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Joe Manchin’s Lame Reason for Opposing More Infrastructure Spending

Voting down the country’s best shot at climate legislation because you’re worried about inflation is pretty twisted.

Joe Manchin looks to his right, wearing a face mask.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Joe Manchin leaves the Senate floor following a vote.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin isn’t sold on the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill that could be this country’s last chance to pass anything resembling climate policy for a decade. “Given the current state of the economic recovery,” Manchin tweeted Wednesday, “it is simply irresponsible to continue spending at levels more suited to respond to a Great Depression or Great Recession—not an economy that is on the verge of overheating.”

Manchin has it the wrong way around. The economy is not on the verge of overheating. The planet is. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed this week, it’s already overheated.

Manchin was responding, at least in part, to new inflation numbers. But what is inflation, anyway? It starts with the Consumer Price Index, a somewhat arbitrarily assembled basket of goods whose prices are tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Inflation is the change in the weighted average price of those goods from month to month. Because certain heavily weighted goods (namely, gasoline and cars) are currently getting more expensive, July’s average looks higher than it would be otherwise.

“Overheating”—which is what Manchin was angsting about—is the fear that too much money floating around will cause the economy to exceed its productive capacity and prices will spin out of control. But that’s not much of a risk right now. The Council of Economic Advisers has in fact recently been trying to point out the way auto parts, used cars, and pandemic-affected industries like hotels and airlines have been distorting inflation numbers. Core inflation, meanwhile, has actually been slowing for the last three months.

Certain things are getting costlier for pretty specific reasons. People are buying a lot of cars, and there’s a semiconductor shortage. Price swings in oil and gas prices are largely thanks to their own idiosyncratic set of circumstances and have very little to do with the amount of money Congress decides to spend. Biden, for example, recently called on OPEC+ to start pumping more oil. That’s because he knows people don’t really like paying more for gas, and he doesn’t have many other options to make gas cheaper: U.S. oil and gas producers are now exercising a bit of discipline and constraining production to appease lenders fed up with them hemorrhaging cash on rapid-fire production. (The United States, unlike just about every other major oil-producing country on earth, lacks a mechanism for the federal government to boost or curtail production.)

In any case, cars and gas costing more doesn’t mean you’ll have to pay $10 for a banana by September or burn bank notes by the cartload, Weimar-style, for warmth at Thanksgiving. The evidence that the U.S. economy is overheated boils down to it being more expensive than it was a year ago to buy a 2017 Toyota Corolla. The evidence that the planet is overheated includes entire towns being zapped off the map in California and another week of well over 100 degree temperatures in the Pacifc Northwest, not to mention hundreds dying in floods in central China, devastating landslides in India, and the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report. When Joe Manchin tweets that he’s concerned about the “fiscal policy future of this country,” he’s saying he thinks the price of a Corolla is more important than mass death.

Manchin, unfortunately, is not the only politician taking this position. In the same week when the world’s preeminent climate scientists sounded “code red for humanity,” centrist Democrats and Republicans in Congress found common ground on a number of planet-wrecking amendments to the $3.5 trillion budget resolution before heading off for vacation. These are nonbinding and mostly symbolic but reveal plenty about where Senate Democrats stand and how they’re likely to vote on things that actually matter. Per Politico, Democratic Senators Michael Bannett, Bob Casey, Martin Heinrich, John Hickenlooper, Angus King, and Ben Ray Luján, Jon Tester, and Manchin joined Republicans on an amendment that would bar the Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency from “promulgating rules or guidance that bans hydraulic fracturing” in the United States. Senators Mark Kelly, Kyrsten Sinema, Manchin, and Tester joined in a vote that would keep the Agriculture Department—which has jurisdiction over rural electric cooperatives—from denying any financing for the building, maintaining, or improving fossil fuel–burning power plants. All but eight senators voted to cut off federal funds to renewable energy projects that source “materials, technology, and critical minerals produced in China,” currently the world’s top producer of several of those things. Sixteen Democrats voted to exempt livestock producers from methane regulations.

All of them will explain these votes and any further reticence on climate spending in the coming weeks. None of these explanations should be persuasive at this point, though, given the bare facts of the climate crisis. Some people just want to see the world burn.