Joe Biden, Soul Man

In 2017, Joe Biden witnessed the ugly “Unite the Right” events in Charlottesville, events that occurred after then-president Trump emboldened white supremacists with his apparent support. Biden realized that “we are living through a battle for the soul of this nation,” asking Americans to rise to the challenge. He has said that his decision to run for President began because of Charlottesville.

We all understand what it is to have a soul. Our definitions might vary, depending on whether we’re religious, or philosophical, or simply a fan of the Pixar movie that looks deep into the idea (after its creators consulted with dozens of spiritual leaders to get it right). We can probably all agree at least that the “soul” represents life’s moral center. Even if we could agree on what a soul is, how on earth (or wherever) can a government put the “soul” into action? How does a country provide “soul support”?

Through President Biden’s policies, we’re starting to understand what he means. Yes, the American Rescue Act and the now-proposed American Jobs Act look a lot like other big legislative initiatives to solve America’s problems. Legislation like this succeeds by subsidizing activities only the federal government can afford and by ensuring compliance only the government can enforce. 

There’s a lot of funding for, say, vaccine procurement and distribution in the relief bill, because these expenditures solve the most vexing problem we have right now -- this pandemic. But if you look deeper into the soul of the legislation, you’ll find more.

Here’s one example from Center on Poverty & Social Policy at Columbia University, about the American Rescue Act (the relief bill that is already law), which is expected to cut child poverty in half

“The program’s impact probably will be profound. It expands the federal child-rearing subsidy by 50 percent — and parents of toddlers will get even more...The parents of 90 percent of the country’s children will benefit, and millions of children will be lifted from poverty, according to analysts. Crucially, the new money takes the form of cash payments, not tax cuts, so even people who don’t make enough to pay taxes will get aid.”

It isn’t an accident that this bill was crafted to target those who have been hit hardest — with cash, not tax cuts. In fact, Biden administration policies are designed to “weave together racial justice, gender equity, and other dimensions of equity to ensure that they lift up every single community and leave no one behind.”

So for example, the vaccination program contains provisions to address health disparities in underserved areas, including those on tribal lands and in minority communities. The bill provides support for the hardest-hit small businesses, especially those owned by entrepreneurs of color.

Lawmaking for the neediest, rather than the greediest, apparently. Now that federal policy incorporates our moral obligation to others, it’s starting to look like America has a soul again.

Now there's a new proposal, the American Jobs Plan. It’s often described as an infrastructure plan, and historically we talk about infrastructure as if it’s only buildings and facilities. But the full definition of infrastructure is “the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g., buildings, roads, and power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise”. It’s broader than highways and bridges.

For an explanation, here's Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg: “We’re talking about roads and bridges, we’re talking about rail and transit, we’re talking about airports and ports. As you mentioned, we’re talking about things like the grid,” Buttigieg said. “I don’t know why anybody would say it’s a mistake to invest in the grid after what we just witnessed in Texas. We saw U.S. citizens, living in Texas, melting snow in their bathtubs to be able to flush their toilets, in the United States of America.”

Sure, the way to meet the goals of this legislation is to fund a variety of projects, just like any law. But hidden in this plan is also the infrastructure that builds America’s moral foundation. Let’s take a look inside (headings verbatim from the White House summary):

Fix highways, rebuild bridges, upgrade ports, airports and transit systems

Highways and airports will get needed help, and that benefits everyone. But the plan fixes the ten most economically significant bridges in the country, and it repairs the worst 10,000 smaller bridges. It also funds replacements and expansions of transit and rail. The wealthy don’t depend on these, but they are critical for rural and tribal communities and for the working class everywhere.

Deliver clean drinking water, a renewed electric grid, and high-speed broadband to all Americans.

More than 2 million people in the US, including Puerto Rico, don’t have access to running water and basic indoor plumbing, especially Latino and Black households. The law provides hundreds of thousands of jobs in the energy sector, providing work for today and skills for the future. Investments in the grid reduce emissions, costs, and security vulnerabilities. And the plan proposes to reduce inequities in access to broadband, now as vital to American life as any other utility.

Build, preserve, and retrofit more than two million homes and commercial buildings, modernize our nation’s schools and child care facilities, and upgrade veterans’ hospitals and federal buildings.

Building and retrofitting housing targets overlooked and underserved communities for affordable and modernized housing for low- and middle-income homebuyers. The plan eliminates exclusionary zoning laws. It provides long-due funds to repair public housing. The plan also improves federal facilities, especially those that give back what we can for our veterans.

Solidify the infrastructure of our care economy by creating jobs and raising wages and benefits for essential home care workers.

Most of these workers are women of color, and they have been underpaid and barely noticed until the pandemic heightened our recognition. It’s one thing to applaud and appreciate essential workers who are protecting our loved ones. That’s great. But this bill will help to pay them. And expanded access to long-term care under Medicaid means that there can soon be more of them. 

Revitalize manufacturing, secure U.S. supply chains, invest in R&D, and train Americans for the jobs of the future.

The focus of the bill is to provide well-paying middle-class jobs. But it’s not just replicating the jobs lost to the pandemic. It’s an opportunity to prepare workers for the future — jobs in sustainable industries, jobs in technology, and entrepreneurial opportunities. Half of the $40 billion investment in research infrastructure will be reserved for Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs) and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), including a new HBCU-affiliated national lab focused on climate.

Create good-quality jobs that pay prevailing wages in safe and healthy workplaces while ensuring workers have a free and fair choice to organize, join a union, and bargain collectively with their employers.

If anything has been clear this year, it is that workers deserve safe and healthy workplaces. In fact, even if your own job isn’t in a factory, you were probably affected when factories adapted to the disruptions of the pandemic. Maybe office workers can change their office-to-virtual work hour profile, but manufacturing the food we eat and the products we enjoy requires the presence of workers, and thus it demands workplace safety and continuity.

The plan spells out both what to do and how to do it. The first part addresses the infrastructure and jobs objectives. But the second part — how to do it — that’s where it’s possible to focus on rural communities, address inequities, confront the climate crisis, and fight for the working class. The following are just a few examples of how to build back better (as in “for the good”):

Serve rural and low-income communities: Regional innovation hubs will be located (through a Community Revitalization Fund) in communities of color and rural communities that have historically been overlooked. A Rural Partnership Program will empower rural regions, including Tribal Nations.

Reduce systemic inequities: Provisions in the plan direct economic opportunities to traditionally underserved workers, including women, people of color, formerly incarcerated individuals, and workers with disabilities. Investments include a workforce development infrastructure and worker protection, such as apprenticeships and career pathway programs in middle schools and high schools.

Confront the climate crisis: Investments will use sustainable and innovative materials, such as cleaner steel and cement. This invests in the present and the future, in sustainability, job training, and boosting green entrepreneurial markets.

Fight for the working class: The plan requires that the employers that benefit from these investments reciprocate with strong labor standards, remain neutral to union organizing, and provide pathways for their workers to the middle class.

There’s more soul to find as we explore the plan. These investments need to be funded, and this plan accomplishes that primarily through additional corporate taxes, by raising the rate and by closing several loopholes. It rolls back part of the 2017 tax cut, raising the tax on corporations from 21% to 28%. It discourages offshoring by requiring even overseas divisions to pay a minimum tax of 21 percent, even in tax havens.

Said a different way: those companies that are thrilled to take in the revenues from all of us will finally pay taxes on their US income like the rest of us do.

The plan closes several loopholes, and it provides for enforcement by returning to more frequent auditing. The underfunded IRS once audited large corporations annually; the audit rate has fallen to below 50 percent. It’s an open secret in Washington — the IRS would be the best rainmaker they have, if they’d be willing to use it. The challenge is that the donors who don’t like taxes and fees use lobbyists and deliver campaign funds to lawmakers, so funding the auditors isn't a high priority. It’s the circle of life, but it sorely needs some sunshine in the form of regular audits, and maybe a cop.

Funding through higher corporate taxes demonstrates a return to a time when corporations better understood that our nation’s infrastructure — highways, airports, even our schools — provide a distribution network for their materials, skills for their employees, and access for their customers. Corporate taxes represent one way for businesses to give back to their hosting communities. It's egregious that some American companies legally pay none at all.

A recent exchange between Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace and Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) illustrates how opinions on paying for infrastructure and improvements might vary. Blunt suggested that gas taxes should fund highways (while recognizing that some new tax structure would be needed to include electric vehicles.) He suggested public-private partnerships, which often involve tolls (paid by users, as are taxes on fuel.).

Wallace responded. “When President Trump came in, it was 35%, so it’s still a tax cut from where it was in 2017.” The White House is going to say the Republicans are “protecting the fat cats and putting it all on the backs of the working class.”

It’s not only Fox News Sunday that can see the morality of funding this bill through corporate taxes rather than additional direct and indirect costs to consumers due to mileage taxes. The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities wrote: “Asking corporations to pay a fairer share recognizes that corporations accrue enormous benefits from federal investments in everything from infrastructure to education to medical research. Opponents of raising taxes on highly profitable corporations often ignore the benefits of the investments financed with the revenues.”

Center-right opinion columnist David Brooks reacted to the plan during his April 2 weekly appearance on PBS NewsHour: “...if you ask me to tell the economic story of America over the last 50 years, I would say that we have built a gigantic funnel that has funneled money and resources and wealth to highly educated people in large metro areas. This plan funnels money to all the people who are not in those categories. And so I think it rebalances our society in an important way...So, given the circumstances, I overcome my incredibly high aversion to all this debt.”

If your interest is restoring the soul of the nation, there’s no better place to start than legislation. And if you think that the soul should revolve around inclusion, opportunity at the lowest rungs of the ladder, and equity for all Americans, this isn’t about right and left. It’s about right and wrong.