Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office signalled that the future does not have to be a rerun of the past. The US president’s speech to Congress this week made it clear that Trumpism was a warning from history, a reminder that no republic is guaranteed to last. The US remains in danger – its decline accelerated by an iniquitous economic model, and by leaders unable or unwilling to remedy it. It is a relief to find in the White House a president who wants to bridge divisions rather than widen them. Mr Biden should be praised for saying he will stop the rot and recognising the challenge to democracy posed by autocracy. But his response risks being undone by an obsession with containing non-existent fiscal risks.
The Biden White House proposes spending $4trn, with about half the money used to rewrite the social contract. The rest will create jobs, with infrastructure investments to repurpose the post-Covid economy for a zero-carbon world. The problem is not that money is being spent to fix a broken society. Neither is it wrong to ask the rich to pay their fair share of tax. The problem is that Mr Biden says spending must be balanced by tax rises or savings from other government programmes.
This is a self-imposed and self-defeating constraint. It seems bad economics to pay for every dollar invested in early childhood education when each greenback yields $7.30 in benefits. A number of centrist Democrats have already signalled their opposition to the proposed tax hikes. If Mr Biden wanted cash, he could back the Internal Revenue Service to go after the $1tn in unpaid taxes every year. With a razor-thin Democratic majority in the US Senate, there is a risk that privileging arbitrary fiscal limits will lead to laws not being enacted or spending being pared back to match reduced revenues.
Mr Biden’s intention to bust a failed economic paradigm is a good one. It would be a scandal if it were sacrificed on the altar of budget neutrality. The threat to liberal democracy is not from fiscal incontinence but political polarisation. America has