The Best Explanation of Biden’s Thinking I’ve Heard
The president’s top economic adviser, Brian Deese, explains why 2021 isn’t 2009.,
Produced by ‘The Ezra Klein Show’
With the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan, the economic theory that is Bidenomics is taking shape. It’s big. It puts climate at the center of everything. It is more worried about political risks — losing the House, giving Donald Trump a path back to power — than some traditional economic risks, like wasting money and bumping up inflation. It prefers to err on the side of spending more and making sure people know they got a bridge or a job than doing less and having people question whether government is working for them. But I still have a lot of questions about Bidenomics, in terms of both its economic theories and its political ones.
Brian Deese is the director of the National Economic Council, the nerve center that coordinates economic policy across the executive branch. He led the auto bailout in the Obama administration and then turned to climate, first in the Obama White House and then at BlackRock. When President Biden brought him on to run the N.E.C., it was a message: In the Biden administration, all economics was going to be climate economics.
I asked Deese to join me on the podcast to talk about how his economic policymaking and thinking have changed since 2009, what the Biden administration learned from the successes and failures of the Obama era, why so much of the White House’s economic policy is framed in terms of competition with China, why he doesn’t think a carbon tax is the right answer for climate, how the Biden administration will invest in the care economy and more.
You can listen to our whole conversation by following “The Ezra Klein Show” wherever you get your podcasts or clicking play above. An edited transcript follows:
In 2009 the stimulus got sold as timely, temporary and targeted. There was this idea that what we were trying to do was accelerate recovery back to the precrisis economic trends. And what’s happening now in the Biden administration seems to be more fundamentally an argument that the precrisis economy was a disaster for both people and the planet. Is that right?
I think that’s a pretty fair reflection. Implicit in the slogan that the president coined on the campaign of Build Back Better was this notion that even as we were in the middle of a totally unique crisis, that we had to be thinking forward to fundamental challenges in the economy and how we were going to overcome them.
I think that you put your finger on two of them, one of which is this growing economic inequality that persisted over the course of a couple of decades but really was laid bare during the pandemic. The other is climate change; we’ve also seen the impact accelerating. And in our view, having an economic strategy that is unresponsive or agnostic to those issues is no longer a viable option.
These bills — the rescue plan, the jobs plan, the coming family plan — are always built on both a mix of political and economic theories. So what have you changed your mind on politically since 2009?
I think that certainly one of the important things politically is making sure that the ultimate beneficiaries of the things you are trying to accomplish know and understand what you’re trying to accomplish for them. Some of that gets distilled down into complexity versus simplicity. But I think it is [also] the willingness to see what we’re trying to accomplish in terms of making sure people understand what is going on.
In 2009 we were really focused on the idea of being out on the road and interacting with the ultimate end beneficiaries, whether it be a small business or whether it be a community organization or a family. That was the politics of it. And now, I think that’s more inextricably the policy of it. Because your ability to sustain good policy is connected to your ability to sustain political support for that good policy.
I think this helps illuminate a debate that happened, particularly with the rescue plan and the checks. There were economists, including the former guy who held your position, Larry Summers, who argued they were not well targeted. They were going to people who weren’t suffering.
And there’s another group who said even if they’re not perfectly targeted, they’re popular, people are going to know they’re getting them, they’re going to get a sense that they’re being helped by the administration, and that’s going to generate political momentum.
Should I understand that as a trade-off that this administration is making?
I think there’s a couple of things there to unpack. One of them is that the policy rationale and the policy goal here is different. The goal of providing relief is more akin to post natural disaster: How do you bridge people to when life is going to return to some semblance of normal?
In the current crisis, we are providing loans that turn over to become grants. That’s analytically very different than the kind of approach taken in 2009. This is more about bridging relief, avoiding suffering.
The second thing that you’re getting at, though, is the direct salience of understanding that this is a benefit that people are getting and that they can rally around it. I think there was a salience to that.
And this definition of what it means to be hurting is broader and more universal than the idea of viewing people as pass-throughs for increments of fiscal stimulus.
Even if you have retained your job — if you have a two-earner family and you’ve retained your job during this crisis — life is very hard right now. It’s more costly. And it’s costly in ways that are important to the way people are experiencing their life, even if it doesn’t fit into a sort of an output gap multiplier analysis.
I will say, viewing people as pass-throughs for units of incremental stimulus is one of the truly great sentences of economics I have ever heard.
How about economically? What have you changed your mind on economically since 2009?
A couple of things. Both the evidence and my understanding of the impact of climate change have affected my view of the importance of building the inevitable and now irreversible changes that increasing global average temperatures are having on our society into everything we’re doing. That’s No. 1.
No. 2 is that our economy is becoming more unequal. So the distributional consequences of fiscal policy in particular have become more resonant to me. If you look at the averages in this crisis, you almost look through almost all of the pronounced economic damage that’s happening. So this crisis, but even the run into this crisis, has made me more attuned to and more attentive to the ways in which economic policy that is agnostic to distributional impacts and agnostic to economic inequality likely fails to actually address the moment.
And the last piece is, the global economic situation has changed. China is in a very different place than it was a decade ago. We are in a different place vis-a-vis our international competitors. And my openness to more targeted efforts to try to build domestic industrial strength — the things that people in prior eras would demean or mock as industrial policy — has increased, because I think we are not operating on a level playing field.
There’s not a market-based solution to try to address some of the big weaknesses that we’re seeing open up in our economy when we’re dealing with competitors like China that are not operating on market-based terms. And that’s, for me at least, a change in perspective from where I was a decade ago.
I expected the focus on climate in this plan. I did not expect the focus on China in the framing and even policy design of this plan. So tell me more about why your thinking, the administration’s thinking, has changed on this since ’09.
A lot of this comes directly from how the president is thinking about the current moment and the direction that he’s providing to us. When he’s thinking about the infrastructure investments necessary, a lot of it is in contraposition to what he is seeing China doing in terms of strategic investments.
China has gotten high-speed rail right, where the United States has not. China is increasing its strategic R. and D. as a share of its economy in a way that we have let deteriorate. We’ve lived through a decade where China has been meticulously thinking about making those investments, marshaling those investments — not all successful but all with a deliberate focus on trying to build its own industrial base and its own intellectual and innovation base. And we have, for the better part of a decade, ignored or derogated those levers. So whatever argument there was for making those investments a decade ago is more pertinent now.
But I think the second element of it is that in the wake of the last four years among our allies and among our global counterparts, there is a big question about, can the United States deliver for its own citizens? Can the United States competently govern and invest in things that are obviously beneficial to its own welfare, its economic strength, its economic resilience? Because the world has watched now for a couple of years where the United States operated in a way that was very difficult for our international counterparts to fathom. That is really the dominant question. I think now more than any time in modern history, the world is watching U.S. domestic policy. This question of whether or not the rescue plan would pass was a top question at the G7. And I think that that reflects the fact that the world is asking this question: If the U.S. is going to lead again internationally on an issue like climate change or an issue like global health and pandemic response, first and foremost, the question is, can the U.S. get its house in order? And that question is inevitably framed vis-a-vis China.
We don’t think too much about how much the U.K. or Germany or Malaysia or Brazil are spending on R. and D. We don’t think that much about the strategic investments they’re making. Why frame things in the context of China?
They are the ascendant economic and military power in the world. And so for geopolitical and economic reasons, their economic strength and their national security strength will loom larger than others. I think that that’s No. 1.
No. 2 is, because of the investments that they have made, they’ve positioned themselves in a number of critical areas to our global economy and to supply chains as a critical actor. As we think about the competitive dynamics with China, we need to ask ourselves a more serious set of questions about our own vulnerability.
But it’s not just China. This isn’t just a great power dynamic between the U.S. and China. It’s also that this pandemic has exposed for us in the U.S. the vulnerability of our economy and our supply chains to an unrestrained globalized economy, where the supply chain vulnerabilities often are connected to China but are connected in very complicated ways.
The semiconductor shortage we have in the United States today is a complicated story that involves lots of countries and lots of elements of the supply chain and where your second-tier supplier sites are in Europe, even if the ultimate place where the wafer is being manufactured is in Asia. That’s a reality of the global economy, but those realities are creating vulnerabilities for the U.S. economy that I think have been more difficult to see or at least people haven’t focused as much on them until something like this pandemic happens and exposes us so viscerally.
I want to go back to something else you were talking about a minute ago: the concern over whether American government can still deliver for its own people. One thing that seems to me to have changed in the past 10, 15 years, particularly in Democratic economic politics, is a sense that the risks of economic policy are not just economic, they are political.
One of your colleagues said something to me that has rung in my head: “If people don’t see we’re helping the [expletive] out of them, this country could be back to Donald Trump or something like him very soon.” Is there a different sense of the interaction here between economics, the sense people have of the government working and what the range of political outcomes for America are?
I think that there’s definitely a sense that we just lived through four years of Donald Trump, which certainly raises the stakes for making sure that we can effectively deliver and never go back to that again.
But we’re also living through this pandemic, which has upended so much of what we took for granted as stable elements of our economy and our life. And we are at a critical moment internationally as well for the reasons we just discussed. So for all those reasons, I think that there is a heightened sense of the stakes.
And also, I would say on the positive side, a sense of the opportunity — that we do see historically that these moments of crises are moments where the potential spectrum of possibilities expands.
How is negotiating with the Democratic congressional caucus different now than it was then?
Well, I think the politics of the country and the politics of the Democratic Party have changed. There is a different aspiration and expectation for what we were elected to do. And I think that the president had a lot to do with that in terms of the campaign that he ran and the vision that he outlined for the country.
But I also think that even with the slim majorities that we have, the Democratic caucus as a whole is focused on delivering on that agenda, which is big and ambitious. And as a result, the pressure on us to stay consistent with delivering on a big and ambitious agenda is there. I also think that, at least so far, there’s been a remarkable amount of agreement, not on all the policy details and not on all of the elements of what we’re trying to do — and this is complicated, and everyone’s got different views — but on the fact that we need to move, we need to move with speed, we need to move with focus to try to get at those issues.
We’re not having a fundamental debate that says, we should be spending our time focused on something categorically different than the agenda the president’s trying to put forward. So in that sense, I think that there’s a shared sense of where we need to get to and the stakes of what we need to get done. But within that, we’ve got a broad coalition and a caucus that’s got a lot of different views. And certainly, they make those views known.
One of my senses of the way the negotiating space here has changed is that in 2009-2010, but also every administration prior to President Obama’s, everything — every policy, every message — was designed from the beginning with the expectation that there was going to be a negotiation with the congressional party of the other side, too. If you go back to the stimulus, there were tax cuts for that reason. The Affordable Care Act is built on the framework of Romneycare.
And it seems to me that for both the administration and for congressional Democrats, everybody would love Republican constructive engagement and votes and would be willing to make changes to get them. But things are not getting prenegotiated down in the expectation of it, and that has really changed policy design in a pretty fundamental way. Is that reasonable?
I would say two things about that. One is the president has been clear — and I expect it’s clear in both the rescue plan and the jobs plan — that he believes we need to go big. It is a moment to be bold. It is a moment to outline what it is that the country actually needs, which happens to put you in the category of doing things that are bold — things that haven’t been done in quite some time.
That’s the president’s firmly held belief — that the right thing for the country is to outline that kind of vision and then try to galvanize the country around why that’s necessary. That definitely defines the way that he is approaching this, and I think that is different.
The second thing, though, particularly with respect to this jobs plan, I think that part of what I think the president is showing is that you can actually outline a bold vision that’s not about trying to prenegotiate or trim your own sails from what you think is right to do while also proposing things that are broadly within the bounds of what both parties have agreed are necessary.
I think it’s a difference between trimming your own sails, saying, “I think what the country needs is X, but I’m only going to call for 0.3 X,” and saying, “It turns out that X that the country needs is something that is actually broadly supported across the country.” It’s not particularly a partisan political priority. It’s just that it hasn’t been done. We haven’t figured out a way to get it done.
The president’s view is that there isn’t a disconnect between being bold and proposing things that, putatively on their face, there’s no reason why Democrats and Republicans couldn’t work together. Now we’re going to work to figure out whether that’s possible. But there’s no reason on its face why that shouldn’t be true.
Well, it seems to me that to the extent there’s a disconnect that is being exploited, it’s a disconnect between congressional Republicans and their base. The administration is trying to propose things that do have Republican support, but support from Republicans across the country is not being defined in the way it used to be defined — as support among sort of elite Republican think tanks and legislators in Washington.
Yeah. Well, the thing about this jobs package that’s interesting in that respect is that there is so much that actually people out there in the country, particularly in areas of the country that have not benefited from prior investments — which often overlap with red parts of the country, rural America, areas where there’s been chronic underinvestment in things like water systems and electricity systems and the like.
And there is broad overlap with things that we desperately need to do as a country and that have a broad, common-sense appeal. And so we certainly are trying to tap into that. But this is in a good-faith effort to try to say, “If there’s any possible way that we can bring people together and do something in a bipartisan way in Congress, we’re going to do that.”
But, to your point earlier, the president’s not going to be out there saying and arguing that we need to do half of what we need to do simply because we think that that’s a necessary precondition to have that conversation in Congress.
You and I have known each other awhile now. You were the young guy in the Obama administration. Now you’re the grizzled old guy at the National Economics Council. How are the young economists in the administration different ideologically or temperamentally than in your generation?
I have a hard time thinking of myself as the old guy, but I get it. I get it.
I think that there’s been a lot more work done to try to understand what the roots of economic inequality are over the course of the last decade and openness to thinking about power and power dynamics in the economy, worker power. Significantly more intellectual work that has gone into “What has the decline of the unionization movement in the United States meant, and how can we realistically build that back?” That’s one example.
Another example is things that would be traditionally written off as industrial policy, where now we’re asking ourselves questions about “How do you actually think about building industrial strength in key sectors of the economy where we clearly have vulnerabilities and do it in a way that doesn’t get us into a place where we’re doing really dumb things, we’re picking winners, we’re wasting money?” The space of thought there has really broadened, and having people who are really disciplined about making sure we’re thinking smartly about this but open to a much broader range of potential outcomes.
So the last thing I will say — and this was true, I think, during the Obama administration and now — it is also incredibly beneficial to have a combination of fresh thinking and experience. Having somebody like Secretary Yellen on the economic team who has actually served in the Clinton White House, been the Fed chair, been through economic crises — that perspective, too, also helps in making sure that we’re thinking carefully about the markets and about issues as well. So it’s an energizing team to have across the spectrum of folks. But I think we have a broader diversity of perspectives willing to challenge some things that were conventions of economic thinking prior to the middle of last decade.
One thing that I have been struck by reporting on the administration and on this new generation of Democratic staffers is that the generation of Democrats whose formative experiences were the financial crisis and the climate crisis just see the world and the role of government very different than those whose formative experiences were maybe stagflation and the Clinton economic policies and the subsequent boom.
When I asked you earlier how your thinking has changed, the first thing you said was climate. So I do want to talk about the climate context of this bill. Explain to me the theory of how the American Jobs Plan approaches climate and approaches dealing with the climate problem.
We have two big issues when it comes to climate and our infrastructure. The first is that the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events — be it flooding in the Midwest, fires in the West, storms in the Atlantic Basin — means that if you have a climate-agnostic view to building infrastructure, you’re going to miss important elements of how you build resilient, smart, sustainable infrastructure.
So that has to affect all of the things that you would think about, even the most basic elements of infrastructure, because we have to build forward to the reality of the ways in which the physical environment and the environment that we all operate in have changed. So across every element we’re thinking about, we have to ask ourselves the question, “Are we building back to a more resilient place to address the inevitable impacts that we’re going to live through, independent of how effective we are at mitigating future CO2 emissions in the country or greenhouse gas emissions in the country?”
And then piece two is if you think across the big systems in our country — the transportation system being one, the power and energy system being another — in order to actually solve climate change, we’re going to have to transform those systems. And investing in infrastructure can be one of the most effective ways to do that in a way that creates lots of jobs, creates lots of new opportunity and is economically sensible as well. So the objective is, “Where can we make the investments necessary to build toward the future infrastructure system that we’re going to want and need?”
So obviously on the transportation side, the thing that captures the most imagination is building out electric charging stations across the country. But there’s more there. On the power sector side, it’s building the actual infrastructure of how we move electrons around the country in a way that is very job-intensive, brings jobs to lots of different parts of the country but is absolutely necessary if that’s the future structure.
The built environment and industry get less attention but are extraordinary opportunities. And this plan has a very significant investment in upgrading buildings and making them more energy efficient. The jobs doing that happen all around the country. They’re construction jobs, building trades. A lot of it is actually high-value investment, where providing an incentive could actually unlock a bunch of private capital to invest, particularly in the commercial building space.
And then last on the industry side, we’re both investing in R. and D. and in the deployment of new technologies that will help U.S. industry lead in creating low-carbon or zero-carbon industrial applications of the future — whether that’s low-carbon materials, steel, cement or in zero-carbon areas like CCS and hydrogen. Those are places where you need public investment to actually help unlock new breakthroughs.
So across all of those areas, we’re trying to think about where you can invest in a way that will help lay the groundwork for the future zero-carbon economy that we’re going to want.
So let me pose a friendly-fire critique I’ve heard of the theory in the plan —
Yes, I’m sure you’re excited. So some of the things you’re talking about are things, in theory, the private sector should know how to do. We built out gas stations in this country without it being the federal government that did it. Weatherizing homes, weatherizing buildings, upgrading energy efficiency — that’s stuff the private sector knows how to do. So the correct economics approach to this, according to this critique, is that you should do a carbon tax, you should raise the price of carbon and then let the magic of the private market go to work. Why does the government have to take such a central role here?
A couple of things. One is that we need to move as quickly as possible decarbonizing our economy. And we need to do it in a way that creates as many jobs and as much economic opportunity as we can for Americans in this country. That is our objective.
If that is your objective, then looking sector by sector at what are going to be the foundational elements that are going to help unlock that private capital is a sensible way to do it. So in the transportation sector, inevitably and eventually, the private sector might solve the chicken and egg problem of “Are there enough charging stations so that people feel comfortable buying electric vehicles?” But by the time that we have done that, we will have lost time on the climate side. And we will have lost opportunity in terms of the underlying investments in the core innovations and elements that are going to become the basis of that industry for the future.
We see this in semiconductors. We’re already seeing this in batteries. But we’re intent on trying to stem the tide. We actually have an explicit policy goal of not just having American consumers able to buy electric vehicles but to have those vehicles assembled in the United States and have as much of the innovation ecosystem as possible happen in the United States, because we believe this is going to be a growing global market. And it’s one of the great export opportunities to build in the United States and make us a leader. To do that requires strategic up-front investment. It requires laying the foundation in a way that will unlock that private capital.
Economywide pricing would have very different impacts in different sectors. So you see the stylized models of economywide pricing. That drives emissions down in the power sector much more quickly. In the transportation sector, it doesn’t. So if your goal was to try to drive down emissions in the transportation sector, you would need a very different pricing structure. I think the other, more practical answer is that it’s been true for multiple years that energy efficiency upgrades in commercial buildings should just happen, and they’re not. And so the other thing that we’re trying to do is to look across and say, “What are the practical barriers where, strategically, public investment or the public sector can play a catalytic role?” A lot of these are market failures or barriers that are not just solvable by a price in unlocking the private sector. The reason why we don’t have transmission build-out sufficient to support the increased build-out for renewable energy is a complicated mix of politics and economics and jurisdictional issues that, actually, the federal government intervening with a combination of incentives and requirements could really help unlock.
And so our view certainly is more nuanced than “Let’s just set a course, and the private sector will sort it out.” I think that that’s borne out both by the urgency of needing to act and also the practicality of, in a number of these places, the barrier is not just a pricing barrier. The barrier is trying to overcome something else.
This is a change in theory over the past, say, 15 years in climate politics. And the idea is you can’t just walk up to people and ask them for sacrifice. You can’t say, “We’re going to do this by making energy more expensive, and certain things are not going to be available anymore.” You want to do this in a way that feels positive-sum to people — better technologies, new jobs. You’re getting something out of it and being taken along in it, not “You get less in order for the future to get more.”
I want to double down on that and say it’s not just a messaging and narrative imperative. It has to be that Americans see and experience that the investments in building out a more resilient power grid actually improve their lives and create job opportunities for them or their neighbors or otherwise.
And that an investment agenda along the lines of what the president has put forward actually is among the best opportunities we have to create a next generation of good-paying jobs all across America. That actually has to become true in practice. And that in a sense, we’re better positioned now than we ever have, because in so many of these areas, the global market is moving toward cleaner and lower-carbon sources of energy. So these investments actually can unlock more private investment, but doing that in a way where people feel as if the government policy is actually enabling that in a way that will make it better for their lives.
To your point, electric vehicles are coming. Most car companies in the world are saying they’re going to electric vehicles. That’s an inevitability. The question is, “Can we do that in a way that’s going to be really good for our economy and for American workers and American consumers?” Part of what we’re trying to answer is the policy levers that will make sure that that’s the case.
The president says, “When I think about climate change, I think about jobs.” I think it is a good way of trying to encapsulate what it is we’re trying to accomplish.
A lot of what’s going on in the bill is a very big infrastructure spend. There have also been a bunch of misses on big infrastructure projects in recent years. I’m in California, and I don’t get to ride the high-speed rail. So what has been learned on building infrastructure, particularly of this scale?
We’ve learned a number of things. No. 1, this bill is not just focused on shovel-ready. It’s also focused on shovel-worthy. In 2009 the paradigm was fiscal stimulus: Operate as quickly as possible, get shovels in ground as quickly as possible. That defined a lot of what was possible. There was a lot of focus on deferred maintenance. There was a lot of focus on obligating that money immediately, which meant that the state and municipal entities that were receiving the money — a lot of what they were doing was recycling that capital.
If you look at the American Jobs Plan, there is a real focus on a multiyear public investment plan designed to get at those shovel-worthy projects — those projects that are not going to take forever but really do require some planning and technical capability.
A second thing is that technical and technocratic capability matters. And it matters at the state and local level. You have to build that capability. You have to invest in that capability. One of the ideas in the American Jobs Plan is to build off what other countries have done, in the U.K. and Canada, to try to actually build an independent authority that helps both do broad comprehensive reviews of where are the highest value investments to make but that also works with states and localities to build the technical capability so that the entity that is tasked with figuring out how to build the tunnel or lay the transmission line or build the bridge has the capability to think ahead to “What are the things that could get in the way?”
The third is more on the political economy side. The more that we can use federal investments in a way that provides competitive funding to identify those areas where there is capability and appetite, the better. For example, in the jobs plan, there’s this focus on the 10 most economically significant bridges, which will all be very large, complicated projects because these are the bridges that the most people and stuff go over on a daily basis. But the goal there is to say, “We want to run a competition” — a thoughtful, national competition, perhaps using this Infrastructure America Authority to say not only “Where do they exist?” but “Where does the local buy-in and technical know-how exist?”
We can diligence it. You can encourage it by holding out the investment. And then invest in those places where you have high confidence to do that. So I think in all of those areas, we’ve learned a lot. We’ve tried to build those lessons into the design of this plan.
The last thing I would say, to go back to the climate element, is because the market is driving decarbonized sources of transportation and electrification, there’s more opportunities where public capital can unlock greater private capital.
So this idea of a clean energy accelerator, a clean energy bank — that is an idea in this plan that largely builds off the thinking that members of Congress from both parties have done over the last couple of years. And we think there’s more opportunity to learn from what’s been done in other countries on that front. That wouldn’t have been true several years ago.
I’m interested in this idea of using money to either reward or even to change local capacity and even laws on the ground sometimes by running the competitions. In the housing section of the bill, you want to build a ton of new housing, but it’s also connected, at least in some cases, to getting cities to change their zoning laws, such that it is easier to build that housing.
That’s a pretty interesting policy. Tell me about how that might work in practice.
Yeah. And just to be clear, this is not a federal pre-emption of local zoning laws or anything. In fact, these are ideas that build off ideas that, again, Republicans and Democrats have at least put forward congressionally over the course of the last couple of years.
The idea is, basically, we need to build more housing in the U.S. in the right places. And if we can do that, it has an important economic multiplier, because it allows people to move to opportunity and move to jobs that are potentially ladders into higher-paying careers in areas where those jobs exist.
Part of the opportunity in doing that is to have more enlightened zoning policies at the local level. But using investment can help sometimes get over the chicken-and-the-egg problem: Changing zoning policies to allow for development is harder to do if you don’t have some investment or some match to help fund the construction of that housing.
So the idea is relatively basic, which is to hold out that carrot but then put those resources in the areas where there’s going to be the biggest bang. And in some cases, that’s going to be because you’ve gotten a change in zoning that would unlock more opportunity to build housing in the right places.
The American Jobs Plan reads, “Even before Covid-19, our country was in the midst of a caregiving crisis.” Talk me through the precoronavirus crisis.
I think that this is a place where I think policy has to be personal. There are so many people out there who are caring for an elderly parent, millions of people who actually care for adult children who have some form of disability — autism, disabilities that require significant care. And then, of course, parents of children, particularly younger children.
Prepandemic, if you look at the infrastructure to support the care of those people — which is ultimately an economic prerequisite for those parents, for those caregivers to actually participate in the economy fully — that infrastructure has been failing for some time. The backlog for home- and community-based care and Medicaid is hundreds of thousands of people. So if you need that care, you’re in no way guaranteed that you could access that care.
The lack of affordable and quality child care in the country, prior to the pandemic, was a significant constraint on the ability for families to find the right balance of having one or both partners in a parenting relationship actually work. And so prepandemic, we were in a place where that infrastructure was holding back our economy, holding back our potential.
And then all of a sudden, we had this pandemic, which in some ways is the perfect exacerbator of that failed infrastructure of care — certainly with respect to the elderly population and the disproportionate death we’ve seen because the care infrastructure for nursing homes and for how we care for the elderly has failed us in this context of this pandemic.
Perhaps one of the biggest legacies that we will have to focus on coming out of this crisis is parents, and disproportionately women, leaving the labor force because they don’t have an alternative care option in the pandemic. So as we think about building back the infrastructure of a better economy on the back of this pandemic, we are focused on what the right public investments are to build a stronger care infrastructure going forward.
It has seemed to me that one of the things the pandemic did to change the politics of this is that basically every family that had older parents or young kids or just anybody in their family in a difficult situation suddenly got exposed to the kind of absent care infrastructure or disrupted care infrastructure that a lot of families — that was simply their normal before the pandemic. Part of it’s simply been an exposure to a pre-existing reality, but now it hits everybody simultaneously, which changes the politics of it pretty profoundly.
So what does all this investment amount to, then? Once it is all spent out, what care options or reliability that is inherently there in care options would be available to a family compared to right now?
I think that you’re right that [the pandemic] exposed the families who are reliant on that care. It also exposed the work force. The care work force, the people who care for the elderly and disabled in the country and the people who principally provide child care are overwhelmingly women and overwhelmingly paid at poverty wages.
And so the people who were in those nursing homes providing that elder care, part of the essential work force exposed during this pandemic, are also the substructure of this infrastructure of care that is failing. And part of what is failing is the society failing to dignify the work that they do, which is some of the hardest work.
This is some of the putting a face on the modern infrastructure. People who put on a gown and go change bedpans and care for truly sick, elderly patients or elderly people or provide care in those people’s homes are doing hard work that creates an infrastructure that allows so many of us to actually operate in the economy.
So what’s different? One, access to that care for those families who otherwise couldn’t access it.
Building child care facilities — investing in the supply side of child care, so there are more available options. And then also investing in mechanisms to ensure that the workers who provide that care are better paid, have more opportunity to organize and have more career ladders so that there’s more opportunities to succeed and advance.
I think on the other side of this — in addition to addressing the immediate crisis situation of “How do we get more parents and women back into the work force and kids not losing years of their education?” — we should have a system where quality care is easier to find and that it’s compensated the way it deserves to be.
That seems to be an idea laced throughout the bill. It’s here in the care section. It’s also in the PRO Act. A lot of pieces of the bill deal with very profound market failures — markets failures around climate change, market failures around inequality.
But this is one where the idea seems to be that worker power has become a failure in the economy. And as workers in key industries have lost power or have been exploited, like in the care industry, that not only has it been bad for those workers, but it’s actually been bad for everybody.
The president’s view is, particularly as we make these public investments, we should make them tied to better wages, more collective bargaining and opportunity for workers to join a union, and to dignified jobs. That takes different forms in different parts of the investment, but you are right that it is a core part of the whole agenda, including even things like investments in R. and D.
Part of the theory here is that we need to invest in ways that we haven’t since the 1960s but also think about “How do we make sure that when we invest, we’re generating more quality job opportunities in the United States?”
The president is unapologetic that the other element of using these dollars is that when we invest, we should be prioritizing American-made products and American prevailing-wage labor. And there’s a climate element of that, too, which is that the power of federal procurement can be used to actually pull forward technology and pull forward new markets and do so in a way that builds more domestic opportunity.
So saying that we’re not only going to buy building materials to build a bunch of new housing but we’re going to make bulk purchases of lower-carbon building materials, and we’re going to preference American-made products, actually create stable demand for U.S.-based manufacturers. The same is true for electric vehicles. So saying that the U.S. government is going to be a big purchaser of electric vehicles and make those commitments on the front end helps to buy down the cost of the battery technology that’s embedded in there.
I think that this plan and the president’s vision represent a much more forward-leaning willingness to use the tools of federal procurement to actually try to pull forward that technology connected to better-paying jobs.
Let me end on this question. We’ve talked a lot about what could go right if the bill passes. But assuming the bill passes — and we know the American Rescue Plan has passed — what are you worried that can go wrong? We’ve heard Larry Summers talk about inflation, Republicans talk about budget deficits. What risks are you watching out for?
Our goal is to be paranoid about all manner of risk. And that’s one thing we are very focused on. If we’re talking about the jobs plan, I have less concern about overheat or about long-term fiscal issues, because this is a plan that’s intended to invest largely one time but multiyear and can straightforwardly be offset over a longer period of time.
The principal areas where I have concern is about execution and implementation. We’re trying to accomplish a set of big things. And so when you’re trying to provide, for example, high-speed internet to all Americans, if you do that wrong, you can end up in a situation where what you’re doing is you’re subsidizing incumbents, you’re paying a lot for relatively little public benefit and it costs a lot more than it should. When you are investing in large infrastructure projects, if you don’t prioritize some of the competitive aspects we talked about — the technocratic capability, the prioritization — you can end up with things taking too long or not happening.
And so to me, the biggest concern is demonstrating that multiyear public investment is actually in the interest of the American people and American workers will be a high-stakes effort to try to demonstrate that these types of government interventions can deliver.
A lot of that will come down to execution. A lot of that comes down to the professionalism of the Civil Service at the federal level and the state and local level — a lot of which has been hollowed out. And so we have to be very humble about how hard that is and how much work and effort and focus and implementation that will take across time. But that’s where a lot of, I think, our focus needs to be on getting it right.
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“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld; transcription by Roge Karma.