a trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon, you’re talking real money

In class yesterday, we discussed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which funds green technologies and jobs in disadvantaged communities. I tried to present the Act neutrally, with lots of room for criticism from several directions, but I also conveyed its magnitude and significance as a change of direction for America.

I think the strategy of the IRA was new to these students, which is not a criticism of them–the Act receives extraordinarily little attention and debate. However, its projected price-tag is above $800 billion, and Goldman Sachs estimates that it generated about $282 billion in investment and roughly 175,000 jobs in its first year alone. It’s also closely related to the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the $280+ billion CHIPS Act. In other words–like it or hate it–it is big.

In July 2023, a Washington Post survey found that most Americans had not heard of the main provisions of the IRA. In that survey, 39% favored and 39% opposed the law, yet majorities expressed support for each of its main provisions. For instance, 65% favored tax credits for solar panels, although just 24% had heard of that provision in the law.

We discussed why this significant policy gets so little public attention. Some of my students’ astute explanations were about the general flaws of our media landscape and public attention. I have previously noted the odd politics of this particular issue, which dissuades both Democrats and Republicans from talking about it much. Even the name of the “Inflation Reduction Act” is so misleading that it distracts attention.

The students also made a good point that hadn’t been clearly on my mind before. They said that the numbers in the bill fail to capture attention because it’s hard to know what counts as a large amount. Politicians and reporters are always talking about billions for this and billions for that, and these numbers just wash over us.

So some comparisons might be useful. …

The IRA is projected to cost over $800 billion by 2033. In the United States, we spend $795 billion per year on K-12 education: teacher’ and administrators’ salaries, facilities, school lunches, equipment, buses, and everything else. So one year’s spending on all of US schooling equals the projected cost of the IRA.

The IRA has many provisions, and I am primarily interested in support for green manufacturing, which represents about $369 billion. This means that if we could take about half the money that it costs to operate all our schools for a year and spend it on green manufacturing, that would be the size of the IRA.

Another comparison: the US federal prison system is allocated about $7.8 billion in the president’s latest budget request. Therefore, the annual amount of new subsidies for green manufacturing will be about the same as the cost of all federal prisons each year for ten years, due to the IRA.

A third comparison: the GDP of Taiwan is about $790 billion, so all the goods and services sold by that country in one year are worth about as much as the IRA over ten years. Belgium is also a pretty close comparison. If you want to focus only the support for green manufacturing, then the IRA’s provisions are worth about as much as all the goods and services sold in the Czech Republic in a given year.

See also: a different way in which the 2024 election is a failure for democracy; federal spending for both climate and democracy; the major shift in climate strategy

This entry was posted in Uncategorized on by .

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.