The Senate will not vote on the Build Back Better (BBB) spending bill this year, though they might take it up again next year. It does not have 50 votes without Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) support, which appears not to be forthcoming. This is a good thing for two reasons. One is inflation. The other is that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and unemployment numbers are well on their way to pre-pandemic levels. A stimulus bill was never needed in the first place. There are policies Congress and state governments should pursue, but more deficit spending is not one of them.
Monetary policy has a much bigger effect on inflation than does fiscal policy, such as stimulus bills. Even so, Build Back Better would likely have added between a quarter and a half a percentage point of inflation on top of what we are seeing now. And it might have lasted for a decade or more, depending on how many of its temporary spending programs would have later been made permanent.
Considering that the Federal Reserve has traditionally targeted 2 percent inflation, BBB would have eaten up a big chunk of its usual inflation “budget.” Inflation is currently at 6.8 percent, the highest since 1982. The Federal Reserve today announced it would taper money supply growth. It will slow down a bond purchasing program and end it altogether in March, and will likely enact a series of up to three interest rate increases during 2022.
Since money supply growth is inflation’s biggest component, high inflation will be with us well into 2022, no matter what Congress does. But BBB-caused inflation on top of that would have made a bad problem even worse.
Manchin, and likely other Senate Democrats, may realize this is not a good look going into the midterm elections. President Jimmy Carter made important accomplishments in trucking and airline deregulation, and he appointed Paul Volcker as Federal Reserve chair, who ultimately slowed down the monetary printing press. But in the popular mind, Carter’s legacy is stagflation. If President Biden wants to avoid sharing Carter’s legacy, he should be quietly happy that his signature legislation is now on ice. He should see to it that it stays that way.
Biden should also avoid interfering with the Fed as it works to taper down today’s inflation. Since inflation can spark a temporary boom, politicians have always been tempted to put pressure on the Fed to goose the numbers a little leading into an election. (Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were particularly egregious in this regard, as Peter J. Boettke, Alexander William Salter, and Daniel J. Smith argue in their book Money and the Rule of Law.) But the tradeoff of an inflationary boom now is a bust later.
There is no guarantee that Congress and President Biden will learn the right lesson. When inflation’s temporary stimulus effect wears off, policy makers are tempted to reach for the bottle again, rather than risk a hangover recession and hurt their chances for another term in office. This short-term thinking is what led to the 1970s stagflation. Had the process continued longer than it did, the result could have been Argentina-esque. It is crucial that today, Congress and President Biden respect the Fed’s nominal independence.
Fortunately, inflation is unpopular with the public. And economic fundamentals are in reasonably good shape, which means there is no need for inflationary stimulus. People hunkered down when COVID-19 hit, and are opening up when they feel safe—and when regulations allow them to. We aren’t through it yet, and it’s too early to tell how much effect the omicron variant will have. But the COVID recession had no stock market crash, no financial crisis, no housing bubble, no savings and loan scandal, or any other underlying economic illness. Traditional Keynesian stimulus does not apply to today’s economy. Build Back Better might be the biggest example of a #NeverNeeded policy yet.
The best thing that can be said about Build Back Better is that it was fighting the last battle, not the current one. Less charitably, Build Back Better was essentially a Democratic version of the PATRIOT Act, in which policy makers used a crisis as an excuse to put a bunch of longstanding wish-list items into a bill, and then market it as a must-pass crisis response. Not only would BBB have increased inflation, it would have used up more than $1 trillion dollars of resources that almost certainly have better uses than paying political favors—most of them COVID-unrelated.
GDP is already back to where it would have been had COVID never happened. Today’s ultra-low 4.2 percent unemployment rate looks better than it is, because many people are staying out of workforce, either for safety reasons or because they are content living off of savings for a little while longer. But even accounting for that, employment is in decent shape, and labor force participation is trending back to pre-COVID levels. Job openings are there for the taking—though rapid inflation is making it difficult for employers and employees to figure out fair wage rates.
Congress will instead turn its attention to other issues, such as voting rights. But it turns out there are policies Congress can pursue to fight inflation from the supply side. Money is growing faster than goods and services, causing higher prices. Removing regulatory obstacles to making goods and services will help to bring money and goods back into balance.
President Trump doubled tariffs, and President Biden is pursuing nearly identical trade policies. Scrapping those barriers alone would help unclog supply networks while lowering prices on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of goods, from big items like cars and houses to children’s toys and clothing.
There is no good reason for truckers to have a minimum age of 21 during a shortage when there are 18-year-olds perfectly able to do the job well.
U.S. ports operate at roughly half the efficiency of more modern ports like Rotterdam, which is open 24/7 and is heavily automated. While there isn’t much Congress can do about this, the biggest obstacle here are labor union contracts. These need to be modernized to avoid another supply network crisis and keep the U.S. shipping industry up to global standards. However, Congress can repeal the 1920 Jones Act, which attempts to protect the U.S. shipping industry but instead has reduced it to an uncompetitive rump of its former self.
Similar Buy American-style regulations requiring U.S.-flagged ships to dredge U.S. ports are why many ports are badly behind on dredging projects, and are unable to host many modern container ships.
Over a quarter of U.S. jobs now require some sort of occupational license from the government. Sixty years ago, it was 5 percent. Federal, state, and local governments need to get rid of unnecessary licenses that prevent willing people from creating more goods and services. Besides being the right thing to do, it would help to fight inflation.
None of these policies has the attention-grabbing cachet of a trillion-dollar piece of legislation. But unlike the BBB, they would stimulate new economic growth and help get inflation back under control.