In This Episode
This week on Rubicon, Brian Beutler talks to The Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal about President Biden’s coming*$3 trillion economic reform package, which would fund infrastructure, green jobs, child and elder care, and community college. They talk about the bill’s chances of passing Congress, whether it warrants comparisons to FDR’s New Deal, and whether and how it would cement Biden’s legacy.
[clip of President Biden] Do I look like a socialist? Look at my career. My whole career. I am not a socialist.
Brian Beutler: Joe Biden didn’t begin his candidacy wanting to be a transformational president.
[clip of President Biden] Americans aren’t looking for revolution. They’re looking for “tell me how you’re going to help me with my health care, tell me how you’ll make me safer.”
Brian Beutler: Before coronaviruses existed, he situated himself on the right of the primary field. He embraced centrism as both a governing doctrine and a political strategy. He contemplated cutting deals with Republicans, wistfully recalling his early days in elected office when the Senate was a clubbier place. He even told donors not to worry. His plans wouldn’t ask too much of them.
[clip of Stephen Colbert] Biden spoke at a private fundraiser earlier this week, and told the big donors that he didn’t want to demonize the wealthy and added that under his presidency, “no one’s standard of living will change – nothing will fundamentally change.” [laughter]
Brian Beutler: Something fundamentally did change, though.
[news clip] As the US faces record daily coronavirus deaths, the CDC predicts over 80,000 more people could die from the virus by the end of January.
[clip] We’ve now learned that more than 33 million Americans have lost their jobs in seven weeks.
[clip] The unemployment rate soaring to nearly 15% – the highest since the Great Depression.
Brian Beutler: After coronavirus spread unchecked through the country and the economy collapsed. The noises out of the Biden campaign took on a decidedly different tone. By May of last year, his advisers cast aside their “don’t rock the boat” mantra in favor of a new one, that Biden would plan an FDR-sized presidency. That makes Biden the only Democrat I can think of, who tacked to the center during the primary, then to the left during the general election campaign, rather than the other way around. But there was good reason for it. It would’ve been very strange if faced with the trauma of a once-a-century pandemic, Biden’s platform and rhetoric didn’t change at all. But how much did it change? What’s in Biden’s so-called Build Back Better plan? And if it passes, will it be enough to place him in the pantheon of great presidents. Or, in the face of the gravest national crises in decades, will we look back and say he should have thought bigger? My guest this week is Mike Konczal. He’s Director of Progressive Thought at, aptly enough, The Roosevelt Institute, and author of the new book, Freedom from the Market. He’s given a lot of thought to what this moment in history demands of the government, and whether Biden’s biggest plans for the future meet those demands. I’m Brian Beutler. Welcome to Rubicon.
Brian Beutler: Mike Konczal, thanks for joining us.
Mike Konczal: Thanks for having me on.
Brian Beutler: So let’s start by setting a baseline for listeners. What were your general thoughts during the Democratic primary, but before Coronavirus arrived and after, about the candidates potential to put the country on a different, better trajectory? And I’m thinking particularly of Joe Biden on the one hand, and Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders representing the other poll.
Mike Konczal: It’s interesting because so much changed, obviously, after COVID, both for our lives, but also for the policy discussion. So before that, you know, the economy was humming along pretty well. Having, President Trump had inherited a very good economy, had bolstered it with more spending, and unemployment had gotten below 4% for about two years. With unemployment getting low, the question really became about more systemic problems, things like massive inequality, things like climate change, things like racial equity, these kind like really big meta questions. And then with COVID, those questions still were on the table, but survival and getting people through a really difficult pandemic was also moving along with them.
Brian Beutler: So I take it then that from your perspective, the candidates with the most responsive answers to what the country needed before coronavirus were further to the left of the field, and then after coronavirus, the situation kind of became a little bit more jumbled because there was this pressing need to address the crisis.
Mike Konczal: Yeah, absolutely. And I think once once Joe Biden won the nomination in March and April, two really notable things happened that I think are very interesting, especially if you’re a political junkie. One is that Biden the candidate moved much further to the left on policy. His promises became much more bold and aggressive. Part of that, I think, was because the needs were so great, and because big things were happening and needed to happen in response to coronavirus. And second is that I think people understood that it was a pretty historic moment, that whoever was going to win the presidency in late 2020 was going to walk into an economy that needed to be rebuilt. And that a lot of really deep problems with the way we arrange work and care and the long term survivability of our economy—those we’re going to have to be addressed in pretty fundamental ways. So I think there’s a real sense from him and his team that he wanted it to be a New Deal moment. You heard that a lot in mid-2020.
[clip of Andrew Yang] To say that he was light on policy, I think that might have been true early on in this campaign, as someone who ran against Joe . . . but tonight it was a very, very different speech that emphasized that we do need a new New Deal.
Mike Konczal: And second, sometime in the fall, late summer, he proposed something called Build Back Better, which was a pretty sweeping reinvention of climate, of manufacturing and trade and care work. But I don’t think it got the attention that it probably deserved. There’s a lot of reasons for this, the craziness of the campaign and Trump himself, a lot of that mainstream coverage didn’t really take Biden’s proposals as care or seriously as maybe they should have. Because a lot of experts were saying Joe Biden’s plans are just spend five trillion dollars next year in 2021, and so far, he has spent two trillion with the American Rescue Plan. And the Build Back Better proposal that is being floated right now is three trillion dollars. So a lot of this stuff was choreographed well in advance, though I don’t think a lot of people quite caught how historic it was.
Brian Beutler: So, you know, correcting for coronavirus, living through a pandemic and everything else—sounds like you’ve been pleasantly surprised about where Biden landed on the big questions.
Mike Konczal: Yeah. Absolutely. So I think we should take a moment and really understand how important the American Rescue Plan was. There is a lot of pressure from moderates to roll back the scale of it, on the assumption that the recovery might happen too fast or might be so fast that it becomes distorted, or like—a lot of people reenacting a lot of 2009 and 2010s-era economic advice, which was that: like don’t go too fast, like keep it, keep balance in mind. And I feel like a lot of Democrats got burned by that, though it’s very easy for a White House to derail that that kind of bold agenda. You know, the fact that they kept the headline number and the ambition at the scale and did not roll it back—you know a lot of people who are following the American Rescue Plan in January really did think it was going to lose a third of its value, or that, you know, Senator Manchin or some others were going to take a huge bite of it. And it did get rolled back in certain ways and most notably, the Senate parliamentarian, unfortunately, removed the minimum wage from it. But the level and scale that went through I still think is just a total 180 from the last time Democrats found themselves in this situation.
Brian Beutler: Let’s talk about the question of legacy. It’s obviously premature to talk about Biden’s legacy nine weeks into the administration, but I’ve been thinking about how all these things add up to a potential for him to be entered into the pantheon of great presidents, or to not arise to the moment. In terms of ingredients, he needs to understand the challenges the country faces correctly. He needs to propose solutions that match the challenges, and then he needs to execute, right? He needs to get them passed by Congress and implement them well. And to dial back the clock to before the Rescue Plan, the first thing that made me think he was laying a good foundation for all that, was the way that he and his advisers did and didn’t talk about deficits. Did that surprise you, and what did you make of the departure from the sort of prior conventional wisdom?
Mike Konczal: If you watch the way Democrats had fought against the Trump tax cuts in late 2017, you’ll notice there was a really conscious effort to make sure that it wasn’t that Donald Trump is ransoming our future, or these tax cuts are terrible because we can’t afford them. It was that they’re really unfair, they go to people who already have way too much. That was done by a lot of work, by activists and scholars, to really say: we need to think about where that does and does not matter, and we should not always have this kind of hysterical reaction to it. I think a lot of the debt, a lot of the people who were trying to prioritize deficits really overplayed their hand during the Obama years: that you were going to have a real crisis, a collapse in governance within a few years unless President Obama did a grand bargain and did all these other kinds of things. Which did not happen and then we did not have a crisis. Interest rates still remained low for the rest of the decade. So there was already some work built into that. That said, I think thinking the language President Biden and the people around him are using, things like:
[clip of President Biden] We can’t do too much here. We can do too little. We can do too little and sputter.
Mike Konczal: —that implies that things like full employment matter a lot more than just worrying about the deficit. That it does reflect a real change, a change that had been happening for a while, but it doesn’t happen until it happens. And one of the reasons there is so many problems in the early part of the Obama era, this era, is that a lot of that hysteria came from within the White House and we’re not seeing it this time. And I think that’s really important.
Brian Beutler: I mean, to the contrary, Joe Biden himself talks about deficits as something that we should welcome as long as there’s need in the country and interest rates are low. And I just I have not heard that kind of, you know, basically like straightforward, pragmatic thinking about what deficits are for out of Democratic leaders for my whole adult life. So it really struck me as a departure. You know, I take your point that there was a lot of effort put in by scholars and activists to get there. I was just sort of taken with the fact that it landed and here you have the president elect talking about running deficits to help people.
Mike Konczal: Yeah. As an investment, which they are. Which is the right way to think about it. And it’s also politically, like people understand when you talk about deficits as an investment, especially at this moment where we need to rebuild so much.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. So like the corollary to that is how confident should we be that this is a permanent change in thinking, and not one that will give way to the old thinking once the crisis has passed?
Mike Konczal: So I think what we’re talking about moments like these, like in 2010, and you want to think about recovery and reform as two distinct enterprises that often pull in different directions. And so I think we, you know, President Biden is very clear he wanted a recovery bill and a reform bill. And the recovery bill has passed, the American Rescue Plan. And it’s, it’s good. It’s like, it’s importantly at the scale of the challenges and the scale of the problem, which is not normally how we’ve seen things happen in the last couple of decades. The fact that you have a president enacting policy explicitly on the idea that unemployment should be low, people should be able to find jobs, we should run the economy at a strong and even a heated position, is definitely a legacy. And if it works, and I believe it will, I think it will change that conversation for the better. However, that is limited in the context of, you know, we’re no longer in this hole that we had from the pandemic. The real legacy will be in reform. And there I think the vision is on point.
Brian Beutler [narrating]: Here’s what Mike means when he says reform—wonks like him generally use that term to describe overhauls of, or improvements to, discrete areas of policy: health care reform, financial regulatory reform. It’s not normally how we describe emergency bills like the American Rescue Plan, or infrastructure spending bills as the Build Back Better framework has been described. But beyond dispensing cash to pay for roads and bridges and rural broadband, Build Back Better will likely include permanent changes to how government subsidizes health insurance and child care and protects labor and the environment. It would change how the government works for people. You know, reform.
Brian Beutler: On this question of the political viability of this better new thinking about deficits, the old conventional wisdom was that quote unquote “fiscal responsibility was essential because the government needed to have spare capacity in the event of a crisis and then the pandemic showed up and and taught us all how backwards that was. Right? Like, we had no trouble shoveling trillions of dollars out the door when people were need. But we were also able to see how much better things might have been if the government hadn’t been stripped of parts over decades. So that to me, adds up to a pretty strong public case that the old thinking was wrong. But I can still sort of very easily imagine how the old CW might come roaring back, right? If Republicans start pretending to care about deficits again, and the business lobby joins them, and reporters echo it, and then moderate Democrats start to lose their spines a little, and then the Biden administration caves and suddenly we’re right back to 2011 or something like that. Are you worried about that at all?
Mike Konczal: Yes, I am. I am worried. It is definitely something on my radar. I mean, I think people forget how strong the Dickensian moment of early 2009 was and how quickly it crumbled the next two years. There’s a lot of things that are different about that right now, but there’s still the potential for it to come roaring back and in a bad way. A couple of things that I think will be, a couple signs of optimism: one is that it doesn’t seem to be coming from the White House, which is good. A lot of the people in the White House, people like Heather Boushey and Jared Bernstein, help cut their teeth during the Obama years and understanding what a weak recovery it was. And electeds like Chuck Schumer and many others have talked about how they got it wrong in the early 2010s, that they were too worried about the deficit and not worried enough about a swift recovery—not realizing that the swift recovery does help a lot with the debt, because as the economy grows, debt to GDP ratios fall, people are working they’re generating more economic activity, which is better for taxes. And I think there’s a leadership that understands one: that they got it wrong, they got the relative weighting of those two issues wrong. And two: the cynicism of the Republicans and the kind of the hypocritical way that they use the debt and deficit during the Obama years versus when they were in office—and from the sidelines, like you can see that that was very obvious that they would do that, but I do think a lot of electeds felt actually pretty betrayed by that, particularly by the size and scale of the Trump tax cuts, which was probably about a trillion or a trillion and a half more than people thought it might have been in the first couple of days of the Trump era. So, you know, those things add up, and people do have memories on this. And so I think that that is a sign of strength that this might endure. And separately, a strong recovery will matter a lot. And if we have big job growth through the rest of the year, you know, like that’s electeds seeing something work, which is ultimately how things continue, is by seeing them work.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. This point about the key Democrats kind of being snake-bit by the sort of Republican bait and switch on all this stuff, that sort of you pretend to care about deficits when Democrats are in charge and you immediately revert when a Republican wins, and you revert right back without ever bothering to explain yourself. I feel like I’m surprised in a way, at the extent to which that is just explicitly how Democrats talk about it now, and we are not going to be fooled again. And then I think kind of ironically, the presence of Trump is this sort of defeated but not fully vanquished foe, makes it hard for Republicans because they can’t sweep him under the rug the way they did George W. Bush and put together a new band of young guns, and then say: we just lost our way under Trump and so now we’re getting back to our true roots of being fiscally-responsible conservatives, and demanding that Joe Biden tighten his belt, and all that stuff. Democrats seem to have learned their lessons, but Republicans seem surprisingly unable to execute their own strategy of just ping-ponging between caring about deficits and not caring about it.
Mike Konczal: Yeah, definitely. There’s no equivalent of Paul Ryan or someone who, or the center of the intellectual energy being around the idea that you need to radically scale back government spending in the way the Ryan plan did. And it’s we talk about the Ryan plan as kind of like a punch line now, and felt like it’s sort of silly because they got in office and they couldn’t do any of it, except cut taxes. But at the time, in 2010, it was a big deal, like they wanted to privatize Social Security. They tried to do that under Bush. They wanted to block Grant Medicare—or Medicaid, they wanted to voucher’ize Medicare. They wanted to do a lot of stuff that functionally would cut and pull back the amount of support the government gives people. And, you know, when we look at the economy now, like people need Medicaid, especially rural voters who are, the GOP really relies on. People in the upper Midwest—Republicans are thinking maybe they might be able to make up some of their losses—aren’t excited about getting rid of Social Security, or the freedom that will come if no one’s on Medicare. And it’s left a real intellectual vacuum that’s being filled by these nationalists and oftentimes racists who are not sure what they think, but it’s definitely not the libertarianism of someone like Paul Ryan.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. All right. So Biden and the key players have the fiscal mind set down, right? The political mindset down, right? At least for now. He passed the Rescue Plan. We know what’s in that. So what’s in Build Back Better and how does it fill out the picture beyond just being three trillion on top of the two trillion?
Mike Konczal: So it’s a little bit of flux about what’s actually in it, but it’s pretty clear it’s built around a couple of pillars. And one is climate change, as an opportunity to invest and build a new manufacturing and innovative economy. Last year they were talking about one trillion dollars for climate. That was really targeted towards actual investments and jobs and real things. Now, maybe that number has gone down, probably going be a big fight about that with climate groups and others but still, it’s still a central priority for this bill. And not just climate as in terms of getting a price right or just trying to tinker with incentives, or creating a trading market, but really about investments, and rebuilding, and innovative and manufacturing based. Climate is a kind of industrial policy. And fighting carbon, or fighting—de-carbonization, fighting climate change as a type of industrial policy is definitely, I think, something in the self-conception of how Joe Biden wants the economy to work better, and I think will be very popular for people when climate itself is not always the most popular thing. So I think that’s a really cool and I think it’s very important part of it. And that obviously would be legacy enduring right there. The second is the care economy. And, you know, obviously there’s a lot of this that had been a focal point for years, but in this past 12 months, you know, how vulnerable people are, how vulnerable our elderly are, how children are, how we don’t often have a lot of support for families when things go bad, you know that kind of care work has been becoming more and more central, and I think COVID it really put it over the edge. And there you’re going to see things like universal pre-K, making the child tax credit in the American Rescue Plan permanent, things like expanding free community college, but also things like expanding home-based and community-based care. President Biden has talked about the difficulty of caring for a loved one, and how economically insecure it makes you to do that kind of labor, which is really important for families, and trying to ensure that there’s money and resources there for that. So if that works and if that passes, you know, putting a firmer foundation under our care economy, and approaching it just as much of an infrastructure project as climate and manufacturing and railroads and everything else—really understanding it as a type of infrastructure our economy needs would also be an important legacy to leave behind.
Brian Beutler: Coming up, what will it take for Build Back Better to pass in Congress, and how would it address some of the shortcomings of the New Deal, Great Society and Obama-era reform programs? When we return.
Brian Beutler: Welcome back to Rubicon. My guest is Mike Konczal. He’s the Director of Progressive Thought at the Roosevelt Institute, and author of the new book, Freedom from the Market. We’re talking about Biden’s three trillion dollar economic plan known as Build Back Better, which would fund infrastructure projects across the country, green jobs, pre-K, community college and child and elder care.
Brian Beutler: There’s talk of paying for Build Back Better at least with some new high-end tax increases and stricter tax enforcement. How important is that piece of it politically and substantively?
Mike Konczal: So substantively, we’re going to see how interest rates do in and inflation does in the next year. My sense is that interest rates will go up a little bit and normalized as they should, and that there’ll be some periods of small sectoral inflation as just things come back online in the herky jerky way. But I’m not worried about sustained pressure on each of those. I think spending money on infrastructure, particularly climate infrastructure, should be debt financed, in the same way you can imagine there being climate government bonds, like green bonds—like that kind of mentality, that this is an investment and as such, like many investments, like in addition to your house, debt financing, that is appropriate. So that that is my baseline. However, on the other hand, there is a real problem with income inequality, and there is a good opportunity to ensure that the rich are paying a fair share, that they’re taxed in an equitable way. That’s like, just following the rules on the book and are properly enforced, and that having them taxed more to pay into this really important part of what our economy needs, is also very appropriate. There’s, because of the way the press is structured and because of the class bias and a lot of that stuff, there’s a really intense debate about whether or not you’re rich if you make a hundred grand a year or four hundred grand a year. And that goes back and forth and what I would really emphasize to listeners is that, whatever you make of that kind of argument, once you get above wherever you draw that arbitrary line, there is so much money that even just reasonable small scale increases in taxation would net trillions of dollars. Joe Biden as a candidate proposed a series of things—
[clip of President Biden] I will raise taxes for anybody making over $400,000. The very wealthy should pay fair share. Corporations should pay a fair share.
[clip of President Biden] If we just took the tax rate back to what it was when Bush was president: top rate paid 39.6% in federal taxes, that would raise 230 billion dollars.
Mike Konczal: Now they’re being reworked now and they’re basically lining up. And the estimates at the time were that you could raise three to four trillion dollars on stuff that taxes wealth—it’s not a technical wealth tax like Senator Warren and Senator Sanders are proposed, but it does raise money from wealth and the wealthy and corporations, in such a way that would be really equitable—like most of it would fall on the top 0.1% of incomes—and you could raise trillions of dollars that would do a lot to build a more just economy.
Brian Beutler: So the way I’m kind of envisioning this now is you have this three trillion dollar package, you have a tax plan that probably won’t raise exactly that amount but that’s wise because you should debt finance the long-term climate investments, and you should think of the other half of Build Back Better as redistributive so you kind of want to balance it off with higher-end tax increases. Together this maybe serves as a hedge against inflation—whether the risk of that is high or low—and then the third piece of it is you also have an answer in the event that deficit fearmongering comes back that like: we’re not spendthrifts, we have this plan to address our spending by repealing some of the Trump tax cuts.
Mike Konczal: Yeah, exactly. And I think we should not be afraid of taxes like this. I think the immediate spending goals can come from the rich. They’ve been rewarded generously by the economy over the past decade and it’s appropriate that they now pay more, and pay more for things that we desperately need in our society. Those taxes I do not think, will have a harmful effect on our economy. There’s a question of if it is politically too hard to pass those taxes, then we shouldn’t be afraid. We still should tackle climate change and we should still ensure that we have a fair and just care economy and those things can be deficit financed, the investment parts in particular. But we also should not be afraid of taxing the rich. I understand how it can backfire. And you get into this like, well, we can only do what we can raise money for but on the flip side, know taxes on the rich should go up quite a bit. They should go up beyond what they were under the Obama years. And we should tailor them more carefully so that they tackle problems of tax avoidance and international money havens and other things are very much on the mind of a lot of the senior people appointed under Biden who have been studying this in the last 10 years and how bad it has gotten.
Brian Beutler: OK, so I’m sold on the idea that we have the right mix of concepts here. But beyond getting the ingredients right, I also feel like there are some obstacles that have to fall and contingencies that have to swing sort of just so, for this story to end happily. Right? He’ll probably, as you mentioned, need to abolish the filibuster or at least radically reform it. He’ll need literally every Democratic vote in the Senate, and no one’s allowed to get sick or die. And then I feel like another big X factor is that it all has to work. Right? We need to be looking back a year, or a year and a half from now, and saying that the Roaring Twenties are back because the government came through with vaccinations and money and the wherewithal to sustain a comeback. And then that has to translate into further political victories. And so when I think about all that, what has to go right for this conversation to end with Biden getting the FDR-sized legacy that he seems to want—to what extent is this whole conversation really kind of about the vicissitudes of history that are kind of foolish to try to game out at all?
Mike Konczal: I mean, if you look at the big years for Democratic achievements, it’s when they’ve had a lot of people in the Senate. In 1934 and ’35, the mid 60s, you know, like if you get over 60 senators and you can do a lot of big stuff. You know, trying to do it with the razor thin majority in the House and Senate right now, it’s tough, but they already got something. Here are some reasons I’m optimistic. One is that there’s movement on the filibuster.
[clip of President Biden] But I don’t think you have to eliminate the filibuster, you have to do it what it used to be when I first got to the Senate, where you had to stand up and command the floor. So you got to work for the filibuster.
[Clip of Joe Manchin] And now, if you want to make it a little bit more painful, make them stand there and talk, I’m willing to look at any way we can.
Mike Konczal: It may not be enough—and obviously for our long term advocates of removing the filibuster, it may not be much at all—but people are now talking about it. And I think it’s going to, you’re going to see more stuff in the next couple of months. And even if it’s just a move to the talking filibuster, even if there’s other kind of more technical ways of making it harder to do, that’s movement. Two, I contrast this moment with the Obama years. If you think about the stuff President Obama had to do, politically is a lot harder than the stuff I think that needs to get done under Biden. One is dealing with health care, the mandate to purchase health care, setting up these marketplaces that are very complicated, trying to get buy-in from health insurers and various other people with large stakes, something about health care, like for good reason really upsets people and it hits them in sensitive spot. And so that’s politically tough. Though giving money to families to be more secure is a lot easier, even though they both have different legacies, they’re both very important. Dealing with the financial sector, dealing with the foreclosure crisis, you know I’m very critical of how the Obama team handled the foreclosure crisis. But those politics are tough. A lot of people thought the stimulus bill that they passed was another part of the bailout, that that they had continued from the Bush years. Like the politics around that kind of stuff is really messy and really ugly. Where the politics of fixing a pandemic, getting hundreds of millions of shots in people’s arms and hundreds of millions of checks in their banking account, is a lot nicer. It’s a lot easier to do. And it’s exactly the kind of stuff that big government liberals want to do. Pouring money into the exchanges now that they’re setup is easy. You know, passing minimum wage is tough politically, but executing it is super easy. Just hang up a sign says the new minimum wage. So a lot of this stuff, I think, can work a lot faster and a lot easier and be more popular than a lot of the hard stuff that they had to do under the Obama years. At least I hope so.
Brian Beutler: Why is it correct to think of these kinds of objectives as comparable to the New Deal or the Great Society or even to the reforms President Obama implemented? There you had the creation of brand-new institutions and government agencies, whereas this strikes me more like directing a lot of money at good ideas that already exist in some form or fashion.
Mike Konczal: Sure, yeah. It’s tough because it’s always, you know, these things are building on themselves and learning from the long history of it. So one thing you look at the New Deal, the New Deal is very much, a lot of people have emphasized how many of the New Deal programs left people of color behind, with the way Social Security, the way the Wagner Act, which structured unionization, excluded domestic workers, agriculture workers, who were far disproportionately Black, and particularly black women in many cases. There’s a sense in which the New Deal was structured in such a way that Southern Democrats who were defenders of Jim Crow held a veto on it and really deformed how it built-out and took decades to start to rectify that, and bring those people who are excluded into those programs. There’s another important part of the New Deal where they were really, a lot of the programs were built around a household with a man with a wife at home taking care of the kids. And the idea was that you would protect the male worker and then their wages would be high enough to be able to support their families. And that was already not a really feasible model by the 1950s when they started needing to do things like bringing in tax credits and other kinds of supports to help middle class families. But the idea of a really robust care infrastructure to ensure families can thrive and no matter what form they take, and by really valuing care work as a type of labor, no less than the manufacturing worker of the mid-century period. That’s also a legacy of the New Deal, that I think a really smart, broad investment in care work that is certainly reducible to a lot of bullet points of really good ideas that we should do, even if there wasn’t all this ideological and historical issues with it, but it does help rectify and reengineer the idea of what a just and equitable society would look like. Because it would include all these things that the New Deal did not address at the time.
Brian Beutler: Is what you’re saying, that we’ve we’re reaching kind of like an end of history of what comprises the modern state and the main challenge now is just to appropriately resource the good parts of it? Or do you wish that there was more structural change in what is becoming Build Back Better?
Mike Konczal: Build Back Better is something that spends money so it might be able to pass with only 50 votes where some of the other things would need to have fundamental reform of the filibuster to take on. So I think, you know, all these things hang together. You know, right now is a very important inflection point for who our economy works for, if it’s going to be broader based prosperity. But also how the planet is going to survive in the next couple of decades, whether or not it’s going to continue to become more inhospitable to everyday life with heating. And then also just our elections. Like are the Republicans going to succeed in becoming a permanent minoritarian political party that can exercise huge amounts of power without ever having to think of themselves as catering to a majority of the population, much less a broad cross-sample of the population. All those like definitely hang together. So I would not say, you know, just do one of those, then you got your legacy. But all of them requires serious solutions and those solutions are the kinds of things that leave legacies.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. And, you know, it’s funny, everyone monitors everything Joe Manchin says—and I do, too, and I think that’s important—but he early on was like: I want my friend Joe Biden to be a successful president. And with these kinds of politically difficult ideas mostly off the table in favor of sort of simpler money-in-people’s-pocket kind of ideas, that really told me that there’s a way for this to all kind of come together: is Biden introduces a bunch of populist stuff, Republicans try to block it, Manchin realizes that for his friend Joe Biden to be successful, the filibuster has to fall and the pieces start falling into place. And in a way, in the sort of two, three months since he said that, that’s sort of been the trajectory we’re on. And I guess, you know, the legacy issue or the legacy question is good for people like Biden and Manchin to have to dwell on, if only to keep their, their eye on the ball. Because if you do all this stuff, and you help a bunch of people, but then for whatever reason you don’t win the battle for historical memory, you still helped a bunch of people. So it’s like a good beacon I guess.
Mike Konczal: Yeah, historical memory will come and go but right now we have a lot of battles to fight. And all the battles are good ones. And the more we win, the better off people will be and, you know, our grandchildren will judge us however.
Brian Beutler: That’s a perfect notes ended on. Mike Konczal. Thanks for joining us.
Mike Konczal: Thanks for having me on.
Brian Beutler: Keep sending us your questions, our email address is Rubicon@crooked.com Listener Michael, a different Michael than last week we swear, writes: Are there ways Chuck Schumer could use his power as majority leader to reform the filibuster all by himself? What’s stopping him from just bringing a bill to the floor, calling for a vote, and forcing the Republicans to keep talking to extend debate, effectively bringing back the talking filibuster? Is there some Senate rule preventing him from doing that which would require 51 votes to change?
Brian Beutler: The answer is yes, and this gets to what the filibuster reform conversation is all about, and why the D.C. establishment uses the term “nuclear option” to describe changes to the filibuster rules. The Senate runs on both standing rules and precedent. The standing rules hold that ending debate or invoking cloture on legislation requires a 3/5 majority. Once upon a time Senate minorities to invoke this rule rarely, generally to stop Congress from passing civil rights legislation. Mitch McConnell’s innovation was applying it to basically everything, making it all but impossible for Democrats to pass their agenda. The Senate can change its standing rules, but doing so requires a supermajority. And that’s where precedent comes in. The majority leader can’t simply dictate that Senate rules aren’t in order for this or that vote. But a simple majority of senators can. Democrats can’t change the standing rules on their own, but they can create a new binding precedent that limits the cloture rule, or dispenses with it all together on legislation, just as it did on judges and other nominees. That’s how a unilateral rule change works, and why it tends to make the party that’s doing the filibustering so angry.
Brian Beutler: Rubicon has written and hosted by me, Brian Beutler. It’s produced by Andrea Gardner-Bernstein. Veronica Simonetti is our audio engineer. Production support from Brian Semel. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week.