When I was young, I loved when my father would take us all fishing and crabbing along the Jersey shore. We loved spending time together, but fishing was often an outing that I never failed to notice was, to my youthful sensibilities, boring. But my father insisted that aside from the fun of being together as a family, there was a larger lesson that could be learned from fishing: the virtue of patience.
I’m likely not alone in my impression that the pace of our lives in recent years – especially, during the Covid-19 global pandemic — has been both exhausting and relentless. Covid has not only resulted in the tragic deaths of over 750,000 of our fellow Americans, it also illuminated our nation’s social economic inequalities. It’s not hyperbole to say that in 2021 the United States stands at a precipice, buffeted by domestic political polarization, racial resentments, geopolitical threats from nations like China – and what we really, truly need – is some good, old fashioned American unity.
And maybe, a little good news for a change!
President Biden won office in 2020 by campaigning on enacting progressive economic legislation intended to unify the country and benefit blue-collar, middle-class Americans. Thus far what he’s been able to push through Congress includes:
- The Covid Stimulus package (ARPA) bill – legislation that put directed $1,400 payments to millions of Americans, funded enhancements and extensions of State unemployment benefits, education funding, and financial aid to entire business sectors that were reeling from the economic fallout of the pandemic.
- The “Bipartisan Infrastructure” bill – a $1 trillion investment that will be used to rebuild America’s roads, bridges and rails, expand access to clean drinking water, ensure every American has access to high-speed internet, tackle the climate crisis, advance environmental justice, and invest in communities that have too often been left behind.
- The Build Back Better Act – This pending legislation will provide highly popular investments in America’s human infrastructure (e.g., preschool, childcare, elder care, addressing climate change, strengthens the middle class, etc.,) and it’s paid for.
These are bold – and highly-popular – legislative accomplishments written to direct desperately needed money into neglected parts of our country that have been struggling for decades. Estimates are that over 80 percent of all the new jobs created by the two infrastructure plans will provide millions of Americans with good living wages and benefits in careers that will not require a college degree.
While it can – and usually does — take a good deal of time for allocated federal policy funding to materialize into tangible public results, the $1.9 trillion (American Rescue Plan Act, ARPA) package passed in March 2021 has already proven to have been remarkably successful. It may not get much press coverage but the US gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to be about 5 percent this quarter, unemployment is falling toward pre-pandemic levels (the government sharply underestimated job gains for most of 2021, including four months this summer in which it missed more job growth than at any other time on record), retail sales are surging, and nearly two-thirds of Americans recently polled feel their household’s financial situation is “good.” These are all positive indicators as the US economy battles back from the upheaval of Covid-19.
It also bodes well for what we can expect once the bipartisan infrastructure funding comes on line next year.
But, as anyone who’s bought gas lately can tell you, there’s also a downside to this kind of heated economic recovery: inflation. The hottest item of economic news this month has been the hardships Americans now face at the gas pump, shortages of products and rising prices at our grocery stores, along with the perennial worries about the soaring costs of home heating oil as the holidays approach.
Consumer prices in the US have risen 6.2 percent over the past year and while this is indeed steep – and painful for many of us – it is important to note that it’s by no means historic. I think it’s even more important to understand the context of these inflationary surges in the prices we pay for our food and fuel in the near term, and what they’ll mean going forward as our economic recovery gains steam.
America’s rising commodity costs aren’t unique as proven by the fact that inflation is also surging elsewhere around the world. European inflation rates have spiked for the same reasons it’s higher here: the pricing of food, oil and natural gas (commodities that are set in world markets) have risen sharply everywhere due largely to the pandemic’s impacts on global supply chains.
During the worst of the pandemic, people everywhere stopped spending on services like air-travel, hospitality, gyms, beauty salons, concerts, sporting events and dining out and instead began shopping online for more durable stuff like household goods, appliances, and electronics. This shift in spending from services to “stuff” overstressed the ports, trucking and warehousing facilities.
The fact that everyone everywhere is having similar inflationary problems indicates that federal policy is playing less of a role than one might think. And it raises the question of what, if anything, the United States should be doing differently. Most economists will agree that there aren’t a lot of tools the federal government can wield in an inflationary phase this widespread; the Federal Reserve can raise interest rates, or a president may tap into the strategic petroleum reserves if fuel prices skyrocket. But in our current case, crude oil supply and refining capacity aren’t the issue, it’s supply chain bottlenecks and the vagaries of Covid outbreaks in other countries that are unpredictable and disruptive.
In October, President Biden met with shipping companies, mega-retailers and numerous union leaders to work through supply chain bottlenecks. By moving to keep major ports like LA and Long Beach, CA staffed and running 24-hours per day, 7 days per week Port operators have seen an improvement of about 25% in the offloading of cargo in recent weeks. Again, these are unprecedented times and it will simply take time – likely well into 2022 — until port throughput returns to a pre-pandemic predictability.
Given the cataclysmic disruptions that the pandemic caused to economies worldwide, I think we should at the very least acknowledge the stabilizing actions our federal government’s taken during the past 16 months. The fiscal stimulus packages authorized by Congress kept millions of families in their homes while bolstering personal incomes enough to allow many to set aside money for savings.
Last week, the treasury department sent out another monthly payment to the families of 61 million eligible children under the child tax credit that Democrats expanded under the American Rescue Plan. Since March 2021, ARPA has delivered $77 billion to families across America which, in turn, enables them to buy necessities that pumps money into our economy. That’s good news.
Also last week, President Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, legislation crafted by both Democrats and Republicans that will ease inflationary pressures and strengthen supply chains by investing $1 trillion in long overdue improvements for our nation’s ports, airports, railways, and public roads. It will drive the creation of good-paying union jobs and grow the economy equitably so that every American gets the benefits of these investments for decades to come. That’s even better news!
Combined with the proposed Build Back Better legislation (passed by the House last week), these two infrastructure acts together will add on average 1.5 million new jobs each year for the next decade. With these investments, America can retain its preeminent role on the international stage. That’s great news.
So, if we can agree that 1) the actions of our Federal government has taken the prudent and necessary steps of both shoring up the financial solvency of our people with ARPA, and 2) aggressively moved to distribute and freely vaccinate as many Americans who are willing to be vaccinated with the goal of moving the nation and the world forward to some semblance of normalcy, while also 3) investing trillions in targeted infrastructure spending guaranteed to result in safer roads, bridges, ports and beneficial social improvements that will create millions of well-paying jobs for years or decades to come – might we then possibly conclude that what’s most important point is not to overreact to current events?
It will take time to sort things out — more time than most people would like. But, as an exhausted, mostly-vaccinated America begins to look forward to reuniting with loved ones over the upcoming holiday season, I’d like to borrow a page from my father’s playbook and suggest that as a nation, we remember what it is like to simply enjoy spending time together, and have a little patience.