Will Biden's spending bring inflation back from the dead?

Will Biden's spending bring inflation back from the dead?

The US federal government is gearing up to spend a lot of money these days. So far, to cushion the blow of the pandemic, Washington has already parted with $5 trillion in the form of direct payments to households, forgivable loans to businesses, and other support including aid to state governments. And more is coming.

President Joe Biden has proposed another $4 trillion in federal funds for physical and "human" infrastructure, some of which would create income support and social spending programs that would last well beyond the pandemic.

While these measures are hugely popular with the public, the government has had to borrow heavily to pay for them. The national debt rose to 100 percent of GDP in 2020, its highest level since 1946, when war and recession drove the debt level to 106 percent of GDP.

Much of the recent borrowing has been from the Federal Reserve, which essentially prints money to purchase government debt.

And that has raised fears of an old enemy: inflation.

The logic of these concerns is straightforward and well accepted by economists: more dollars chasing the same amount of goods bids up prices. That was not much of a problem during the pandemic, when storefronts were closed and most people were stuck at home and unable to spend much money.

But as the pandemic ebbs, jobs are returning, consumers are starting to make delayed purchases, and signs of inflation are starting to appear.

Prices for new cars are up 8.4 percent, while real estate values, energy prices, and stock markets are all surging. Prominent economists such as former Clinton administration Treasury Secretary Larry Summers have warned that the administration's spending may add too much fuel to an economic fire that is starting to burn again as the pandemic recedes.

An inflation surge would be bad news for most people. Rising prices for basic goods would increase hardships in particular for low-income households, which tend to spend more of their income on these kinds of items and who have borne the brunt of the pandemic's economic impact. Higher prices would also put homeownership out of reach for millions of Americans. And they would likely force the Fed to deploy its main inflation-fighting tool — an increase in interest rates — which itself could trigger a recession by raising the cost of borrowing and causing a slowdown in spending.

Inflation hawks often point to the cautionary tale of the "Great Inflation" of the late 1960s and 1970s, which followed a period of Fed-financed borrowing by the federal government. Inflation accelerated from 1 percent in 1964 to 14 percent in 1980, resulting in energy shortages and price and wage controls. It also prompted a series of Fed rate hikes that caused two recessions. Inflation did not start to recede until interest rates reached 20 percent, a level unimaginable today.

But supporters of increased spending to pull the economy out of its pandemic-induced slump say the supply of goods will increase as conditions start to return to normal, alleviating any short-term bottlenecks that are currently causing price spikes. Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have both said they expect today's emerging inflationary pressures to be transitory and that the Fed can quickly tamp them down if that proves not to be the case. And unlike in the 1970s, there is little evidence of widespread increases in post-pandemic wages, which could increase inflationary pressures by putting more money in consumers' pockets.

Furthermore, the remainder of the Biden economic plan is designed to be largely paid for by tax increases that will take effect over the next fifteen years, rather than by more borrowing. Once the tax increases are fully phased in, the federal government will actually be pulling more money out of the economy than it is pumping in.

So who is right? Only time will tell. For years now, US policymakers have treated inflation as an enemy long since vanquished. These unprecedented levels of spending may put those assumptions to the test. If the administration's supporters are right, the spending will be a historic reshaping and rebuilding of the American economy. If they are wrong, Americans could face a new type of economic disruption just as they put the pandemic behind them.

Eni is helping to bring stable energy sources to the communities of Ghana. This means vaccines for children can now be safely stored, businesses can operate more efficiently, and the economy, as a whole, is strengthened and improved.

Watch to learn how Eni helps businesses grow and build for the future.

This week, the US Senate passed the so-called Endless Frontier Act, a $250 billion investment in development of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, the manufacture of semiconductors, and other tech-related sectors. The goal is to harness the combined power of America's public and private sectors to meet the tech challenges posed by China.

In its current form, this is the biggest diversion of public funds into the private sector to achieve strategic goals in many decades. The details of this package, and of the Senate vote, say a lot about US foreign-policy priorities and this bill's chances of becoming law.

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What do America's policies around the world mean for jobs, the economy, and the future of the country's future? This Tuesday, June 15. at 11 am ET, GZERO Media presents a a live discussion on trade, immigration, and how domestic issues like racism and deep partisan divides impact America's standing in the world. Our event, which is sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York, is free and open to the public. Please register to attend.

Judy Woodruff, anchor of the PBS NewsHour, will moderate the conversation with:

  • Donna Edwards, Member of Congress (2008-2017)
  • Ian Bremmer, President and Founder, Eurasia Group and GZERO Media
  • Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO, New America
  • Miriam Sapiro, Managing Director, Sard Verbinnen & Co. (SVC) and Former Acting and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative
  • Cecilia Muñoz, Senior Advisor, New America

Special appearance by Governor Thomas H. Kean, Chairman of Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Far Away and Close to Home: How US Foreign Policy Impacts All Americans

Tuesday, June 15, 2021 | 11 am - 12:30 pm ET

Register to attend

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Listen: Is there a path to democracy for Europe's last dictatorship, Belarus? Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya discusses her hopes and fears for the country with Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World Podcast. President Alexander Lukashenko has maintained a tight grip on power in Belarus for the last 26 years and rigged the results of his last election which led to widespread protest and unrest in his country, though few consequences globally. But will he now be held accountable after diverting a flight between two European capitals to arrest a dissident journalist? And just how close are he and Vladimir Putin?

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

Nigeria's federal government earlier this month blocked Twitter from the country's mobile networks, after the social media company deleted a controversial post from President Muhammadu Buhari's account. The move by Africa's largest and most populous economy comes as many governments around the world are putting increased pressure on social media companies, with serious implications for free speech.

So what actually happened in Nigeria, and how does it fit in with broader trends on censorship and social media regulation? Eurasia Group analysts Amaka Anku and Tochi Eni-Kalu explain.

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

What's the significance of the US-China bill, competition bill that passed the Senate earlier this week?

Well, the bill is a major investment in American technology, research and development, semiconductor manufacturing, and it's designed to push back on the China Made in 2025 push that lawmakers have become increasingly worried about in recent years. The opinion in Washington has shifted from seeing China as a strategic competitor to a strategic rival. And you're seeing what's now likely to be one of the only bipartisan bills in Congress now pushing back on that. Significant money for semiconductors in this bill, even though some of it was set aside for automotive purposes. That money's not going to come online fast enough to really make a difference to the current global semiconductor shortage, but it will help build up US long-term spending capacity and manufacturing capacity in semiconductors.

Other aspects of the bill, banned the application TikTok from going on government devices out of security concerns, created new sanctions authorities around Xinjiang and Hong Kong for human rights abuses, and mandated a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics, which is probably going to happen anyway once the Biden administration is able to align with its allies. Let the athletes play. Don't let any high level delegations go. This is probably the only bipartisan bill to happen this year, yet still, half of Senate Republicans voted against it because they were opposed to the kind of industrial policy they think this represents, but it does show the area where there's bipartisan agreement in a city that's very, very divided right now. China is the bad guy and Congress is moving in that direction.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective from Europe:

What do you expect from President Biden's first European trip since taking office?

Well, first, it will be sort of reconnecting with Europe, reconnecting with the European Union, with NATO, with the partners in the G7, and going really from the initial message, which was, "we are back," to a more concrete message, "here is what we could potentially do together." That is the expectations. And let's see how it turns out.

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Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at Stanford's Cyber Policy Center, Eurasia Group senior advisor and former MEP, discusses trends in big tech, privacy protection and cyberspace:

When President Biden and President Putin meet, will cybersecurity will be a key issue that they discuss?

Now, I'm sure that there will be many thorny issues on the table. But after American fingers pointed to Russia and hold it responsible for the SolarWinds hack, it's likely. Criminals in Russia were also not hindered when they held the Colonial Pipeline Company ransom through a ransomware attack. And really, when journalists and opposition leaders cannot speak a single critical word without being caught, how come cybercriminals can act with impunity in Russia? So the need for prevention and accountability really is significant. And I hope the President Biden can push and persuade Putin to change the confrontational and aggressive course that he is on.

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Watch "Far Away and Close to Home: How US Foreign Policy Impacts All Americans" live on Tuesday, June 15 |  11 AM – 12:30 pm ET


Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

Watch "Far Away and Close to Home: How US Foreign Policy Impacts All Americans" live on Tuesday, June 15 |  11 AM – 12:30 pm ET


Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal