and taxing the rich and corporations to fund massive reforestation and weatherization programs. This is a far cry from what’s in Biden’s proposal.
In reality, despite the impressive dollar amount and lofty goals it includes, like cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, his package amounts to a doubling down on the failed strategy of incentivizing big business to make a green transition. These incentives come in many forms: tax credits to corporations to invest in expanding their fleet of electric vehicles, handouts to corporations like Intel to ramp up semiconductor production, and subsidies to offset the cost of private, for-profit internet services in rural areas.
Handout to the Businesses that Created the Climate Crisis
Humans existed on earth for hundreds of thousands of years with a relative stable climate; it is only since the industrial revolution and rise of capitalism that the climate crisis has escalated. As one example, just 100 companies are responsible for 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Rather than taking major industry out of the hands of private corporations, Biden’s proposal entirely hinges on the continued growth of for-profit outfits. Not only is this feeding the exact beast that got us into this mess in the first place, even from the standpoint of a section of capitalists themselves this “incentivization” is unnecessary.
A section of big business is already preparing to make a slow transition to renewable energy without Biden’s help. His “incentives” are not driving Amazon, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft’s recent pledge to cut emissions to zero by 2040. They are moving in this direction because ecological disaster leads to economic devastation and their profits are on the line. The effects of climate change are expected to so thoroughly destabilize society that it will cut the global economy by $23 trillion by 2050. A recent UN report found that if any company had to pay the cost of their environmental damage, not one of them would be profitable.
The pace of change is too slow however, because transitioning to net-zero emissions is itself capital intensive. And while some billionaires are starting the process now, others will simply refuse until fossil fuel use, air and freight travel, and other highly polluting behaviors are themselves unprofitable, a point that is far too late and spells absolute climate catastrophe.
In this context, adopting a strategy directed at motivating big business, rather than radically shifting away from any for-profit model, is completely backwards. Biden’s “transformational” approach to the climate hinges on the continuation of a profit-driven system which is incapable of addressing the climate change it’s created.
Spending Falls Short
Despite the unprecedented amount of investment in Biden’s infrastructure package, it doesn’t represent a qualitative change in where the political establishment aims spending. While the neoliberal playbook of tax cuts for the wealthy and bailouts for big business is flipped on its head, money will still wind up in the hands of corporations and the super rich. Public funding is funneled into private pockets, with the byproduct of creating jobs and rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. But at the end of the day, once much of this infrastructure is built it will not be a public resource but will be privately owned and run for profit.
Beyond the question of handouts to big business, another real problem with this package is just how insufficient much of the investment is, especially the investment in public goods. The price tag to plug holes in our existing infrastructure, let alone modernize it, is far greater than Biden is proposing spending. The American Society of Civil Engineers grades the transportation infrastructure of the United States at a barely passing ‘D.’ Over 230,000 bridges need repair and 80,000 have reached the end of the projected “lifespan” factored into their initial construction. Biden hails his infrastructure plan as a “once in a lifetime investment,” signalling it as a one-off measure, yet it will only repair a mere 10,000 of these bridges that millions of us use every day.
The $115 billion towards roads and bridges may seem like an eye-popping amount, but just bringing our roads to a serviceable condition would cost $420 billion alone. Just maintaining our existing highways requires $136 billion every year.
While he allocates $66 billion to go toward water systems over the next ten years, Bluefield Research estimates that $68 billion is needed every year. $50 billion is proposed to go toward “disaster resilience.” This is supposed to protect against damage wrought by wildfires, rising sea levels, and hurricanes. But, the cost of building sea walls for storm surge protection alone could cost up to $400 billion.
Biden’s Infrastructure in a Global Context
Biden’s infrastructure spending is intended to boost the flagging competitive edge and economic supremacy of the United States as it’s challenged by Chinese production and technology. The Biden administration has openly and proudly acknowledged this fact.
The competition with China is reflected in the hundreds of billions which is proposed to be be funnelled into manufacturing, industry, and research & development. China has spent the last several years investing in domestic production of semiconductors in an effort to reach “technological independence,” as they currently rely on American production and imports. A new car will take between one to three thousand semiconductors as vehicles are steadily computerized, and they’re increasingly used in many other consumer, business, and government products. Government spending in these fields and in R&D amounts to a handout to tech companies like Intel and is being pushed by corporations like Amazon, with Jeff Bezos announcing support for the infrastructure package.
This nationalist and increasingly hostile competition points in the opposite direction of the international collaboration required to resolve the numerous crises facing working class communities globally. The consequences of American deindustrialization through shifting manufacturing to exploit labor in places like China were enjoyed by American capitalists when it meant higher profits and undermining working conditions for the rest of us. Now that the chickens have come home to roost and Chinese capital is a growing competitor, the U.S. ruling class is turning away from globalization and wrapping itself in patriotism. Clearly, American workers have nothing to gain in falling for this self-serving facade. The way forward is through our collective organization as those who produce the wealth of this world, uniting internationally in a struggle against those who own at our expense.
These are the real motives of the political establishment in putting forward this infrastructure spending; to gear up corporate America’s ability to economically arm wrestle China and feebly approach big business with offerings of subsidies for painting over the environmental damage they themselves have profited from.
Who Pays and Who Benefits?
Perhaps the most radical component of Biden’s plan is how he proposes to pay for it which is by raising the corporate tax rate and to raise taxes on capital gains. This is certainly a change in the logic of the ruling class, especially compared to 2008 where big banks were bailed out and working people lost their jobs and their homes. However, the truth is even this most “progressive” proposal for Biden is pathetic in the context of what is needed.
Biden initially proposed lifting the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%, which is still well below pre-Trump levels, to pay for the bill. For context, when Obama left office, the corporate tax rate was 35%. Functional king of the Democratic Party Joe Manchin has suggested that 28% is far too high, and Senate Democrats have already conceded to raising it to simply 25%. This raise in the tax rate is so non-consequential to big business that Amazon has come out in favor of it.
At best big business is being asked to “share the bill.” But we should be very clear that as in all previous crises, the brunt of paying for all the stimulus measures of 2020 and 2021 will be put on the backs of the working class in years to come.
We Shouldn’t Accept Climate Change as Inevitable
Much is being made of how Biden’s commitment to addressing climate change is showcased by his infrastructure package, but a closer look at his plan shows a total lack of ambition in this arena. As stated above, the main thrust is directed toward providing corporations with a financial incentive to begin considering climate change in their calculations.
In Texas, the infrastructure failure that killed at least 57 people who were left without power during a winter storm was due to the privatization of critical public resources. Similarly, profit driven utility giant PG&E has been directly responsible for multiple wildfires that have ripped through California, killing hundreds and destroying more than 27,000 homes while blanketing the country in smoke. During this disaster, firefighters responding to this emergency had their communications throttled by Verizon despite having “unlimited data” plans, which led to a lawsuit.
As far as the environmental impact of the transportation investments in Biden’s plan, there is a real imbalance. While we’re by no means opposed to people owning personal vehicles, if Biden’s plan is serious about combating climate change it will need to provide a viable and affordable alternative to working people in the form of mass public transit. Instead, it includes substantial incentives for electric vehicles that amount to twice the amount spent on public transit. This resembles a “green” corporate handout to automakers to subsidize their expensive electric vehicles.
Clear examples like this of placing profit over human need, combined with the magnitude of profit-driven environmental destruction, resulting climate change, and threat to life as we know it on this planet illustrate how Biden’s infrastructure plan falls incredibly far short of the scale of change needed. To successfully meet this crisis head on will require public ownership of these key sections of the economy, not subsidizing and incentivizing the same companies responsible for current unsustainable conditions to change course through pork barrel contracts.
What We Need
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and left Democrats have pushed to include Green New Deal legislation in Biden’s infrastructure spending, making concrete some of the ideas in what was earlier a non-binding resolution. The majority of their criticism of the administration’s initial proposal was saying it was too small, it needed to be scaled up. The question now is: what are these progressives willing to do to force a more radical set of proposals onto the agenda?
AOC recently told a town hall that Biden had “exceeded expectations” and that he’s demonstrated a real willingness to work with progressives. This is just the most recent depressing example of her providing left cover for his administration while doing nothing to push him to go further (see pg. 8). If ever there was a clear issue to take him up on, it would be the climate, and there is an opportunity for AOC and other progressives to launch a huge campaign to incorporate far-reaching climate proposals into Biden’s overall infrastructure proposal. This could include protests, town halls, and occupations of the offices of key senators standing in the way. Whether or not they pick this fight remains to be seen, though the signs are pointing toward another major concession to the establishment.
Ultimately what is needed to begin to address the climate crisis is two-fold. We need a far reaching political program that includes bringing polluting industries into public ownership, retraining and guaranteeing high-quality union jobs to workers in these industries, large scale reforestation programs, historic expansion of mass transit, and investment in publicly funded research and development into new sustainable technologies. And we also need a political strategy to fight for this program. This means the creation of mass, democratic organizations of the working class which are not tied to either major political party. It’s only through an independent struggle of the working class and youth that we can win the rapid, far reaching change we need to wind down the race toward climate catastrophe.