Biden’s first 100 days clearly signals the end of the Third Way in economic and social policy. With massive investments proposed in social infrastructure and education, a willingness to take a positive sum approach to budget deficits, and a commitment to fund those investments partly through higher corporate taxes it’s clear that the Third Way is now truly dead.
For those who may not remember (or who have been all too happy to forget) the Third Way was a strategy cooked up by Centre-left parties in the 1990s who hoped to ride the coattails of a highly deregulated economy and booming stock market while also mitigating some of its damage through targeted social spending. It was called the “Third Way” because it sought to distance itself equally from conservatives and from social democrats. This was the policy style that defined Clinton’s “triangulation,” Tony Blair’s “New Labour,” and Jean Chrétien’s deficit-busting mantra.
The cost of these policy failures has become obvious in recent years, as we have witnessed the 2008 global financial crisis, growing inequality, and the rise of populist resentment—not to mention the discovery that cuts to the public health infrastructure may have trimmed a few government budgets over the year but at the cost of thousands upon thousands of lives (and a shuttered economy) today.
Although Joe Biden was a card-carrying member of the Third Way club in his earlier days, given the huge costs of these mistakes, it is little wonder that he has recognized that it is time for a different approach to the economy.
There are at least three key ways in which Biden’s economic policy breaks with the logic of the Third Way, each of which has important implications for Canadian economic policy.
First, Biden has proposed a massive increase in social spending. His Families Plan aims to invest $1.8 trillion over 10 years and includes support for free universal preschool, paid family and parental leave, investment in child care and education. As Adam Tooze has pointed out recently, the theme of investing in families is in fact central to all three of Biden’s major spending initiatives: the $1.9 trillion Rescue Plan, which has already been signed into law, included a significant, but temporary, family allowance system, while the $2.3 trillion Infrastructure and Jobs Plan includes major investments in elder care.
In a few short months, Biden has upended decades of doomed neoliberal efforts to economize on government spending by cutting social spending and offloading on women the cost of what feminist political economists call “social reproduction”—the work of raising children, keeping households going, and caring for the old and the ill—which the formal economy depends on to keep going.
Although women’s double burden helped families to eke out more from stagnant wages, it seriously affected women’s capacity to participate fully in the formal labour market. As Biden, Justin Trudeau and others from the Centre-left have finally recognized, the savings that deficit-busting governments gained from not investing in women and children was therefore always a false economy. As Quebec has made clear, affordable daycare more than pays for itself with the extra tax receipts earned when women are fully active in the workforce.
Second, Biden has finally given up on the Third Way faith in the virtues of balancing budgets and reducing debt. It was always particularly painful to watch Clinton and Obama Democrats, Chrétien Liberals and Blair’s Labour Party cut and cut and cut away all of the programs that they had once helped to create in the belief that this was the only way to get government back on solid fiscal ground. (Of course, Republicans from Reagan onward never believed in balancing their budgets, even as preached the virtues of the “Washington Consensus” on those in the Global South.)
It seems that Biden and his Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, like Trudeau and our Finance Minister, Chrystia Freeland, have finally recognized that the zero-sum logic of balanced budgets as an end in themselves is based on a fundamental fallacy. If a country cuts back too much on its spending in the name of austerity, it can create a downward spiral of less consumption, lower investment and increased unemployment, actually slowing the recovery (as we saw in Greece and the UK after the 2008 crisis). On the other hand, the build-up of careful, productively-invested debt can generate decades of growth that not only make a country wealthier but also ensure that the wealth benefits more of its population.
Finally, Biden has proposed that some of the additional spending should be paid for through higher taxes on the wealthy and on corporations. He seeks to double the tax on capital gains and raise corporate tax rates from 21% to 28%. This is a crucial shift after decades in which the Centre-left has gone along with the neoliberal myth that helping out investors and big corporations ultimately trickles down to the rest of us, while raising their taxes only hurts consumers. In fact, as the Tax Policy Centre notes, most corporate taxes in the US are paid for by investors—with 70% paid by the top 5% of income earners.
This is the one area where Biden is clearly ahead of the Trudeau Liberals in challenging the myths of the Third Way. There has been no sign of the current Canadian government wanting to reverse the Chrétien Liberals’ sharp reduction in the capital gains tax or to raise corporate taxes (which were also slashed under Chrétien, and then further cut by Harper). It appears that the Trudeau Liberals are not ready to discard their unhealthy relationship with big business and challenge the Third Way myth of corporate trickle-down.
Although it’s hard to say how much of this ambitious plan Biden will get through Congress, what is clear is that by challenging the damaging myths of the Third Way, Biden has shown that it is possible to imagine a more just economy, not just in the US but around the world.
This blog was originally published on the CIPS Blog, May 31, 2021.