: Building A More Perfect Union
Building A More Perfect Union
A Policy Blueprint for Rewiring the Economy, Rebuilding the Social Safety Net, and Reconnecting America With the World
The next decade will prove pivotal to the future of the United States. America will either adopt an ambitious program of national rebuilding and address the serious challenges of the present day, or it will confront continued national stagnation. National rebuilding requires bold, immediate, and interlocking action to subdue a devastating pandemic, recover from the resulting economic collapse, reduce societal inequalities, address climate change, and navigate the shifting tectonic plates of the international system.
To that end, the Center for American Progress is proud to release “A More Perfect Union”—a framework for national policymaking centered on an expansive but achievable set of multiyear goals to rewire America’s economy, rebuild the social safety net, and reconnect America with the rest of the world.
Priority number one for leaders is clearly the need for coordinated federal and state action to control the coronavirus pandemic and implement widespread vaccinations over the next year in order to allow economic rebuilding to continue safely.
As the United States deals with the COVID-19 crisis, it must also act on a parallel track to lay the foundations for a future economy. Rewiring America’s economy to run on 100 percent clean energy, to promote greater equality, and to educate a new generation of workers will not only create high-wage jobs today but also set up the United States for success in facing the changes and challenges still ahead.
National economic development must be accompanied by steps to rebuild America’s social safety net to make it more comprehensive in terms of the services it provides and more flexible in terms of how it can be accessed and used.
Likewise, America’s economic position cannot be viewed in isolation from what is happening all across the world. In order to strengthen its people at home, America will need to take new steps to reconnect the country to the rest of the world in order to protect U.S. interests, while also dealing cooperatively with other nations on problems such as pandemics, climate change, and poverty.
Please join the Center for American Progress as we explore this framework with Gov. Tom Wolf (D) of Pennsylvania and other distinguished panelists.
Introductory remarks and moderator:
Mara Rudman, Executive Vice President, Policy, Center for American Progress
Gov. Tom Wolf (D-PA)
Alexandra Cawthorne Gaines, Vice President, Poverty to Prosperity, Center for American Progress
Nina Hachigian, Deputy Mayor for International Affairs, city of Los Angeles
John Podesta, Founder, Center for American Progress
Good afternoon, everyone. I’m Mara Rudman, the executive vice president for Policy at the Center for American Progress. Welcome. Before we get started, a quick piece of housekeeping. Live captioning is available by clicking on the closed caption button at the bottom of your screen. We have a tremendous program. I’ll be introducing Governor Tom Wolf (D-PA) to offer keynote remarks and he will be joining our panel, and then we’ll be bringing in our panel.
But a few words first. Last week, our democracy came under attack. Rioters—thugs—broke into the people’s house, our Capitol. They sought to undermine the deepest principles that we hold so dear. It was shocking, appalling beyond words. The president incited mob violence, willed on by enabling politicians, and white supremacist insurrectionists were met with inadequately prepared resistance in stark contrast to protestors last summer who sought racial justice. As the president-elect has so often said, we are in a battle for the soul of our nation. We have work to do. Government institutions need to be seen and believed as the guardians of our democratic way of life, and those institutions need to deliver to and for the American people.
As we continue to lose thousands of Americans each day to a pandemic that has already killed more than 375,000 here, hospitalized countless more, and further exposed rampant inequities, there’s no more critical time to construct a path forward toward the more perfect union and to start walking it. National rebuilding requires bold, immediate, interlocking action to subdue a devastating pandemic, recover from the resulting economic collapse, reduce societal inequalities, address climate change, and navigate the shifting tectonic plates of the international system.
Today, CAP takes an important step on that path with the release of our report, entitled “A More Perfect Union.” It offers a framework centered on an expansive but achievable set of multiyear goals to rewire our economy, rebuild the social safety net, and reconnect America with the rest of the world. We brought together our speakers today with the objectives that drove this report. In the face of the pandemic, in the wake of an economic downturn, amid a crisis of democracy, and facing existential climate change, how can we come back stronger? These are challenges too great for one person or one party. They require continuous collective commitment by many to make America work for all.
And while priority number one must be tackling this pandemic, we also need to act on a parallel track to lay the foundations for a sound and sustainable economy going forward. For us, this means rewiring America’s economy to run on 100 percent clean energy, to promote greater equality, and to educate a new generation of workers. This will not only create high-wage jobs today, but also will set up the United States for success in facing the challenges and changes ahead.
National economic development also must be accompanied by steps to rebuild America’s social safety net. Thriving businesses, good job opportunities—none of that can happen if people don’t have financial stability and protections against hardship in the first place. This means addressing unemployment, underemployment, housing, family allowances, and so much more. The pandemic has shown that without adequate safety measures, the American people and the American economy are dangerously exposed. Too often, the burden of exposure falls disproportionately on people of color, on single parents, on women.
America’s economic position cannot be viewed in isolation from what is happening around the world. To strengthen at home, we must take new steps to reconnect to the rest of the world. We do so to protect key American values and interests, maximizing cooperative dealings with other nations on critical challenges, such as climate change, poverty, this pandemic. We aim to look back years from now on the events of January 6th, as a mark of how close our country came to being torn apart by mob violence. We aim to look back knowing that our democracy emerged stronger than ever—that the hard work to rewire, rebuild, and reconnect and the intervening period addressed long-standing racial injustice, achieved gender equity, and ensure a sustainable environment and robust economy, all leading to a more perfect union.
With that, I am so pleased to welcome Governor Tom Wolf. Governor Wolf took office in 2015, and in the past year, he has marshaled Pennsylvania’s response to the pandemic to ensure that jobs and livelihoods and health are the top priorities. He has done so in a manner that not only addresses the task at hand, but also with an eye to the future when it comes to the economic and public health challenges ahead. I am so thrilled to have him with us today. I’m thrilled that he’ll be staying with us for the panel discussion. And I now hand it over to you, Governor Wolf. Thank you.
Thank you very much, Mara. I’m really pleased to be here. Thank you very much for inviting me to be part of this conference, and thank you for focusing your attention on what I think is such an important array of issues. Each of them separately, obviously, when you talk about all of the things that you just talked about, are important and they’re crucial to our future, but together they’re even more important.
President-elect Biden depends on a successful start to his administration, and all of us depend on the future secured by his success in tackling all of these challenges. The incoming administration has the chance—and really the responsibility, given the mandate that Biden got in the November election—to bring a fresh approach to problems that have plagued us all for some time. He needs to acknowledge these problems and he needs to demonstrate decisively, quickly, practically, and effectively that he can handle them. It turns out that the first 100 days do really matter in a presidential administration, and much of what he accomplishes in that first 100 days will do much to define his legacy and much to define the outcome of the midterm elections that are coming up in November of 2022.
One more thing: The things that we’re talking about today are the primary responsibility of the federal government. I know I’m a governor of a state, but not the states—it’s the federal government. Right now, states like Pennsylvania are doing what we can to address big issues like the pandemic, like infrastructure, like the environment. The lack of presidential leadership on many of the pandemic issues, as an example, has been a real problem. The large amounts of money passed through to the states as a result of the CARES Act, well, that has partially made up for the lack of leadership, but not entirely.
But when it comes to infrastructure, when it comes to the environment, we’ve seen neither funding nor leadership, and there’s little the states can do in the absence of that. So there’s great expectation on the part of states in terms of what the federal government can and will do. The inability of state governments to bear the burden of major policy interventions, such as the response to the pandemic on its own or the crying needs of the environment or of our infrastructure, is evident in the things Pennsylvania has done in these areas. I mean, we’ve done what we can—we’ve done our best—but we simply don’t have the resources that the federal government has when it comes to deploying the assets like money or leadership that such equally sizeable challenges demand.
Our Department of Community Economic Development, our Commerce Department in Pennsylvania operates numerous programs that do make targeted investments to help strengthen communities. It helps assist workers and lower barriers for entrepreneurs and investors. These programs are important and they accomplish many, many good things. But when it comes to scale, they pale in comparison with the programs supported by the federal government. And that’s why the federal government is so important. It has the scale and scope that gives it a real edge in addressing big issues like the environment and infrastructure. Most important, the federal government’s financial capacity is unmatched—unmatched by any state, by virtue of its size and by virtue of its control over our currency. These advantages put the federal government in a position to think more broadly—much more broadly—and act much more decisively when it comes to the things we’re talking about today.
We are all facing a massive set of issues and challenges, and we need to mobilize an equally massive and creative set of resources to address those issues adequately. The federal government is uniquely suited to this challenge. Among the most pressing issues facing the United States, and indeed every nation in the world right now, are the environment; obviously, climate change; the sad state of our infrastructure; and the need for a fast economic recovery from the pandemic. Of course, all this begins with the expectations and the assumptions that Washington find some way to lead us out of this pandemic in a fast, efficient, and fair manner.
I believe once we do that, and I don’t want to sound like a comedian here saying that the way to be a millionaire is to first go out and get a million dollars. First, let’s get through this pandemic. But once we do that, there are five specific ways the federal government can practically, successfully, and quickly tackle the environmental infrastructure and economic challenges facing our nation. And if it’s done successfully, it’ll show President Biden’s resolve, it’s going to allow for a fast rollout. It’s going to be affordable, and I think acceptable, if not welcome to most of the states.
So the first of these things is that the Biden administration should propose the establishment of a federal infrastructure bank. The bank should be a government-sponsored enterprise, like the Federal National Mortgage Association, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. They’re both GSEs, backed by the full faith and credit of the federal government, which they now are. It should be capitalized with public funds at between 10 and 15 percent, but the goal should be to attract the remaining 85 to 90 percent from private sector investors all over the world. The banks should aim to secure over a period of time between one and $2 trillion in investible funds. This institution would essentially be a safe bank, given that the borrowers would presumably be states with good credit ratings, which means the overhead of the bank should not be that great. Moreover, the loans would be for projects like tolled highways and bridges, broadband, mass transit—all of which could have, if they don’t already have, cash streams associated with them.
Of course, this means the federal government must make tolling or vehicle miles traveled much easier for states to implement. It’s becoming increasingly clear this has to happen, because it’s becoming increasingly clear that infrastructure investments can no longer rely on fuel taxes for funding. Greater vehicle efficiency and the move away from gasoline and diesel on the part of a bigger and bigger segment of the driving public means that the old reliance on volume fuel taxes will no longer produce the funds needed to sustain, let alone expand and improve the nation’s infrastructure. Furthermore, this shrinking pool of funds will never allow the federal government to address things other than the highways that are now funded by these gasoline taxes and are crying out for funding.
With this approach, state infrastructure projects, including shovel-ready road, bridge, and mass transit repair projects, which are often the easiest and fastest to roll out, could be funded without tax dollars. Moreover, these repair projects would allow the borrowed money to turn into jobs and economic growth relatively quickly. Again, you do a lot in the repairs and stuff that states are already doing on a regular basis. I have not done the research necessary to determine the level of tolling or fare charges that would allow the cashflow to be adequate to service the states’ portion of the infrastructure bank debt. But I believe that given the level of long-term interest rates today and the level of use in much of the country, that reasonable tolls, fees, and charges would allow states to service the debt adequately. This would also permit states to move beyond their unsustainable reliance on the shrinking volume of fuel taxes. Of course, the adequacy of fee revenue will vary from state to state, depending on the usage rates and the density of their consumers.
The second piece of the infrastructure and environmental recovery strategy should be a transportation climate initiative. This is a cap-and invest-system—not cap and trade, cap-and-invest system—which has been proposed in several states already and which seems to be gaining some traction. If the infrastructure bank plan produces enough funding for state investment in infrastructure, again, the bank can be indifferent as to whether the project is highways, bridges, mass transit, airports, ports, or broadband, as long as the project has some cash stream associated with it, then TCI can be used. The Transportation Climate Initiative can be used by the federal government to augment its own infrastructure investment needs, such as the federal match subsidies for infrastructure investment in low-density and low-volume areas.
The point is, the federal government’s responsibility for providing the lion’s share of national infrastructure spending will still require the identification of new sources of funds. The federal government will be no more able to rely on—indefinitely anyway—rely on fuel taxes than the states. At the same time, the TCI could serve as at least a partial source of funds for the federal infrastructure burden. By the way, another source of funds for this should be the net profit earned by the infrastructure bank. TCI is in embryotic form right now. And given the poor long-term prospects for fossil fuel-based vehicles, chances are that it will not serve as a sustainable source of funding for the federal infrastructure investment for the long haul, but it will produce a good deal of funding for the near term. It’s also going to serve as a useful carbon tax that will provide the incentive the administration will probably need to encourage citizens to seek alternatives to the internal combustion engine.
The third element of an effective and environmentally friendly economic stimulus package would be a tariff on the carbon content of imports. Petroleum is an obvious carbon import, but such detects should also be applied based on both the carbon content of the product and the carbon footprint of components. Again, the CAP goal is to create net-zero emission of carbon by the middle of the century. That means we’ve got to make sure we’re not just dealing with things like petroleum or coal.
This tariff would do two things. First, it would essentially set a floor on fossil fuel prices that would give green innovators and green investors the predictability that might make them more inclined to innovate or invest in alternative, i.e., more environmentally friendly products. The tariff would also presumably produce revenue for the federal government that could be used again, at least in the short run, to augment its supply of funds for infrastructure investment jobs.
The fourth element of the Biden environmental economic recovery initiative should be a national cap-and-investment system—cap and trade. It would produce a price on externalities like carbon. Such systems are already in place on a regional level, like the regional greenhouse gas initiative in the northeastern part of the country, but such systems work much better in a larger footprint. I would suggest that part of the fund generated from this cap-and-invest system might be used to fund transition costs for workers, communities, and utilities of the switch away from whatever carbon-based fuel that has been rendered less price competitive due to the cap-and-trade market. This is important in that it will provide a way to shift the political debate on clean energy away from what has typically been a sterile and a zero-sum argument between powerful political interests about how environmental justice inevitably means the unfair loss of jobs. We have to move beyond that.
Part of the funds generated by a cap-and-investment system could be used to augment the infrastructure investment needs of the federal government. Again, the life of a cap-and-investment program financially tied to carbon-intensive electricity generation is not endless, but it will provide a substantial amount of money for a long enough period of time to help the federal government in its efforts to begin the job at least of rehabilitating our infrastructure.
Finally, the market-based ways of reinvigorating our aging infrastructure that I just went through in an environmentally friendly way does not eliminate the need for environmental regulation. Even with the incentives I’ve proposed that will encourage investors and innovators in the public to move toward a greener and more financially sustainable future, there will remain a need to restrict certain behaviors and mandate certain others. Air and water quality standards regarding allowable levels of toxicity is an example of the former. Mileage standards for vehicles stands as an example of the latter.
All these things would produce great environmental dividends, create needed jobs for a fast—and that’s important, fast—economic recovery and would be welcomed by state governments throughout the country. They could also be implemented in a fast and affordable way as well. In the end, they would leave the nation in a much better place, and they would give the Biden administration a noble legacy. Thank you very much.
Thank you, Governor Wolf. Really, you’ve given us a terrific amount to work with and a great way to be able to start this discussion. I’m going to ask my colleagues, as I introduce them on the panels, to come on camera as well, and we can get started. I’m going to introduce our three additional panelists in addition to you, Governor Wolf, in the order that we’ll be going through the first round of questions.
So Nina Hachigian is joining us. Nina is the deputy mayor of international affairs for the City of Los Angeles and previously served as the second ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. She is also a former colleague and always a friend. She served as a senior fellow at CAP and worked at the Clinton National Security Council.
Next and closest to the “More Perfect Union” report we have Alexandra Cawthorne Gaines. Alexandra is the vice president of CAP’s Poverty to Prosperity program. She has led our social safety network for the report and previously directed the human services program within the economic opportunity division at the National Governors’ Association.
And finally, we have John Podesta. John is the founder of CAP and served as a counselor for President Barack Obama during his presidency. There, he coordinated the administration’s climate policy and initiatives. He’s also served as President Obama’s transition team co-chair back in 2008 and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign chair in 2016. And I would say I first worked with him when he was White House chief of staff for President Clinton. Thank you all very much for taking the time to join us here today.
Nina, let me start with you. In addition to your role as the first deputy mayor for international affairs in LA, you’ve also written a lot about cities and local governments and what role they can play internationally in foreign policy. From where you sit, how do you think that we should be most effectively positioning cities, states, the country at this point to be strong at home and strong in the world. Nina?
Thanks, Mara, and thanks for having me. Congratulations on a really excellent report that I’m sure the Biden administration will turn to time and again over the next four years. And thank you, Governor Wolf, for your really interesting remarks and ideas. I think you’ve got the priorities in this report right, and I am particularly happy to see the integration of foreign and domestic policy. I’ve advocated for that for a long time. I even coined a term for it in 2009, when I was at CAP: formestic, which really did not at all catch on. But it doesn’t take long when looking at the roots of our strength in the global arena to learn that it’s our people and it’s our innovative economy. And similarly it should, of course, be the goal of our foreign policy, even more so than it has been, I would say, in recent years, to bring safety and benefits directly to our citizens.
So to answer your question, we have to, number one, invest in our people in all the ways your report suggests, including by expanding the safety net, UBI, also in early childhood development, which I’m not sure your report specifically calls out except to the extent that working parents obviously need it. But many studies from Rand and many other places suggest that quality, thoughtful care in the first three years pays great dividends in the long run in lower crime, better educational attainment, more success.
Another facet of this investment at home is tackling systemic racism, bias against women, members of the LGBT community, and others. Because if we’re going to go up against China, which has four times as many people as we do, if we’re going to compete for influence and maintain an economy that competes, we need every single American to operate at their full potential. We cannot let discrimination prevent the most talented people from rising to the top. This is a national security issue at the end of the day, and of course that means we also need immigrants.
On this question of equity, it’s been mayors and governors who’ve been carrying the water for the United States these past four years. We spoke loudly to our foreign counterparts about our vision for an equitable, inclusive society and the need for foreign partners. And in fact, we just recently launched with London, Tokyo, Mexico City, Barcelona, and Freetown in Sierra Leone a network for cities seeking gender equity and prioritizing that across all of their programming, because mayors have a lot of power over the lives of women, and it should be a priority of city government.
So number two, we have to set foreign policy priorities and we have to stick with them. We cannot be all things to all people globally the way we might have thought we could before. I agree that health, climate, and democracy are the top priorities. The way that I’ve thought about this in the past, and even more now that I work for a city, is that U.S. foreign policy should prioritize the opportunities and the threats that meet Americans and people where they live, here in the U.S.
Mona Sutphen and I wrote a book, and we were certainly not alone. This was in 2008 when we talked about the wet markets in China as a source of pandemics. So I would add to pandemics and climate change the continued threat of terrorism, including the domestic extremists who are linked globally, and cyber attacks, as well as poverty.
Last point: I think it’s great that you have this framework for thinking about foreign and domestic policy together, but we also have to operationalize that, because we naturally think in silos. I think the Biden team has made some really wonderful personnel choices that are going to help, like Susan Rice being the domestic policy advisor and Jake Sullivan being the national security advisor, even though he worked a lot on domestic issues during the campaign, but there need to be more structures and processes that forge these conversations. Congress has legislation that they’ve proposed which would create an office of subnational diplomacy in the State Department, and I think that’s a great idea. Cities and states have been doing a lot of our own foreign policy and more and more so, and the connectivity should be greater, and then we can also inform the state department about what regular Americans are thinking and caring about.
Thanks. Thanks, Nina. A lot to digest there. Alex, let me turn to you. You have been laser-focused on moving people out of poverty, including certainly in your work at CAP—your work on this report. What would you say, Alex, are the major things the country needs to do at this point to rebuild and modernize the social safety net and help low-income people achieve more wealth, build wealth?
Alexandra Cawthorne Gaines:
So thank you, Mara. I would say that building on the point, the excellent point that Nina made around the need to invest in people, we know that this coronavirus pandemic has really amplified and in some cases, made worse long-standing weaknesses in the network of federal and state social protections for low-income people that we’re calling the safety net. These include programs like unemployment insurance; food stamps, or SNAP; and Medicaid, among others, and on top of that, America has one of the worst poverty rates of any advanced economy, and this has only been compounded by the pandemic. So we also invest less of our income on programs that are known to alleviate poverty.
So in this report, we focus on three key things that we think this country must do to strengthen the safety net: one, ensuring basic living standards for all; two, modernizing the safety net; and three, centering the needs of families and individuals. Going back to ensuring basic living standards for all, in this piece, we really focus on increasing the generosity of cash transfer and in-kind support programs and expanding access to anyone who needs them. We also talk about a growing interest in universal programs that could raise the floor for all. Nina mentioned guaranteed income or UBI; we also discussed comprehensive health care coverage and the importance of that moving out of this pandemic.
In terms of modernizing the safety net, we focus on investing in efforts that make it easier for individuals and families to obtain and keep program benefits. So yes, we need major federal investment to update legacy systems at the state level, but states can and have cut red tape that prevents eligible people from accessing benefits, like simplifying applications and suspending some of the confusing rules that are in these programs.
And going back to number three, centering the needs of individuals and families, our fragmented system of health and human services programs are really hard to navigate and access, and too often, we’ve put the burden of coordination on individuals and families. So we really need to employ strategies that improve coordinated service delivery to families. This means aligning and linking systems, including eligibility standards, among others, and we need to recognize and take steps to course-correct policies and programs that have driven systemic inequality. So thinking about that, some laws or legislation to review includes things like family cap laws and welfare that deny cash assistance to families who’ve had another child while enrolled in the TANF program or marriage-related restrictions in social security for people that receive SSI.
The other portion of this report focused on the safety net. We talk about the need to really help low-income people build wealth, and that is a particularly important notion. We found that recent research has shown that even before the pandemic, one third of all households with children in this country were what we call net-worth poor, meaning those families lack enough financial cushion—which includes savings, assets, etc., to really sustain their families for more than three months at a time—at the poverty level, and we’ve seen that these households absolutely could not withstand a sudden economic loss like we’ve seen with the COVID pandemic. We know that future economic downturns are inevitable, so we really need to focus on building the resilience of families to withstand these kinds of events. Our current approach to income support policy is not really encouraging this.
So for example, we’ve got to address the cliff effect that occurs when people suddenly and unexpectedly lose economic supports with a small increase in earnings or savings that can really be a disincentive to work and save. And beyond eliminating cliffs and asset limits in programs, we’ve seen a growing interest in efforts that address the racial wealth gap, including baby bonds, which is the proposal that was floated by Senator Booker (D-NJ) and others, where the government would create investment accounts for infants that could be used in adulthood for school, or for a down payment on their home, or for capital for new business. So we’re seeing interest in efforts that both decrease the tendency of safety-net programs to penalize people as they make more money, but also proactive programs that could really help build wealth and increase resilience for families as they weather these tough times.
Thanks, Alex, let me turn to John. And John, understanding Governor Wolf put out some, some bold ideas on the climate and investment front, what do you think are the kind of public investments that we need to look at to meet the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050?
Well, let me start-
And how does that help us recover?
Yeah, let me start by thanking Governor Wolf for giving us a tour de force on what we need to do in both the power and transportation sectors, and I want to thank the authors of the report by showing that both the problems and the solutions of building a just and equitable economy are linked, they’re interrelated, they intersect with each other. And I think one of the things we saw during the course of the presidential campaign was President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris drawing that linkage together, the COVID crisis, which gave rise to the economic crisis, focusing on the climate crisis, and of course the racial justice crisis that we’ve experienced for a long time in this country, exposed by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, but we saw again last week with the front face of the white supremacist ethic at the Capitol.
The solutions are about building, as I said, a more just and equitable economy, and I think both the report and the President-elect have put a focus on energy transformation and getting to a net-zero economy. Why? Why is that at the heart of this? Well, one of the reasons is I think we have to step back and say that the climate crisis itself is on us right now. We saw it in the fires in the West; the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast; the longest hurricane season, most named storms in history; the flooding in the Midwest. We see it all around the world: flooding that’s displacing millions of people in Africa, fires in Siberia, the extreme weather in Europe that’s going on right now. If we don’t meet the challenge of transforming our energy system, as the governor was talking about, to go from one that’s built on dirty fossil fuels that have differential and more negative effects on frontline communities—communities of color, poor people—we are not going to meet that challenge, and we’re going to pay an enormous price for it going forward.
There’s also tremendous opportunity in making these investments, and you asked a question, Mara: Where do we need to make them? And the governor’s put his finger, I think, on the places where we need to start, which is moving the power sector from essentially one that’s still dominated by fossil fuels to one that’s 100 percent clean. President-elect Biden suggested that we can do that by 2035. That is going to take investment by the federal government, the kinds of innovative policies that the governor spoke about, support through the tax system, which on a bipartisan basis, the Congress just extended. But we need more support for those kinds of policies, we need to electrify the transportation system, again, building out the charging infrastructure that supports the ability to electrify cars and light-duty trucks, but also to make major investments in transit and other ways of reducing the vehicle miles that are traveled by individuals by having better transit systems.
We need to invest in the built sector to electrify more of that, and that is a front-and-center issue. Raise standards, efficiency standards, across the board for not only consumer products, but industrial products as well, and I think there’s a big need for expanded research and development. We’ve called for tripling R&D; the President-elect has called for doubling or maybe tripling R&D in energy-intensive industries, particularly in the hard-to-decarbonize sectors—manufacturing sectors like steel, cement, aluminum.
These are big efforts, but there’s big opportunity in those efforts. We can create jobs with high job standards, we can see that work be unionized work, we can put people to work doing the work that needs to be done, we can create training programs that provide a pipeline of opportunity for people who have been left behind. And I think that particularly at this moment now, where the economy needs so much support, not just relief, as we’re going to see, I think in the early weeks of the Congress, not just relief for the pain that’s being experienced, but support to put people back to work, to create that cycle of innovation, business development, creating new businesses, and putting people to work. It needs to be done in support of a strategy that’s pointing to the future, not to the past.
Thanks, John. Governor, I wonder if I can come to you, building off of John’s point and appreciating what you said in your keynote remarks about the importance of a federal plan, a federal approach. Pennsylvania seems like a state we can learn a lot from in its diversity—the large metro areas, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, medium-sized Scranton, Harrisburg, and rural areas. So what’s your sense of how we can best reconnect these areas as we think about these rebuilding efforts? Because it feels like what we can learn from Pennsylvania could apply in a lot of other places in the country.
Yeah, no, I think that’s a good point, and you’re right to point out what a phenomenal commonwealth Pennsylvania actually is. We have a lot of good things working for us. But again, I think what we all talked about here today is really important. Nina and Alex, John, I think reinforced the notion that there are some really good ideas as to what we need to do to move forward as a nation, and I think the “More Perfect Union” report does a phenomenal job of laying out what some of the goals that we ought to have really are, and again, each of the panelists has pointed that out.
My point in getting down in the weeds, and probably it’s because my perspective as a governor, is that so many of us, on the left and the right, do a so much better job of laying out goals and do a lot less well when it comes to figuring out how we’re actually going to get from here to there, and I think if you look back at some of the great administrations, they have actually figured that out. Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt—they figured out how to get from wherever they were, and understanding they needed to get to some better place. I think they had a pretty good definition of where they wanted to get, but they also did a pretty good job of figuring out how they were going to get there. They made some mistakes, but it was practical.
And so, I think one of the things that we need to continue to do is figure out how all these really worthy things that Nina, Alex, John talked about and we’re trying to do in Pennsylvania—we also have to figure out how we’re going to get there. And that’s why, again, as a state governor, I keep looking so longingly at the budget and financial resources of the federal government, because in the end, so much of this comes down to how we get money, and again, we’re all constrained by what the voters are going to tell us they’re willing to do and not willing to do, so we have to figure out how we do this in a reasonable, efficient manner.
And again, I didn’t want to be too harsh on the 100 days, but the first 100 days, there is a honeymoon, and between Inauguration Day and sometime in February, March, and April, this administration, like every administration, is going to be in a position to do some things they will never be able to do again. And so, they’ve got to be able to roll these things out, and there is a focus on obviously ends. What is a Biden vision for America that’s so different from the dark vision that we just have gone through? What is it that he has, but more to the point, in the next three months, what can we do to move very quickly toward that vision?
So I think in Pennsylvania, we’ve done some interesting—I’ve learned a lot. This is my first stint in politics at all, but I learned this in business as well, that it’s one thing to have a really rosy vision of where you’d like to get, and it’s quite another thing to get there. And so much what I think we have to do is figure out how we’re going to get there, how we’re going to get to this equitable, fair future that we all so desperately want to see, how are we going to do that as quickly and affordably and politically palatably as possible? And that’s what I think, again, my experience in Pennsylvania is that above all, we need a federal government that wants to get there too. The states are limited and cities are limited as to what we can do on our own, and we’ve learned that from the pandemic. I think we’ve also learned that in terms of things that we’re talking about in “A More Perfect Union.”
Governor, I’m going to follow up with you, even though I know it’s a little unfair. You just answered a question, but the point you made—and then I want Nina to comment a little bit on—on local rules, particularly with respect to climate and energy. But Governor, because you have a special background of your current role and your role as a very successful business leader, can you just give us your thoughts, and you mentioned it a little bit in the infrastructure bank proposal, but what’s the most effective role the private sector can play, and what things we need to be looking at, in terms of maximizing public-private sector work together and addressing these recovery issues?
Yeah. I might be looking at this a little too casually, but I really think the private sector investors, that there’s a lot of cash swirling around the world right now. So sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, individual investors. And one of the interesting things, there is a concept called a safe bank, which bankers apparently hate, which is an idea of banks that would just basically invest in government bonds, highly rated bonds, and if that’s all they do, you don’t need a sales force, you don’t need much of an infrastructure. The operating expenses are fairly limited.
So I think that’s a model for something like an infrastructure bank. If the government were to just go out practically, and at current interest rates, or however they do it, raise the equity capital for that, maybe even sell some stock to the private sector for it, but then go out to these sovereign wealth funds and say, “How would you like to have a steady source of income here? We’ll bond it, just like with full faith and credit of federal government, it’ll be cheap money for us, but it’ll be a source of cash for you.”
It would mean that all the money that we’re looking for from all the usual sources at the federal level, we could use that money for something else, something to actually address the needs of families who are struggling, the educational systems in every state that needs this kind of money, the things that really work, where the private sector, I think if we had the right institutional setup, would flock to this kind of thing really easily, and we could actually—it’s almost like using a judo system to say, “Okay, come on. Let’s invest in these things that have a good rate of return and would actually do a lot of good things, not so coincidentally, for workers, for economies and states, we’d get things really moving very quickly.”
And so, that’s just one thought again. The infrastructure bank would be something that would pretty much, I think—I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations. We’d have far fewer—it’s like a World Bank, but for the states, but I mean, the World Bank, I think has 10,000 employees. You have 50 states and a few for the territories’ teams to focus on this, the operating expenses would be a lot less, and it would be a source of infrastructure development funds that would not cost one penny of taxpayer money.
Thanks, thanks. You will be digging more into that, I am sure of it. Nina, what about state and local governments, particularly with respect to the fight against climate change and clean energy transitions? At the state and local level, what things should we be doing? And feel free to connect this back to the international as well, as relevant.
Yeah, thank you. So this is a torch that cities and states have been carrying for the United States for four years now. We’ve been very active. The day Trump announced that he was going to withdraw us from the Paris Climate Accords, Mayor Garcetti got on the phone with other mayors and founded Climate Mayors, which has grown to about 450 now, which have pledged to abide by the Paris goals, and Mayor Bloomberg has started a similar effort with states.
We have many of our own programs. We launched a Green New Deal in L.A. a couple of years ago that puts economic equity and climate justice at the center of our very ambitious targets around renewables in our grid, decarbonizing buildings, increasing public transport, and zero waste to landfills, etc., to name just a few of them. And so, we’ve pledged to be net-zero by 2050, and we’re getting there. And we’ve also been linking internationally to other cities to do this work. Mayor Garcetti’s the chair of a group called the C40, which is around 100 megacities around the world who are all pledging together to reduce their carbon, half by 2030, net-zero by 2050, and the ambition is to bring a thousand of these cities to the COP Conference in Glasgow next year, or this year, rather, we’re in ’21—at the end of this year.
So I guess I would say that the federal government now can really ramp up this work. I mean, at the end of the day, all the power plants, the transportation systems, the recycling, water recycling infrastructure, and actual recycling of materials and figuring out what to do with our plastic now that China won’t take it—all of that has to locate somewhere, and we’ve learned a lot in the last four years about how to do it right. But Governor Wolf is absolutely right, we can’t do this alone. We have really limited means of raising cash, even more limited than states do. Cities, basically we’re relying on sales tax, which is decimated; business tax, which is decimated; and we can do bonds, but we only can go so far in issuing bonds.
And the City of L.A. is already paying for a lot of this stuff itself, and it definitely has skin in the game in a major way, especially on transportation, where we passed an increase in sales tax that is going to fund this for 30 years, but it’s not enough. It’s absolutely not enough, and all city budgets right now are completely decimated. We’ve just narrowly averted layoffs just yesterday, basically, in a new deal with our unions, but we are absolutely in the red. And so, one thing we need is for the next stimulus package to just give aid directly to cities, and that’ll just break even, but then—and I also agree with Governor Wolf on the idea of a green infrastructure bank. I mean, these are great opportunities for investors, but it’s really hard at a municipal level to set a system like that up.
Thanks, Nina. Alex, let me turn to you, and a little bit wearing your former hat of the NGA Economic Opportunity work that you did and reacting to what Governor Wolf has put out, what would you say are the things that we can do to maximize state and federal government working together on rebuilding?
Alexandra Cawthorne Gaines:
Well, I should say just doubling down on what both Governor Wolf and Nina shared that an adequate or an excellent response to the coronavirus pandemic would have really demanded a response from all levels of this country’s governance structure, so an all-hands-on-deck approach, if you will. And that means there needs to be true collaboration and partnership between states and the federal government to meet the challenge of rebuilding this country with strong leadership and leveraging the full resources of the federal government to support state and local government. And we hadn’t really seen that in responding to the pandemic, which has led to so many of the challenges that we continue to see in containing the virus.
And so zeroing in pretty narrowly on the area that I focus on, income support programs that promote economic mobility, I really think it would be important for states and federal agencies moving ahead to work together to examine some of the regulatory flexibilities that were provided by the federal government during this pandemic to help state and local administrators better support people in need of assistance and figure out what’s worth extending into the future moving forward. So, specifically, as I mentioned earlier, states have been able to modify program roles to waive eligibility and work requirements, adapt services to fit a virtual environment. There should really be an evaluation of a lot of those changes at the federal level to help distill best practices for future use at the state level. People and families have benefited from many of those changes that essentially cut red tape and ease access to life-sustaining programs in the context of the pandemic.
In terms of investments, I think we’ve covered infrastructure quite a bit, but I don’t want to miss the importance of investments in digital infrastructure, which is what we talk about in the report. We really need large-scale investment in broadband. There are a number of communities when we talk about reconnecting communities, reflecting back on the question that you had for Governor Wolf around how Pennsylvania is a microcosm of the nation with large metro areas, with medium-sized towns, urban areas. Significant investment really has to be made in universal broadband access. It’s shameful that there are communities across this country, especially rural areas, where the lack of digital infrastructure furthers disconnection and creates what some researchers call informational poverty.
It also proliferates social exclusion, political segregation, and economic isolation, which contributes to so many of the broader social issues we’re seeing now. One of my colleagues often likes to talk about how prioritizing policies that are good for rural America and for people of color will really benefit the nation as a whole, and I think as we think about reconnecting and we think about the importance of leveraging racial justice and also thinking about a place-based lens making sure there’s adequate investment that’s geographically dispersed to communities that have long needed investment, those are lenses that are incredibly important to take.
Thanks. Let me turn to John, and John, I’m putting two different things out there for you at once. One is the following up on whether you have any thoughts, knowing you’ve been outspoken about it in the past on the broadband points that Alex is making, but then on Nina and Governor Wolf’s climate points, both the sovereign wealth fund concept of international investment and linking that to climate, and the points that Nina made. I’m curious on that front of how do you think the United States should be working to prevent an international race to the bottom on climate? And financing energy projects is a big part of that, and also dealing with countering China’s support for dirty energy. I know there are other countries that we need to focus on as well, but over to you. You’re muted, John.
You’d think after 10 months, I’d have learned to get off of mute before I started talking. That was a mouthful, Mara, but let me just add a couple of things to what Alex said on broadband, which is, I think the COVID crisis really exposed in stark relief what it means to lack access to broadband. When you think you have to educate your kids at home, when you don’t have access to the ability to get to work, when you think about the people who were hit the hardest in the economic disaster, the people who could work remotely, who had access to broadband, whose kids could get access to education materials on broadband are coming out of this in a lot different place than the people who lacked it. And it’s a healthy price tag, but I think it’s one that the country needs to take on just the way we took on rural electrification back in the 1930s.
There’s another crisis I think in that space, which is that there are places where broadband passes by households, but it’s expensive and people can’t afford it. And so if you look in urban America, households with incomes below $35,000 comprise 60 percent of households without broadband despite making up just 30 percent of overall households in the nation. So I think we need to work on both problems, extending broadband out to rural America, but also making broadband affordable for people particularly with limited means. On the climate front, and particularly with this question of what do we do to ensure that particularly our trade-exposed industries don’t suffer the problem of free riders coming in with essentially we’re exporting our emissions by having people build stuff overseas and then importing it back.
I think that, again, President-elect Biden has spoken to this. There needs to be carbon border adjustment. The Europeans are looking at that in the E.U. system. They have begun their program and their commitment to the green deal in Europe faster. We had to suffer through an additional year of Trump, but they’ve also recognized that, again, their industries are subject to loss of market and loss of jobs if trade-exposed sectors particularly don’t have some adjustment, so we have a race to the top rather than a race to the bottom. And I think that, first and foremost, we need to have consultation with Europe so that we can regularize our standards. We’ve also put a high premium on using procurement as a way—California, again, led the way on this—as the way of inducing more development of clean products and products that are reducing their carbon footprint.
That’s going to happen I think at the national level, at the federal level, under President-elect Biden, President Biden. But I think that those standards have to be transparent. They have to be accountable. And, again, we have to make sure that you can’t slip in. If you’re going to a high standards world, you can’t slip in under that world. With regard specifically to China, I think the Paris agreement itself is in fact a place where the world did come together to constantly ratchet up ambition to use transparency and accountability to push each country toward a bigger share of the solution to the problem. When China made its nationally determined commitment back in 2014 in the joint appearance with President Obama, they put down fairly significant commitments, particularly to build out clean energy in China. But at this stage, they’re flat-lining through the next decade, and the world needs to come together to put pressure on China.
They’re still building out coal. They need to peak their emissions and they need to start eliminating coal from their energy mix. That can’t happen in 2060, as President Xi has promised. It has to happen now. But I think the U.S., Europe, U.K., other high-ambition states working together can create the circumstance by the time we get their Glasgow at the COP. We can see, again, a high-ambition coalition like we’ve seen at the subnational level here. I’ll come back to both what the governor and Nina have said. The collection of cities and states have pointed the way to what the country needs to do, and I think the collection of high-ambition countries can point the way to what the world needs to do.
Thanks. Thanks, John. I wonder if using maybe that point about state and locals pointing the way, in some cases, and certainly other parts of the world, Governor Wolf, if I can bring it back to the immediate of the pandemic and what we are going through, what we need to get through to get to some of the recovery items that we’ve been discussing, what would you say are the key actions that states are looking for from Congress and from the federal government and from a new administration to deal with COVID-19 relief and vaccine distribution specifically, and understanding that state and local aid is critically important to all of this?
Well, first of all, I think one of the things I’ve found, and I think you will find some maybe disagreement between conservative and more progressive governors on this, but one of the great gaps over the past 10 months has been the lack of a willingness to lead consistently and courageously in Washington. So it was one thing, and it was a fairly easy thing to say, “We’re going to leave this up to the states.” And maybe ideologically that sounded great, but when you’re actually a governor in a state and you’re trying to figure out, and we can work with other governors and learn things, but the lack of somebody in the White House saying, “We have a problem. We ought to be working together on this.” Just basic stuff like that would have made a huge difference.
Second thing is that there does really need to be competence so that when you actually look to some entity, private or public, to do something, there is an expectation that you ought to be able to deliver on what you promise. And too often, we haven’t seen that over the last four years. The hope is that that becomes much more routine in the Biden administration. And then the final thing in specifics, I mean, right now we have been all of us at the state and local levels, and Nina would say the same thing, we have been working on our own. There are a lot of people who are very, very, very tired. We’re fatigued, and it’s not just physical fatigue. I mean, mentally, all of us have been challenged. I mean, look at Pennsylvania, Los Angeles, we have all been challenged, and that doesn’t come without some stress; you get tired of that. And one of the nice things will be to get through this.
But another thing is to actually follow through on the promise of this vaccine and a competent rollout of this vaccine. That is, in fact, the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve got to say, this administration has done a good job of giving some very innovative science into the vaccines in a very fast way. But we have to get it out now. We’ve got to get it into the arms of people or it’s meaningless. That is the light at the end of the tunnel. It has given hope to a lot of people, but I think until that has proven to be something that we can actually get into the arms of people in a fast way, in a fair way, that would be the thing that I think we need most, and I think that’s something that I think the incoming Biden administration is already at work on. And I think they’re doing some good things and the expectations and the hopes are very, very high.
Thanks. Nina, let me ask you that question in terms of what you might have to add to it given not just the city perspective, but the size of the city and the tremendous challenges that you’re facing in L.A.
Yeah. Thank you. John Podesta once said, “The first thing you need is a plan.” So we need an actual federal plan for a vaccine rollout, and I’m sure that it exists. I think that just from the city perspective, we’re, right now as we speak, standing up what will probably be the largest vaccine distribution center in the country, at least for a while, in Dodger Stadium. So we’re converting what was the biggest testing center to the biggest vaccine distribution center, and we’ll be able to do I think 12,000 or something like that a day. But we need the vaccines, and so one thing is to try to find a way to reward the places that are actually getting the vaccines out into arms by giving them more vaccines. And we just have to do this fast, is the bottom line. That’s the only way we’re going to be sure to get a handle on this.
And every state has its own way and every county I think has its own way that they’re doing the distribution, but I agree, we just need to not worry about the second dose right now, because more is being manufactured. Just get it, just get it out to us. And we need to be made whole at some point or other for all the costs that are incurred—that we’re just incurring ourselves for to do this. Because, like I said, our budgets are decimated anyway. And I hope that by the time Biden is inaugurated, we don’t actually need health care workers anymore. But Governor Wolf’s point about us all being exhausted is absolutely right in our health care workers most of all, and that’s where our capacity is limited in terms of treating patients. It’s not so much in the space; it’s in the actual people.
But there might be something that the federal government can do to help in that space as well. And then I say, once we’ve taken care of our own country, there’s a lot to be done on vaccine diplomacy. Countries want to have the chance to buy the vaccine, and China’s been doing these contracts already now for months and months guaranteeing certain countries that they’ll be able to buy the vaccine. And once we’re set with our own country, we need to do that too, because that is absolutely the most important thing that other countries want from us now, especially developing countries.
Thanks. Thanks, Nina. Yeah, on that point, I would note—and it connects to the sovereign wealth fund—China’s supplying the vaccines to the Emirates as one example on that point. So yes, thanks. John, let me turn to you. And I also am mindful, I just want to remind our audience that we’re going to go to audience questions very soon so please feel free to add in the chat tab any questions you may have, because we will have some time to do that. And given our panelists, it’s quite an opportunity I would say. So please do add questions. And I am cheating a little bit in the question I’m going to John on, because there’s a follow-up question from the audience for that point, which I will go to after.
John, given your experience in the previous White Houses and your deep immersion in all these issues, what do you think are the most important areas for a new Biden administration to pursue in terms of the agenda we’ve been talking about and the things that are on their plate? And where do you see areas of progress that remain possible given the very significant divides that we’re seeing in our country at this point?
Thanks Mara. Well, first of all, to Nina’s point about a plan, I think a plan for a new administration begins with the promises you make in the course of a campaign. And I think that the president-elect made clear what his priorities were where he wanted to invest in both the care sector that we’ve talked about as well as to tackle the climate crisis and infrastructure, etc., as a way of again putting people back to work, restarting the economy, getting people back into employment and building, as I said, a more just and equitable economy. So I think what the transition is doing is developing those plans of, how do we deliver on those promises? I have to say, the outcome of the Georgia elections gives us a little bit more hope that he can actually execute those portions that require congressional support. There’s a big difference between 48-52 and 50-50.
And I think you’ll see that even though he wants to do this I think on a bipartisan basis, and maybe he can get some Republican support, you’ll see that right out of the gates with an additional relief package that will go to what the governor spoke about earlier, relief for state and local communities, the $2,000 checks to individuals, extending unemployment compensation, more support for vaccine distribution. I think you’ll see that right out of the gates. And I think had we not won those seats, I think given the struggle that the Congress had just in the last go around on the $900 billion of relief, that would have certainly taken a long time and may never have happened. But coming with that, or on top of that, you have to make these important investments again in building the kind of supports for families that they need so that they could get back into employment, an expanded and refundable child tax credit, expanded investment, EITC, a support for paid family and medical leave, which we saw was important during the pandemic. That needs to be made permanent and extended.
So there’s a lot to do in that part of the economy, but there’s also these major investments that we’ve talked about. And I think that one of the things that really makes me very hopeful that they’ll be able to execute this goes back a little bit more to my White House experience, is they’ve put together a tremendous team of people who have experience, who have knowledge, who have passion across the cabinet and in the White House. And I think that when it comes particularly to the climate, infrastructure, and those investments, the fact that he’s appointed John Kerry to be the special envoy at the global level and put Gina McCarthy and Ali Zaidi in charge to have domestic transformation, Brian Deese at the NEC, who’s a climate champion himself, means that they will first and foremost create a strategy that will use all of the authorities of the government to execute that.
They’re not waiting for congressional action, but they need congressional support, and I think when it comes to some things like clean energy deployment, renewable energy deployment, maybe they’ll have some Republican support, at least I hope so. I think that the climate denier in chief will be gone hopefully sooner rather than later, but at least at the worst in a week. And I think we’ll have an administration that’s fully committed to both tackling the climate crisis and making those investments. One thing I may have not said earlier: One of the things that Biden also promised was that 40 percent of those investments are going to distress communities, frontline communities, communities that have borne the burden of pollution over the years, and places where you see higher rates of asthma, more disease, more effect of the pollution that comes from a dirty energy system. And the promise of putting people to work building a clean energy system also lifts up the job prospects for people who need that work. So I’m very optimistic they can get a lot done.
Thanks. Thanks. And I’m going to read an audience question that came up very early. I think in some ways this and a number of the other things we’ve discussed have covered it, but this is an opportunity I think to refocus or double down. And I’m going to put the question to Governor Wolf first, but others may well want to respond as well. The question is, “With the political landscape polarized in Washington and 24 states now having Republican trifectas, obviously where the governor and the state legislatures are controlled by one party, what are the strategies at the federal, state, and community levels to leverage support for transformational change? So governor, you’ve hit on a lot of it already, but to respond to the audience question here, and others also should chime in.
Okay, let me just point out, Pennsylvania did not hit the trifecta. We have a Republican legislature. We do have a Democratic Supreme Court for the first time in a long time, and obviously a Democratic Governor. And that’s why I was heavy on the incentive-based programs that I laid out. I think those would resonate in conservative as well as liberal areas. One of the things that happens when you get to the point of being a governor or a county commissioner or a mayor is that you tend to think in practical terms. You move a little bit, not entirely, but you move a little bit away from Democratic or Republican labels and you move into a mindset of, how can I get things done given the constraints I’m operating under?
And if the federal government were to provide a source of funding for whatever and however they did that, that would be meaningful for the states and municipal governments around the country, I don’t care what party you are, I don’t care what trifecta you’ve hit, you’re going to be open to that kind of thing. Now, in this first round of Cares Act funding, there was a difference between smaller and larger states. The formula I think it was about $1.4 billion. The distribution of Cares Act funding was based on population, but there was a floor of 1.4 billion. So if you were a small, typically Republican, typically trifecta state, you might not feel as sensitive to the needs of the larger states like a Pennsylvania or New York or California for the second round.
But aside from artificial things like that, if you have a fair distribution system then I don’t think it matters how your state is organized. You’re going to be very receptive to help. Now, if there are too many strings attached, and if you’re of a persuasion not to delay some of the things, that might make you feel differently, but I think money talks when it comes to the federal government making distributions with the states and localities, and I think that goes a long way and will override whatever partisan differences are out there. I don’t know. Do you agree with that, Nina?
I do agree with that. I mean, I think others who are more politically savvy should answer this I think, because I think that’s what the question was getting at. But as far as I see it, people are hurting and everybody’s hurting, and so $2,000 checks is a good thing. I don’t think anyone’s going to turn that money away and Republicans have not exactly been embracing their deficit hawk identities recently, although I’m sure we’ll get back to them any minute now. But the other piece is that these are investments and Republican states are very happy to have huge clean energy programs. Like Texas, I think, is one of the largest clean energy producers with wind and solar, so a lot of this stuff I think as Governor Wolf was getting at, is not political. I think there will be grumblings around increasing the safety net, but even in that case, we’re in a pandemic. People need the help, and I think that’s more obvious than ever.
Can I just weigh in just briefly on something Nina said about deficit hawks? Again, up until six years ago, I was a business owner and I never understood this fascination with deficits or borrowing. If you’re in business and you borrow for something that actually is going to improve your bottom line, you borrow. If you don’t borrow, you’re wasting it. Now, you don’t borrow to pay interest, you don’t borrow for consumption, but to borrow for things like infrastructure would really be a very prudent thing for all of us to do. I don’t care what happens to the deficit, because it’s going to make us much more productive as a nation and make it much easier to pay back whatever debt we incurred. Sorry to interrupt there.
Mara, can I jump in?
Just want to add a word, particularly on these trifecta states, which is we’ve gotten used to talking about these four crises. There’s a fifth crisis, which is a democratic crisis. And I think the one thing that worries me about what we’ve seen in the past, and I worry about going forward with the Republican trifecta states, is the disenfranchisement of people that we’ve seen across as a strategy, what happens when they get full power. They decide rather than having the electorate choose them, they’d rather choose the electorate. And so I think that’s something we need to be on guard for. We had a lot of success, particularly my friend, Mark Elias, litigating on behalf of people across the country during this last year in the lead up to the election to make sure people could vote.
And you see that people really wanted to vote, notwithstanding making it more difficult to vote in Georgia. You saw the long lines of people who wanted their voices heard, wanted the opportunity to participate, came out in overwhelming numbers, both in the general election and then in the runoff. So I think that’s the one thing that I think we have to be on guard for and fight against. If people are going to try to disenfranchised people, we need to use all the tools we have to make sure that that does not happen.
So, John, again, premonition on the audience question. The next one that came up, which goes I think too much of that point from maybe a slightly different angle. Matthew Cohen has asked, “This conversation is occurring as the civic institutions at the core of our society and critical to a more perfect union are weakening with negative consequences for our economy. How do we restore trust in these institutions?”
Want to let Alex go first on that one?
Alexandra Cawthorne Gaines:
Sure. I was just about to jump in. I think what needs to happen immediately is to show that government can deliver for its people. As we’ve talked about, economic pain is widespread, there are immediate needs that need to be addressed, and so doing things like pushing out additional cash payments, extending unemployment insurance, extending and expanding nutrition assistance, because we also have a hunger crisis underway, ensuring that aid is getting to state and locals. But, specifically, one thing we hadn’t talked about, I’m going to take an opportunity just to do it really quickly in the context of this question, is the fact that the pandemic is really exacerbating a long-standing, affordable housing crisis we have. We’re really at the precipice of record level evictions at a scale we haven’t seen before.
And so I do see some galvanizing across political lines around really addressing this and prioritizing affordable housing, as well as some of the other measures I talked about and additional steps taken to push relief. So I do think that it’s going to be critically important for government to pass things that will address that immediate economic pain so that we can deliver for our people.
Thanks. We have another question on this theme, so let me get that question in, but also governor or Nina, if you want to chime in as well on the question that Alex has talked about, or John. But someone has asked us specifically about the Voting Rights Act. In this case, on the possibility for Congress to restore Voting Rights Act Section 4B, which I have to say, John clearly knows what that means. And I don’t know how that relates to the Lewis Voting Rights Act that is in the House as well, but in the concern about democratic institutions. So let me, again, governor, I don’t know if I was cutting you off before, so please feel free on either.
Well, two things. First of all, I want to just follow up. Alex is absolutely right. I mean, I think legitimacy stems in part, not entirely, but in part from the ability to deliver equitably, fairly, quickly, effectively and I think we can go a long way to addressing the deficit that John talked about—the democracy deficit—by actually making sure that our democratic system works. In terms of access, John’s also right, and I think restoring the portions of the Voting Rights Act that were knocked out would make a big difference. I think there has been a trend since the ’90s—maybe late ’80s, but early ’90s at least—to actually limit access to the polls in very different ways. And I think this last election, we have actually done in some places a job, whether it’s addressing fair districts and gerrymandering or just opening up the vote—Pennsylvania had a record turnout in the 2020 presidential elections.
We also had made it a lot easier to vote. We can vote by mail, we can do all kinds of things that we couldn’t do before. And I think it did have an impact on allowing people to come out to vote. Ironically, it worked out to be a nice thing to have this kind of access with the pandemic. But even before that, the moving beyond gerrymandering with the congressional races, we’re a Democratic state, we have about a 600,000 to 700,000 voter edge of the Democratic party, but our 18 member congressional delegation—18 members—was 13 Republicans and five Democrats. That was it. I mean, talk about gerrymandering. After we put a fair math into place, because we actually had a chance in the 2018 election to do that, it went from 13 to five to nine to nine. And we pick up some really good members of the House of Representatives.
So we need to address the deficit in democracy. It’ll make a big difference in the system, and I think it makes it more legitimate to more people. And that’s going to be, in addition to Alex’s point of delivering, we also have to make sure that the process by which we make decisions—by which we hire the people who are public servants—is fair. Thanks. Nina? Oh, John.
No, no. I’ll defer to Nina.
Just a couple of quick points. One is, totally agree on housing and homelessness is a huge crisis and we need a restoration of the federal government attention to this issue, because we really can’t do it alone. I mean, housing ought to be a right. And second, I think I feel like we sound like Democrats, we just have to deliver good stuff and then it’ll be fine. And I agree with that, and that was my first instinct, but we also need to be able to communicate that we’re doing that, and I feel like these completely siloed media environments that people live in is just not going to work. So I hope someone smart at CAP is figuring out what we can do about it.
Let me just add a couple of points. I’ll come back to Nina’s point, which is, I think there’s no question that the House is going to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, they’re going to pass HR-1, which provides some basic democratic rights and voting rights for people. They’re going to pass the Protect the Democracy Act, which tries to attack the worst abuses that we saw during this last administration. They’re going to pass D.C. statehood. They’re going to pass the ability of self-determination for Puerto Rico. And then the question is, what happens in the Senate? We got a 50-50 Senate. We still have a filibuster. So one of two things I think in order for that to become law needs to happen. Either the Republican Party needs to reflect on at least some of their members’ complicity in what we just saw happen last week, particularly Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley.
They have to reflect on that and say, “We’ve got to be a different party. We’ve got to move forward. We’ve got to embrace the future and embrace a society that is diverse and come together and be partners in passing those things into law.” Or the Democrats have to think about whether it’s time to end the filibuster in the Senate. That’s controversial, but I think the time has come where the Democrats have won the majority in the popular vote in all but one of the last five elections, and we have to have democratic accountability in our country.
We have just a few more minutes and I’m going to go to looking backwards to look forwards question, which is, what lessons do you think that we have learned? This is to John and or any of our panelists here, what lessons do you think we’ve learned from the successes and failures of past administrations, Democratic and Republican, that should be front and center for a Biden administration at this point as they’re coming in?
Well, I’ll start, and I think President Obama would agree with me, which is come back to Nina’s point, you’ve got to sell it. You can’t get so wound up in dealing with a crisis and trying to get stuff done, which I think they did a tremendous job of in 2009, 2010, that you stop reminding yourself that you’ve got to go remind people who created the problem and what you’re doing to solve it. So that’s more difficult in the social media environment that we find ourselves in, and I think some deep attention has to be paid to the fact that the sectarianism we’re experiencing is deeply rooted in the disinformation that is the now part of the structure of the way people make money at Facebook and YouTube and these other social media platforms. So that has to be attacked head-on both by calling it out as well as probably the use of antitrust law and thinking about whether one can adjust to deal with the platforms and the risk that they pose to democratic institutions.
Thanks. Anyone else? Nina, Alex, governor, looking back to look forward?
No, I’ll weigh in on that. I mean, I think we need to remind ourselves that the sectarian streams of information channels have been pretty strong throughout our history. The penny press was something that people were concerned, the 19th-century radio, and then later television were things that people were concerned about too. I think the key is what John said, and Nina’s right, that we’ve got to make sure that as we do things that actually get to the heart of what might make the life of a family in rural Pennsylvania better, and we need to do a better job of making sure we tell people, “That’s the result of the policy.” The stuff that you’re talking about here, the stuff that you hear on certain areas of the media, it’s not going to make a difference in your life.
Your schools are still going to be bad. They’re going to be underfunded. The highways in your area are not going to be paved to the extent they should. You’re not going to have broadband. Those are things that you really ought to be looking at, and shame on us for not actually making that point.
Two points. One is that we have to remind people that the economy has done better, the stock market has done better always under Democratic administrations, if you look back for the last 70 years. Second, which is not exactly historical, but I think we actually need to approach our role in the world with some humility at this moment. And I think we can do that at this moment, and politically I mean, because I think people have a deep understanding of how the world has been viewing us these last four years. And I think we need to do that.
Well, thank you very much to everybody. Thank you to our audience for being with us, sticking with us, and asking great questions. And tremendous thanks to Nina and Alex and John and Governor Wolf for giving us not only the keynote, but staying with us on this. You’ve given us at CAP a tremendous amount to work with, think about, dig into, as I hope is pretty clear. The report is the starting point, not the ending point. And governor, as you pointed out, the challenge is figuring out how to get stuff done. And we are embracing that on democracy, on racial justice, on the economy, on climate, and on getting us through this pandemic. So thank you all very much and we look forward to continuing the conversation.
Thank you, governor. Thanks, everybody.