More stories

  • in

    Biden to Include Minimum Tax on Billionaires in Budget Proposal

    The tax would require that American households worth more than $100 million pay a rate of at least 20 percent on their full income, as well as unrealized gains in the value of liquid assets like stocks.WASHINGTON — The White House will ask Congress on Monday to pass a new minimum tax on billionaires as part of a budget proposal intended to revitalize President Biden’s domestic agenda and reduce the deficit.The tax would require that American households worth more than $100 million pay a rate of at least 20 percent on their full income, as well as unrealized gains in the value of their liquid assets, such as stocks, bonds and cash, which can accumulate value for years but are taxed only when they are sold.Mr. Biden’s proposal to impose a tax on billionaires is the first time he has explicitly called for a wealth tax. While many in his party have advocated taxes that target an individual’s wealth — not just income — Mr. Biden has largely steered clear of such proposals in favor of increasing the top marginal income tax rate, imposing a higher tax on capital gains and estates, and raising taxes on corporations.The “Billionaire Minimum Income Tax” would apply only to the top one-hundredth of 1 percent of American households, and over half of the revenue would come from those worth more than $1 billion. Those already paying more than 20 percent would not owe any additional taxes, although those paying below that level would have to pay the difference between their current tax rate and the new 20 percent rate.The payments of Mr. Biden’s minimum tax would also count toward the tax that billionaires would eventually need to pay on unrealized income from assets that are taxed only when they are sold for a profit.The tax proposal will be part of the Biden administration’s budget request for the next fiscal year, which the White House plans to release on Monday. In a document outlining the minimum tax, the White House called it “a prepayment of tax obligations these households will owe when they later realize their gains.”“This approach means that the very wealthiest Americans pay taxes as they go, just like everyone else,” the document said.As the administration grapples with worries over rising inflation, the White House also released a separate document on Saturday saying that Mr. Biden’s budget proposal would cut federal deficits by a total of more than $1 trillion over the next decade.The idea of imposing a wealth tax has gained traction since Mr. Biden was elected as Democrats have looked for ways to fund their sweeping climate and social policy agenda and ensure that the wealthiest Americans are paying their fair share.Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and the chairman of the Finance Committee, released separate proposals last year that would tax the wealthiest, albeit in different ways. Ms. Warren had championed the idea of a wealth tax in her unsuccessful presidential campaign.The decision by the administration to call for a wealth tax also reflects political realities over how to finance Mr. Biden’s economic agenda.Moderate Democrats, including Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have balked at raising the corporate tax rate or lifting the top marginal income tax rate to 39.6 percent from 37 percent, leaving the party with few options to raise revenue.Still, Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, slammed the idea of taxing billionaires after Mr. Wyden’s proposal to do so was released, although Mr. Manchin has since suggested he could support some type of billionaires’ tax.Legal questions about such a tax also abound, particularly whether a tax on wealth — rather than income — is constitutional. If Congress approves a wealth tax, there has been speculation that wealthy Americans could mount a legal challenge to the effort. More

  • in

    Modern Monetary Theory Got a Pandemic Tryout. Inflation Is Now Testing It.

    The sun was sinking low over Long Island Sound as Stephanie Kelton, wearing the bright red suit jacket she had donned to give a virtual guest lecture to university students in London that morning, perched before a pillow fort she had constructed atop the heavy wooden desk in her home office.The setup was meant to keep out noise as she recorded the podcast she co-hosts, a MarketWatch production called the “Best New Ideas in Money.” The room was hushed except for Ms. Kelton, who bantered energetically with the producers she was hearing through noise-blocking headphones, sang a Terri Gibbs song and made occasional edits to the script. At one point, she muttered, “That sounds like Stephanie.”What Stephanie Kelton sounds like, circa early 2022, is the star architect of a movement that is on something of a victory lap. A victory lap with an asterisk.Ms. Kelton, 52, is the most familiar public face of Modern Monetary Theory, which posits that if a government controls its own currency and needs money — to make sure its citizens have food and places to live when, say, a global pandemic pushes many out of work — it can just print it, as long as its economy has the ability to churn out the needed goods and services.In the M.M.T. view of the world, “How will you pay for it?” is a vapid policy question. Real-world resources and political priorities determine how much lawmakers can and should spend.It is an idea that was forged, and put to something of a test, during a low-inflation era.When Ms. Kelton’s book, “The Deficit Myth,” was published in June 2020 and shot onto best seller lists, inflation had been weak for decades and had dropped below 1 percent as consumers retrenched in the pandemic. The government had begun to spend rapidly to try to prop up flailing households.When Ms. Kelton appeared on a Bloomberg podcast episode, “How M.M.T. Won the Fiscal Policy Debate,” in early 2021, inflation had bounced back to around 2 percent.But by a chilly January afternoon, as ducks flew over the frosty estuary outside Ms. Kelton’s house near Stony Brook University, where she teaches, inflation had rocketed up to 7 percent. The government’s debt pile has exploded to $30 trillion, up from about $10 trillion at the start of the 2008 downturn and $5 trillion in the mid-1990s.The good news: The government has had no trouble selling bonds to fund its spending, contrary to the direst projections of deficit scolds.The bad news: Some economists blame big spending in the pandemic for today’s rapid price increases. The government will release fresh Consumer Price Index data this week, and it is expected to show inflation running at its fastest pace since 1982.And that may be why Ms. Kelton, and the movement she has come to represent, now seem anxious to control the narrative. The pandemic spending wasn’t entirely consistent with M.M.T principles, they say — it wasn’t assessed carefully for its inflationary effects as it was being drawn up, because it was crisis policy. But the situation has underlined how hard it is to know just where the economy’s constraints lay, and how difficult it is to fix things once you run into them.Last summer, Ms. Kelton called inflation a temporary sign of “growing pains.” By the fall, she painted it as a good problem to solve, compared with a continued weak economy. As it lingers, she has argued that diagnosing what is causing it is key.“Can we blame ‘MMT’ for the run-up in inflation?” she tweeted rhetorically last month, just hours before her podcast recording.Understand Inflation in the U.S.Inflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.Your Questions, Answered: We asked readers to send questions about inflation. Top experts and economists weighed in.What’s to Blame: Did the stimulus cause prices to rise? Or did pandemic lockdowns and shortages lead to inflation? A debate is heating up in Washington.Supply Chain’s Role: A key factor in rising inflation is the continuing turmoil in the global supply chain. Here’s how the crisis unfolded.“Of course not.”Emon Hassan for The New York TimesThe economy is the limitTo understand how M.M.T. fits in with other dominant ways of thinking, it’s helpful to take a trip to the beach.In economics, there’s a school of thought sometimes called “freshwater.” It’s the set of ideas that became popular at inland universities in the 1970s, when they began to embrace rational markets and limited government intervention to fight recessions. There’s also “saltwater” thinking, an updated version of Keynesianism that argues that the government occasionally needs to jump-start the economy. It has traditionally been championed in the Ivy League and other top-ranked schools on the coasts.You might call the school of thought Ms. Kelton is popularizing, from a bay that feeds into the East River, brackish economics.M.M.T. theorists argue that society should feel capable of spending to achieve its goals to the extent that there are resources available to fulfill them. Deficit spending need not be constrained to recessions, even theoretically. Want to build a road? No problem, so long as you have asphalt and construction workers. Want to feed children free lunches? Also not a problem, so long as you have the food and the cafeteria workers.What became Modern Monetary Theory began to percolate among a small group of academics when Ms. Kelton, a former military brat and one-time furniture saleswoman, was a graduate student.She had a gap period between graduating with a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Sacramento and attending Cambridge University on a Rotary scholarship, and her college economics professor recommended that she spend the time studying with L. Randall Wray, an early pioneer in the set of ideas.They hit it off. She remained in Mr. Wray’s circle, and he — and Warren Mosler, a hedge fund manager who had written a book on what we get wrong about money — convinced her that the way America understood cash, revenues and budgeting was all backward.Ms. Kelton earned her doctorate at The New School, long a booster of out-of-mainstream economic thinking, and went on to teach at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She, Mr. Wray, who was there at the time, and their colleagues mentored doctoral students and began to write academic papers on the new way of thinking.But academic missives reached only a small circle of readers. After the 2008 financial crisis punched a hole in the economy that would take more than a decade to fill, Ms. Kelton and her colleagues, invigorated with a new urgency, began a blog called “New Economic Perspectives.” It was a bare bones white, red and black layout, using a standard WordPress template, that served as a place for M.M.T. writers to make their case (and, in its early days, featured a #Occupy[YourCityHere] tab).The theory picked up some fervent followers but limited popular acceptance, charitably, and outright derision, uncharitably. Mainstream economists panned it as overly simplistic. Many were confused about what it was arguing.“I have heard pretty extreme claims attributed to that framework and I don’t know whether that’s fair or not,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said in 2019. “The idea that deficits don’t matter for countries that can borrow in their own currency is just wrong.”Ms. Kelton kept the faith. She and her colleagues held conferences, including one in 2018 at The New School where she gave a lecture on “mainstreaming M.M.T.”Rohan Grey organized the conference and a media reception afterward at an Irish pub (“‘Shades of Green,’ monetary pun intended,” he said). It was attended by organizers, academics, “lay people” and lots of journalists. At the happy hour — which lasted until 1 a.m. — Ms. Kelton was mobbed when she walked in the door. “She was already on her way to super celebrity status at that point,” said Mr. Grey, an assistant professor at Willamette Law.When she gave presentations on her ideas, Ms. Kelton would occasionally display a quote often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you. Then you win.”And her star was rising more broadly. She advised Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, getting to know the Vermont senator. He never fully publicly embraced M.M.T., but he nevertheless advanced policies — like Medicare for All — that reflected its ideals.She amassed a following of tens of thousands, later growing to 140,000, on Twitter. Her first handle, @deficitowl, prompted ardent fans to gift her wise bird figurines, some of which are still on display in her home office. She cultivated a small coterie of prominent journalists who were interested in the idea, most notably Joe Weisenthal at Bloomberg. She signed a book deal. She was regularly talking to Democratic lawmakers, sometimes in groups.Her idea percolated through Washington’s media and liberal policy circles. Mainstream economic predictions that huge debt loads would come back to haunt nations like Japan had not played out, the anemic rebound from 2008 had scarred society and called the size of the crisis response into question. Ms. Kelton and her colleagues were ensuring that their theory on benign deficits was an ever-present feature of the blossoming debate.Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly the theoretical question of just how much the government could spend before it ran into limits faced a real-world experiment.The $1.9 Trillion FloorWithout thinking about paying for it, Donald J. Trump’s government quickly passed a $2.3 trillion relief package in late March 2020. In December, it followed that up with another $900 billion. President Biden took office in early 2021, and promptly added $1.9 trillion more.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 6What is inflation? More

  • in

    U.S. National Debt Tops $30 Trillion as Borrowing Surged

    The record red ink, fueled by spending to combat the coronavirus, comes as interest rates are expected to rise, which could add to America’s costs.WASHINGTON — America’s gross national debt topped $30 trillion for the first time on Tuesday, an ominous fiscal milestone that underscores the fragile nature of the country’s long-term economic health as it grapples with soaring prices and the prospect of higher interest rates.The breach of that threshold, which was revealed in new Treasury Department figures, arrived years earlier than previously projected as a result of trillions in federal spending that the United States has deployed to combat the pandemic. That $5 trillion, which funded expanded jobless benefits, financial support for small businesses and stimulus payments, was financed with borrowed money.The borrowing binge, which many economists viewed as necessary to help the United States recover from the pandemic, has left the nation with a debt burden so large that the government would need to spend an amount larger than America’s entire annual economy in order to pay it off.Some economists contend that the nation’s large debt load is not unhealthy given that the economy is growing, interest rates are low and investors are still willing to buy U.S. Treasury securities, which gives them safe assets to help manage their financial risk. Those securities allow the government to borrow money relatively cheaply and use it to invest in the economy.For years, presidents have promised to limit federal borrowing and bring down the nation’s budget deficit, which is the gap between what the nation spends and what it takes in. Under President Bill Clinton, the United States actually ran a budget surplus between 1998 and 2001.But taming deficits had fallen out of fashion in recent years, including during the Trump administration, when lawmakers blew through budget caps and borrowed money to fund tax cuts and other federal spending.Now, deficit concerns have resurfaced, helping to stall negotiations over President Biden’s $2 trillion safety net and climate spending proposal. Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a Democrat whose vote is key to passing Mr. Biden’s package, cited “staggering debt” as a reason he could not support the legislation.Senator Joe Manchin on Capitol Hill last month.Tom Brenner for The New York TimesThe lingering pandemic has slowed the momentum of the economic recovery, fueling inflation rates unseen since the early 1980s and raising the prospect of higher interest rates, which could add to America’s fiscal burden.“Hitting the $30 trillion mark is clearly an important milestone in our dangerous fiscal trajectory,” said Michael A. Peterson, the chief executive officer of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which promotes deficit reduction. “For many years before Covid, America had an unsustainable structural fiscal path because the programs we’ve designed are not sufficiently funded by the revenue we take in.”Understand Inflation in the U.S.Inflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.Your Questions, Answered: We asked readers to send questions about inflation. Top experts and economists weighed in.What’s to Blame: Did the stimulus cause prices to rise? Or did pandemic lockdowns and shortages lead to inflation? A debate is heating up in Washington.Supply Chain’s Role: A key factor in rising inflation is the continuing turmoil in the global supply chain. Here’s how the crisis unfolded.The gross national debt represents debt held by the public, such as individuals, businesses and pension funds, as well as liabilities that one part of the federal government owes to another part.Renewed concerns about debt and deficits in Washington follow years of disregard for the consequences of big spending. During the Trump administration, most Republicans ceased to be fiscal hawks and voted along party lines in 2017 to pass a $1.5 trillion tax cut along with increased federal spending.While Republican lawmakers helped run up the nation’s debt load, they have since blamed Mr. Biden for putting the nation on a rocky fiscal path by funding his agenda. After a protracted standoff in which Republicans refused to raise America’s borrowing cap, threatening a first-ever federal default, Congress finally agreed in December to raise the nation’s debt limit to about $31.4 trillion.In January 2020, before the pandemic spread across the United States, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the gross national debt would reach $30 trillion by around the end of 2025. The total debt held by the public outpaced the size of the American economy last year, a decade faster than forecasters projected.The nonpartisan office warned last year that rising interest costs and growing health spending as the population ages would increase the risk of a “fiscal crisis” and higher inflation, a situation that could undermine confidence in the U.S. dollar.The Biden administration has said the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package the Democrats passed last year was a necessary measure to protect the economy from further damage. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has argued that such large federal investments are affordable because interest costs as a share of gross domestic product are at historically low levels thanks to persistently low interest rates.But that backdrop could start to change as the Federal Reserve prepares to raise interest rates, which have been set near-zero since the start of the pandemic, to curb inflation.The Fed indicated last week that it was on track to begin increasing rates at its next meeting in March. Investors are predicting the central bank could usher in five rate increases this year, bringing rates to a range of 1 to 1.25 percent.Trillions in federal spending has left the United States approaching levels of red ink not seen since World War II.Sarah Silbiger/ReutersThe Fed has also been keeping long-term interest rates low by buying government-backed debt and holding those securities on its balance sheet. Those purchases are set to wrap up next month, and last week, the Fed signaled it planned to “significantly” shrink its bond holdings.Esther L. George, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, suggested during a speech this week that the Fed’s big bond holdings might be lowering longer-term interest rates by as much as 1.5 percentage points — nearly cutting the interest rate on 10-year government debt in half. While shrinking the balance sheet risks roiling markets, she warned that if the Fed remained a big presence in the Treasury market, it could distort financial conditions and imperil the central bank’s prized independence from elected government.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 6What is inflation? More

  • in

    Inflation and Deficits Don’t Dim the Appeal of U.S. Bonds

    Markets have been in upheaval. The Federal Reserve is taking steps to cool off the economy, as questions loom about the course of the recovery. And headlines are proclaiming that government bond yields are near two-year highs.But the striking thing about bonds isn’t that yields — which influence interest rates throughout the economy — have risen. It’s that they remain so low.In the past year, with consumer prices rising at a pace unseen since the early 1980s, a conventional presumption was that the demand for bonds would slump unless their yields were high enough to substantially offset inflation’s bite on investors’ portfolios.Bond purchases remained near record levels anyway, which pushed yields lower. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note — the key security in the $22 trillion market for U.S. government bonds — is about 1.8 percent. That’s roughly where it was on the eve of the pandemic, or when Donald J. Trump was elected president, or even a decade ago, when inflation was running at a mere 1.7 percent annual rate — compared with the 7 percent year-over-year increase in the Consumer Price Index recorded in December.If you had run that data past market experts last spring, “I think you would have been hard-pressed to find anybody on the Street who’d believe you,” said Scott Pavlak, a fixed-income portfolio manager at MetLife Investment Management.Because the 10-year Treasury yield is a benchmark for many other interest rates, the rates on mortgages and corporate debt have been near historical lows as well. And despite a binge of deficit spending by the U.S. government — which standard theories say should make a nation’s borrowing more expensive — continuing demand for government debt securities has meant that investors are, in inflation-adjusted terms, paying to hold Treasury bonds rather than getting a positive return.The major reasons for this odd phenomenon include long-term expectations about inflation, a large (and unequally distributed) surge in wealth worldwide and the growing ranks of retiring baby boomers who want to protect their nest eggs against the volatility of stocks.And that has potentially huge consequences for public finances.“If governments ever wanted to engage in an aggressive program of spending, now is the time,” said Padhraic Garvey, a head of research at ING, a global bank. “This is a perfect time to issue bonds as long as possible and proceed with long-term investment plans — and as long as the rate of return on those plans is in excess of the funding costs, they pay for themselves.”Weighing the Fed’s RoleBecause the government debt issued by the United States is valued, with few exceptions, as the safest financial asset in the global market — and because this debt is used as the collateral for trillions of dollars of systemically important transactions — the monthly and weekly fluctuations of key U.S. Treasuries, like the 10-year note, are watched closely.There are rancorous debates about the added role that the emergency bond-buying program conducted by the Fed since March 2020 — which included hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. debt securities — has played in keeping rates down. Understand Inflation in the U.S.Inflation 101: What is inflation, why is it up and whom does it hurt? Our guide explains it all.Your Questions, Answered: We asked readers to send questions about inflation. Top experts and economists weighed in.What’s to Blame: Did the stimulus cause prices to rise? Or did pandemic lockdowns and shortages lead to inflation? A debate is heating up in Washington.Supply Chain’s Role: A key factor in rising inflation is the continuing turmoil in the global supply chain. Here’s how the crisis unfolded.Some of the central bank’s critics concede that the Fed’s aggressive measures (which officials are dialing back) may have proved necessary at the start of the pandemic to stabilize markets. But they insist its program, another form of economic stimulus, continued far too long, egging on inflation by increasing demand and keeping rates low — an equation that hurt savers who could benefit from higher returns to hedge against the price increases.Still, most mainstream analysts also tend to identify a broader gumbo of coalescing factors beyond monetary policy.Several major market participants attribute these stubbornly low yields in spite of a high-growth, high-inflation economy to a widening sense among investors that a time of slower growth and milder price increases may eventually reassert itself.“While inflation has surged, they do not expect it to be persistent,” said Brett Ryan, the senior U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank. “In other words, over the long run, the post-pandemic world is likely to look very similar to the prepandemic state of the economy.”Long-run inflation expectations are still relatively anchored at an annual rate of about 2.4 percent over the next 10 years. This indicates that markets think the Fed will prevent inflation from spiraling upward, despite the huge increase in debt and the supply of dollars.Lots of Cash in Search of HavensOne potent element driving down rates is that from 2000 to 2020 — a stretch that included a burst dot-com bubble, a breakdown of the world’s banking system and a pandemic that upended business activity — global wealth in terms of net worth more than tripled to $510 trillion. The resulting savings glut has deeply affected the market, particularly for government bonds.The vast majority of wealth has accumulated to borderless corporations and a multinational elite desperate to park that capital somewhere that is safe and allows its money to earn some level of interest, rather than lose value even more quickly as cash. They view lending the money to a national government in its own currency as a prudent investment because, at worst, the debt can be repaid by creating more of that currency.The downside for these investors is that only so many stable, powerful countries have this privilege: This mix of exorbitant levels of wealth and a scarcity of safe havens for it has whetted, at least for now, a deepening appetite for reliable government debt securities — especially U.S. Treasuries.“To have truly risk-free returns and storage of your dollars, where else are you going to put them?” asked Daniel Alpert, a managing partner of the investment bank Westwood Capital.As the principle of supply and demand would suggest, the combination of high demand and low supply has helped keep Treasury bond prices high, which in turn produces lower yields.Demographic changes are affecting bond trends, too. As they approach or reach retirement, hundreds of millions of people across developed economies are looking for safer places than the stock market for their assets.Even in an inflationary environment, “there’s just this huge demand for yield in fixed income from people,” said Ben Carlson, the director of institutional asset management at Ritholtz Wealth Management. “You have all these boomer retirees who have money in the stock market and they’re doing great, but they know soon they’re not going to have a paycheck anymore and they need some portion of their portfolio to provide yield and stability.”Running Room for Federal SpendingThe U.S. Treasury market has grown to roughly $23 trillion, from $3 trillion two decades ago — directly in step with the national debt, which has grown to over 120 percent of gross domestic product, from 55 percent.But borrowing costs for the American government have trended lower, not higher. Congress issued roughly $5 trillion in Treasury debt securities to finance pandemic fiscal relief, “and we had, effectively, zero cost of capital for most of it,” said Yesha Yadav, a law professor at Vanderbilt University whose scholarship covers the Treasury market’s structure and regulations.Since the 1980s, the federal debt has skyrocketed.Total public debt as a percentage of gross domestic product

    Note: Data through the third quarter of 2021Source: Federal Reserve Board of St. LouisBy The New York TimesBut the cost of paying investors back is at its lowest in years.Interest payments on U.S. debt as a percentage of gross domestic product.

    Note: Data through 2020. Federal interest payments are still projected to be low in 2022.Source: Federal Reserve Economic DataBy The New York TimesThe cost of the interest payments that the U.S. government owes on its debt peaked in 1991 at 3.2 percent of gross domestic product, when the national debt was only 44 percent of G.D.P. By that measure, interest costs now are about half what they were back then.Inflation F.A.Q.Card 1 of 6What is inflation? More

  • in

    As Infrastructure Money Flows, Wastewater Improvements Are Key

    The new law allocates $11.7 billion for wastewater and stormwater projects. Will it get to the impoverished communities who need it most?HAYNEVILLE, Ala. — What babbles behind Marilyn Rudolph’s house in the rural countryside is no brook.A stained PVC pipe juts out of the ground 30 feet behind her modest, well-maintained house, spewing raw wastewater whenever someone flushes the toilet or runs the washing machine. It is what is known as a “straight pipe” — a rudimentary, unsanitary and notorious homemade sewage system used by thousands of poor people in rural Alabama, most of them Black, who cannot afford a basic septic tank that will work in the region’s dense soil.“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s kind of like living with an outhouse, and I can never, ever get used to it,” said Ms. Rudolph’s boyfriend Lee Thomas, who moved in with her three years ago from Cleveland.“I’ve lived with it all my life,” said Ms. Rudolph, 60.If any part of the country stands to see transformational benefits from the $1 trillion infrastructure act that President Biden signed in November, it is Alabama’s Black Belt, named for the loamy soil that once made it a center of slave-labor cotton production. It is an expanse of 17 counties stretching from Georgia to Mississippi where Black people make up three-quarters of the population.About $55 billion of the infrastructure law’s overall funding is dedicated to upgrading systems around the country that handle drinking water, wastewater and stormwater, including $25 billion to replace failing drinking-water systems in cities like Flint, Mich., and Jackson, Miss.Hayneville’s town square. The infrastructure package targets funding toward “disadvantaged” areas like Hayneville and surrounding towns, part of the Biden administration’s goal of redressing structural racism.Charity Rachelle for The New York TimesLess attention has been paid to the other end of the pipe: $11.7 billion in new funding to upgrade municipal sewer and drainage systems, septic tanks, and clustered systems for small communities. It is a torrent of cash that could transform the quality of life and economic prospects for impoverished communities in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Illinois, Michigan and many tribal areas.In this part of Alabama, the center of the civil rights struggle 60 years ago, the funding represents “a once-in-a-lifetime chance to finally make things right, if we get it right,” said Helenor Bell, the former mayor of Hayneville in Lowndes County, who runs the town’s funeral home.But while the funding is likely to lead to substantial improvements, there are no guarantees it will deliver the promised benefits to communities that lack the political power or the tax base to employ even the few employees needed to fill out applications for federal aid.“I am very worried,” said Catherine Coleman Flowers, a MacArthur fellow whose 2020 book “Waste” highlighted the sanitation crisis in Lowndes County. “Without federal intervention, we would have never had voting rights. Without federal intervention, we will never have sanitation equity.”Mark A. Elliott is an engineering professor at the University of Alabama who works with an academic consortium that is designing a waste system optimized for the region’s dense clay soil. He said he was concerned that more affluent parts of the state might siphon off federal assistance intended for the poor.“My hope is that at least 50 percent of this money goes to the people who are in most desperate need, not for helping to subsidize the water bills of wealthy communities,” Mr. Elliott said. “Sanitation is a human right, and these people need help.”Straight pipes are just one element of a more widespread breakdown of antiquated septic tanks, inadequate storm sewers and poorly maintained municipal systems that routinely leave lawns covered in foul-smelling wastewater after even a light rainstorm.The infrastructure package targets funding toward “disadvantaged” areas like Hayneville and surrounding towns, part of the Biden administration’s goal of redressing structural racism. Yet the infrastructure package gives states broad latitude in how to allocate the funding, and it contains no new enforcement mechanisms once the money is out the door.A PVC pipe behind Ms. Rudolph’s house spews raw wastewater whenever someone flushes the toilet or runs the washing machine.Matthew Odom for The New York TimesThe wastewater funding is moving through an existing federal-state loan program that typically requires partial or complete repayment, but under the new legislation, local governments with negligible tax bases will not have to pay back what they borrow. As an additional enticement, Congress cut the required state contribution from 20 percent to 10 percent.“A lot of people know that the bill isn’t just about drinking water, but the wastewater part is just as important,” said Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, who helped draft the provisions after assisting two small cities in her state, Cahokia Heights and Cairo, upgrade failing sewer systems that flooded neighborhoods with raw sewage.The Environmental Protection Agency, which is administering the program, said in November that the first tranche of funding for drinking water and wastewater projects, $7.4 billion, would be sent to states in 2022, including about $137 million for Alabama.Biden administration officials are confident the scale of the new spending — which represents a threefold increase in clean water funding over the next five years — will be enough to ensure poor communities gets their fair share. “We want to change the way E.P.A. and states work together to ensure overburdened communities have access to these resources,” said Zachary Schafer, an agency official overseeing the implementation of the program. But major questions remain — including whether individual homeowners without access to municipal systems can tap the money to pay for expensive septic systems — and the guidelines will not be ready until late 2022. While the revolving loan fund is generally regarded as a successful program, a study last year by the Environmental Policy Innovation Center and the University of Michigan found that many states were less likely to tap revolving loan funds on behalf of poor communities with larger minority populations.Alabama’s revolving loan fund has financed few projects in this part of the state in recent years, apart from a major wastewater system upgrade in Selma, according to the program’s annual reports.The water funding is not likely to be divvied up in Alabama until later this year. The Republican-controlled state legislature is still negotiating with Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, over what to do with tens of millions of dollars allocated through the $1.9 trillion stimulus package Mr. Biden signed in March.A flooded yard in Hayneville in 2019. Straight pipes are just one element of a more widespread infrastructure breakdown in the area.Julie Bennett/Associated PressEvery member of the state legislature is up for re-election next year, and legislators from bigger, more powerful communities in Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile, eager to deliver to voters, have already begun preparing their applications.The Infrastructure Bill at a GlanceCard 1 of 5The bill receives final approval. More

  • in

    The Path Ahead for Biden: Overcome Manchin’s Inflation Fears

    A key Democrat’s decision to pull support from the president’s sprawling climate and social agenda is rooted in the scope of the bill.WASHINGTON — Senator Joe Manchin III, the West Virginia Democrat, effectively killed President Biden’s signature domestic policy bill in its current form on Sunday, saying he was convinced the spending and tax cuts in the $2.2 trillion legislation will exacerbate already hot inflation.Economic evidence strongly suggests Mr. Manchin is wrong. A host of economists and independent analyses have concluded that the bill is not economic stimulus, and that it will not pump enough money into consumer pocketbooks next year to raise prices more than a modest amount.The reason has to do with the pace at which the bill spends money and how much it raises through tax increases that are intended to pay for that spending. The legislation spends funds over a decade, allowing the taxes it raises on wealthy Americans and businesses, which will siphon money out of the economy, to help counteract the boost from spending and tax cuts.The bill also does not provide the type of direct stimulus included in the $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package Mr. Biden signed in March — and which Mr. Manchin supported. Some of its provisions would give money directly to people, like a continued expanded child tax credit, but others would fund programs that would take time to ramp up, like universal prekindergarten.Economists say the net result is likely to be at most a tenth of a percentage point or two increase in the inflation rate. That would be a relatively small effect at a time when supply chain crunches, surging global oil demand and a pandemic shift among consumers away from travel and dining out and toward durable goods have combined to raise the annual inflation rate to 6.8 percent, its fastest pace in nearly 40 years.For months, Mr. Manchin has warned the president and congressional leaders that he was uncomfortable with the breadth of what had become a $2.2 trillion bill to fight climate change, continue monthly checks to parents, establish universal prekindergarten and invest in a wide range of spending and tax cuts targeting child care, affordable housing, home health care and more. He has cited both the risks of inflation and his fear that the package could further balloon the federal budget deficit, saying several programs that are now estimated to end in a few years would likely be made permanent.Over the past week, he has insisted that the bill shrink to fit the framework of less than $2 trillion that Mr. Biden announced this fall, and that — crucially — the legislation not use budget gimmicks to artificially lower the bill’s effect on the budget deficit.In a statement on Sunday, Mr. Manchin said Democrats “continue to camouflage the real cost of the intent behind this bill.”White House officials have tried to promote the idea that the bill would reduce price pressures right away — an outcome economists have not entirely bought into. But the general economic consensus finds little evidence to suggest the bill risks exacerbating rising food, gasoline and other prices.Today’s inflationary surge stems from a confluence of factors, many of them related to the pandemic. The coronavirus has caused factories to shutter and clogged ports, disrupting the supply of goods that Americans stuck at home have wanted to buy, like electronics, televisions and home furnishings.That high demand has been fueled in part by consumers who are flush with cash after months of lockdown and repeated government payments, including stimulus checks. Research from the Federal Reserve has shown that inflation is most likely getting a temporary increase from the coronavirus relief package in March, which included $1,400 direct checks to families and generous unemployment benefits. But Mr. Biden’s social policy bill would do relatively little to spur increased consumer spending next year and not enough to offset the loss of government stimulus to the economy as pandemic aid expires.White House aides have tried to make that case to Mr. Manchin — and the public — in recent weeks, pointing to a series of analyses that have dismissed inflationary fears pegged to the bill. That includes analysis from a pair of Democratic economists who warned about rising inflation earlier this year — Harvard’s Lawrence H. Summers and Jason Furman — and from the nonpartisan Penn Wharton Budget Model at the University of Pennsylvania. All of those analyses conclude that the bill would add little or nothing to inflation in the coming year.The disconnect between economic reality and Mr. Manchin’s stated concerns has exasperated the White House, which is struggling with voter discontent toward Mr. Biden over rising prices, as well as an unyielding pandemic.In a scathing statement about Mr. Manchin on Sunday, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, noted that the Penn Wharton analysis found Mr. Biden’s bill “will have virtually no impact on inflation in the short term, and in the long run, the policies it includes will ease inflationary pressures.”White House officials, who along with party leaders have spent weeks trying to bring Mr. Manchin to a place of comfort with Mr. Biden’s bill, registered a sense of betrayal after the senator’s declaration.Ms. Psaki said Mr. Manchin had last week personally submitted to the president an outline for a bill “that was the same size and scope as the president’s framework, and covered many of the same priorities.” He had also promised to continue discussions toward an agreement, she said.Republicans celebrated Mr. Manchin’s statement as evidence that the bill, which Democrats were attempting to pass along party lines, was full of inflationary policies that even the president’s own party could not get behind.Biden’s ​​Social Policy and Climate Bill at a GlanceCard 1 of 7The centerpiece of Biden’s domestic agenda. More

  • in

    Democrats Push for Agreement on Tax Deduction That Benefits the Rich

    Lawmakers are coalescing around a deal to suspend a $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions that was imposed during the Trump administration.WASHINGTON — Democrats were readying an agreement on Tuesday that would repeal a cap on the amount of state and local taxes that homeowners can deduct as part of a broader $1.85 trillion spending bill, a move that could amount to a significant tax cut for wealthy Americans in liberal states.But some liberals quickly balked at the emerging agreement, which would suspend a $10,000 cap on the so-called SALT deduction for five years, removing a limit that Republicans included in their 2017 tax package as a way to pay for cuts for corporations and the rich. The suspension would kick in for deductions related to property taxes and state and local income taxes accrued in 2021 and would run through 2025.If it passes, the deal would be a major concession to a handful of Democrats from high-income states like New York and New Jersey who have insisted on lifting the cap, in order to win their votes for President Biden’s social policy and climate change package.But liberal Democrats have scoffed at the push to include the costly proposal in the domestic policy package, particularly as party leaders have curtailed or eliminated other spending priorities as they pare down a $3.5 trillion blueprint to appease moderate and conservative-leaning Democrats.Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the chairman of the Budget Committee, blasted the repeal on Tuesday as a giveaway to the rich that went against the Democrats’ priorities.“I think there is a compromise to be reached here, a middle ground, which says that for families earning less than $400,000, they can take a complete exemption, but not families earning more than that,” said Mr. Sanders, who had released a blistering statement criticizing the agreement. “What exists is unacceptable, and one way or another it will be dealt with.”It remains unclear whether the agreement would apply broadly or if Democrats planned to impose an income cap to prevent the wealthiest Americans from receiving what amounts to a tax cut.A straight repeal of the cap for every household that claims the deduction would siphon huge amounts of revenue from the federal government: about $90 billion per year, according to budget experts.To get around that, the five-year suspension assumes that the cap is reinstated in 2026 for another five years, allowing Democrats to use a budget sleight of hand to show its removal as revenue neutral in the traditional 10-year window that lawmakers look to when considering a bill’s impact on the federal deficit.Three people with knowledge of the emerging agreement described it on the condition of anonymity and cautioned that discussions were continuing. Details of the talks were first reported by Punchbowl News.With Republicans opposed to Mr. Biden’s domestic policy plan, Democrats must win the support of all 50 senators who caucus with the party and all but three House lawmakers for the plan to become law. That effort is further complicated because Democrats are using an arcane process known as budget reconciliation, which shields fiscal legislation from the 60-vote filibuster threshold in the Senate.Those restrictions mean that any lawmaker, particularly in the Senate, could effectively tank the legislation over his or her priorities, including insisting that the bill repeal SALT. Democrats from the high-income states that have been most affected by the limit have spent the past five years searching for an opportunity to roll it back for their constituents, despite complaints that it would largely benefit the wealthy.House Democrats including Representatives Tom Suozzi of New York, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey and Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey have made clear that they will not support the broader spending package without a SALT repeal. Mr. Gottheimer wore a large button emblazoned with the words “no SALT, no dice” to votes on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, has also voiced support for getting rid of the cap.“We’ve been fighting for this for years,” Mr. Gottheimer said on Tuesday, adding that reinstating the full deduction would amount to giving “tax relief to families that deserve it and who got hosed in 2017.”Delaying the cap for five years in a 10-year window could effectively allow lawmakers to claim that the proposal would not have an impact on the package’s cost. Yet some Democrats appeared confident that lawmakers would act again in five years to prevent the cap from going back into effect.“It’ll be pretty clear when they get tax relief, it’s going to be hard to take that back,” Mr. Gottheimer said, referring to families in his district.The SALT limit resulted in tax increases for wealthier Americans beginning in 2018, particularly higher earners from high-tax states, and helped Democrats capture some House seats that Republicans previously held in New Jersey, California and elsewhere.The deduction is largely used by wealthy homeowners who itemize their deductions and live in states and cities with high taxes, which tend to be led by Democrats. Democrats accused Republicans of using the cap to pay for other tax cuts for the rich and to penalize liberal states.“My guess is the majority of Americans with a net worth of $50 to $300 million would get a tax cut under the Build Back Better plan with a full repeal of SALT,” Jason Furman, an economist at Harvard who was the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama, said on Twitter on Tuesday. “The bill would do more for the super-rich than it does for climate change, childcare or preschool. That’s obscene.”But several lawmakers in the New York and New Jersey delegations have warned that their votes for the domestic policy package hinged on the inclusion of the provision, and Democrats have haggled for months over a possible solution.“We’re still going at it over it,” said Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, the Democratic chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, who joked on Tuesday that he had earned “a Ph.D. in the SALT deduction because it’s been argued from every perspective I can think of.”The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget described the repeal of the SALT cap as a “regressive” tax cut, estimating that it would cost $90 billion a year in lost government revenue. The wealthiest would make out the best, with a SALT cap repeal distributing more than $300,000 per household in the top 0.1 percent of earners and only $40 for a middle-income family over the first two years.“With the SALT cap repealed and current tax rates retained, in fact, the reconciliation package might actually offer a net tax cut for most high-income households,” the group said.The right-leaning Tax Foundation estimated that repealing the cap would increase after-tax income of the top 1 percent of earners by 2.8 percent, while the bottom 80 percent would get minimal benefit.Republicans seized on the agreement on Tuesday, accusing Democrats of hypocrisy for backing an “anti-progressive” handout.“First Democrats cut out paid leave,” J.P. Freire, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee, said on Twitter. “Now they’re shoveling money to the rich.” More

  • in

    Why Paid Family Leave’s Demise This Time Could Fuel It Later

    In failing to secure a benefit with bipartisan appeal, President Biden joins a long line of frustrated politicians. But some Republicans say it could be resurrected on its own.WASHINGTON — In late 2019, with bipartisan backing, including from the iconoclastic Senate Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, President Donald J. Trump’s daughter Ivanka hosted a summit at the White House to promote her vision for paid family and medical leave.As with many domestic initiatives of the Trump years, the effort went nowhere, thanks in part to the former president’s lack of interest in legislating. But it also stalled in part because of opposition from Democrats like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who saw the plan not as a true federal benefit but as a “payday loan” off future Social Security benefits.Ms. Gillibrand believed she could do much better.Last week was the Democrats’ turn to fail. A 12-week paid family and medical leave program, costing $500 billion over 10 years, was supposed to be a centerpiece of President Biden’s social safety net legislation. But it fell out of his compromise framework, a victim of centrists who objected to its ambition and cost.The demise of the effort, even amid bipartisan interest, in part reflected the polarization surrounding Democrats’ marquee domestic legislation, which Republicans are opposing en masse.Some business groups and G.O.P. proponents of a paid leave program believe that if it had been broken out and negotiated with Republicans, the way a $1 trillion infrastructure package was at Mr. Biden’s urging, it could have survived, and some think it still could resurrected as a bipartisan initiative.They said the problem lay with the Democrats’ decision to put paid family leave in the expansive social policy and climate bill — a multitrillion-dollar package financed by large tax increases on businesses and the wealthy — which they knew that Republicans and mainstream business groups would never support.“In any area that is substantive, when members sit down to actually walk through whether or not we can build good legislation, there are possibilities,” Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, said. “We’re not being encouraged to work together to solve problems. What we’re being encouraged to do is line up with the team so that we can have the political messaging point.”At least for now, though, the United States is almost certain to remain one of only six countries with no national paid leave.“Fundamentally, to provide paid leave, you have to value women and value their work,” Ms. Gillibrand lamented, “and valuing women and their work is a hard thing for the United States.”The last-minute removal of the paid leave program underscored longstanding questions about how it can be that while 186 other countries have such a program, the United States does not.A rally for paid leave near the White House. The United States is one of only six countries that do not provide some sort of national paid leave.Valerie Plesch for The New York TimesMs. Gillibrand was highly skeptical that a bipartisan deal to address the issue was possible. She said she had been developing paid family and medical leave legislation for nearly a decade, had sought out numerous Republican and business partners, and had always found the parties too ideologically divided.But the issue driving interest in both parties — bringing more women into the work force and keeping them there — has only grown more acute since the coronavirus pandemic hit.White House officials say 95 percent of the lowest-wage workers lack any paid leave, and they are predominantly women and people of color. Some five million women lost their jobs during the pandemic, and many of them, struggling with access to child care and bedeviled by intermittent school closures and periodic Covid-19 outbreaks, have opted not to return.Mr. Trump campaigned on the issue and included six weeks of federally paid leave in his budgets, which were ignored by Republican leaders. Congressional Republicans had their own ideas. Legislation introduced in 2019 by Senators Sinema and Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana, and Representatives Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, and Colin Allred, Democrat of Texas, would offer new parents $5,000 during the first year of their baby’s life, which they would repay over the decade through cuts to their child tax credit.The Republican senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Mitt Romney of Utah, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah similarly proposed offering workers parental leave benefits that would have to be repaid — with interest — through cuts in their Social Security retirement benefits.Senator Deb Fischer, Republican of Nebraska, championed and secured more modest legislation — tucked into the Republican tax cuts of 2017 — that gave small businesses a tax credit to fund family leave. She argued against broader versions, since many companies already offer employees paid leave.“If you have two or three employees, you cannot afford to do paid family leave because you can’t afford to hire somebody to take their place, which is why I think the tax credit that we have in law now is really beneficial,” Ms. Fischer said.According to the White House, fewer than a third of small businesses with 100 or more employees offer paid leave. Only 14 percent with fewer than 50 employees do. Ms. Fischer conceded that few small businesses have taken advantage of her credit, but she blamed the Treasury Department, under Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, for dragging its feet on issuing detailed regulations and promoting it.To Democrats, those proposals are not true leave. They are either loans off other needed benefits or too limited to make a difference. Ms. Gillibrand said that optimally, a stable, generous family and medical leave plan would be an “earned benefit” like Social Security and Medicare: Workers would pay into the system and claim the benefit when they needed it, regardless of where they worked or how much they earned.But, she said, taxing workers has become politically difficult. Her 2013 bill envisioned family and medical leave insurance, financed by a small contribution from employers with each paycheck.This year, the Biden administration and Democratic leaders opted to fund paid leave out of general revenues, bolstered by tax increases on the wealthy and corporations. They said the program was part of a broader “human infrastructure” effort to help children and young parents, which included child care support, a child tax credit and universal prekindergarten — and therefore didn’t need a dedicated funding source.Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, opposed a plan for 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, saying he worried that without a stable revenue source, it would be a drain on the Social Security system.Al Drago for The New York TimesThe House proposal would have guaranteed 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave annually to all workers, in private or government employment, gig work like Uber and Lyft, or self-employment. The benefit would have replaced 85 percent of wages or earnings for the lowest-paid workers, scaling back from there.That generosity was why the plan ran into a roadblock in the Senate. Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, saw an expensive new benefit without a stable revenue source that he worried would end up draining an already stressed Social Security system.Ms. Gillibrand and Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, have pleaded, cajoled and bargained with him. They said a paid leave plan would actually bolster Social Security’s finances by helping women get back to work, where they would pay Social Security taxes, and helping young families have more children, which would bolster the work force of the future. Democrats offered to scale back a 12-week leave plan to four weeks, then to limit it to leave for new babies, not medical emergencies.Mr. Manchin promised to consider the offers, but few are optimistic. Ms. Gillibrand sees societal issues at work. While it is true that virtually every country in the world has a paid leave program, that is somewhat misleading, she said.Most of those countries can afford to offer paid leave because they do not actually expect women to work once they begin having children. Long leave plans help couples get started having children, but most countries then do not help with child care because they assume women will stay home.The U.S. work force relies on women. Mr. Biden’s compromise framework does include generous subsidies for child care starting at birth and for universal prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds. It now lacks the first step: helping parents through pregnancy and childbirth.“What we’re trying to achieve here is the ability of women to work effectively and to be most productive at work,” Ms. Gillibrand said.Advocates say lawmakers should not give up yet. Marc Freedman, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s vice president for employment policy, said the business group had been meeting with congressional offices before the pandemic, pressing for a national paid leave plan to replace the patchwork of state and local government plans popping up.The government would create a minimum benefit that businesses would be allowed to exceed for recruitment and retention, financed by a payroll tax paid by employees. Such a plan would help smaller businesses compete for labor with larger corporations, while offloading some of the burden on companies that already offer leave plans.“We very much want to restart those conversations,” he said.Some Republicans, especially Republican women, say they are ready to join those talks.“It’s an issue we need to address as a nation and look at and get creative with,” said Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, who helped secure paid leave for federal workers.But as with the infrastructure deal struck over the summer, Democrats would not be likely to get all they want. Ms. Capito, for instance, said the plan that Mr. Manchin killed was too generous, with leave beyond care for new babies and sick family members.Ms. Gillibrand said she had already begun outreach. She talked to Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, about an interim step of helping small states pool with larger ones to create regional leave programs. She signaled flexibility on funding the kind of insurance mechanism that Mr. Freedman said the Chamber of Commerce favored.But none of those ideas would happen as quickly as the broad program that Mr. Manchin is opposing, she said.“There is work I can do over the next six months to a year, sure, but will take time,” Ms. Gillibrand concluded. “And it won’t be simple.” More