The $3.5T Build Back Better Act is a huge step, but not enough.

Peace Advocate September-October 2021

Climate Strike/ Brock Press photo
Climate Strike/ Brock Press photo

Pass it, then, back to work

By Nick Rabb

As the incoming $3.5T “Build Back Better  ” climate and social policy bill captures headlines, it can be difficult to know whether to cheer or boo. Along with “big new bill” whiplash over the past nine months, many of the administration’s plans are confusing as they are both somewhat progressive and somewhat conservative –emblematic of their chief spokesperson. MAPA supports the $3.5T bill as it succeeds where the $1T bipartisan infrastructure bill fails, but with reservations. While it would improve the material conditions of millions, and take significant steps on climate change, it does not go far enough, particularly on climate. Its improvement of lives is to be praised as long as it does not lead to political demobilization. We must continue to push for what we need while taking these types of wins along the way.

To illustrate why the $3.5T bill is a step forward, let’s contrast it with the  $1T bipartisan infrastructure bill . Though outlets like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal seem to wax poetic about the $1T bill, it does not invest nearly enough in any of the categories it addresses — particularly regarding climate spending, at only around $100B. Its main climate provisions were removed due to pressure from fossil fuel lobbyists, who bragged that they turned a climate bill into a “highway bill.” The final plan includes $25B in subsidies for fossil fuel companies aimed at incentivizing carbon capture and hydrogen fuel, two patently falsesolutions” heavily invested in by the fossil fuel industry. As a result, progressive lawmakers have vowed to vote “no” on this bill unless the $3.5T reconciliation package is passed first.

The $3.5T “Build Back Better” bill, alternatively, provides substantial funding for crucial areas. A mash-up of Biden’s earlier  American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, it  offers more in terms of progressive funding: for education, public housing, clean energy, health care, and labor reforms. Some concrete climate wins are $3.5B in funding for a Civilian Climate Corps; $135B for agriculture, conservation, and forestry; a $198B clean energy investment; and investments in securing clean water. These figures are markedly lower than they were in the American Jobs Plan, and some key provisions like funding for fossil fuel worker transitions are missing, but they are wins nonetheless. Providing universal free pre-K and community college, expansion of Medicare to cover dental, vision, and hearing, a child tax credit, and more, the $3.5T bill would  substantially improve the material conditions of millions of people. As a down payment on the vision of the Green New Deal, investments in healthcare, labor, and public housing are key to building a sustainable world.

Even more telling is the amount of mobilization and vitriol the $3.5T bill has garnered from the business lobby. While the $1T bill has explicit corporate support, the $3.5T bill is clearly the enemy of big corporations. This is likely because the bill will be partially paid for by increasing the corporate tax rate, increasing taxes on the wealthy, and potentially taxing both stock buybacks and fossil fuel pollution. The Washington Post reports that major business lobbies including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, and National Association of Manufacturers are highly concerned by the bill, and mobilizing against it. These groups’ boards include representatives from ExxonMobil, Pfizer, Walt Disney, Apple, Walmart, Capital One, Lockheed Martin, and more. They are reportedly attempting to kill the bill’s price, scope, and tax increases “in every way you can imagine.” This is a clear sign that the $3.5T bill, as it stands, would make a significant shift in who pays to fix  the mess we are in, and is worth our fervent support . Since unaccountable corporations are a main perpetuating force behind the climate crisis, this is a huge win for the movement.

In the same breath as we support the ten year $3.5T bill, we also clearly state  that it is not enough, and that more intense mobilization must continue to push for a sustainable future. The recent IPCC report and the fires, floods and droughts that have struck this year make clear that the crisis is here, worsening, and demands rapid and far-reaching change. Rigorous economic analyses by the Roosevelt Institute and Political Economy Research Institute conclude that at least $1T of climate spending per year for the next ten years is necessary to adequately combat the crisis — a call taken up by the Indigenous Environmental Network, Green New Deal Network, and Sunrise Movement, through the THRIVE Agenda and Act

Moreover, there is significant danger in leaving a large part of the solution in the hands of private players. Biden’s plans since his original Build Back Better proposal lean heavily on stimulating demand in the private sector to change their practices to be sustainable, or to produce sustainable goods — leaving as much as 75% of the necessary investment up to the whims of those driven by profit. There is still a pervasive narrative that the government cannot direct production, nor afford it — yet the $3.5T budget bill also increases the Pentagon budget every year until it peaks at $880B in 2031. The Institute for Policy Studies estimates that over the course of the 20 year war on terror, the U.S. has spent more than $21T on militarization, surveillance, and repression, while the cost of the THRIVE Agenda is a mere $10T, and the estimated cost of shifting the power grid to 100% renewable over ten years is a comparatively meager $4.5T. This, combined with the fact that the bill continues to subsidize fossil fuel companies via incentives for carbon capture, and ongoing silence on large fossil fuel projects like the Line 3 pipeline, makes clear that the administration is not yet serious about saving humanity. Attempting to walk a line of pleasing capital while taking weak action on climate amounts to suicide for both people and the planet.

Sustained, uncompromising mobilization is necessary to continue building the political will to enact truly transformational legislation. While the $3.5T bill is a strong step in the right direction, movements must not let its passage lead to complacency or less organizing. A strong pattern in U.S. history is that in times of crisis, the government intervenes enough  to stave off demands for  real structural change, followed by complacency until the emergence of a new crisis. Unfortunately, if structural change is not achieved this time around, there may not be much of a society left to lead to the emergence of a new crisis. Mobilizing around the necessity of deep, intersectional transformation as in the Just Transition framework; pointing out excessive Pentagon funding that can be redirected to life-sustaining infrastructure; and combatting growing propaganda campaigns against China, Iran, and others by emphasizing the need for international cooperation, are just a few fronts on which we must push. Our organizing created the conditions for the $3.5T bill in the first place, and we can make it the beginning of a radical transformation.  Let’s make sure it passes, and then  get back to work.

— Nick Rabb is a member of MAPA’s Peace and Climate Working Group and PhD candidate at Tufts University.   He will present a two-part series of webinars, “Opposing Militarism: A Key Task for Climate Justice“,  on October 16 and 23.