Transcript: Ezra Klein Interviews Felicia Wong


ezra klein

I’m Ezra Klein. This is “The Ezra Klein Show.”

I was on leave for most of August. And coming back has been a bit dizzying. Because the day that I left, the Biden presidency had stalled. The Build Back Better agenda, it was dead. And then came one of the fastest 180s I’ve seen in American politics. In quick succession, Biden passed the CHIPS Act, a major bill funding semiconductor manufacturing and scientific research. He passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which turned many of the major climate and tax ideas from Build Back Better into law. He canceled billions of dollars in student debt. All of a sudden, the Biden agenda was back. And so I wanted to step back and look at what Bidenism is.

When you put the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act together, I think you see a legacy — or maybe not a legacy, maybe an approach begin to go here. And it’s an unusually physical approach. All of these bills are about building real things in the real world — roads, and bridges, and broadband, and wind farms, and solar panel arrays, and semiconductor manufacturing plants, and advanced battery supply chains, and thousands of miles of electrical transmission lines, and millions of heat pumps in houses, and god knows how many electric vehicle charging stations. And the list just goes on and on and on. Biden’s legacy, if it is to become a legacy, it’s not just going to be written into tax code and regulatory law. It’s not going to be sent out as checks. It actually needs to be built. And that means that the job doesn’t end with the passage of these bills, it begins. And to be honest, nothing in the recent history of how America builds should make you confident that it will be built quickly, affordably and fairly. This is not a case where passing the bill solves a problem. Passing the bill creates an opportunity to solve the problem.

Felicia Wong is president and C.E.O. of the Roosevelt Institute. And she’s been, for a long time, I think, one of the clearest interpreters of what Joe Biden wants to do and the way he has changed. She has long argued that his agenda and his thinking is much more focused on directing and changing the productive capacity of our economy than people realized. And she was right. And particularly, she was right because that is a part of Bidenism that became law. But she’s also realistic about the challenges that are going to have to be surmounted before any of this can succeed. And that’s the messy, uncertain space we try to inhabit in this conversation. I want these bills to work. So does she. But that is far, far from a foregone conclusion. So what has to go right from here? As always, my email,

Felicia Wong, welcome back to the show.

felicia wong

Thank you so much for having me, Ezra. Great to be here.

ezra klein

So you were last here in September of last year. And we talked about what you thought Joe Biden wanted Bidenism to be. And you described it really interestingly to me.

It really stuck with me, this idea of a transformation towards a high care, low carbon economy. And a year later, he’s got some of that done, some of that not done. So what is Bidenism shaping up to be?

felicia wong

Yeah, I think that Bidenism is still what I sort of call the sunny side of post-neoliberalism, which to me —

ezra klein

Very catchy.

felicia wong

I know. Well, he wants all the good things about what a new economy could be. And I think he’s having to deal with some of the maybe bad things. But we can talk about that.

Anyway, what I mean when I say I think this is about the sunny side of post-neoliberalism, like I think he is very much still about public investment in a future economy. All of the legislation that this administration has passed, right — the Inflation Reduction Act, which I’m sure we’re going to talk about, and the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Bipartisan Infrastructure plan, and even the American Rescue Plan, right, was really about using public funds and the power of government to make life better for working people, for working Americans.

And a lot of that, especially the most recent legislation, CHIPS and Science and Inflation Reduction, is really about putting government money toward new sectors of the economy that he, that this administration would like to see grow, faster and more universally.

So I think that is still fundamentally what Bidenism is about.

I would say two things beyond that. One is that that high-care, low-carbon idea — care is out of the current plan. And that is really bewildering to me, and really a terrible thing for the economy, and I think a terrible thing for the American people. And we can talk about that. But care is out. So that high care, low carbon economy, it looks like we’ve got a lot more money on the low carbon than on the high care for now.

And then the last thing I would say is that in addition to the sort of public investment sunny side part of Bidenism, what surprised me is that this team has really shown a willingness to use other tools, like antitrust, anti-monopoly tools to curb corporate excesses, curb private power. And I think that this team, especially a National Economic Council team, can see both public investment and antitrust as two sides of a coin.

ezra klein

Let’s spend a minute on the collapse of the care agenda before we get into everything that actually did pass. So Biden had a big plan to expand pre-K. He had a big plan to make child care more affordable. He had a plan to make the Expanded Child Care Tax Credit, which is a very favorite policy of mine, permanent.

None of that survived. What do you think it says about our politics that the hard infrastructure, virtually all of it, ended up passing, and all of what was being talked about at that time as care infrastructure, virtually all of it died?

felicia wong

Right. Well, I think part of it, the top level explanation or analysis is really that, well, the deal was cut by Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer. And it was really Manchin’s bill. The Inflation Reduction Act is not the Build Back Better full plan, right? And so Manchin got to write a lot of that. And care was never really part of what he cared about. So that’s, I think, at a very high level.

I do think, though, that a deeper power analysis is that the parts of the care agenda that are really going to benefit families, particularly women, particularly parents, working parents, that’s just not what we have seen pass.

To be honest with you, I don’t really know why. There were so many great things about the care agenda, especially the pieces that were going to have home health care workers really be able to negotiate not just with their individual family employers, but with perhaps state entities so that they could have higher wages. Some of that was really creative and interesting ways to think about using state power to help workers, in this case, female workers, women workers, women of color, mostly.

I don’t actually have a super great analysis as to why that didn’t pass beyond a sort of general, you know, women don’t have as much power in this economy as they should. But I do think it is an enormous shame, not just for America’s families, but also for our economy. Because women back in the labor force, it’s good for the economy.

ezra klein

So let’s move, then, to the three big pieces of legislation that I think at this point look like together, they comprise or will comprise a lot of Joe Biden’s long-term legislative legacy — so the CHIPS and Science Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and the Inflation Reduction Act, or at least parts of the Inflation Reduction Act. And you’ve argued that these should be looked at less as separate bills and more as pieces of a broader, integrated effort to make our economy into something somewhat different. So tell me about how you see them connecting.

felicia wong

Absolutely. And I would actually also add the American Rescue Plan to that. So if you take all four of those pieces together, right — the Inflation Reduction Act, which is really about using tax credits and other kinds of loans to jump-start a clean energy economy. The CHIPS and Science Act, which has a lot of investments in basic science, which I’m a huge fan of, but also has $52 billion to invest in an American, made in America semiconductor capability; the Bipartisan Infrastructure Plan, which is already going. It’s over a trillion dollars to do everything from fixing roads and bridges and airports, to really importantly, fixing things like water systems in America’s cities — critically important as we look at what has been happening in Jackson, Mississippi.

So those three pieces of legislation are really about using public funds to build sectors of our economy that many people, including, obviously, the people in the Biden administration, think ought to be built faster.

Now, it’s not just about public money. It’s also about crowding in private investment. And if you talk to folks in the White House, they’re very proud that recently, Corning, the company Corning, has announced a new fiber optics manufacturing capability. And there’s a lot of new announcements about semiconductor manufacturing, about electric vehicle manufacturing. So that’s all private money, of course. But those three bills together are really about jump-starting, really, these new sectors of a future economy.

ezra klein

So let’s go into what some of these bills are. And I want to begin with the one that is least known, which is the CHIPS Act. Because I think it’s a really clean signal of what the Biden administration is trying to do.

So how would you describe the CHIPS Act, both what made it seem necessary, and then how it tries to approach the problems it attempts to solve, to somebody who has never heard of the CHIPS Act?

felicia wong

Yeah, the CHIPS Act is actually one of my favorite pieces of this potpourri of legislative victories, so I’m glad you asked about it. There are really two parts. One is investment in basic science, so the National Science Foundation, et cetera.

And I think this is really exciting. Maybe it’s because I’m a Californian who remembers, or at least has some kind of historical memory that much of Silicon Valley actually was built with government funding, government resources, government funding for the defense industry. Like, that’s what the precursors to sort of Apple and LinkedIn and Facebook really were in the Valley.

So part of what the CHIPS and Science Act does is actually to put government funding into basic research that is very much reminiscent of some of what we saw in the 20th century. Obviously, this is important for future questions of everything from A.I. to other kinds of information technology. But I think it is critically important as we think about what the vision for all of this ought to be, which in my mind is, we should be seeing five, ten new Research Triangle Parks across the United States. That would be an incredible outcome in 10 or 20 years from all of this legislation. And I think some of the investment in basic science, which also asks that some of this money be spread through different kinds of research hubs throughout this country, that is just pretty exciting and pretty cool. So that’s the first part of the CHIPS and Science Act.

And then the second part is a $52 billion investment in domestic semiconductor manufacturing. That’s incredibly important because, as we all know, semiconductors are parts of everything these days — obviously our phones, our computers, our cars. And we used to make semiconductors in the United States. We don’t now make semiconductors in the United States.

For the most part, they’re mostly made in Asia. And making sure that semiconductor supply chains are more resilient, meaning resilient to national security threats, resilient to other kinds of breakdowns in global trade, it’s really important, a little bit for jobs reasons, but also more fundamentally for supply chain resilience reasons, to start to build those in the United States.

It’ll be really interesting, too, to see how the CHIPS office ends up being staffed in the Department of Commerce. That is a lot of money to try to really invest in the American economy. And I think it will be very important.

A lot of progressives have criticized the CHIPS legislation so far as not having enough corporate guardrails. And so it’ll be very important, meaning you could see a very few companies get this money. You could see companies get this money and still end up mostly driving it towards executive profits rather than towards building semiconductor manufacturing. So how this gets implemented from that CHIPS office in the Department of Commerce will be incredibly important.

ezra klein

Let me hold on to the corporate welfare piece of it because I want to come back to that. But this is a pretty — what’s the way to put this? This bill, if they can do what they want with it and actually create the super sophisticated semiconductor manufacturing supply chain in America that they want, it’s going to be a pretty remarkable example of government power, and intention, and planning. I mean, countries all over the world constantly want to develop, some kind or another, highly advanced, highly competitive manufacturing capacity. And they’re constantly putting into play big programs in order to create it at home.

And it often doesn’t work. You mentioned a minute ago that a lot of the semiconductor manufacturing is in Asia. And I think when people hear that now, they think China. But that’s not the case here. This is very much Taiwan —

felicia wong

That’s right.

ezra klein

— to some degree. South Korea, I think, has a significant hold on it.

felicia wong

That’s right.

ezra klein

This is unbelievably hard to do stuff. And the supply chain is really, really advanced. And I think, unlike green energy, which we’ll talk about quite a bit in a couple of minutes, you don’t have the kind of huge tailwinds where the economy has been orienting itself in this way for a long time. So you kind of have a standing start, right? We don’t have that semiconductor manufacturing supply, and we want it.

felicia wong

We used to, but we certainly haven’t for probably 20, 30 years. That’s right.

ezra klein

So how do we get it? And how does this avoid the graveyard of industrial policy, of well-meaning industrial policy efforts that we’ve seen, both here and in so many other countries?

felicia wong

That’s a really good question. I’ll be interested in two things. I’m not going to pretend to be a semiconductor expert or a semiconductor industry expert.

And in fact, sorry, side note, that’s actually one of the problems. As we move towards this kind of industrial policy that requires sector by sector expertise in aluminum, in steel, in semiconductors, et cetera, most of the expertise in any of these industries is actually held by industries themselves. You don’t see a lot of academic knowledge about this. You don’t see this being taught a lot in business schools.

You certainly don’t see a lot of think tanks with a lot of deep expertise in semiconductor manufacturing. So I do think that this is something where we’re going to actually need actually a lot more research, both in academia and in nonprofits to try to understand exactly what it means to develop stronger semiconductor manufacturing capabilities. So that’s one thing I would be looking for.

The second thing I’d be looking for here is actually whether there are any spin-offs from this. I mean, one of the things to remember about the late 20th century economy, mid 20th century to late 20th century economy, is that all of that investment in defense manufacturing, basically in ballistic missile technology, there was all kinds of spin-offs, that that’s why you see the commercial or consumer-focused technology that’s now part of Silicon Valley’s DNA.

So I have no idea, to be honest with you. And I think it would be hubristic of me to try to claim that I understood exactly how to do it. But I think it’ll be interesting to figure out whether that actually ends up opening new doors in our economy that we can’t even really see right now.

ezra klein

One thing that struck me as interesting about CHIPS is that of the three bills I’m focused on here, the Infrastructure Bill, the Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS, I think CHIPS is actually the most ambitious statement of what we think government can do, in the sense that, again, it’s an incredibly hard industry to build, and we’re not building it on top of the decades now of investment and work we’re doing with climate, and nor is it like roads and bridges, which we do all the time, or broadband, which is a pretty structured space to invest in.

But CHIPS was very bipartisan. It got a lot of Republican support. So it isn’t like this is something that only Democrats believe they can do.

But the traditional critique of industrial policy on the right is that it’s just too hard for government to know everything it needs to know to build these kinds of industries. It doesn’t have the information. It centralizes too much information. It makes bets that end up being the wrong bets.

It moves too slowly — that markets are able to figure things out by pricing and through aggregating decentralized knowledge in a way government never can. And so government often fails when it attempts to say, hey, we’re going to build this, and we’re going to build it this way. So speaking at a somewhat higher level of abstraction, as somebody who doesn’t believe in that right wing critique of what government can and can’t do, what do you think is wrong with it?

felicia wong

The question of — I mean, you hear this all the time — government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers. But I definitely don’t think that is what the intention of this legislation is. I think the point is to say that we care about this sector, right?

It’s not about we care about this particular company. And that is quite different. And so saying that you want a strong semiconductor sector in this country, and asking what it’s going to take to crowd private money in, this is a question about whether or not we want to see some of this developed in certain regions of the United States, rather than having all the money run to Austin, Texas, New York or San Francisco.

And I also think that it is about making sure that if there are any newer kinds of technologies or newer companies that might actually be able to compete in a market that has been dominated by a very few in this case — it’s primarily Intel in the United States — I think the goal is to try to experiment with a lot of new ways of thinking about semiconductor manufacturing. I will be very interested to see what happens here.

And last thing I’ll say, I absolutely agree with you that it is the most ambitious. Because as compared to the Inflation Reduction Act, where most of this is about financing through tax credits, CHIPS is much more direct, right? There could be direct monies given out of this Department of Commerce office. And that’ll be different.

ezra klein

So I want to go back, then, to the corporate welfare question here, which also goes to your point about so much of the knowledge being inside the semiconductor industry. So I want to read a statement from Senator Bernie Sanders, who ended up opposing CHIPS. He said, “What I cannot understand is why so many in Congress are so eager to pay this bribe. When the government adopts an industrial policy that socializes all the risk and privatizes all the profits, that is crony capitalism. The five biggest semiconductor companies that will likely receive the lion’s share of this taxpayers handout — Intel, Texas Instruments, Micron Technology, GlobalFoundries, and Samsung — made $70 billion in profits last year. Does it sound like these companies really need corporate welfare?”

So then what is the point of giving these companies this big boost of money, if they’re making so much money already?

felicia wong

I’ve thought a lot about Senator Sanders’ critique of a lot of this, including of the CHIPS bill. And ultimately, I think it is about two things. One is, even with all of these companies making significant profits, we really do see manufacturing itself in Taiwan, South Korea, as you just said. And so bringing manufacturing home and trying to create a more resilient supply chain — because a lot of the supply chain here is quite attenuated. That was part of what drove costs of cars up early in the pandemic. So I think that’s a really important thing that the government is trying to incentivize here.

And then secondly, one of the important pieces of this legislation is that it does create regional hubs. And let’s just think about this for a second. One of the major problems with our current economy is inequality, not just between the top 1 percent and the lowest income earners, but it’s also regional inequalities.

You see whole parts of this country that really have no jobs to speak of. And there are very few anchor institutions — schools, universities, community colleges, hospitals. You see whole places in this country that don’t have private sector investment, and also don’t have these kinds of public institutions.

And they’re just not thriving. And it’s bad for our economy. It’s terrible for our politics. And I think part of what we are trying to see and do with CHIPS, or part of what this administration is trying to do, is to actually deal some of these regions back in.

Now, I think this is going to be enormously challenging. And to me, that is one of the key things about implementing all of this legislation. But I do think that is one of the intentions. That’s where I think the actual ambition is.


ezra klein

I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone with the Biden folks about the Inflation Reduction Act. And there’s always, every time, a point in the conversation where they say, it’s really unfair to say these bills are just about money. They’re about standards.

And it’s true. If you look at the Inflation Reduction Act and the climate spending, you get more money, and in some cases, you can only get the money if you pay prevailing wages, if you have certain work requirements, if a certain amount of the thing you’re making is made in America or is bought from America.

In CHIPS, as you’re saying, there’s, among others, the secondary desire to create more geographic equality and sort of more manufacturing hubs across the country with very advanced jobs coming out of them. And I obviously support all of those individual ideas. But I can also see the critique, which I’ve heard from others, that this is part of why government-run industrial policy often does fail.

Because they’re trying to accomplish too many things. I mean, it’s hard enough to build advanced semiconductor manufacturing. To also layer on a geographic equality requirement is going to make a job you might have already not been able to do even harder. Or it’s hard enough to decarbonize at the speed we need to decarbonize.

To layer on buy American provisions or prevailing wage provisions, those things might be good, but you are making an uncertain job that much more uncertain. And it’s the, sort of, need to balance all these political objectives that ends up making government less effective than people wish it were when it does these very big industrial planning projects. How do you think about that critique?

felicia wong

Look, I think it’s pretty serious and pretty real. I think that what is happening now, the inflection point we’re at, where this administration has to think about implementing a combination of infrastructure plans, semiconductor plans, as we’ve just been saying, and then all of this green manufacturing, which is about many, many, many different, separate industries, right? It’s about solar. It’s about wind. It’s about heat pumps. It’s about, you know, electric vehicles. It’s about charging stations.

First of all, it’s incredibly exciting. But let’s not kid ourselves — it’s incredibly difficult. And one of the reasons it’s difficult is that it actually has to do with implementation itself.

We are talking about multiple different agencies. It’s the Department of Commerce, which we’ve just mentioned. It’s the Department of Treasury, which the lion’s share of the $370 billion is going to actually first run through the Department of Treasury. And this isn’t something they really have a history or expertise on, right? It is the Department of Energy. It’s the Environmental Protection Agency, which is where — the Green Bank, which is where some of these loans are going to come from, that’s at the E.P.A.

So if you just think about trying to coordinate all the complexity you just laid out, and you lay that against these various, pretty complex government agencies, I am really looking for and listening for an overarching plan that I think is going to have to come from this White House, that’s going to say, these are the goals. These are some of the regions that we’re trying to reach.

And look, let’s recognize that this isn’t a just one election cycle project, right? Literally, it’s a decade-long project. That’s what the legislation says. But it’s also a decades-long or even a multi-generational project in terms of trying to get all of this money out the door, and all of these investments into the American economy.

And so this administration is going to have to coordinate across all of these agencies, and try to say, these are the most important things to do first. These are the most important things to do second. And I think of it both as an economic challenge, but frankly, also as a management challenge.

So I agree with you that we are at this moment whereby, you know, everything or at least many of the things that could actually be the seeds of economic transformation towards at least the low carbon part of that high-care, low-carbon vision that I was hopeful for, that I remain hopeful for. But anyway, all of the seeds are there in the legislation that has already been laid out. But the question is, it’s going to be pretty hard to deliver.

Now, I’ve got to tell you, Ezra, I don’t think we have a choice. I think it has been very clear that the market itself has not either built supply chains that are robust enough, you know, found ways to make sure that these jobs are high-paying jobs for the majority of Americans. I mean, there’s no question that the market itself is going to drive thinner supply chains and more inequality, just left to its own devices. So I do actually think that the government has to step in here.

ezra klein

I totally agree that we don’t have a choice. And I want to hold in the planning space of this for a bit. And I want to say, and I’ll probably say this in the intro, too, that if I’m picking at the pieces of this that seem hard, it isn’t because I don’t want to see the bills work. It is because I so badly want to see the bills work. I think we so don’t have a choice but to make these bills work.

And I think there’s a fallacy where people think once a bill is passed, the problem is solved. And this is just the opportunity to solve problems. Like, all they have got in here — I wrote this in a column — it’s like they’ve created the conditions for this building to begin to happen.

felicia wong

I think they’ve earned the right to get on the field.

ezra klein

Yes, right. When I was reporting on trying to understand more deeply how the climate side of the Inflation Reduction Act worked, what we’ve really done there is layer a huge number of tax credits, loan guarantees, subsidies for this or that onto each other. What we really have not built out is planning capacity. And you were saying a minute ago that that will be a real challenge for the administration. I think that’s true. But what strikes me is that it is not a challenge that they have in any way given themselves a holistic set of new tools to address.

In individual areas, there are new tools. They’ll tell you about the hydrogen hubs, and sort of the ability to ask for proposals from different states for how electric vehicle charging might work. I mean, they have certain things they can do.

But I think if you go back 10 or 15 years in this conversation, there were two theories about how planning might work. One is that you would price carbon, and the market would do the planning for you. And we never were able to pass anything like that nationally.

And it didn’t work that well in the places they tried that. I mean, there’s good books on how carbon pricing actually worked out. It’s helpful. I would like to see it, but it’s not a cure-all.

And I think there are other countries where you have a lot more centralized planning and execution, where the government can simply say, this is a network of clean energy we’re going to build. And now we’re going to build it. And that’s how this is going to work.

And we’re in this much more — I mean, at best, I think what we have is not planning here, it’s coordination, coordination across very, very different levels of authority where it’s like you often need cities to agree on permitting this particular clean energy installation, or whatever it might be. And I wonder how we’re going to get that much coordination done at the speed we need to do it, with the level of public administration we have. We’re adding a lot more people to the I.R.S. in the Inflation Reduction Act.

felicia wong

Which I’m super excited about, by the way.

ezra klein

Which is great, but you could imagine adding that many people into planning departments, or many more than that around the country. It just seems to me that coordination is actually underfunded in all this.

felicia wong

I think that is exactly right. And I think coordination is probably underfunded. And it’s certainly under-conceptualized or under-theorized.

ezra klein

Yes, that’s more important.

felicia wong

Look, I see this in three different buckets, the road ahead, the post-legislation. Now, we’re on the field. What are we going to do next, right?

So I think the first bucket is actually North Star vision setting. It’s what I was trying to say earlier. In 20 years, Ezra, when your kids are young adults, what’s this country going to look like as a result of this legislation?

Like, you’ve been to the Research Triangle Park area in North Carolina. Obviously, you live in or near Silicon Valley. Are we going to see much more of that in places that we sort of derisively today call — at least some in the media derisively call the Rust Belt? Are we actually going to see that?

And I do think that to know where we’re trying to go with all of this legislation, with this multiple trillions of dollars, I do think that somebody — and frankly, I do think it has to be the president. That’s kind of how our system works, right — has to set a North Star vision to say that I really want to see, in 20 years — or I’d like my kids or grandkids to see, in 20 years, these thriving. So I think that’s critically important as a first step.

I think the second thing that they do need to do is to actually help coordinate across agencies, sort of what we just said. The Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce, the Department of the Treasury — I mean, you’ve reported in some of these places. You’ve talked to some of these leaders. You’ve been in some of these buildings.

These folks just don’t spend a lot of time together. I mean, maybe sometimes, the secretaries get together at a cabinet level, or the deputy secretaries get together. But by and large, each agency has its own mission, its own culture. And trying to coordinate across all of these and say, you know what, the most important thing to do first is x, the second thing is y, and the third thing is z — like, that’s actually a management challenge.

And I personally would like to see the White House take a stronger role in this. I’m glad to see John Podesta in his new Green Energy Implementation role. I would like to see some of the policy councils, the National Economic Council and the Domestic Policy Council, take a stronger role here.

But I think otherwise, left to their own devices, the agencies are going to do what they would normally do. And it might be good, but the question is, is the whole going to be greater than the sum of the parts? So I think that’s really important, this kind of prioritizing implementation.

And the third bucket, I think it’s staffing and capacity building. We all know how hard it is to staff a new administration. Who’s going to be the Treasury Secretary? Who’s going to be the Transportation Secretary? You know, and on down the line.

I think now, we’ve done an initial analysis at Roosevelt. And there’s something like 300 new jobs just made possible by both CHIPS and the Inflation Reduction Act. So where are these folks going to come from?

I mean, this feels like a small thing, or maybe a medium-size thing. But the truth is, you need great people in these roles. We just said these are really hard jobs. Where are we going to find these folks? And where are we going to find them on the timeline that is necessary for them to get in and begin to do their work while this administration is still in office?

This is going to be a time when a lot of people actually perhaps begin to leave the administration. These are hard jobs. Being in one of these government jobs for a couple of years, it’s pretty exhausting.

You don’t get a chance to see your family. I know many people who live in Georgia and work in the White House, and have three young kids. They’re tired. And so finding great staff, great human beings to actually think these problems through that you and I are just bantering about on a podcast, you know, where are we going to find these folks? I think it’s critically important.

ezra klein

There’s so much in there. And I’ll just say on that last point that nothing will disabuse you more quickly of the notion that people in government are lazy that spending a lot of time reporting with the people in government, who are constantly calling you at 9:00 p.m. their time after a full day of their job so they can get into their reporter calls. I mean, the people who do these roles really burn out, which is also long-term, a problem.

I want to pick up on a few things there. One is, you alluded a few times in the show, including in the area I live in now, the Bay Area, to the way that defense industry money has often been the seedbed of later industries, of a lot of industrial planning in this country. And I sometimes try to think about what can we learn from that.

And two things come to my mind there.

One is that around the defense industry, we just waste a lot of money. And a lot of things don’t work out. And people are just OK with it in a way they’re not with other parts of the government.

And I’m not saying I am personally OK with every wasted dollar that goes into American defense. I’m not. But in general, defense just doesn’t operate, and has not traditionally operated, under the tight scrutiny that other parts of the government does, which is why it’s able to make, often, bets where the ones that don’t pan out don’t kill the ones that do, or the ones that could. I always talk about the amount of flack that the Obama administration got for Solyndra. But that same loan guarantee program was a lifeline for Tesla.

And the other thing that always strikes me as interesting is that defense is a place where we end up being risk tolerant and collectivist. I think we often think of there being — the things that are collectivist are cautious and bureaucratic, and the things that are individualistic are highly risk tolerant, right, like the heroic individual entrepreneurs. But particularly during wartime, but not only, defense is a place where we often will take big risks, but do so with some kind of national purpose in mind. And then a lot of things technologically, traditionally, have come out of that, particularly after war times. And I just wonder if there aren’t lessons somehow to take from that that can be applied here.

felicia wong

Yeah, it’s such a good question in part because — well, two reasons. One, it’s not enormous, but I think it’s important to note that one of the reasons that to some degree infrastructure, but certainly CHIPS was such popular legislation is because it was seen through a national security lens, right? It was seen through this lens of outcompeting China. And we can have a conversation about that.

I have a lot of feelings about that. I don’t tend to think of it that way. And I don’t tend to frame the need for CHIPS in that way. But I do think that it’s one important reason that you see lots of support on both sides of the aisle for this.

And I do understand that that kind of goes all the way back to Sputnik in 1957 being one of the reasons that we were able to see so much public investment in science, in higher ed, in K-12, et cetera in this country 80 years ago, however many — 70 years ago now. So at any rate, I do think that’s one thing to say.

But I also think that your flagging of the defense industry and how little scrutiny it often gets, it’s really important. Because that kind of is a tell, right? That really shows us that our ideology and our beliefs around what is the values that we hold as important in this country, there is a kind of hierarchy of values that is conservative, small c.

And it’s just worth saying out loud — I mean, I’m a progressive, and I’m not even trying to criticize this. I’m simply trying to point it out, that national security and safety is something that people are willing to spend a whole bunch of money on without really holding it to that same kind of efficiency standards that we might when we’re talking about investing in other pieces of our economy. And I think that we should be investing far more in things like, obviously investment, obviously child care, to get back to the high-care part of this economic future vision.

And we should be willing to spend as much money there, in that kind of investment, as we are in things that ostensibly keep us safe. I think that is an ideological shift that is, at best, incomplete in our post-neoliberal vision. And I think it is critically important because I actually think that is about our safety. But we don’t conceptualize it that way.

ezra klein

I’d like to dig in on the word efficiency there. Because I think it’s actually a pretty toxic word, the way it has often been applied to government. There’s no doubt that many things a government does are actually inefficient, that from the perspective of somebody who would want to see them succeed, the way they are conducted is a huge problem. And that’s one kind of inefficiency.

But another kind of inefficiency that I find the government often gets held accountable for, and in response becomes risk-averse and overly consensus-oriented and bureaucratic, is the idea that everything should work out.

And that seems really quite wrong to me, that the private market is pretty good at funding things that are almost certainly going to work out. And you can try to accelerate it.

But even if the government didn’t get into the electric vehicle charging station game too heavily, I’m not unbelievably concerned we would never have a nationwide electric vehicle charging infrastructure. I just think it would come later. Whereas there are a bunch of technologies — and some of them are being funded here, like advanced hydrogen and next generation geothermal.

But you want to be funding, at fairly significant levels, technologies that very well might fail. Like, all that money might go for nothing. Because if one of seven of them pan out, it is such an unbelievable boon to the future of the country, the economy, the planet, that it’s worth it to have government.

But we often end up, I think, in the wrong space here. Like, the right has done so much to make clear to the government that it will be held accountable for things that fail, particularly anything that fails that looks stupid in retrospect. And so then you often have government making, I think, overly safe bets. And people might turn around and say, look, this program worked out, look how many things paid off, when in fact, for the program to have worked out, for my definition, would have meant more things not paying off, but the things that did pay off being a higher reward for the higher risk.

felicia wong

Right, I think it’s such a good point. Of course I would think this, but I do think it’s also an ideological straitjacket, right? There’s no reason to think that government shouldn’t be trying to do things that are, in fact, more like moonshots. The moonshot was a moonshot when the Kennedy administration first conceptualized it.

First of all, just on a purely political basis, that’s kind of inspirational. We would like some entity, some set of institutions to be thinking about what our collective future ought to be like in a very positive way. I think we’ve lost that in our politics. I think we absolutely need to get back to that.

But on a slightly less visionary note and a slightly more practical note, I absolutely agree with you that it is important — who is thinking about fighting the next pandemic, right? And who is incentivized? And who has the job of thinking about fighting the next pandemic, or thinking about the next flourishing region of this country or regions of this country, as we talked about?

The private sector is actually exceptionally good. I’m often critical of the private sector, but the private sector is exceptionally good at what it is good at. But not everything is a private sector job.

And therefore, it means that we need to be thinking about government not in this very circumscribed, small way, but actually in a much bigger way.

And to do that, I think we have to get out of this small government is always better mentality that I know you, Ezra, have heard me rail against before. But I just think it’s so important.

As I was getting ready for this conversation, I was actually thinking a little bit about F.D.R. and the kind of vision that he had for what government could do in the New Deal. And he wasn’t sure that everything that he was experimenting with was going to work out, right? But if you just think about the things that his administration put into motion very early on, in their first 100-ish days, it’s the Civilian Conservation Corps. It’s the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Did Roosevelt actually know that giving millions and millions of young men jobs in rural parts of this country — planting trees — did he know that that was going to work out? No, he did not, right? But when you think about the kind of creativity that the crisis that Franklin Roosevelt was living under, the kind of creativity that that made possible, I do think we have to get back to some of that now.

So I don’t know. I think some of that conservative or right wing straitjacket, it’s kind of all in our heads. So I think we have to try very hard to push past that. And I do think that’s part of what this administration is trying to do.

But look, it is very difficult. There’s no doubt. Trying to resell a vision of robust, energetic, imaginative, public-oriented government in this country, that is one of the biggest challenges for the future of this set of economic plans.

ezra klein

There’s the question of small government, and then there’s the question of overlapping government, of complicated government. One thing that is striking about both CHIPS and — actually, all these bills, is that they’re very deployment-focused. So government does, and traditionally does, less than people would like in recent years, but still quite a bit of funding, basic research, R&D. We have a big National Science Foundation, a big National Institutes of Health.

What we’ve been less excited about doing, although with some exceptions, like some of what was in the Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, is trying to deploy new technologies at large scale. And that’s a lot of what this is about — trying to deploy a lot of wind and solar, a lot of electric vehicle charging, a lot, potentially, of demonstration projects that are going to have to be built into the physical world. Ultimately, a tremendous number of new energy transmission lines because we’re going to have to make our electric grid clean. And then we’re going to have to triple or quadruple how much electricity we can generate because we’re going to make all the cars, and all the homes, and all the businesses electric and running on this clean grid.

But if you start digging in to how you get that stuff built, it’s not like the federal government can just wander over and say, hey, build it here. I mean, you were talking earlier about coordination between federal agencies. And I certainly agree with you that that is often less smooth than one would wish it were.

But a lot of this is going to be coordination between multiple federal agencies, then multiple state agencies, often local agencies. I mean, in Oklahoma, every municipality independently permits or decides whether a transmission line can go through. And that’s just — I mean, when I worry about what could really slow this down, it’s those sort of mismatched authorities where a lot of the players who have to say yes to something don’t have the national North Star 15 – or 20-year vision or incentives in their agency in the same way that the federal government does. And I’m curious how you think about that piece of it.

felicia wong

Yeah, I think about that a lot, actually. I mean, I even think about it just with the American Rescue Plan, right? There was $350 billion in state and municipal money in the American Rescue Plan. Most of that’s gone out the door. I don’t have an exact count on it — not all of it, but most of that has left the Treasury Department now. But it’s sitting under state or city jurisdiction right now. And a lot of it isn’t going as the legislation had intended. Now, that’s for lots of complicated reasons. It’s not just Republicans don’t want to do what Democrats wanted them to do.

But cities have their own priorities. States have their own priorities. So you’re absolutely right that the kind of federalism that we’re talking about here makes a lot of this really complicated.

And I know you’ve also written about or talked a lot about of NIMBYism at the local level, which is especially problematic, and things like trying to develop more housing supply. So I agree with you that this multiple level — basically, the federalism that is the hallmark of American democracy also makes some of this building really challenging. We’re not living in Korea. We’re not living in Singapore, where some of this is just more straightforward, both by governmental structure and by culture. Like, some of this is just going to be challenging.

So I agree with you. I worry a lot about coordination across agencies. I worry a lot about the federalism pieces. That’s also why I do think that a few demonstration areas — they don’t have to call them that, but a few areas where, like, look, it’s actually working here — can go a long way, a long, long, long way. I’m excited about this moment. But I would never pretend that this is just going to be easy.


ezra klein

I was corresponding recently with somebody who works on state infrastructure projects, and has watched a lot of them flounder under local opposition, under the inability to get permitting. And something they were saying to me was that they didn’t understand why we spend so much time and money on all these lawsuits, on making and remaking plans, but we really don’t spend any directly compensating people for the fact that it actually is frustrating, or a pain, or in some cases worrying to have these projects located right near them.

We’ve put all this money into these bills to give tax credits and loan guarantees and whatever to the companies that make these things. If you’re going to build a gigantic solar array, you’re going to get a lot of money for that. We’re really helping you out.

If you’re in a town that all of a sudden is going to have a bunch of wind turbines go up — and for all that I think wind turbines are great, you know, your town will look different if they’re really big. And you can hear them. And we sort of say, you should just get on board with this because it’s good for the country, or good for the world, or because we’re doing it.

We don’t really say you should get on board with it because actually, we’re going to pay you out a little bit, too. Like, yes, this is something that is going to make your life maybe a little bit worse. And no less than the company making the turbine, you deserve some compensation there.

I’m curious why you think we don’t do that. Because I’m not as unsympathetic to what gets called NIMBYism as I sometimes sound like I am. It just seems to me that there are things that deserve compensation. And by mostly taking that possibility off of the table, we’ve made these very, very, very zero sum debates.

felicia wong

Look, if we really stop to think about it, I’m sure that the legal or distributional questions of compensation could start to get really complicated really quickly. But again, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t really try to think them through. Because I think that when it comes right down to what people want in their cities, in their towns, in their neighborhoods, there are two things that are really important.

One is, is my property value going to go down? Is my view going to get worse? Is my street going to become more crowded? These are actual, real, material things that are — we often caricature them as concerns of upper middle class people. But I think they’re genuine concerns for quality of life everywhere.

And of course, what’s happened in our history is that mostly Black, mostly Indigenous people have had to bear the brunt of that. And that is absolutely wrong. And so we should think of ways to actually compensate people, maybe even sometimes in reparative ways, if the building project is going to require something that is going to meaningfully and negatively impact their lives. So I think that’s one thing.

The other thing that I think that people really want, and I think it is at the core of much of our political economy problems, people actually want voice, right? You and I have sometimes talked about this as countervailing power, whether it’s through unions, or whether it’s through some other kinds of civic institutions. But I do think that people actually want a say. They do not want things to be done to them.

I think what they want is to have some kind of input into the process that is going to make decisions that are going to affect their lives. Now, I think the problem is, and you’ve written about this, we have pretty lousy ways of solving those conflicts. The ways that we solve those conflicts is, we sue each other. And that is just the worst possible way to deal with conflict.

And maybe part of what could be possible, as we try to think toward this kind of new economic, sort of new thriving sectors, thriving regions of America vision — these conflicts aren’t going to go away, right? But are we going to have better ways to actually talk about and solve these problems, rather than either wishing they weren’t there, or then having them end up in court? I don’t know, but I would think about that.

ezra klein

I think you could imagine a world where — you were talking about Joe Biden’s multi-year, even multi-decade maybe, North Star. And I think one way of understanding the vision he’s putting forward is both that we are going to be a country that really builds again. This level of decarbonization, to say nothing of the infrastructure and CHIP investments, it’s a project no less large than the interstate highway system, than the original electrification effort. I mean, this is huge — the amount of land involved, the amount of transmission lines, the amount of next generation technology. It’s — what is really being considered here is vast.

I think I’m somebody who grew up thinking America was built already. And it turns out we’re not, right? We modernized in the 20th century. And now, that’s become archaic. And we need to modernize just as completely again.

And so you can imagine a world where that vision, to be a country that is rebuilding itself over the next 10, 20 years, that has a lot more downstream transformation than just what is in these bills, right, that what maybe has to come at some point is exactly what you’re talking about. And you can very much imagine it being piloted out in states like California that have a lot of problems with NIMBY issues. But is there a more useful framework, a more scalable framework for voice, where people both have more inclusion in projects, and how they’re designed, and how they’re figured out? They have more compensation from them, maybe, on some margin. But also, the way it’s getting managed is not an endless array of lawsuits after the fact that, frankly, don’t involve most of the communities that might be affected.

I, a little bit, worry about the theory that we can just pass these bills and be done with it. Because I think creating the conditions for these bills to be implemented well and at the speed we want them implemented — there’s a really big difference between these bills going fast and them going slow from the perspective of the climate. You could really imagine this being a continuous effort. And I’m worried about it being a kind of Big Bang thing that then, people think, well, we passed them, so now the climate thing is supposed to be fixed, and we can just move on.

felicia wong

Yeah, well, there’s a couple of things to say there. First of all, I think one of the biggest challenges is the challenge of speed, right? Because yes, the climate needs us to do these things quickly. But our democracy and our, sort of, social fabric needs these things to be done, if not slowly, at least thoughtfully, inclusively, in ways that actually start to bring people back in. And I think that is going to be an enormous tension.

But the other thing that your comments made me think about is, there really are some other examples of economic problem solving that aren’t just like, pass a bill, throw a bunch of money, and let it go, or just let the market do it all, let the large companies do it all. I think there are other models. They haven’t tended to scale very much. But I would ask us to look at them again.

One is this question of participatory budgeting, which I actually haven’t really seen at scale. Some of your listeners or some of the other people that you’ve talked to might know more about how that might scale. But the question is, people have opinions about how to spend the public monies in their neighborhoods — libraries, parks, et cetera. And having a process where people can actually participate in that can be really important, far beyond the library or the park. So that’s the first thing I would say.

And then the second thing is, you know, I spent a lot of time a couple of years ago trying to understand the power of cooperatives, like the Mondragon cooperative, and other kinds of economic entities. There’s the Evergreen Cooperative, which I think is in Ohio. I could be wrong about that.

But anyway, there are different places where you had more worker ownership in different forms. Sometimes, it’s shares of a company. Sometimes, it’s whole ownership of a company. But I actually think that for a long time, we thought of those things as maybe a little bit naive and, oh, isn’t that nice that that one thing that happened in that small region of Spain or something — that’s the Mondragon cooperative.

But I would encourage us, at this time where we have to build a lot of things, and we want to build a lot of things in ways that are small d democratic, I would actually encourage us to look at those again. What are the lessons that we can learn from that?

It has to be adapted to an American approach that is, I think, unique both in our federalism and in the complexity of our system. And as we try to do this in a way that I hope is post-neoliberal — but let’s face it, we’ve got a lot of private power and a lot of big corporate power in this country. And that’s just the water we swim in.

But I would encourage us to think about these other ways of both economic problem-solving and economic decision-making. Maybe some of that is possible at this moment when there’s so much legislation that now needs to actually get done.

ezra klein

We’ve talked a lot about Joe Biden here as the central agent. But this kind of building and executing that kind of vision, or just his vision, is very much an all of society effort, to some degree. And I wonder what you think has to happen within the Democratic party, what we might understand as American liberalism, what we might understand as the environmental movement. You’ve given reference a bunch in this conversation to decades of neoliberalism.

I do think a lot of liberalism has been used to blocking things, or trying to pass big bills nationally. The idea of being in a period where it needs to build, actually build this alternative, I think is a little bit organizationally alien. And I wonder what you think the rest of society needs to be doing during this period. And I don’t mean every piece of it.

But if you’re a political activist who has been working day and night to try to pass bills like these, that eventually got compromised down into these, or you’re a Democratic voter who cares about these issues, what do you think your role is in trying to take this opportunity to be on the field, and to actually winning the game that people felt that they were trying to play?

felicia wong

Yeah, I’m so glad you asked that question. Because I really worry about our civic infrastructure. I worry about our unions. I worry about whether it’s activist infrastructure, or the weird think tank infrastructure that I’m a part of.

Because I don’t think we’re really suited to this moment. I think we think in issue area silos — you know, my job is to fight for a better child tax credit. My job is to fight for a better tax system. And those things are important. I don’t really think that’s directly about the kind of building that we’ve been talking about now.

First of all, I worry that our institutions are very weak. I’ve been really excited to see some of the new labor organizing. But most of that new labor organizing, like at Starbucks or at Amazon, that’s been happening outside of traditional unions.

Traditional unions, and I say this with great respect and love for the many people I know who are in traditional unions or run them, but the numbers are not great, meaning literally, their membership numbers. So I worry that all of those entities are not suited for this moment. I had spoken earlier about the Civilian Conservation Corps, the C.C.C.

We don’t really have a lot of those kinds of entities right now, where those were literally — they were mostly guys — those are literally guys going out to build something. They were literally planting trees. That is a muscle in sort of the American civic infrastructure that has really atrophied.

We’ve got a lot of groups that are really good at fighting. We don’t have a lot of groups that are really good at building. But I do think that — my kids are a little bit older than yours, Ezra, as my kids are teenagers. And they actually want to get out and build. They really do. Like, mom, what you do, I’m sure it’s meaningful. I’m sure it’s important. But boy, it takes a long time, you know, all those words, all those Zoom calls.

They want to get out and build. And I actually think there is a kind of energy amongst Gen Z in this country, teenagers. They want to be out there building things. And I think institutions that can help, I would actually call for sort of — national service would be something that could be pretty exciting in all of this.

I actually do think there’s a lot of room for new institutions, not just within government, but also on the outside that could move toward this. And I think if we’re going to do is, which — we had lots of national service like in the Clinton administration, for example. But I actually think that if we’re going to have a new set of outside actors, which I think would be terrific, I think we have to be far more attentive to the realities of political power, and corporate power, and actually capital, than we sometimes are.

I think there is a less naive version of civic infrastructure that can build. And I’d be excited for lots of people who are in their 20s and 30s to start trying to build some of that. Because now would be the moment.

ezra klein

That’s a great place to end. So always, our final question — what are three books you would recommend to the audience?

felicia wong

Well, my first book is Michael Tomasky’s “Middle Out.” And this one is kind of on brand for me, in part because Michael and I are actually the hosts of a new podcast called “How to Save a Country.” So Michael and I are kind of co-conspirators. The podcast launches in a few weeks.

But I’m actually recommending this because it’s a long form, reported look at everything that you and I have been talking about today. Michael really looks at all of the people, and all of the academics, and all of the activists who have been pushing Joe Biden for so long, such that at the very beginning of his presidency, Joe Biden actually said he wanted to change the economic paradigm. So that didn’t happen overnight, Michael reminds us. So that’s the first book that I’d recommend.

The second book is Olúfẹmi Táíwò‘s “Elite Capture,” which is this amazing book. It started as an essay in “Boston Review.” And it really argues for a constructive politics by bringing an almost radically strong class lens to race politics, to, quote, “identity politics.”

It was such a pleasure to read. It’s kind of a weird book for such a short book. It includes these really long detours into the philosophy of games, or a history of the Black feminist Combahee River Collective. It was both complicated, but really straightforward.

Like, you need class and race. That’s kind of what he’s saying. And to be honest with you, I didn’t really understand all of it, which is one of the reasons I liked it. It kept me going back to it.

And then the final book is not yet a book. It’s just a draft. But it’s so good that I wanted to recommend it to your listeners. It’s Deepak Bhargava and Stephanie Luce’s “Cords of Change.” So this was a book that I felt — as somebody who’s been in progressive politics for multiple decades now, it felt like it was a book that I’d been waiting to read without really even knowing it. I was able to review it for Deepak and Stephanie just a few weeks ago.

And the subtitle of the book is called, “Seven Strategies Underdogs Use to Win.” So it’s kind of a strategic history of lots of different strategies for social change. And in part, it’s like a how to guide.

And I think their core message is that we need multiple strategies, plural, not just singular, if we are going to win the kind of victories that we have been hoping for. And I think it reminds those of us on the left who sometimes feel like this is so hard, this is, like, a Sisyphean endeavor — but it reminds those of us on the left that we actually have a rich lineage of victory, whether it’s the abolition of slavery, or gay marriage and AIDS activism. So it’s a really powerful book. It’s not out yet. But when it comes out next year, I really think that all of your listeners should read it.

ezra klein

Building the hype early. Felicia Wong, thank you very much.

felicia wong

Thank you. Great to be here.


ezra klein

“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin and Roge Karma. Fact checking by Michelle Harris, Mary Marge Locker and Kate Sinclair. Original music by Isaac Jones. Mixing by Carole Sabouraud and Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Special thanks to Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski.

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