Neither Trumpism Nor Bidenomics Has an Answer to Inflation

The flare of inflation reported this week, the unwelcome guest still hanging around when everyone was hoping he’d been shown the door, is a useful reminder of one way to understand the Biden era’s frustrations. The administration’s defenders often argue that it has been more successful at legislating and policymaking than it’s given credit for, and there’s some truth to that contention. The trouble is that the White House has mostly been successful at implementing an economic agenda addressed to the discontents of the mid-2010s — even as the problems of the 2020s, inflation above all, have made those issues less relevant to voters’ immediate concerns.

Think of the 2010s as the era of reasonable disillusionment with neoliberalism. The right’s populism and the left’s socialism were hardly models of rigor and consistency, but behind both Donald Trump’s ascent and Bernie Sanders’s popularity lay an array of concerns about problems the existing elite consensus didn’t seem well equipped to deal with — the downsides of free trade and China-America intertwinement, the painfully slow recovery from the Great Recession, the rising costs of health care and education.

Much of the Biden administration’s economic agenda has been designed with this constellation of issues in mind. The full-employment stimulus, the big infrastructure spending deal, the experiments with industrial policy, the attempt at student-loan forgiveness, the push for family-friendly tax policy, the trade brinkmanship with China: As much or more than Trump’s White House, this has been a post-neoliberal administration.

The Sanders left, of course, would say that President Biden’s agenda hasn’t gone far enough. (Where’s single payer? Where’s free college?) The populist right would say his agenda has been undermined by a disastrous border policy and also tilted too much toward the boutique priorities of the liberal upper middle class.

But politically, the debate about whether Biden has gotten the post-neoliberal mixture just right clearly matters less than the fact that a post-neoliberal agenda has no clear answer to inflation.

Instead, all of the ideas that came out of the mid-2010s reckoning with neoliberalism’s limits assume a certain degree of fiscal capacity. Which, in those years, is exactly what we had: more room than the fiscal scolds and deficit hawks assumed for spending and for tax cuts, more room to run the economy hot, more room to debate whether a Green New Deal or a big beautiful infrastructure bill or a pro-family tax code should be the most important populist priority.

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