The author is executive director of American Compass
Within minutes of US president Joe Biden’s inauguration, an enthusiastic social media account announced that it stood “ready to help in your efforts to tackle climate change, control the spread of Covid-19, reboot our economy, & advance commonsense immigration reform that honours America’s diversity. It’s Day 1!”
Such passion is not uncommon among Democratic party activists. But in this case the cheerleader was Amazon.
The enthusiasm for Mr Biden from a company that has America’s second largest private sector workforce and third-largest market capitalisation, and has been accused of anti-union and anti-competitive practices, is a peculiar feature of modern US politics.
In the popular imagination, Democrats represent lower- and middle-class workers against powerful corporate interests. But the party’s donors, activists and advisers are animated by progressive social priorities that divert attention away from economic problems. Among them, systemic racism, which demands little from the elite beyond press releases, climate change, to be solved by public spending and subsidies, and immigration reform which will probably increase the supply of cheap labour. Of course Amazon is on board.
The new administration’s “immediate priorities”, per the White House website, “include actions to control the Covid-19 pandemic, provide economic relief, tackle climate change, and advance racial equity and civil rights, as well as immediate actions to reform our immigration system and restore America’s standing in the world”. Jobs, wages, labour, education, taxes and healthcare reform are relegated to the margins. Reforms to rebalance an off-kilter economy that is leaving too many behind, such as antitrust enforcement, financial-market regulation and industrial policy, go unmentioned.
Mr Biden’s “Day One” actions show these priorities. The first section rightly addressed Covid-19 and economic relief. The remainder focused on climate change, immigration and racial equity, which will be a “whole of government initiative”. These are worthy goals. But, in highlighting these issues, the administration acknowledged that governing requires focus and its will be on them.
Workers literally came last in a 150-word coda that cited efforts to require mask wearing, prohibit sexual-orientation and gender-identity discrimination, and provide access to “critical diversity and inclusion training”. Tightening environmental standards, it claimed, would create “good union jobs,” even as Mr Biden cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline that involved thousands of them.
Selling unrelated policy priorities as jobs programmes is a bipartisan tradition, and should always face a simple test: If the unrelated priority vanished, would the policy still make sense for its economic benefits? Imagine a breakthrough allowing us to eliminate all excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere at no cost. An aggressive programme to raise emissions standards and remake our energy system would seem a boondoggle rather than a sensible pro-worker agenda. That’s no argument against fighting climate change, but it should be an obvious one against pretending that we do so on behalf of workers.
All told, in his administration’s first week, Mr Biden issued 36 executive orders, memoranda, and proclamations — 13 on Covid, six on immigration, four on climate, four on racial equity, two on gender identity, two on workers, and five others. On workers, he advanced a Buy American policy for federal procurement, similar to one from Donald Trump, and ordered a report on raising the minimum wage for federal employees and contractors to $15-per hour.
If jobs and economic rebalancing had been Mr Biden’s top priority, his first week would have prioritised Covid-19 and then begun other changes that the nation needs. Agencies should now be studying federal procurement policies and possibly relocating headquarters outside Washington. Mr Biden should be streamlining the permitting process for massive infrastructure investments, not cancelling pipelines, halting oil and gas leasing and drilling, and conducting “a baseline review of the state of equity within [every] agency”.
Economic reform should lead to tough antitrust investigations, improved employment training and apprenticeship efforts, and humane but firm enforcement of immigration laws. The government should crack down on the Chinese knock-offs flooding online marketplaces.
Amazon would probably be less eager to help such efforts, but they would do much more to help American families.