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Marginal Biden

How do you measure rainfall during a hurricane? Given the situation, you wouldn’t think to do so at all.

The Trump administration was so plagued with scandals, so consumed with Trump’s own persona, and so lacked transparency, that grading it in real time felt impossible. Who can spare the time to evaluate their transportation policy while Russia / Ukraine / COVID / Fraud / Insurrection / etc. dominated the news? And rightly so. These were major scandals, and several of them would have resulted in impeachment and conviction in a better world. Remember that this was an intentional political strategy: to “flood the zone with shit,” in the words of Steve Bannon.

One benefit to the Biden administration’s “return to normal” will be our ability to grade the government in real time on their policy decisions. I don’t expect major, term-defining scandals under Biden, and whatever scandals do happen will probably be lame and somewhat wonky. Biden has earned his “Sleepy Joe” reputation for a reason.

(“Normal” can be bad if the norm is bad. I am aware that transparent, functional, accountable government is not sufficient for a just society. I do think it is prerequisite though.)

With that said,

Here are nine actions from Biden’s first week.

Some are good, some bad. I tried to choose a representative sample, though of course I am driven by my own narrative here.

1. The administration wants to increase the speed of vaccine distribution. They have already hit their 100M/100d target (the Trump administration was basically already there by the time the Biden team took over). However, German Lopez argues that this is not enough, that the Biden admin needs to press harder for more ambitious goals. The difficulty with ambitious goals is that you may not meet them, but I for one would love for the pandemic to be mostly over by the fall. The administration has a call scheduled with the pharma companies. But the new leadership is new. They need an extraordinary amount of coordination to make this work at scale. They have already increased the goal to 150M/100d, and released a comprehensive plan. Good.

2. Signed a Memorandum to reopen ACA/Obamacare enrollment from Feb 15 to May 15. Trump should have done this, with so many people suddenly unemployed mid-year due to the pandemic, but did not, I assume for the optics of Obamacare looking like a useful program. A Vox piece questions how many people this special enrollment period can help, since the Biden administration did not give a projection. Joaquin Castro wants Biden to make a special provision for DACA recipients to join the ACA this year. Good but Small.

3. Biden signed an executive order for DOJ to stop renewing contracts with private prisons. This sounds like a nice olive branch to the left (Ilhan Omar gave it a ✅). But as John Pfaff from Fordham Law pointed out, this move 1. further concentrates power in public sector prison unions, who 2. make even more money than the profit-seeking private prisons, and 3. the order only applies to renewals, not current contracts, so anything expiring after 2024 can be overturned without consequence if the Republicans win in 2024. In Pfaff’s words, “it could be a step BACKWARDS. It does almost nothing, and frames things in a way that leads us to give too much of a pass to the institutions doing the real harm.” Bad Absent Further Changes.

4. Executive order directing FEMA to cover 100% of the cost of emergency homeless sheltering during the pandemic (until at least September 30th). State and local governments were paying 25% and FEMA 75% for the length of the pandemic, despite SLG being cash-strapped because of the decline in sales tax revenue. Shifting the cost to FEMA will allow safe and sanitary sheltering among homeless populations, which helps their personal health, and more generally prevents virus transmission among the population at large. Good.

5. Renewed the Trump administration’s eviction moratorium another two months. Renters under an income threshold ($100k single, $200k household) cannot be evicted and homeowners with FHA-backed mortgages cannot be evicted. Other aspects of the eviction system remain state-level, out of Biden’s (or Trump’s) control. The eviction moratorium funding in the CARES Act only lasted a few months, so Biden has also requested another $30B in funding from Congress (which they will give). Good.

6. Biden nominated Avril Haines for Director of National Intelligence, confirmed 84-10 by the Senate. Haines said at her hearing that under the Biden administration, the intelligence community would “speak truth to power.” In addition to vacuous rhetoric, Haines brings with her the political baggage of having covered up the Senate’s CIA torture report and having written the Obama administration’s very lax drone assassination guidelines. This is extremely sinister, and for that reason she will make a great DNI. Bad.

7. DACA will continue under Biden, and he has prepared an extremely ambitious immigration reform bill for Congress. The bill is so ambitious it must be a negotiating tactic to arrive at some lesser bipartisan agreement later, but that’s still good. Ending the legal limbo of DACA and TPS (temporary protected status) people is good. Granting a path to citizenship is good for national integration, helps grow the US tax base, leads to permanence of local/regional circular flow, creates jobs (on net), helps counter the low US birthrate, and does not have the clear partisan effect that pundits think. (Immigrants from Central and South America tend to be Catholic or Pentecostal, hold to socially conservative views, and increasingly vote Republican). According to opinion polling from Ipsos, Biden’s actions on DACA as well as other topics are popular. Good but Tentative.

8. Biden signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $15/hr, and his administration is pushing a tight vote (likely 50/50/Kamala) on the national minimum wage as part of the next COVID relief bill. This will raise the minimum wage to $15/hr for all employees. We needed to do this years ago, if for no other reason than to keep pace with inflation during the Fed’s QE program, but now that 2020 has seen a surreal increase in the monetary supply we will need a higher minimum wage. There are some policy problems but they have good solutions. Slow but Good.

9. Directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development “to take steps necessary to redress racially discriminatory federal housing policies” through further enforcement of the FHA. This is an important move for racial justice, and the order includes reviewing the extent to which the Trump administration failed to enforce the FHA. Which, to be clear, was a large extent. This is a signaling move for Biden’s HUD agenda. Small but Promising.

In Conclusion

The Biden administration’s “return to normal” — its likely lack of scandal, its policy precision, its broad popular appeal, its concentration on tangible goals rather than Biden himself — will enable us to grade on an A through F scale, rather than F+ through F- scale. He may not do a great job at overcoming partisan gridlock. Various actions will backfire (like the private prison order above). Some of his decisions may work but not work enough. His legislative strategy given a split Senate will require more compromise than he wants. And so on. I join many others in expressing relief that all this is the case.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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