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While Donald Trump claimed he wanted to “Make America Great Again,” President Joe Biden is attempting to actually do it. The former president’s slogan got Americans thinking nostalgically about the 1950s and early ’60s, when the United States dominated the world and its economy produced rising wages for workers and executives alike. A defining feature of those years was federal investment in infrastructure, scientific research and education. (Think interstate highways, NASA and the massive expansion of public universities.) By contrast, Washington in recent years has mostly spent money to fund private consumption by giving people tax cuts or transfer payments.

Biden’s infrastructure plan is the first major fiscal program in five decades that would focus once again on investment.

When you look at federal spending as a whole, it seems to have risen significantly over the past few decades. But the composition of that spending tells the real story — most of that increase is a result of sharp rises in entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Core investment spending has actually dropped substantially. The United States used to spend as much as 3 percent of its gross domestic product on transportation and water infrastructure; that number is now closer to 2 percent. The United States used to be the world’s unquestioned leader in basic science and technology. China is now almost on par with it.

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