The biggest deficit you’ve never heard of

It’s the deficit in public investment.

SOURCERobert Reich

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. 

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. 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. 


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Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fourteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "Saving Capitalism." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, co-founder of the nonprofit Inequality Media and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, Inequality for All.