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Is This Infrastructure?

Last week, the Biden administration proposed a mammoth $2 trillion jobs plan of such vast scale and ambition it is difficult to summarize. It covers everything from upgrading the country’s public and private transportation systems, housing stock, schools, child care facilities, ports, water pipes, hospitals, manufacturing capabilities, supply chains, and increasing wages for home care workers among many other things. To encompass this wide array of incredibly important aspects of modern human existence and lacking a better term to do so, the Biden administration uses the word “infrastructure.”

There are many questions to be asked about this plan, which, if passed by Congress in anything remotely resembling its proposed form, would transform American life. Should we be spending $174 billion in electric vehicle incentives—a subsidy for massively profitable automakers and upper-middle class Americans—when a fraction of that could provide frequent, reliable bus service to the majority of Americans instead? Is $45 billion to eliminate lead pipes a realistic number, or will it require much more? Will the $100 billion to provide every American high speed broadband access be used as a handout to telecoms that have terrible track records with similar programs? Or will it be used to create municipally-owned networks with much better track records?

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Alas, these are not the types of questions we’re seeing explored in the week after Biden’s announcement. Republicans have successfully driven a counter-narrative focusing on one argument: Biden’s proposal isn’t really “infrastructure.”

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Many media outlets, pundits, and politicians have dutifully engaged Republicans on this talking point. To name just a few examples: Democratic congresspeople Katie Porter, Jamaal Bowman, Cindy Axne and Katherine Clark have all argued child care is in fact infrastructure. The New York Times’s massively popular podcast The Daily did an episode on this question as well.

They all fell for it, oscillating to the familiar rhythms of the both-sides trap as is customary.

No one, not even most Republicans, is attempting to argue that this plan fails to directly address dire needs in the American economy. It is speaking to some of the most basic gaps in living a decent life: affordable and sustainable housing, reliable and convenient transportation, healthy living with social support, and a self-reliant economy that can provide for its people in good times and bad. Who can argue against refurbishing schools that poison children’s air through antiquated boiler systems? Who is coming out against funding new hospitals in underserved areas? Who will be the one to bravely take a stand for lead poisoning?

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Indeed, Republicans have no substantive objection to this plan as a broad initiative, because there isn’t one to be had. Mitch McConnell bloviates about corporate tax rates—which, by the way, would still be lower than in 2016—a deeply unsympathetic talking point during a global pandemic in which big corporations have profited handsomely and many Americans struggle to pay bills. Plus, McConnell’s position is increasingly irrelevant given the likelihood Democrats can move ahead with the bulk of this plan without a single Republican vote.

So, instead, Republicans have successfully changed the terms of the question from “is this good for the country?” to the question of what “infrastructure” means. The only reasonable response to that question is: who cares?

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I have lived my entire life in a country that, broadly speaking, considers itself the “greatest country in the world” but cannot build a high speed train, get poisonous substances out of its water pipes, run frequent and reliable bus service in its cities, fix potholes, provide equal access to quality education to all of its children, solve its decades-long health care crisis, allow women to be both mothers and workers thanks to affordable child care, allow all households to pay a reasonable rate for reliable internet access, or make progress on any number of other issues. Meanwhile, we look abroad and see other nations have made significant progress on these issues generations ago and continue to improve. Is it infrastructure? It doesn’t matter.

Or, as transportation secretary Pete Butteigeg put it, “If it’s a good policy, vote for it and call it what you like.”

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