Why won’t the White House take inflation seriously?

As has been clear for some time now, the fortunes of Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation and the state of the US economy are inextricably linked. With every bit of economic bad news, such as the worse-in-40-years inflation figures announced on Friday, the chances of the president securing fifty votes for his monster spending bill seem to fade.

Today, Biden will meet Joe Manchin and try to win the West Virginia holdout round. But one suspects nothing the president says to Manchin would be as persuasive as some good economic news — in particular, an easing of the price rises that Manchin has long said are a major reason why he cannot support the bill.

And for all that the Biden White House now claims to take the inflation threat seriously, one cannot help but feel the administration basically views the problem as one of messaging and spin, rather than anything more serious. Consider, for example, the insincere way in which Build Back Better has been rebranded as an urgently needed inflation-busting measure. The economic picture is radically different to when Build Back Better was first introduced. And yet we are supposed to believe that the legislation remains the perfect set of measures for the moment.

The White House has officially dropped talk of “transitory” inflation, but they clearly still think of it as a temporary problem. On Friday, Biden called price rises a “real bump in the road.”

Biden has assembled a handful of inflation-busting measures, but they feel designed so that he has an answer to the inflation question rather than as an earnest attempt to bring prices down. A government that was serious about the inflation threat would take an all-of-government approach. It would decide that now was not the time to double tariffs on lumber, for instance.

Rather than actually tackling inflation, officials are more interested in explaining why those prices aren’t the full story. Biden chief of staff Ron Klain decided that the best response was a flip chart explaining that everything was actually great. It is one thing to tout your economic achievements, it is another to deny the existence of any problems. On inflation, the White House too often finds itself telling voters not to believe their lying eyes.

To some economists, frustration among Americans at the state of the economy is a head-scratcher. GDP is surging, why aren’t people feeling better, they ask themselves.

But as the New York Times’s David Leonhardt explained on Friday, this really isn’t as much of a paradox as these economists seem to think. In his blunt assessment, “Americans think the economy is in rough shape because the economy is in rough shape.”

As Obama economic adviser Jason Furman told the Washington Post recently, “The typical family is spending an extra $4,000 this year because of excess inflation. It does not seem like much of a mystery why people are upset when they have to spend thousands of additional dollars more because of inflation.”

Not long ago, Klain called inflation a “quality problem.” He has learned not to say something like that again in public. But one can’t help but feel that, privately at least, that is still the White House view.

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A missing map undermines Biden’s democracy summit

If anyone at Joe Biden’s Summit of Democracies, hosted virtually by the White House last week, understood what is at stake in conversations about freedom, democracy and sovereignty, it was the delegation from Taiwan, where threat of Chinese invasion is a daily worry. And so it is dispiriting to read that a video feed of a Taiwanese minister was cut off when she showed a slide that depicts Taiwan and China in different colors.

According to Reuters, “sources familiar with the matter told Reuters that Friday’s slide show by Taiwanese Digital Minister Audrey Tang caused consternation among US officials after the map appeared in her video feed for about a minute.” Apparently officials worried that displaying the map at a White House event might be interpreted as a US refutation of the one-China policy, which avoids taking a stance on Taiwanese independence. The State Department refused to accept this explanation, instead calling the video feed cut “an honest mistake.”

Covid common sense in Colorado

Let’s hear it for Colorado governor Jared Polis. He is a rare beast: a Democrat governor with a libertarian streak. And on Covid, he has admirably little time for both those who seem to want the pandemic to go on forever and those who have decided to lionize a reluctance to get vaccinated as some sort of brave stand for liberty.”

Everybody had more than enough opportunity to get vaccinated,” Polis said on Friday. “At this point, if you haven’t been vaccinated, it’s really your own darn fault.”

As a result, Polis sees no case for ongoing pandemic restrictions: “The emergency is over. You know, public health [officials] don’t get to tell people what to wear; that’s just not their job. Public health [officials] would say to always wear a mask because it decreases flu and decreases [other airborne illnesses]. But that’s not something that you require; you don’t tell people what to wear. You don’t tell people to wear a jacket when they go out in winter and force them to [wear it]. If they get frostbite, it’s their own darn fault.”

Cato’s unlikely European alliance

This may be a time of strange alliances and unusual ideological crosscurrents in Washington. But a speech by French ambassador Philippe Étienne, who appears to have recovered from his temper tantrum over Australian submarines, at the Cato Institute on Friday was an especially odd spectacle.

The content of the address was predictable enough, with Emmanuel Macron’s man in Washington calling for greater European defense coordination (translation: further steps towards a European Union standing army). But Cato, generally an unstintingly libertarian operation, makes for an unlikely venue for this proposal. Boosted European defense might help satisfy the libertarian desire to pare back America’s military role around the world. Yet doing so via the unaccountable and undemocratic means of the European Union is an ill-fitting proposal for the Cato crowd.

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Poll watch

President Biden Job Approval
Approve: 42.3 percent
Disapprove: 51.8 percent
Net approval: -9.5 (RCP Average)

Reasons given by unemployed Americans for not looking for work
Physical health: 46 percent
Mental health: 38 percent (McKinsey’s American Opportunity Survey)

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