This is an edited version of a talk that occurred on October 5, 2023 on the Cal campus. You can listen to the full, 90 minute Ezra Klein and Amy Lerman interview on the Berkeley Talks website here.
Ezra Klein: [00:00:00] I’m Mr. Klein, and you’re listening to KALX Berkeley.
Tim Lynch: Welcome to Fiat Lux Redux, a collection of edited lectures and conversations that took place on the campus of uc, Berkeley. It’s called From segments of Material available online at uc, Berkeley’s mini websites, podcast programs, and streaming channels.
Today’s edition of Fiat Lux Redux starts now.
Lisa Katovitch: Today’s episode of Fiat Lux Redux features New York Times journalist and podcast host Ezra Klein with UC Berkeley public policy and political science professor Amy Lerman in a talk entitled A Liberalism That Builds. The talk took place on October 5th, 2023 at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus.
Amy Lerman: I want to start with like a really basic question, which is, what do you mean by supply side progressivism? Why is it progressivism and not just supply side policy? How [00:01:00] are you thinking about this as a distinctly liberal either problem or set of solutions?
Ezra Klein: I care about this yoked to liberal values, which are the values I share. Enough of the things we need to make real the world I want. A world where we’re not cooking the planet. A world where a firefighter who works to keep San Francisco from burning down can live in the city. A world where there is access to the medical care and medications that people need. I care about working backwards from the world I want to the things we need to get there.
And so simply opening up the supply side, well, you get into this question of supply of what? Right? Conservatism had its own supply side economics, you might remember it. It was a lot of tax cuts for rich people. The values, the, the, the rooting this in a vision of not just the present, but of the future, right? A sense of what kind of future we want to get to. That’s the reason all this matters, right? You only need directions if you have a place you actually want to go.
Amy Lerman: That brings up [00:02:00] this question of how we make trade offs. So I wonder whether the liberal version of supply side is just inherently more complicated because we’re trying to make trade offs between things like environmental protection and construction, or we’re trying to make tradeoffs between engaging with communities and avoiding NIMBY problems. Is that necessarily a feature of supply side progressivism that we, that we need to contend with?
Ezra Klein: Yeah, in many ways this is all about trade offs. Yeah, so, the problem with conservative supply side economics was it was stupid. And it ended up becoming wrapped around the axle, this idea that you could cut taxes and unleash the animal spirits of the nation’s John Galtz and that would lead to the economy growing and everybody getting more and, you know, and then they kept trying it and you kept not raising taxes and blowing up the budget and so it kind of gave the whole thing a bad name.
There’s a great piece about, um, green triage. And what it basically says is that liberals have been focused for a very long time on climate denial. Correctly, right? People who deny the reality of climate [00:03:00] change. But that the liberal version of that affliction is trade off denial. People who deny the reality of the trade offs that are going to be required to build renewable energy infrastructure, green infrastructure, at the pace and at the scale we need.
And that’s one reason I keep focusing very tightly on individual projects. I’m not trying to talk at 30, 000 feet about, Oh, America doesn’t build anymore. Right. You know, so there was a very viral essay by the venture capitalist Mark Andreessen about, you know, it’s time to build. We don’t build enough.
Everybody should build more. If you don’t like what I’m building, build your own thing. And it struck a chord and for a reason, but my criticism then as now of that kind of rhetoric is that it’s disengaged with the why. The, what is it that we’re not building and why has it become hard to build it? So when I focus in on high speed rail or congestion pricing in New York City or the Tahanan affordable housing complex in San Francisco Or how it looks to build affordable housing in Los Angeles, like the thing I’m trying to get people to look at [00:04:00] is the very specific trade offs that we will either make differently or not.
So, take the affordable housing I looked at in San Francisco. You know, when you break down why it is so lengthy and costly. So, I’ll give a quick bit of background. I wrote this piece called, uh, about everything bagel liberalism. Um, which has been a little bit misinterpreted because the point is that everything bagels are good.
And the best kind of bagel. Which I don’t actually believe. I believe a salt bagel is the best kind of bagel. But thank you, my first applause line of the night. But what’s bad is you layer too much on the everything bagel. And if you saw the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, you develop a nihilistic black hole that sucks in everything into its molten core.
Um, and you don’t want that kind of bagel. There is a tendency in liberalism to layer too many objectives onto a single project, such as the project begins to collapse under its own weight. And one of the things I was looking at was this affordable housing complex I became aware of in San Francisco that got built in half the time for half the cost as [00:05:00] normal.
So it’s about 400, 000 bucks a unit, about three and a half years. Routinely twice set to do this kind of work. What happened? Well, Charles and Helen Schwab, who you might’ve heard of, they gave 50 million to this group, the housing, something accelerator, housing innovation accelerator, and they said, if you can build this fast, you can use this money.
And what happened is it by using private money, that group didn’t trigger a series of mandates and requirements and process loops that using public money does require. So the act of taking a public dollar, for instance, means you have to go by what’s called the 14B subcontracting rules. In San Francisco, they used to be a preference for minority based contracting, but then there was a proposition that passed, and a Supreme Court case, and then you couldn’t do that anymore.
So it became a small business subcontracting rule, so you can’t hire, or you have to prefer not to hire, a contractor who makes more than 7 Like maybe the reason that the [00:06:00] contractor begins to make more than 7 million a year is that they’re good at what they do and can do things fast. So anyway, there are not that many of these small subcontractors doing this kind of building.
So you have to wait for the one that comes up. So it adds millions of dollars in months and months onto cost. It’s a very literal question. Should affordable housing, which is an unbelievably acute need in San Francisco, where people are living in tents on the street. I’m not saying it’s not good to preference small subcontractors.
Is it good to do it here? Given the trade off, given the cost. And what’s frustrating about this work, is that there’s not one thing I can point to. It’s not one bill. Like, when I do national politics, I’m just like, Get rid of the filibuster and everything will be fine. It probably wouldn’t be. But it would be better.
Here, it’s a million little things in a million places, and it requires a lens where you’re looking for these problems and trying to solve them, or at least trying to ask about them. But that’s sort of not how liberalism has evolved, I think, in recent decades. I think it’s become very hard, in the rooms where these [00:07:00] decisions are made and these bills are crafted, to say, we shouldn’t do that thing even though it sounds good.
Even though it is good, because we cannot afford the extra time and the extra cost. Because this really just might fail.
Amy Lerman: And these are really hard decisions to make, because as you point out, it isn’t that any of these things aren’t good in and of themselves, right? Sort of how do we think about processes that can help us make those trade offs in responsible ways?
Ezra Klein: I think you have to start in not overly privileging the status quo. So something that is true right now is that to do anything requires a lot of justification. To do nothing does not. You can keep coal fired power plants running. Without running an environmental impact assessment on them. But you cannot build a new solar array without doing potentially a multi year environmental impact report.
We can have cars choking their way across the I-5. Nobody needs to file a new report to do that. But you can’t build high speed rail so people don’t need to drive. [00:08:00] So one thing is that we often have processes, which though you sometimes for good reason, maybe even often for good reason, net net, we’re not getting good outcomes.
And so one thing I am struggling with and thinking about is how to be less process focused and more outcomes focused. I don’t think the environmental assessment process should be outcome neutral. It currently is. Fun lawsuit happening right now. Joe Biden is trying to get rid of part of Donald Trump’s border wall.
So a series of groups are suing the U. S. government in court because they have not done an environmental impact assessment on the environmental consequences of getting rid of the border wall. Unless we fully understand what that might do to the environment, because people will come over the border and they might leave some trash and annoy some ranchers, it’s ridiculous.
And the reason it can happen is that the question that process is asking is not, is this good for the environment? It’s have you fully considered every possible effect, good or bad, such that nobody can sue you and say that you didn’t. Because if they can sue you and say that you [00:09:00] didn’t, not that it will be bad, just that you didn’t, they can stop you.
Which is what happened to Berkeley. The court did not say it is bad to add more students. You cannot do it without doing a multi year assessment of what it will mean for trash. But of course those students are somewhere now. Adding them to Berkeley doesn’t make them and their cars appear out of thin air.
They exist. They go to school somewhere or don’t. So we’ve gotten procedural as opposed to outcome focused, right? I would like to see something a little bit more like there is a body that makes an assessment relatively quickly as to whether a project can be expected to be good for the environment. And if it does, then it has fast track clearance.
And if it doesn’t, then it is held to a higher level of scrutiny. Categorical exemptions from process, built around the question of what you are actually attempting to do. Congestion pricing in New York City. Charging cars to drive into Manhattan so fewer of them do it. And the ones that do do it, give you money that you [00:10:00] spend on public transit.
You should not spend four years on an environmental impact report to get fewer cars to drive in Manhattan and have more, like you just shouldn’t. It’s true that having local input in planning decisions can sometimes stop bad things from being done in poor communities, but we know where big housing developments are done and they’re done in poor communities.
And why are they done that way? Because rich people know how to get lawyers to work processes in their favor. So the question of whether or not the current processes are actually preventing the things we want them to prevent is important. Are these processes serving that world? And then if they’re not, do our best to think of new ones, recognizing that they will not be perfect.
Recognizing that we may solve a problem now, as these processes did. Only to become the problem later. But, we need to solve the problem now.
Amy Lerman: Do we have to have this optimistic vision? And is that a hard thing to imagine cultivating in our current politics?
Ezra Klein: Yeah, I do think you want to have an optimistic vision of the future. I think [00:11:00] there’s a lot of doomy politics out there right now, and there shouldn’t be. Or at least it should not be as dominant as it is. We can imagine slightly better and worse versions of the present. But I mean, it’s why I write pieces about true energy abundance, right? What would it mean? Uh, there’s a great paper of like, what if everybody just had access to the same amount of energy as people in Iceland do?
Because Iceland’s functionally just a volcano. And so the geothermal energy there is very abundant. Like, what could we do with that? How far could we go? How fast could we fly? We could have vertical greenhouses that are growing food. Something like a third of all arable land is given over to, uh, raising livestock for human beings to torture and then kill.
What if you didn’t have to do that, and you could let that land rewild? And the meat was cheaper, and everybody could have it. It’s why the other side of this vision is not just building the things we know how to build like housing and solar panels but it’s also inventing things that we don’t have yet but need.
Most liberals can tell you the [00:12:00] three or four or five social insurance programs they would like to see created, right? Pre K and single payer health care and you know, everybody can think of their set but they can’t always say what are the five inventions they would like to see? What five technological advances do they want to see the federal government put its money and muscle into solving such that we can have things exist that don’t exist now?
We did just have an example of this. I mean, Operation Warp Speed led to the fastest major vaccine development in history by a lot. Millions of lives saved. And it distributed that advance more equitably, not perfectly, but more equitably than any medical advance anybody can think of in history. You didn’t get iPhones based on need, but you did get vaccines based on need, at least for a while.
That was remarkable. Why don’t we have 15 Operation Warp Speeds going right now? The Republicans turned against their own program because they stopped liking vaccines, and the Democrats don’t want to give credit to it. Like, it’s crazy. But it also reflects a lack of a politics of [00:13:00] technology. And technology is how the human race advances.
Growth is a function of change, not stasis. I hate, I hate the metaphor growing the pie. The worst metaphor in economics. If you grow a pie, and pies also don’t grow, that’s the first problem. It’s not how pies work. If you grow a pie, what you get is more pie. When you grow an economy, what you get is change.
The difference between 4 percentage points year on year growth in an economy over 20 or 30 years, and 1 percentage point year on year growth, is stagnation versus the Jetsons. Things become different. We should care about what that difference is. But we should want difference. Sometimes it feels like the only things that we imagine now are a slightly better present, or a return to a much worse past, or a much worse future.
A lot of American politics, I think, in recent years has been about the past. And not wrongly. Those interpretations matter. The past echoes into the present, like the injustices compound. But you can’t stop there. You have to imagine a future.
Amy Lerman: Yeah, no, [00:14:00] absolutely. And, you know, if we’re thinking about this idea of sort of technology and innovation, and we’re thinking also about sort of government being in some ways the problem, right?
Sort of overly processed. Is there sort of a public private partnership component to this? Or do you see government getting out of the way of private industry? Or, incentivizing certain kinds of production. What is the interrelationship there? And how do you see it functioning in a, in a better model?
Ezra Klein: Oh, it’s such a good question. What a shame Elon Musk went so nuts. What a walking advertisement for the power of public private partnership. He now sort of denies it. The government repeatedly rescued and made Tesla possible. And as such, Tesla made a rapid transition to electric vehicles possible. No government, no Tesla, no Tesla, no California law banning internal combustion vehicles in whatever it is, 2035 or 2050.
That California law, which is incredibly ambitious and which is attempting to radically accelerate the EV transition is not [00:15:00] possible if electric cars did not get as good and as desirable as they now are. Now, the government can’t make amazing electric cars. Nobody, no government. is currently a electric car leader, but they can make great electric cars possible.
That’s true on a lot of things. I mean, the history of invention is thick with both advances, scientifically made by the government, often made by defense departments, right? Think about the internet and other things, but also just the funding, the financing, the advanced market commitments to de risk huge projects.
I mean, that’s what the Inflation Reduction Act is. A functionally unlimited pot of tax credits for solar, for wind, more limited but still gigantic for things like green hydrogen, that’s going to have to be done largely by private companies. You know, not everything does have to be done by private companies, and not everything even should be.
But then you have to take seriously, if you don’t want it done by private companies, then you need to take seriously what it means when the government does these things itself. One answer I have seen from people I respect. [00:16:00] Who, I think, want to say it is bad that we’re not building enough housing in the places people need to live but also want to say housing developers are bad.
And so want, like a, like an answer that doesn’t deny the problem, but aesthetically puts them to my left. Is it, well the problem is we just don’t have enough public housing provision. But again, like, this is why it’s important to look at the details of how this stuff gets built.
In a lot of places, SF being one, but LA is another, when you trigger public money, you trigger a series of mandates and requirements that make it much more expensive to build a home. So you actually don’t have the money to have this run through the public process, unless you change the process. Whether it is public development or private development using public money, we have simply said that if you are building housing, not in your interest, but in the public interest, we are going to make it more expensive and slower.
And I think that if we are going to build housing to meet important public needs, we should make it easier and [00:17:00] faster. You can do that with public housing. There’s beautiful public housing out there. Like, go to Singapore. We have great public housing in America, too. But public private, that line, it doesn’t do the work people want it to do.
They, they happen in partnership even when they don’t mean to be in partnership. When the California Environmental Quality Act was passed, nobody thought it applied to private builds. The idea was that it is something that the state of California, when it builds something, would have to do to think about environmental impact.
Then, a couple years later, there was a developer who wanted to build six mixed use condo and commercial buildings in Mammoth, where you can ski. And a series of wealthy vacation homeowners in Mammoth, friends of Mammoth, they were called, sued. And they sued under this bill. That was pretty new, a year or two old, but they sued and they said the government had this needed environmental impact assessment and mitigation measures and the developer was like, the hell are you talking about?
I’m a private developer, I’m not the state of California. The first court [00:18:00] said, what the hell are you talking about? This guy’s a private developer, not the state of California. But it got appealed up. to the 9th Circuit, and they said no, this applies to any project that requires a public permit. A Sierra Club lobbyist then said, now it applies to anybody who rubs two sticks together for commercial reasons in California.
So everything then became a public private partnership. Because in a way, everything is, like, in a way that’s not wrong. But then you have to take what that means seriously, which we often don’t.
Amy Lerman: I wonder why it’s always friends of, friends of Mammoth, friends of Berkeley. These people are not my friends. It’s easy to mock the NIMBY instinct, right? But one of the things that we know is, right, people are protective about their, you know, the value of their house or the quality of their neighborhood. How do we balance these sort of broader public needs? With the private interests or the, the sort of local, um, hyper local, in some cases, interests of communities that, that may be concerned about things like having a, you know, a garbage or recycling plant put [00:19:00] in their low income neighborhood that is already struggling with a lot of the same kinds of installations over the years. So, I guess it’s back to the trade off question, right, which is the, the devil in the details.
Ezra Klein: Yeah, there’s never going to be an escape from the trade off question. And I agree with you. I mean, the instinct to preserve your neighborhood is very deep. I have a different standard. I don’t think the most economically valuable cities, and this is like chapter one of my book, those are not for the people who live in them.
Those are of national and even international importance. They have forever acted as engines, not just of innovation, much more innovation happens in cities than anywhere else. You move somebody to a city and become 50 percent more productive, even controlling for income, for education, for IQ, for anything.
But they’re also engines of opportunity. Over much of the 20th century, the income converged regionally. Across the US year on year in this unbelievably steady fashion 1.8 percent across the states year by year we [00:20:00] became over space more equal year after year after year after year after year and they showed this process Was responsible for fully a third or about a third of the entire reduction in income inequality in the back half of the 20th century. So that period we talked about the Great Compression the thing we always want to get back to when you look at those like charts of like wealth going like that a third of that was people moving from poor areas to richer areas the most highly rewarded jobs in the economy are creating things that get traded internationally. The iPhone, that kind of thing. But most jobs are local service sector jobs Make an iPhone that can serve a billion people, but you can’t cut the hair of a billion people. But if you cut the hair near the guy who made the iPhone you make more money as a hair cutter. Research on this, much of it from your own Enrico Moretti, whose work is fantastic.
Anyway, this paper, Ganong and Hsieh, what they show is that somewhere around the 90s, 2000s, that process slowed [00:21:00] down and then went to reverse. And what happened is that instead of everybody moving from poorer to richer areas, richer people kept moving to richer areas. Poor people stopped. It went the other way.
And the reason it went the other way was that housing began to eat up so much of their money that they would actually make less money. Moving from the South to the North as a janitor used to be a leg up, and then your children were richer, and they did better, and now it wasn’t, because housing ate up more money than wages added.
So we took one of the central engines of equality in this country and threw it into reverse, and the people who did that were in blue cities. Cities should not have the same rules. The questions of them are not just for the city. San Francisco plays a role, and the Bay Area in general, that is of strategic national importance to the American economy and to the global economy.
And the decisions about it should not just be made at that level. At the very least, I think they should be made at the, kind of, state level. I don’t think the fact that you happened to buy into SF in [00:22:00] 1985 makes you so much more worthy of political voice than somebody whose parents immigrated to the country in 2003.
I just don’t. Then you get into other questions about suburbs and other places and you know, there are things I would do and things I would change and you’re, you’re dealing with a lot of little tweaks and a lot of differences. But the big one I’m worried about first, when we think about NIMBYism or Neighborhood Defenders is cities.
I basically think at a certain level of income, which implies a certain level of productivity, you can think of some measure of this income plus density or something. I think something else should trigger, and new rules should be employed. Tokyo is the biggest city in the world, and it has kept housing costs down, despite being very, very, very rich.
Because they build an insane amount of housing, and they have awesome trains. Why has this happened in Tokyo? There are a bunch of reasons, including that Tokyo has been burnt down many times, and so there’s a kind of culture of building and rebuilding, and obviously that has a tragic past. But also, zoning policy is made nationally.
The government of Japan does [00:23:00] not see Tokyo as a question for the people who simply happen to live in Tokyo. Tokyo is the engine of Japan’s entire economy. It like needs to work for the country. So when it comes to cities, which is sort of my first set of concerns here, I lean in that direction.
Amy Lerman: Liberals talk a lot, particularly recently, about existential crises, the existential crisis of climate or of democracy or, uh, you know, of COVID. And I wonder if the Abundance Agenda has a particular moment right now because so much of what you’re talking about is the need to move faster, to invest more deeply in some of these things, to make trade offs with this feeling like we need to solve these problems and we need to solve them now. And that’s a logic that can push this agenda forward.
Ezra Klein: I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. I don’t think I’d be here doing this if I wasn’t thinking, I mean, my path to this came through decarbonization. We just need to build so much so fast to make that work that the question is like, can we? And when the answer is clear, no, then the question became, well, how do we, what do we need to do?[00:24:00]
There are a lot of people who speak about this as existential, but don’t feel to me like they are acting with an existential level of concern. I, I don’t remember if it was Minnesota or Minneapolis, but they passed a ban on single family zoning. And then the state chapter of the National Audubon Society sued under the argument that it required an environmental review because mixed family housing would be bad for birds.
This triggered a kind of fight within the Audubon Society and like those people seemed to have resigned and eventually, like they took themselves outta the suit. But the suit worked and the judge put an injunction on the single family housing ban. And this is to be fair, a fight happening in a lot of, uh, in much of the environmental movement.
The environmental movement was built on a conservation ethos, and now it has to pivot, or at least large parts of it have to pivot to build fast enough to conserve the climate. Which is not the same as [00:25:00] conserving land as it currently exists, and in fact is the exact opposite of it. We need to build a quantity, uh, a length of transmission lines that are multiples beyond the interstate highway build.
We need to build so many wind turbines, they’ll be visible from the combined landmass of like five states. The numbers here are astonishing, and it’s really hard to retool yourself like that. There are people in this who are real heroes here. Bill McKibben has been doing extraordinary work on this, and has been a leader in this fight forever.
Like, long before I ever got anywhere near it. These organizations weren’t built to do this. But, if you believe it’s existential, then you have to be willing to go into, to triage. If it’s that bad, and it is that bad, then yeah, we might not be able to preserve everything we wanted to preserve. If we believe it is that bad, then we need a World War II scale mobilization.
World War II was not chill. The government just nationalized the factories, it just took the factories away. And if you didn’t do what they [00:26:00] wanted to do, they took your factory too. And they built a bunch of factories. I mean, what we did there, what the environmental movement was calling for, I don’t think people actually faced up to.
What that’s going to require is really at odds with their intuitive commitments to land that they love. If it really is existential, then you have to swallow really hard and make the choices. And if not, then you have to say why we’re not. And what we’re going to do instead, the really dangerous thing is to say it’s existential and then implicitly make choices that rely on waiting.
Because like, that’s what we can’t do is wait.
Amy Lerman: Thank you. And just to be clear, you don’t have to worry about getting in trouble here. Friends of Ezra Klein, uh, here. How do we get there, given the, the fact that we, right now it seems like we can’t actually get anywhere.
Ezra Klein: Remarkable things have been happening. I think the Inflation Reduction Act is a remarkable piece of legislation [00:27:00] to have passed in as narrowly divided a Congress as it did. One good thing is that other states are looking at California and passing really great YIMBY legislation, because, like, we don’t want that to happen to us. The fact that solar, wind, and battery are now competitive with fossil fuels is the only reason we have any chance.
The only reason we have any chance at avoiding planetary catastrophe. And so a lot of good things have really happened. The move in climate to realizing that we would need to build our way out of this, it predates any of my work on this. If you look across a bunch of domains, you can see something new emerging.
Supply side progressivism. It’s not mine. I am trying to write about it, and trying to help shape it. But it is happening. I’ve reported on policy for a very long time, and one of my conclusions is we never, ever, under any circumstances, simply solve a problem. We always muddle through. It’s always messy, but we often do muddle through, you know, maybe some technological stuff breaks our way quicker than we are than we’re realizing.
Maybe some other stuff happens.[00:28:00]
Amy Lerman: I’m going to ask you one last question. And, uh, it’s a predictable question. Anybody who wants to ask it along with me.
Ezra Klein: right. Three books I would recommend to the audience. So one is Ed Glazer’s A Triumph of the City. It’s a great book. Um, great book about cities, will make you think about cities and see them a little bit differently.
Really fascinating work. Uh, another, it’s really important, Conor Dougherty’s Golden Gates. Um, if you live here specifically, it’s really important and it’s important to read things about the place in which you live. Um, and then the last one, a book that’s become really important in my own thinking is this book called People of Plenty by Potter. David Potter. Thank you. David Potter. The subtitle I think is Economic Abundance in the American Character. And it’s really helped me think about the ways in which what it means to be an American was braided with what were the possibilities in America. That book has become very foundational for me in my thinking and has helped me kind of see a lineage in these ideas that I can [00:29:00] connect back to.
But if you want to be like way ahead of where I am in my work, you should read that book. It wasn’t Amy Lerman great…
Amy Lerman: Ezra Klein.
Lisa Katovitch: You’ve been listening to New York Times journalist and podcast host Ezra Klein and uc, Berkeley. Professor Amy Lerman on the topic, A liberalism that builds a co-presentation of Cal Performances and uc, Berkeley graduate lectures. As part of the Jefferson Memorial Lecture Series, this program was edited by Lisa Katowicz.
Tim Lynch: You’ve been listening to Fiat Lux Redux, a public affairs show at KALX that features edited lectures and conversations that took place on the campus of UC Berkeley. The source material is culled from things available online at UC Berkeley’s many websites, podcast programs, and streaming channels, often in a longer form.
Our theme music is from New Monsoon. This is KALX, Berkeley.[00:30:00]