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What Economy Are You Voting For?

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Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Cardiff Garcia, normally one of the hosts of The Indicator podcast. But today, I am invading your PLANET MONEY podcast feed to talk about - what else? - the election.

Yes. In case you've been living in a space colony somewhere, under a rock, whatever, next week is Election Day in America - Donald Trump, the president, versus the former vice president Joe Biden.

What are their economic policy agendas? Nobody knows - wait; that's not the end of the sentence - nobody knows better than Danielle Kurtzleben of the NPR Politics team. Reporter Danielle, how are you? Welcome back.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: I am so excited to be talking to you, Cardiff.

GARCIA: Yes, not half as excited as I am to have you back on the show.

KURTZLEBEN: Sounds like it, yeah.


GARCIA: Danielle, you and I are going to be doing something special today. We are going to be going through the economic policy proposals of both former Vice President Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Are you ready?


GARCIA: Are you ready for it all to be over?

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter) A thousand percent.

GARCIA: OK. After a quick break, Danielle Kurtzleben of the NPR Politics team takes us through Joe Biden's economic policy agenda.

Three parts of Joe Biden's economic policy agenda with Danielle Kurtzleben, reporter on the NPR Politics team. Danielle, here's where I want to start. You said something interesting to me recently, which is that for both of these candidates, pandemic policy is economic policy. So let's make that the first thing we discuss. What is Joe Biden's pandemic policy as it relates to his economic policy?

KURTZLEBEN: Sure. So Joe Biden is very much focused on containing the coronavirus. Yes, he wants as badly as any of us do for there to be a vaccine and for pharmaceutical companies to stay at work on that. But he also is saying, look; until then, make sure that we have the virus as reined in as possible. And here's a line, actually, from his website that really struck me. It says, Biden believes we must spend whatever it takes, without delay, to meet public health needs and deal with the mounting economic consequences. I mean, he's really saying one can't happen before the other. You can't have the economy bounce back without coronavirus, at least to some degree, really hemmed in.

So to do that, he's encouraging a lot of things, like mask-wearing - that sort of thing - more testing. But one other thing he has said is that the CDC, Centers for Disease Control, need to come out with clear guidance for states and localities on, OK, here's what you should be opening and when based on how coronavirus looks in your area. So if coronavirus is really bad, maybe you shouldn't have schools open right now, and definitely not restaurants or concerts or whatever. But if things are looking better, maybe you can open schools. But what he's saying is this is not necessarily an all-or-nothing thing, but we need clear guidance from scientists on exactly what to close down and when.

GARCIA: So it's fair to describe this as a somewhat detailed approach. As opposed to thinking of it in binary terms, like everything locks down or everything stays open, it's an attempt to find out, OK, what are the details that matter? And then let's apply those on a situation-by-situation basis.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. I mean, the way he makes it sound is nuanced, but also to some degree simple, or at least clear. Like, yes, there might be gradations between states, but we at least want to give states some sort of guidance on exactly what they could or should be doing and when.

GARCIA: Let's go on to the second part of his economic policy agenda that we're talking about here. And this has to do with Joe Biden's proposed spending programs, which are a lot higher than, say, what Donald Trump has proposed. So why don't we get into that? What is Joe Biden proposing spending money on?

KURTZLEBEN: All right, so the umbrella that he has put all of these policies under he is calling Build Back Better.

GARCIA: Well, I've heard better alliterative strokes of genius, but fine.

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

GARCIA: We'll stick with that, Build Back Better. And what's in that?

KURTZLEBEN: This isn't about marketing, Cardiff. This is about economics.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: So, OK, the first is manufacturing, making sure that there are more manufacturing jobs. And he's clear on this. He wants them to be unionized manufacturing jobs and also to make sure that there are supply chains here in the U.S. to make sure people can get the goods they want, which is something that we have seen laid bare a bit by COVID.

No. 2 is green infrastructure. So, yes, he wants to build roads and bridges the way that we think of infrastructure pretty traditionally. But he also wants to make sure that lower pollution methods of transportation, for example, are encouraged, like light rails in cities, electric car production, that sort of thing.

Three, racial equity - he wants to close some of the really gaping economic gaps that we have between races and ethnicities in the country. And I know you guys have reported on this on your show.

GARCIA: Oh, yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: The very big, for example, unemployment gaps between Black Americans and white Americans, also Hispanic and Asian Americans - there are some huge gaps there. Likewise, the big wealth gaps.

And finally, caregiving - he wants to make sure that people are able to get quality and affordable care for their kids and also for their older relatives when they need it.

GARCIA: Yeah, that one's interesting. Tell us a little bit more about the approach to caregiving that Joe Biden is pursuing here.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure. And this is really, of course, important right now because COVID has shown us, as we're all staying home and as kids are not in school, that caregiving is really important for people to be able to do their jobs and participate in the economy.

GARCIA: And, in fact, we've seen people falling out of the workforce because they didn't have...


GARCIA: ...Access to child care and to elderly care.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, most definitely. So what Biden is proposing is pretty ambitious. I mean, what he wants to do is universal pre-K available to all kids. He wants there to be higher pay for child care providers. He wants them to be able to unionize, to collectively bargain. And he wants to grow the number, the supply of child care establishments around the country to make sure people can get that child care.

Aside from that, in terms of spending and making it more affordable, he wants to make sure there are refundable tax credits to low- and middle-class families to help them pay for child care.

So that's a lot of stuff. And child care, I know you know, it's a complicated thing to make sure everybody can get it, to make sure there's enough, that it's high-quality, that it's affordable. So it's a tough needle to thread, but this is his attempt at doing that.

GARCIA: OK, and let's get to the third part of the agenda, which is sort of the flip side of the spending, which is where are the tax revenues to pay for some of this spending going to actually come from?

KURTZLEBEN: Higher-income people and corporations.

GARCIA: Boom. That's it. We're done.

KURTZLEBEN: Next question.

GARCIA: We're done.


GARCIA: OK, so it's not going to come from middle-income or lower-income folks then, is what Biden is saying.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So what he wants to do is raise taxes for households with incomes above $400,000 a year, limit their deductions. And also, he wants to increase the top corporate income tax rate from 21%, where it is now, to 28%. Now, President Trump, you'll remember, lowered these taxes with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, that big tax bill that Republicans passed in 2017. So Joe Biden is saying, look; I want to roll a lot of that back. I want to change things back now.

So in terms of those income tax changes, yeah, that would overwhelmingly, of course, affect the highest-income people. There is some question about what the corporate tax plan would do - I mean, how much that would be knocked on, if at all, to people at the lower end of the income spectrum. It's possible that it would be to some degree. But again, you compare it to those income tax changes, and it's nowhere near what a change those would be.

GARCIA: Essentially looking at the last four years and saying, I'm undoing some of this, and I'm putting in place the agenda I prefer instead of the one that President Trump has preferred.

KURTZLEBEN: Right, yes. Now, listen; we're laying out all of these economic plans. Here is what Joe Biden wants to do, would do in his perfect world, his theoretical I-get-everything-I-want world. But, of course, he won't get everything he wants. He can't. OK, but what's your priority? In Biden's case, is it going to be green jobs? Is it going to be this tax plan? Is it going to be child care? What does he do first and decide to spend all of his power on?

GARCIA: Right. You've got to prioritize 'cause you're not going to get everything you want.

KURTZLEBEN: Absolutely.

GARCIA: You might not get anything you want.


GARCIA: Right?


GARCIA: But in speaking with you, Danielle, about the candidates' policy proposals, I am getting everything I want.

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).


GARCIA: After a quick break, President Trump's economic policy agenda.

KURTZLEBEN: I look forward to it, yeah.

GARCIA: Excellent.


GARCIA: OK, Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR politics reporter, we need to start again with pandemic policy because we have covered Joe Biden's pandemic policy, and you made the point that pandemic policy is economic policy. So what about President Donald Trump? What is his proposed pandemic policy going into a second term?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So we talk about how Joe Biden is very much focused on containing the virus.


KURTZLEBEN: Donald Trump, on the other hand, is very much focused on vaccines and treatments for the virus. So he has said that he wants to begin distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of this year. And a number he has put out there is to have 300 million doses available by January 2021.

Now, that is a lofty goal. And, of course, it is very dependent on whether pharmaceutical companies, scientists are able to come up with tests and approve a vaccine and then produce it on that scale, hundreds of millions of doses. So this is a thing he wants, but it is not entirely under his power.

GARCIA: And, Danielle, he's been kind of de-emphasizing the role of the federal government when it comes to containing the virus - right? - and leaving it more to state governments.

KURTZLEBEN: Donald Trump has very much been focused on states know best, governors and state legislatures know best what they should be doing to control the virus in their states. I'm in Washington. I don't know what you need in Nebraska. So the Nebraska governor, for example, hypothetically, should be the person to be calling some of these shots.

Also, he has been very much attacking Joe Biden and some other Democrats' willingness to say, look; some places, some businesses, some schools might have to close down to contain the virus. Donald Trump has taken a very you've got to live your lives, we have to have the economy open sort of approach. That's the rhetoric he's been using.

GARCIA: OK, let's go on to the second part of the President Trump economic agenda, which is about jobs creation as a big policy goal, especially in the next year. What's going on there?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So he has set a very ambitious goal of 10 million jobs in 10 months. So if you can imagine 10 straight jobs days of a million jobs apiece or something that averages out to that...

GARCIA: Sounds great.



KURTZLEBEN: Let's do it (laughter). And by the way, we are down by roughly 10 million jobs from where we were pre-pandemic. So what he's saying is in 10 months, get back to normal.

But the question is how? This is a lovely idea, but it's not entirely clear how we would get there. Now, one thing he has said is he wants to offer tax credits to manufacturing companies that bring jobs back from China, but that would not get us anywhere near 10 million.

Now, in addition, I reached out to the White House to ask, OK, what else is on the docket? And a spokesman got back to me, and he largely pointed to past policies, saying, for example, lower taxes, deregulation, trade policies and the relief packages already passed laid good groundwork for future growth to happen. So in other words, before the pandemic, the economy was going great, and I did that, so I think I can just get us back there again is a line of logic that he is often using.

Now, there are a lot of flaws to that logic, a lot of questions that raises - for example, should the president get full credit for that? I mean, arguably, no.

GARCIA: Long debate. Long debate, yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. But, yes, he has a very big, lofty goal here, but not a clear map to get to that goal.

GARCIA: Yeah. I want to point out something kind of interesting here, though, because the president and his administration, his campaign have talked a lot about lower taxes, tax credits, tax policy. But he did sign into law the multitrillion-dollar CARES Act. He has been negotiating with Democrats in the House of Representatives over a multitrillion-dollar new stimulus package. And it's actually the Republicans in the Senate who have said that they don't want to spend that much more money. But the president himself has said that he would be willing to do a big deal. He would be willing to spend money.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, that's true. And when you look at the different numbers put out there between Senate Republicans, the White House and House Democrats, there is a lot of daylight. And even then, even if it were just the White House and House Democrats, there are also some gaps there in terms of what House Democrats want and what the White House doesn't want. But, yeah, you throw in all three of those parties, and they haven't been able to reach a deal. And you and I both know American people are very much hurting right now - high unemployment, people still on unemployment and needing money to buy the basics.

GARCIA: Let's go to the third and final part of the economic agenda that we're going to discuss here, which is trade wars. Trade wars have been a big, dominant part of President Trump's rhetoric and of his actual agenda throughout his first term. I suspect we would be seeing more of the same in the second term.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, that's exactly right. I mean, Trump has said that he plans on continuing to use tariffs, specifically against China, in his second term as he has this term. And so the question is, what exactly would that do, and what would it induce because we did sign that trade deal with China in February, the phase one trade deal? Thus far, from the numbers we have, China is not on track to meet the commitments it made to buying U.S. goods in areas like agriculture, for example.

GARCIA: This was a deal that happened after both China and the U.S. had raised tariffs on each other. And then in exchange for lowering some U.S. tariffs, China agreed to buy some U.S. products. But so far, it's not on pace to actually buy as much of those products as it said it was going to buy.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. But on top of all of this, there are complicating factors. One is that Trump has very much been demonizing China when it comes to coronavirus. He keeps calling it the China virus and thinks to the effect of China needs to pay for its role in coronavirus spreading all over the world. So you can imagine how that might make trade talks in the future much tougher.

GARCIA: Yes, indeed. I would imagine exactly that.

KURTZLEBEN: I do want to add one more point here on the topic of China, and it's that there has been broad agreement, bipartisan agreement for a while that, yes, China has been engaging in unfair trade practices in all sorts of ways. So Trump may have the diagnosis right that, yeah, we need to do something about China's trade practices. But the question is whether he has the solution, the cure right here in terms of tariffs.


GARCIA: All right, well, I'll tell you what, Danielle. It has been so great to have you on the show. Thank you so much for doing this.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. Thank you.


GARCIA: If you liked this episode, please come and join us over at the show I co-host every single weekday, The Indicator, which is kind of like PLANET MONEY, but with one difference - and I mean this in the best possible way - maybe a little bit nerdier. You can find it wherever it is that you are listening to this episode.

This episode was produced by Darian Woods, with help from Gilly Moon. It was fact-checked by Sean Saldana and edited by Paddy Hirsch.

One more thing - in a bit of exciting news, there is PLANET MONEY swag for sale on the Internet now. Head on over to shop.npr.org/planetmoney for all your nerdy holiday shopping needs, including PLANET MONEY T-shirts.

I'm Cardiff Garcia. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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