The Biggest Deficit You’ve Never Heard Of

America has a deficit problem. But the country’s biggest deficit isn’t the federal budget deficit. It’s the deficit in public investment.The public investment deficit is the gap between what we should be investing in our future — on infrastructure, education, and basic research — and the relatively little we are investing. Increasing public investment needs to be a major goal of the Biden administration.

Public investment is similar to private investment in that we invest today because of the payoff in the future. The difference is public investment pays off for all of us, for America. 


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In the 1960s, we used to make a lot of public investments. But they’ve been steadily declining ever since.

That decline has been largely driven by so-called “deficit hawks” who argue against more federal spending. But as I’ve been saying for years, reducing the federal deficit just for the sake of reducing it makes no sense. 

Any business person knows that you borrow money for the sake of investing in the future of your business. Those are wise borrowings. Because then you can pay those debts off when they get bigger. 

A national economy works exactly the same way. It doesn’t matter that we’re borrowing money, if we’re investing those monies that we borrowed from abroad — in education, training, infrastructure, factories — but we’re not.

The public return on infrastructure investment, based on 2020 report taking into account the pandemic, averages $2.70 for every single public dollar invested — yet we haven’t made those investments. Our infrastructure today is crumbling.

The return on early childhood education is between 10 and 16 percent — but only a handful of our children have access to early childhood education

Public investment on clean energy has an annual return of over 27 percent. But federal tax breaks favor fossil fuels over renewables by about 7 to 1.

The public return on investments in basic research and development are huge. America’s competitiveness depends on them, because no individual company has an incentive to make them. The lithium-ion battery that powers iPhones and electric cars was developed by federally sponsored materials science research, while the Internet itself was borne out of the Advanced Research Projects Administration. 

And yet in recent years, public investment in basic research has declined as well. 

Are you seeing a pattern yet? Federal investments in all these areas have shrunk — even though the payoffs from these investments are gigantic, and the costs of not making them are astronomical. American productivity is already suffering.

Now, some say we don’t need to worry about this public investment deficit because private investments fill the gap. Baloney.

Corporations are focused on getting the best return for themselves, not for America. For most of the last four decades, they’ve made money by lowering their costs, at the expense of working people: capping wages, reducing taxes, and deregulating.

A common assumption is that when American corporations are profitable, Americans are better off. But that’s false. Trickle-down economics is a sham. Tax cuts and subsidies to big corporations and the wealthy don’t build the economy. Economies don’t grow from the top down — they grow from the bottom up, through public investment.

So if private investment won’t fill the gap, how do we fill it? Two ways: tax the wealthy and large corporations, and borrow.

Tax rates on the wealthy and on corporations have continued to drop over the past 40 years, just as the deficit in public investment has grown. In the 1950s, the highest tax rate on individuals was over 90 percent. Even after tax deductions and credits, it was still over 40 percent. But since then, tax rates have dropped dramatically. https://arc-anglerfish-washpost-prod-washpost.s3.amazonaws.com/public/LAECU3AUW5AYHJOEZW3ROIFN4A.png&w=1200">For the first time on record, the 400 richest Americans now pay a lower effective tax rate than people in the bottom half.
Revenue from corporate taxes has also plummeted.

If wealthy individuals and corporations want all the advantages that come with being American, they have to pay taxes so America can afford the public investments necessary for a high-wage, high-productivity society.

The other way to pay for public investment is through public borrowing. This kind of borrowing doesn’t burden future generations, because it’s used to build a better future for those future generations. 

Remember: There’s a difference between borrowing for the future and borrowing for today. You might not want to borrow to pay for a vacation, but it’s perfectly rational to borrow to purchase a house, because a vacation doesn’t have any future return, while a home does. Right now, the federal budget irrationally treats all government borrowing the same.

The government needs a public investment budget separate from the current spending budget to clarify what we’re investing in and allow us to keep borrowing for investments as long as the returns justify it.

Public investment is the biggest and most important deficit you’ve never heard of. 

Don’t listen to people who claim we can’t afford to invest in the American people. We can afford it. We can’t afford not to. Joe Biden needs to recognize this, and make public investment a central part of his economic strategy. 

About the Author

Robert ReichROBERT B. REICH, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers “Aftershock" and “The Work of Nations." His latest, "Beyond Outrage," is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.

Books by Robert Reich

Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few -- by Robert B. Reich

0345806220America was once celebrated for and defined by its large and prosperous middle class. Now, this middle class is shrinking, a new oligarchy is rising, and the country faces its greatest wealth disparity in eighty years. Why is the economic system that made America strong suddenly failing us, and how can it be fixed?

Click here for more info or to order this book on Amazon.

 

Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it -- by Robert B. Reich

Beyond OutrageIn this timely book, Robert B. Reich argues that nothing good happens in Washington unless citizens are energized and organized to make sure Washington acts in the public good. The first step is to see the big picture. Beyond Outrage connects the dots, showing why the increasing share of income and wealth going to the top has hobbled jobs and growth for everyone else, undermining our democracy; caused Americans to become increasingly cynical about public life; and turned many Americans against one another. He also explains why the proposals of the “regressive right” are dead wrong and provides a clear roadmap of what must be done instead. Here’s a plan for action for everyone who cares about the future of America.

Click here for more info or to order this book on Amazon.

Recommended books:

Capital in the Twenty-First Century
by Thomas Piketty. (Translated by Arthur Goldhammer)

Capital in the Twenty-First Century Hardcover by Thomas Piketty.In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty analyzes a unique collection of data from twenty countries, ranging as far back as the eighteenth century, to uncover key economic and social patterns. But economic trends are not acts of God. Political action has curbed dangerous inequalities in the past, says Thomas Piketty, and may do so again. A work of extraordinary ambition, originality, and rigor, Capital in the Twenty-First Century reorients our understanding of economic history and confronts us with sobering lessons for today. His findings will transform debate and set the agenda for the next generation of thought about wealth and inequality.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book on Amazon.


Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature
by Mark R. Tercek and Jonathan S. Adams.

Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature by Mark R. Tercek and Jonathan S. Adams.What is nature worth? The answer to this question—which traditionally has been framed in environmental terms—is revolutionizing the way we do business. In Nature’s Fortune, Mark Tercek, CEO of The Nature Conservancy and former investment banker, and science writer Jonathan Adams argue that nature is not only the foundation of human well-being, but also the smartest commercial investment any business or government can make. The forests, floodplains, and oyster reefs often seen simply as raw materials or as obstacles to be cleared in the name of progress are, in fact as important to our future prosperity as technology or law or business innovation. Nature’s Fortune offers an essential guide to the world’s economic—and environmental—well-being.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book on Amazon.


Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it -- by Robert B. Reich

Beyond OutrageIn this timely book, Robert B. Reich argues that nothing good happens in Washington unless citizens are energized and organized to make sure Washington acts in the public good. The first step is to see the big picture. Beyond Outrage connects the dots, showing why the increasing share of income and wealth going to the top has hobbled jobs and growth for everyone else, undermining our democracy; caused Americans to become increasingly cynical about public life; and turned many Americans against one another. He also explains why the proposals of the “regressive right” are dead wrong and provides a clear roadmap of what must be done instead. Here’s a plan for action for everyone who cares about the future of America.

Click here for more info or to order this book on Amazon.


This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement
by Sarah van Gelder and staff of YES! Magazine.

This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement by Sarah van Gelder and staff of YES! Magazine.This Changes Everything shows how the Occupy movement is shifting the way people view themselves and the world, the kind of society they believe is possible, and their own involvement in creating a society that works for the 99% rather than just the 1%. Attempts to pigeonhole this decentralized, fast-evolving movement have led to confusion and misperception. In this volume, the editors of YES! Magazine bring together voices from inside and outside the protests to convey the issues, possibilities, and personalities associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement. This book features contributions from Naomi Klein, David Korten, Rebecca Solnit, Ralph Nader, and others, as well as Occupy activists who were there from the beginning.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book on Amazon.



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