Fresh off a legislative winning streak and after a tough summer, the Biden administration is having a moment. Unprecedented investments in driving clean energy innovation and rebuilding supply chains are poised to reshape the American economy for the next decade and beyond.
Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council, had a lot to do with that.
Brian joins How to Save a Country, a new podcast from the Roosevelt Institute, The New Republic, and PRX, to talk about the uniting principle behind Biden’s recent policy successes: “competent, effective government focused on investing in the United States, building in the United States, building capacity that’s going to connect to people’s lives.”
Analyzing public investment and antitrust as two sides of a coin, How to Save a Country co-hosts Felicia Wong and Michael Tomasky ask Brian some of the biggest questions in economics today. What does a labor market–driven recovery really mean? How can industrial strategy spur tech advances and unlock capacity in our economy? Why does corporate concentration make life more expensive?
But first, Felicia and Michael discuss their mission for the podcast’s first season: to challenge neoliberalism’s prescription for small government, trickle-down tax cuts, and an unquestioning faith in markets—and offer an alternative vision for an economy and democracy that work for all of us.
Generous funding for this podcast was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Omidyar Network.
• “Post-Neoliberalism at a Crossroads,” by Felicia Wong
• The Middle Out: The Rise of Progressive Economics and a Return to Shared Prosperity, by Michael Tomasky
• “The Unexpected Ways Joe Biden Is Ushering In a New Economic Paradigm,” a Politico Q&A with Michael Tomasky
• “The Biden White House Plan for a New U.S. Industrial Policy,” Brian Deese’s June 2021 speech at the Atlantic Council
• “Remarks on a Modern American Industrial Strategy,” Brian Deese’s April 2022 speech at the Economic Club of New York
• “A Distinctly American Industrial Policy: An Introduction,” by Todd N. Tucker
• “Industrial Policy and Planning: A New (Old) Approach to Policymaking for a New Era,” by Todd N. Tucker and Steph Sterling
• “More than Money: Defining American Antitrust Law, from Bork to Khan,” from WBUR’s On Point
Michael Tomasky: I’m Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic.
Felicia Wong: And I’m Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.
Michael: And this is How to Save a Country, our podcast on the ideas and the people contributing to a new political vision and a new economic vision for the United States. We connect the economy, democracy, and freedom because it’s all one thing.
Felicia: And because progressives need a common purpose and a common strategy to win. We have an interview with an economic adviser to the president coming up just a little later on this, the first episode of our podcast. But let’s start by talking about a specific word here: neoliberalism, because that word looms large in the work that you and I both do, Michael.
Michael: It certainly does. And in fact, earlier this year I edited an essay of yours for Democracy, a quarterly journal I also edit. And in it you described neoliberalism and talked about “post-neoliberal” politics. So tell people: What in the world does that mean?
Felicia: So on the one hand, neoliberalism is a set of economic ideas. It’s very familiar to most Americans: small government, low taxes, then that’s going to lead to thriving businesses and good jobs and a healthy, stable economy. That’s the neoliberal economic worldview. But I also think it’s more than that, because I think neoliberalism was a way of life. It dominated the America that you and I grew up in, Michael. It was like this unquestioning dogma or faith that the way forward in our country was to try to get a good education, try to go to college if you could, and then you were going to get a good job, and that was how you were gonna get ahead. And that led to all these other ideas that even social decisions like how we should get our health care, those should be made by the market and by businesspeople and not by elected officials or people in public service. And so I also think that this is how neoliberalism ate away at democracy.
Michael: Bingo. I think that’s the important point, Felicia. Not only is neoliberalism a set of ideas, but it is built on and conveys and pushes out into the world a set of values, as does democracy. Democracy is a set of ideas that is also built on a set of values.
Unfortunately, those two sets of values are often completely at odds with each other and not really very compatible. Neoliberalism’s values say that the market decides how we make these kinds of decisions, as you said, with respect to health care and in markets; there are winners and losers, and that’s natural in markets, and that’s proper in markets. That’s not so proper in democracy. Why should there be winners and losers in public schools? It’s the reality of how this country exists, but why should that really be the case?
Felicia: And just getting back to the economics of it, one of the problems was that neoliberalism never delivered what it promised there, either. Because in the neoliberal era, from the ’80s onward, we didn’t have wonderful growth. We didn’t have stability. We didn’t have shared prosperity. Instead, we had slow growth. We had all of these economic ups and downs, and we had rampant inequality.
Felicia: Our podcast is about what it means to live through this time of uncertainty, this weird in-between phase. Neoliberalism is no longer dogma, but we don’t really know what comes next. And so we’re gonna kind of take a tour through what went wrong in the past and then spend a lot of time talking to a lot of really interesting people about what might come next.
Michael: I also would add a quick asterisk point on this word neoliberal. Basically these neoliberals refer to an earlier definition of the word liberal that goes back to the eighteenth century, and they’re actually conservatives. So when we use the word neoliberal, we mean conservative. It’s weird, but that’s what it is.
Felicia: Yeah. Well, I’m glad you cleared that up, or I’m glad you explained that because we do need to have a few shared terms here as we bring our listeners along this journey. Personally, I’m worried that we might come out of this paradigmless period on a really dark side, you know, with a much more racist, populist economics; with authoritarianism—like, that is actually possible.
Michael: So which path are we gonna take? I can’t honestly say. I worry about it every single day of my life, but I will say this. I think our side is developing, has developed and is working toward the completion of developing, the set of ideas that can, well, save this country.
Felicia: Right? And so that’s why I’m glad that we are kicking off our podcast with Brian Deese. Brian has some insight both into these ideas and into some of the actual wins. Admittedly, he has a bit of a trek through the office if he needs to meet with his boss, President Joe Biden. Here’s how Brian describes the West Wing.
Brian: The West Wing has three floors. There’s a basement floor, the main floor, which has the Oval Office on it. And then the second floor. I am on that second floor, in an office that I don’t think has changed since they created the National Economic Council, with old wood paneling. If you could fly through walls, I’m probably only about 40 feet away from the Oval Office, but I do have to walk downstairs and walk down the hallway to get there.
Felicia: So Brian’s job is pretty cool. He’s the director of the National Economic Council, wood paneling and all. That means he’s the top person advising President Biden on economic policy every day. As you can imagine, that’s been a little complicated. He’s had to deal with the pandemic and the worst inflation that we’ve seen in decades. But we wanted to talk to Brian today because he is a visionary and he’s really architecting what might be possible in our country’s economic future.
Michael: Brian has worked in sustainable investing at BlackRock, but he also oversaw the auto bailout during the Obama administration. That was kind of a big deal. In his announcement of Brian’s appointment to his administration, President Biden noted that he’s a true expert on climate policy, signaling that the administration takes that challenge seriously, and his daily activities give him a true insider’s perspective.
Brian: The typical day is the combination of directly advising the president, making sure he has what he needs to do the duties he has during the day, thinking forward to policy decisions that we are going to need to make, and doing the work to get prepared for making those decisions. And then looking across all of our agencies and that apparatus of government and trying to identify where we are overachieving and where we are falling short on implementing all of the commitments that we’ve made.
Felicia: Coming right up, it’s our interview with Brian Deese.
Michael: Brian Deese. Welcome to How to Save a Country.
Brian Deese: I am happy to be here.
Felicia: Brian, the administration you work for has snatched a few wins from the jaws of defeat—kind of a lot, right? So the original Build Back Better didn’t pass, but many of those policy priorities got split up into different bills, and many have succeeded, including the American Rescue Plan, which feels like a really long time ago now, but it did set the stage for robust growth in our labor market. And then of course, more recently we’ve had the infrastructure bill and the CHIPS and Science bill, and most recently the climate bill, the so-called Inflation Reduction Act. So I’d love you to talk about what ties all of this legislation together.
Brian: You know, I think there’s two things. The first is a commitment to trying to put the policies in place to have a strong and robust and labor market–driven recovery.
Felicia: Can you tell our listeners exactly what a labor market–driven recovery means? Like, what does it mean to your average American?
Brian: Sure. So if you look over the course of the last 18 months, we’ve seen the strongest job growth; the economy has created more jobs coming out of the pandemic crisis—the Covid pandemic crisis—than any modern crisis. We’ve also seen the fastest recovery in prime-age labor force participation, so of people who are working age, the share of them that is actually working in the economy. All of that means that this labor market is stronger and better than it has been in decades, and that has big implications. One is workers have more power. When there are more jobs available, workers can command higher wages, and we’ve seen that happen. What it also means is if you look compared to other recoveries, the kind of markers—does someone have economic security? Does someone have health insurance? How many people are delinquent on their credit card balances? How many people are going into bankruptcy or are delinquent on their mortgages?—all of those have not only recovered but are actually better than before the pandemic.
Felicia: How does that affect all of the rest of the legislation that we started this conversation about again: infrastructure, semiconductors, climate? What does it mean that all of this legislation is being put forward at a time when people can get jobs?
Brian: Yeah, so I think it creates opportunity and also challenges, but I think at core, the second big part of the Biden economic strategy is to expand the productive capacity of the economy, which is a very technical way of saying, use public investment, long-term public investment, to try to unlock productivity and unlock capacity in our economy that we haven’t been able to before. So if you think about the through line between the infrastructure bill, the CHIPS and Science Act, and then the Inflation Reduction Act, as you mentioned, which has at its center a significant historic investment in clean energy, what you see is a willingness to use public investment to signal to the private sector that investing in the United States and investing in areas where we know there’s possibility for innovation and possibility for more job creation over the long term is high.
Felicia: And that’s what you personally but also the Biden team more generally, that’s what you all call industrial policy, right? Making sure that government investment and government procurement can lead the way toward more robust sectors in lots of the economy. And that would also include, of course, private-sector investment and private-sector action. Is that really what industrial policy is?
Brian: Yes. You know, we’ve used the term “industrial strategy,” not because of quibbling with terms, but for a long time in this country, even the debate around industrial policy has sort of been stilted around this idea that there’s something inherently bad about industrial policy or there’s something inherently broken about industrial policy. Our perspective is that even before the pandemic and even before the geopolitical challenges that we’re facing today, but certainly in the face of them, the question is not whether we need an industrial strategy in America but how we do it and how we do it in a way that will be historically effective. And the good news, as I sit here today with the combination of the pieces of legislation that have been passed, we no longer have to talk in the future tense about what America’s industrial strategy should be. It’s here. We are doing a decade-long investment in our physical infrastructure to rebuild our supply chains. We are doing a decade-long investment in driving clean energy innovation. We are rebuilding our digital infrastructure and semiconductor capability. Those are all things that are happening now. And the big thing that keeps us up at night now is how do we implement those? How do we deliver on those in a way that actually meets the promise?
Michael: Brian, I want to raise this to a somewhat more philosophical level. We want to explain to people how we got into this economic situation in this country over these last 40 years, where we’ve seen stagnating middle-class wages, not enough middle-class investment, a lot of transfer of wealth from the middle to the top one percent.
And we want to break down for people how that happened, and how we got into it, and how we can get out of it. This involves inevitably talking about this thing we call neoliberalism. It’s basically free market economics—low taxes, low regulation, et cetera—that has been the reigning economic philosophy of this country since the mid-1970s, when there was stagflation and the OPEC crisis, and Keynesianism seemed not to have answers anymore to a lot of people.
We’ve gone through these periods, right? The Keynes period from the ’30s to the ’70s; the neoliberal period from the ’70s until, we debate when, but nothing has replaced it, let’s put it that way. What do you think about all that on this question of these economic eras? Are we passing into a new era?
Are we working our way out of the neoliberal era, and into what?
Brian: You said you were going to go philosophical in your first podcast, and you’re living up to that. Certainly, if you look in the pre-pandemic period, over the course of the couple of decades prior to it, I think you saw elements of an economy that was in a low-growth, low-wage, low–interest rate equilibrium that was the outgrowth of a number of the policy choices that you identified that happened earlier. I do think that the post-Covid-crisis era is going to be different; that particularly early in the pandemic, there were a lot of questions about, is this gonna reverse itself all quite quickly? But I think that there are a set of structural dynamics that really do mean that we are in a decade or more of a different paradigm, in part because of the fractures that Covid exposed, particularly around supply chains and this idea of resilience versus efficiency, in terms of: Were you building a global economy and global supply chains toward maximal efficiency? Even if, in practice, you were embedding a lot of risk that if something like a pandemic happened, we weren’t going to be able to make our way through into an era of resilience with all the challenges that has. Because localization and making things closer to where you deliver them has lots of opportunity but challenges as well. I think we’re gonna be in this era for some time, and it intersects importantly with geopolitical developments as well. We’re operating in a world where the idea that you can just operate with pure free market principles, when major economies around the world are engaged in a deliberate decade-long effort to try to build national champions and industry as well.
Again, I think that that’s why, frankly, this idea of an industrial strategy and an active, engaged government, it’s not only a new era. It cuts across political lines. It cuts across geographic lines. It scrambles the system in a sense, and I do think that there are structural forces behind it and that it will be with us for some time.
Michael: So the president likes to say that the economy grows not from the top down but from the middle out and the bottom up. He has said that many, many times. First of all, just explain to listeners what he means by that. Fill in some of those blanks and put more meat on those bones, if you would.
Brian: The president does say it over and over again. And it’s his way of articulating economic philosophy. I think one way to think about bottom-up and middle-out is in contrast to trickle-down. And so there has been a theory of trickle-down economics, which really came to rise in the 1980s but basically said that if you cut taxes and reduced regulation, that principally will benefit those at the very top of the economy on the individual income side and the corporate side, that it’ll unleash a lot of innovation and benefits that will trickle down to the rest of the economy. I think that we’ve lived a natural experiment to show that that doesn’t work and, in fact, that that fed into this low-wage, low-growth, low–interest rate equilibrium that wasn’t serving the vast majority of families.
And so I think people are much more naturally skeptical, not because of politics but because of the practical reality they’ve seen. In terms of bottom-up and middle-out, there’s actually a very simple sensibility associated with it, which is that the vast majority of our economy operates from workers who are broadly speaking in the bottom 60 percent of the income distribution, broadly speaking the middle class. One thing the president says often is that when that group of people in the United States does well, everybody does well. Historically, when you see broad growth in wages and job opportunities for that middle- and lower-wage category, what you see is also that high-wage people in the United States do well too, because that growth is more stable. It’s more resilient. It’s more shared.
Michael: I’d like you to talk about how elected officials win that argument against neoliberals, conservatives, free marketeers who attack it all as socialism and who have done a pretty efficient job over the last 40 years of convincing average people that government spending is just automatically a bad, negative thing.
Brian: Yeah, that’s a great question. How do you convince people that a dedicated serious public investment strategy is part of what’s necessary for America? I hope that we’re starting to actually write the playbook for how to do that. Remember the infrastructure bill, the CHIPS and Science Act were broadly bipartisan. This idea that we need an active and energized government to actually solve big problems like securing our digital infrastructure, building more semiconductors in the United States, is not a Democratic idea on its own. It’s an idea that people are coming to and attaching to. Now, but what I would say is that it is President Biden and Democratic majorities that have actually gotten this done, because we’ve been talking about these things for years and years.
Felicia: It was infrastructure week for a long time, wasn’t it?
Brian: Yes, we can finally put that to rest. I’ll leave the slogans to somebody else, but competent, effective government focused on investing in the United States, building in the United States, building capacity that’s gonna connect to people’s lives is what we’re doing, and we welcome that if there are Republicans and Democrats who want to come along with us in this journey. But we reject the idea that somehow that falls into this old stilted category of tax cuts versus government spending. To your point, we’re in a new era, and I think we can write the narrative of this differently.
Felicia: And it does seem to me that part of what has helped usher in this new era is the challenge of fighting the climate crisis. Of course, many things have shifted in the last three years. You mentioned the pandemic and all of the things, all of the fragility that Covid laid bare. But the other thing that is really different is a shift on how we need to be fighting the climate crisis, like what is it going to take and what kind of government role is it going to take to make sure that we can decarbonize as fast as the scientists tell us we have to?
Brian: Yeah, absolutely. One thing that has changed, which is context for your question, is the share of people who are experiencing the impact of climate change in their lives on a daily basis. So over the last couple of years, somewhere between a third to a half of Americans have been directly affected, whether it’s drought or wildfire or extreme weather events that affect their lives. It affects the way they commute. It affects whether their business is successful in very practical ways. That again is in the present tense, not the future tense; it’s happening today. But the second thing that, Felicia, goes to your question is this really goes back to the president on the campaign trail, trying to paint a strategy for how to address climate change that was about using government investment to pull forward technological advances and build capacity, manufacturing capacity, in the United States. And you’re right, there’s been a long debate about, in order to try to address climate change, there has been a traditional view, which is you need to price carbon. You need to put a price on carbon to effectively and efficiently encourage the private sector to use less carbon.
Felicia: Which is a more hands-off approach. It’s not about government monies per se, but it’s about government saying that this is how much it’s gonna cost you if you’re spending carbon essentially. Is that the difference?
Brian: Yeah, and I think that it’s had two challenges. One is in building a durable coalition, because pricing gets caught in the politics of you’re raising people’s prices and you’re raising people’s costs. And we’ve seen that try and fail on multiple occasions. But the second issue is that because of the solutions that we actually need for climate change, we need to change big systems in our economy. The transportation system needs to be transformed—that includes infrastructure, includes innovation, includes choices at the individual level. The way we produce power and consume power needs to be transformed. In many cases, what’s most needed is public investment to spur that kind of innovation and pull it forward—do technology forcing, as economists would describe. So what the president tried to put together was, now to do that well, the public role has to be long-term. You have to send long-term market signals in order to actually do that. We now have 10-year incentives in the United States to invest in zero carbon and low carbon across the economy. And two, in order to do it efficiently, you generally want to do it in a way that’s technology agnostic. In order to bring that technology forcing forward, you don’t want to say, “We want to just subsidize solar panels,” even if wind, or even if green hydrogen could more effectively achieve the task.
Michael: On that note, we’re gonna take just a quick break. Coming up, how are the products you can buy at the drugstore impacted by antitrust policy? We’ll have more with Brian Deese on How to Save a Country. Back in a moment.
Felicia: And we’re back on How to Save a Country. So, Michael, in this next part you ask Brian Deese about the Biden administration’s antitrust efforts, and of course, Brian’s gonna talk about that from his perspective, but I want to know why antitrust is such a big deal to you.
Michael: Three reasons, Felicia. Number one, it’s costing people, consumers, a lot of money. Corporate consolidation, monopoly, oligopoly: You buy a different kind of orange juice or whatever, they’re all owned by the same people; these things just make life more expensive for people. Number two, people don’t know that. I mean your average person has absolutely no idea. And third, I think that if elected officials use this issue properly, I think it can be a big political winner because very few Americans like this concentration of corporate power, just innately. It’s not American, no matter what the right says.
Felicia: Alright. Let’s jump back into our interview with Brian Deese, and we’ll listen to your question to him on this topic.
Michael: Brian, I want to talk about your antitrust policy. Adam Smith was opposed to monopoly power. He hated the East India Tea Company, thought it should be broken up. Jefferson and Madison also spoke of the evils of monopoly. The Industrial Revolution comes along, and in time, the United States government developed a very strong anti-monopoly policy under Theodore Roosevelt and then under Woodrow Wilson and Louis Brandeis. That continued under FDR, continued up through the postwar era, changed radically under Reagan with something that Robert Bork [former solicitor general] wrote saying that market competition was the only responsibility of companies, and that allowed monopolies to grow. Then we had the mergers of the ’80s and the ’90s, so that was a massive historical pivot away from a very long tradition. You are trying to reverse that. Tell listeners what you guys are trying to do.
Brian: First of all, I would say to the Bork quote that you raised, the counter to that is the Biden quote that he says often, which is: Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism, it’s exploitation. When we see competition scaled back or reduced or stymied, we see in the empirical literature, that’s what happens. People end up paying more for the things they need, and people end up getting paid less. There’s a great study by an NYU economist that put this in practice, which says all together across the economy, what it means is that for a typical family, they are $5,000 worse off because of the combination of getting paid less and paying more for the stuff they need, so that’s at the core of what we’re trying to address. Now, I want to be really clear, that’s not equal to the idea that big is always bad. We have a dynamic economy where there are economies to scale, but what we’ve had over the course of the last 15 or 20 years, in particular, is an increasingly lax enforcement, including through our courts, of our antitrust laws, and so more and more sectors of our economy have gotten more concentrated. And so that negative hit on the typical family has increasingly bit. So we brought everybody together, we wrote an executive order that said it is the policy of this administration to promote competition and vigorously enforce antitrust statutes across the board, and it’s up to all of you to say what that means and how you’re going to do this. The response has been overwhelming. We had 72 specific executive actions. We’ve reinvigorated a lot of life and enthusiasm because this is a lot of the work that our agencies want to be doing. It’s still a work in progress. We’ve got more work to do, but let me just give you a really specific example. I know I’m going on, but this is a topic that grips me.
Michael: No, this is really important.
Brian: Yeah. A specific example that we just acted on, which is hearing aids. There are more than 30 million people in America who suffer from mild to moderate hearing loss. It’s not just older people; younger people who have hearing conditions. It makes it harder to operate in the workforce. People with hearing conditions are more likely to have mental health issues. In America, you have had to get a prescription to buy a hearing aid. You can’t walk into a pharmacy and buy a hearing aid. You have to go to an audiologist, you have to find a specialist, and then that limits the number of market participants that can participate in providing hearing aids. What we got is hearing aids that are really expensive. For many of your listeners, you may know, hearing aids cost four, five, six, seven thousand dollars a pair. You also have to restructure your life to figure out: How do you find an audiologist? Can you get an appointment? These things are barriers in life. So what we did, working to implement bipartisan legislation, was to say, we’re just gonna rewrite the rules. We’re going to get rid of that regulation. We’re going to say you can buy hearing aids over the counter. You can walk into a CVS or a Walgreens or anywhere, and you can just buy hearing aids.
Now, all of a sudden, innovative small companies who want to create a better hearing aid have a broader market to do so; they have more economic opportunity to do so. The estimates that our FDA has done suggest that this action could well cut the cost of a pair of hearing aids in half. So all of which is to say, competition is a hallmark of a healthy capitalism. We’re gonna go at this and enforce this, and this is a multiyear and probably multidecade project, frankly.
Felicia: So, Brian, I love hearing all of that, about the work that this administration has done on antitrust, and what would be great would be to hear you connect that where we started this conversation, which was really about the importance of public investment, because I think a lot of people don’t necessarily connect the dots between the regulatory and antitrust work and the big-ticket investment work. But I think you do.
Brian: I think this comes back to a point we talked about earlier about expanding the productive capacity of the economy—the wonky way of saying it, but basically pushing the envelope of how much our economy is able and capable of producing; another way of saying this principally operates on the supply side of our economy. And that’s where you see this through line because well-targeted public investment is designed to open up and unlock new opportunities for productive investments. When we have better roads and ports and airports, that allows for more innovation because people have more opportunities to move their goods in different ways more quickly than they would before. And that ends up being good for everybody, if done right—if there are the appropriate guardrails in place and if we ensure that the benefits are broadly shared.
Felicia: So we should be thinking about both regulation or better guardrails, as you say, better oversight, and investment as two halves of this kind of supply-side progressivism coin. Is that how you would maybe put it?
Brian: I think it’s a great way to put it, and by putting it that way, in the way that you just did, it really cuts through a lot of typical thinking about policy, including typical thinking about the politics of policy, because if you think about a lot of what we’re talking about on the competition side, it has strange-bedfellow bipartisan support because a lot of it’s about getting rid of regulations that don’t make sense. I believe and I hope that the same is true for public investment. That what we saw on something like semiconductors or infrastructure, you can find strange-bedfellow coalitions, or not strange but not your typical coalitions, that recognize the need for this more active and energetic government approach.
Felicia: I have just one more question. It has to do with the two very big speeches that you’ve given on industrial strategy. I’m particularly interested in the fact that you mention race equity pretty prominently in the first one.
Brian: We know that by prioritizing racial and gender equity, we can reduce the yawning gaps in wealth and opportunity and unleash stronger growth.
Felicia: Less so in the second one, but I want to hear you talking about how you see equity, race, gender, in particular, as part of this overall approach.
Brian: So I really appreciate the question. It is core to how we think about an industrial strategy, in part because one of the ways in which prior efforts to use public investment to achieve big national projects have fallen short is that in the U.S., we’ve done it in ways that actually have either explicitly or implicitly excluded parts of our population.
Felicia: Give me an example. What do you mean explicitly or implicitly excluding a group of people?
Brian: Historically, if you look at investments in physical infrastructure, there has been both explicit discrimination that has kept women and people of color from competing for those jobs and, implicitly, the places that we have decided to build have in many cases divided communities or actually created inequities. There are counties or cities in this country where we’ve actually built infrastructure that has divided a community right in half. There are examples that abound. The president often points to Wilmington, Delaware, where there’s a road that was built—a highway, a part of 95 that was built. There’s a Black community on one side that has for decades just struggled to have the economic opportunity that operates—that’s where “the other side of the tracks” comes from, the statement, “the other side of the tracks” is a manifestation of that.
As we think about really expanding the productive capacity of the economy, to do that well, to do that right means bringing everybody in: that we, as a nation, don’t actually achieve our full potential if we’re not creating the conditions for everybody to participate and everybody to innovate. We’re trying to be quite explicit about doing it in a way that makes sure we don’t repeat past mistakes but we also take advantage of new opportunities. Broadband internet is a great example. The president made a commitment to provide high-speed, affordable internet to all Americans. There’s two parts to that task in America. One is building fiber and broadband out to parts of the country, principally rural areas, that have no access today. Rural areas just aren’t able to participate in the lifeblood of the twenty-first-century economy. But it also means that in urban areas across this country, high-speed internet is not accessible, particularly to Black and Latino communities, because it costs too much. So to do it right, to achieve that goal, you have to focus on both access and affordability.
Michael: OK, and here’s my last question. The show’s called, of course, How to Save a Country. So the last question is, we’d like to hear your big-picture thoughts on how to save the country. The president talks about changing the economic paradigm. I just published a book about the same topic. How do you think that changes? It’s the work of many years, it’s not something that’s going to happen easily or quickly given the opposition that is arrayed against these efforts. In five years, 10 years, where do you hope and think we’ll be?
Brian: Five years from now, a generational investment in our physical infrastructure, if done right with intentionality to the policy design as we just discussed, should mean that in every community in this country, in superpractical ways, people can access internet where they couldn’t before; people can have more reliability that the water they drink is safe and secure. It’s a little bit easier for them to get to a job or to get online to a job that they wouldn’t have been able to before. If people can connect that to active and energetic government policies, then that should give them more confidence that there is progress. We are fighting a wave of cynicism and distrust in institutions, and that is being weaponized in lots of quarters, but we also have an extraordinary set of tools to actually overcome that. I’m fundamentally optimistic about that question, but I think what it takes is more confidence that the government actually understands and can move things incrementally in the right direction and then progress at the end of the day.
Michael: There we end it. Brian Deese, thank you so much for being our first guest on How to Save a Country.
Felicia: Brian, such a pleasure to speak with you.
Brian: Thank you both.
Felicia: We want to thank Brian Deese again for joining us. How to Save a Country is a production of PRX, in partnership with the Roosevelt Institute and The New Republic.
Michael: Our associate producer is Alli Rodgers. Our lead producer is Pierre Bienaimé. Our executive producer is Jocelyn Gonzalez.
Felicia: Our theme music is courtesy of Codey Randall and Epidemic Sound, with other music provided by APM. We’ll be back next week with another episode on, what else, how to save a country. If you’re not yet subscribed, do it.
Michael: And as you’ve heard on just about every podcast, yes, rating and reviewing us would definitely help the show, so thank you. Felicia, can you tell listeners what they can look forward to hearing next?
Felicia: Yeah. It’s an episode with the one and only historian Heather Cox Richardson. She is the most popular author on all of Substack, and she’s gonna be talking about just how much trouble this country is in.
Heather: Has there ever been a major political party that adhered to conspiracy theories and basically lies the way we have now? And the answer to that is no.
Michael: See you next week.
Felicia: See you, Michael.