Multi-Trillion Dollar Spending Bills Raise Questions About Infrastructure : The Indicator from Planet Money The recent updates on the Biden Administration's infrastructure bills raise a serious question: what counts as infrastructure? Today on the show, we speak with two economists on the topic.

Indicator Of The Week: 4.5 Trillion

Indicator Of The Week: 4.5 Trillion

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Win McNamee/Getty Images
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Senate recently passed a one-trillion dollar infrastructure bill. Democrats are also working on a 3.5 trillion dollar "human infrastructure" bill that includes education spending, child care, and many more. With so much money at stake, there is a current debate on what counts as infrastructure and what does not.

Economist Richard Geddes separates infrastructure into two categories. Civilian infrastructure includes roads, bridges, tunnels, electric grids and so on. Social infrastructure provides public goods and services, such as hospitals, libraries and courthouses. Economist James Poterba explains that infrastructure bills are popular among politicians and voters because they produce tangible outcomes and that's why the one trillion dollar bill passed with bipartisan support.

However, the 3.5 trillion dollar bill is not what people traditionally consider infrastructure. Professor Geddes argues that a big part of this new bill is actually consumption, because the government needs to constantly spend money to keep the program going, unlike building an airport that costs a massive amount initially but has much smaller maintenance costs. However, Professor Poterba points out that funding programs like childcare, for example, are investments in the future, just as building a new highway is, in part, an investment in the future.

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