Thursday, April 29, 2021

Biden lays out an ambitious agenda for a more activist government, strays from the facts with some assertions

Attendance in the House chamber was limited due to the pandemic. (Photo by Doug Mills, The New York Times)
"President Biden laid out an ambitious agenda on Wednesday night to rewrite the American social compact by vastly expanding family leave, child care, health care, preschool and college education for millions of people to be financed with increased taxes on the wealthiest earners," Peter Baker reports for The New York Times. "The succession of costly proposals amounts to a risky gamble that a country deeply polarized along ideological and cultural lines is ready for a more activist government."

Biden's speech to a limited-attendance joint session of Congress had a couple of lines aimed at rural voters, saying his infrastructure plan "creates jobs, connecting every American with high-speed internet including the 35 percent of rural America that still doesn't have it," and would pay farmers for helping thwart climate change.

The speech also included some misleading claims, according to fact-checkers. One came early: "The economy created more than 1,300,000 new jobs in 100 days. More new jobs in the first 100 days than any president on record." That's misleading, the Times' Jeanna Smialek wrote:

"That is extremely fast by historical norms, but it’s also a function of the state of the economy. About 8.4 million jobs are still missing compared to the employment level before the pandemic started to weigh on the economy in March 2020. Most people who lost jobs in the downturn are expected to come back fairly quickly as reopening gets underway, because they presumably want to work, but have been thrown out of jobs by state and local lockdowns. It doesn’t make sense for Mr. Biden to seemingly take credit for the rapid rebound in his bragging point, because it is partly or mostly the result of economic reopening."

Biden also claimed that “a broad consensus of economists, left, right, center . . . agree that what I’m proposing will help create millions of jobs and generate historic economic growth.” Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, giving the Republican response, contradicted him, saying unspecified "experts" say the plan would lower the average wage and shrink the economy. Scott appeared to be referring to projections by The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

A more optimistic projection came from Moody's Investors Service, which Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post cited: "The infrastructure plan would especially spur job growth in 2024 and 2025, after a slight decline in jobs because of the impact of Biden’s proposed tax increases to fund the plan," according to Moody's. The Associated Press said Biden was "glossing over the naysayers."

Biden made many ad libs to his prepared text, some of which strayed from the facts. Mentioning the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, he said "the vast majority [are] overstaying visas."  There is no official count, but Daniel Dale of CNN said that was true of the newly undocumented until 2017, and AP cited an expert who figures the overstay share in 2018 was 46 percent, "not a majority, let alone a 'vast majority'."

Finally, two style points, perhaps also attributable to ad libs: Biden asked Congress to send him a bill "which I will gladly, anxiously sign," and said the U.S. is "the most unique idea in history." First, if he was glad, he wouldn't be anxious; what he surely meant was "eager." It's a common mistake.

Also common, but more irritating to those of us who put a premium on clarity of language, was his misuse of "unique," which should take no modifiers of degree. Otherwise, we lose a unique word, the only one that means "one of a kind." We need that word. Let's treat it with respect and accuracy.

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