Berkeley Talks transcript: Ezra Klein on building the things we need for the future we want

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #182: Ezra Klein on building the things we need for the future we want.

[Music: "Silver Lanyard" by Blue Dot Sessions]

Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can follow Berkeley Talks wherever you listen to your podcasts. New episodes come out every other Friday. Also, we have another podcast, Berkeley Voices, that shares stories of people at UC Berkeley and the work that they do on and off campus.

[Music fades out]

Christopher Tomlins: Good afternoon. Good afternoon, and welcome to the first of this semester's Jefferson Lectures. My name is Christopher Tomlins. I'm a professor of law here at Berkeley. I'm the current chair of the Jefferson Memorial Lecture committee, and it is my great pleasure to introduce our lecturer this afternoon. 

I'm delighted to have this opportunity on behalf of the lecture's committee, on behalf of Berkeley's Graduate Council and Graduate Division, to welcome today's lecturer, Ezra Klein, to welcome him to Berkeley, where, this afternoon, he will be in conversation with Professor Amy Lerman, the director of the Possibility Lab here at UC Berkeley.

I'd like to take a moment to tell you a little bit about the Jefferson Memorial Lecture Series. The series was established in 1944 through a bequest from Elizabeth Bonestell and her husband, Cutler Bonestell. 

Elizabeth and Cutler Bonestell were a prominent San Francisco couple in their day and they cared deeply for history. And they hoped that the lectures would encourage students, faculty, scholars, and members of the extended Berkeley community to study the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and in particular, to explore the values inherent in American democracy. One might observe, never has that hope been more pressing than it is in the times in which we live now.

As the lecture series has matured, the range of lecture topics has matured with it. Our lecturers have spoken on the subject of Thomas Jefferson himself, on early American history, but they've also ranged far and wide on American institutions and policy, on politics, on economics, on education and on law. Our lecturers have come from all points of the political compass. Many have come from the academy, many from beyond it. They've come from the worlds of politics and law, from media, from active civic engagement. The role of past lecturers, stretching back more than 60 years, includes names such as Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Senator Alan Simpson, Representative Thomas Foley, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Richard Hofstadter, Carole Pateman, Walter LaFeber, Archibald Cox, Annette Gordon-Reed, Judith Heumann, and most recently, Michael McConnell.

Our lecturer this afternoon, Ezra Klein, has a name well known to all of us. He is an opinion columnist and podcast host at the New York Times. As a columnist, he is amongst the Times' most widely read writers. His forte has always been to bring clarity to policy debates often mired in complexity. He does so by combining traditional opinion writing with explanatory reporting. But I'm sure he is best known to all of us for his podcast, The Ezra Klein Show. It routinely receives more than half-a-million downloads for every episode. It has long been numbered among the top 25 podcasts on Apple's charts. In 2021, TIME, New York Magazine, the Atlantic, all named The Ezra Klein Show one of their podcasts of the year.

Prior to his work at the New York Times, Ezra founded and launched Vox, that popular explanatory news site. And as Vox's editor-in-chief and then its editor-at-large, he helped to create and then became executive producer for the Netflix show Explained, which is now in its fifth season. He's also launched shows on HBO and on YouTube. Prior to his work at Vox, he launched "Wonkblog" at the Washington Post. In 2020, Ezra Klein published Why We're Polarized, a bestselling examination of the forces driving political polarization and also paralyzing politics in the United States.

This afternoon, as I mentioned, we're fortunate to have Ezra in conversation with Professor Amy Lerman, as I said, director of Berkeley's Possibility Lab. Amy Lerman is a political scientist who studies punishment and social inequality in America. She's the author of two books on the American criminal justice system, The Modern Prison Paradox, published in 2013, and Arresting Citizenship, published in 2014. Her most recent book, Good Enough for Government Work, and published in 2019, examines the reputation of government and how that reputation shapes citizens' attitudes toward the privatization of essential services.

She has written widely in scholarly journals. She has also worked as a speechwriter and communications consultant for national nonprofits and members of the United States Congress. She consults widely on issues related to prison reform, violence reduction, access to higher education, law enforcement, mental health. She's been a community organizer in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and she is an adjunct faculty member of the Prison University Project at San Quentin. This afternoon, Ezra Klein and Amy Lerman are in conversation on the subject A Liberalism That Builds. Please, join me in welcoming both of them to our Jefferson Lecture Series.

Ezra Klein: Look at y'all. You actually showed up. It's wild. 4 p.m., weird time. Thank you to the Jefferson Memorial Group for inviting me. It is always a particular pleasure to be here at Berkeley, which rejected me twice in a row when I applied first as a high school senior, and then as a transfer student. It's a little bit like being invited to prom by the head cheerleader 25 years later. But she pays for your flight out and your hotel room, so it's great. I'm thrilled. I'm going to talk through some ideas I've been working out on this book project that I've been mired in for a bit. And then, to my delight, Amy Lerman is going to come out and we're going to have a bit of a conversation. Let me tell you where I am, which is in process.

I am in the delightful spot that a journalist gets to be in of pointing out a lot of problems right now. A lot has gone wrong. How do you fix them? I'm not sure. But I do think it's worth spending some time on what is going wrong and what requires some inquiry. I want to offer a little bit of an intro to what I'm doing and a couple provocations. All the work I've been doing here, whether you call it supply-side liberalism or abundance liberalism, or liberalism that builds, there's some debate over the best branding here, it's all just one simple idea; to have the future we want, we need to build and invent more of the things that we need. That's it. That's the entire thesis.

It's so stupidly simple, so obvious, that it seems weird there could be any need to write articles or podcasts or truly, God forbid, a book about it. And yet, the story America in the 21st century, more than that, the story of liberalism, and particularly California liberalism, is a story of chosen scarcity, and that's really the project. Why did we choose, choose to build so few homes in the places people most need to live, including here? Why do we choose to build so little clean energy and make it so hard to build a clean energy that red states are getting far more of the money in the Inflation Reduction Act than blue states?

Why did we choose and yeah, we chose it, why did we choose to run high-speed rail in California through a process so difficult, so slow, so expensive, that instead of getting a train from LA to San Francisco by the year 2020 for $35 billion, like we were promised, we're now expecting, maybe, a train from Merced to Bakersfield? It's not good that's a laugh line. That's actually what we're doing by the year 2030-ish for about $35 billion. And to build the whole train, to build the whole train, the one that people still want, that would now cost about $110 billion. I just spent the day the other day touring the high-speed rail construction down in Fresno and the folks on that, they are working so hard.

They are working so hard. It is hot. There's concrete, like you couldn't believe, to build that middle section. And they have no path, they have no path to the money to build the rest of it. The hell happened there? How did we end up there? I'm in process on this book with my co-author, Derek Thompson, and I'm not going to try to read you everything I have, but I want to offer, as a framing device for my conversation with Amy, three things that I'm thinking about. 

The first is: What do liberals actually believe about government? What do they actually believe? You go back five years, I thought I understood what the liberal conservative division was in this country. Liberals believe in a big, strong government. We want government to do big things, and conservatives do not. They want to drown government in a bathtub.

And then, you look closely at how government runs in places where liberals govern and where conservatives govern, and you realize that something is incomplete in that story. It describes how the two sides feel about funding government. Liberals believe we should have the revenues to run a big government, and conservatives do not believe that. But there is this fight within liberalism, and actually also within the right, but I'm going to focus here on liberalism, there's this division, this troubling of the liberal soul about what kind of power government should have, how much it should be checked by courts, by regulation, above all, by process. That's become the liberal way of restraining government. Give it the money to act, give it big ambitions, but make it possible for anybody to sue. And if anybody sues for any reason, then a long process of analysis and negotiation and hearings commence.

The idea here, and it's a noble idea, I'm not telling a story of villains, the idea here is to make sure all the voices get heard. But that also means in practice that a lot of the projects just don't get built. Prop 1A, the high-speed rail bond measure, passed in 2008. That's 15 years ago, because I'm old. The High-Speed Rail Authority thinks, if all goes well, after all the lawsuits, all the fights, that it might, might, fingers crossed, by the end of this year, have the environmental clearances it needs 15 years later. That's for a project that is unambiguously good for the environment, high-speed rail, getting people out of cars.

Here at Berkeley, the school wanted to build more dormitories for more students. They were sued by a group of Berkeley residents, under the California Environmental Quality Act, for not preparing an environmental impact report on adding more students. Because students are, apparently, bad for the environment. The court ruled against Berkeley, and for my sins, I've read this ruling, not because dorms are bad for the environment and not because students are bad for the environment — the court is clearly open to the argument they're annoying — but because there is a process here. If you're doing anything, you need an environmental impact report. Berkeley said it was going to add this many students. It decided to add that many students, and it didn't consider the environmental consequences of that many of all of you. Or I guess, not all of you. There are people who aren't here.

Is that the right way to do this? Well, that's one thing. What do liberals believe about government? What should government be able to do? The second, and I think this is a harder one: How do you align growth, this idea of abundance and the environment? The more I look, the more I study, the more I research the history of this liberalism that arose to check government, this liberalism that arose in response to the New Deal liberalism. The more environmental offenses are at the core of it. Post New Deal liberalism, it prized growth and it cared very little for the natural world around it. The backlash was merited. An environmental movement that could stand or thwart growth and yell stop? It was needed.

I grew up outside LA in the years when smog choked that city, choked me. That it doesn't anymore is a crown jewel achievement of American and Californian liberalism. The problem is that the environmental challenge is different now. There is this double irony to the politics of climate change. 

On this issue, it is progressives who are conservative. We are the ones who want to conserve the climate that the entirety of human civilization has known, who believe that the planetary conditions that fostered all of our institutions, our cultures, our social structures, is worth preserving. But planetary conservatism here, and this is a second irony, requires radical breakneck change. To do nothing is to accept climactic catastrophe, but to forestall the catastrophe requires an orgy of construction that's going to touch every corner of the globe. On climate change, a progressive is a conservative who wants to change everything in order to preserve everything. It messes with your mind.

We're at this moment that requires a new synthesis, a new kind of environmental politics. We need actually green growth. We need it fast, but it really does need to be green. A lot of what is truly green doesn't look or feel green in the moment. Do you know who's got the lowest carbon footprint in America? It's not the residents of Marin. Marin's lovely. I've spent some lovely time there. Being there, you really feel like you're living in harmony with nature. A lot of trees, hiking trails, it's great. 

But if you want to live green, you move to where I, with some resistance and agonizing, just moved, which is New York City, where we actually have the lowest carbon footprint in America. It's more efficient to heat a building than a house. It's more efficient to pack people into subway cars than for each of them to have their own car. It's more efficient to deliver food to a small area than to a large one. When you can concentrate people in small places, you can mitigate their impact.

The math of carbon, it betrays our intuitions, our aesthetic of greenness. A lot of green is really very gray. Having a lot of green around you, usually not that green. How do we build a politics that honors that, but at the same time, honors the deep need people have, the deep importance of having wildness and wilderness and greenness near them? This is something I really believe and something I don't have an answer to, but that if that synthesis cannot be found, this politics, it falls apart. If you cannot solve that problem, there is no politics that is usable here.

Here's the last one. I've been a political journalist for about 20 years now, and the world I know, the world I've been part of, me, we've been very good at thinking about policy, or at least we try pretty hard at it. We're reasonably good at thinking about politics, or at least we do a lot of it. We tend to lose interest at the point of implementation. We will cover every goddamn thing Joe Manchin says for a year before the IRA passes, every mind fart he utters under the elevator. But then, how much attention is there to what actually happens next? Like a pop quiz, is solar installation right now, more than a year after the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, is solar installation above or below what we need to hit? The goal is wind. Where's wind?

I don't think there's a person in the audience here who doesn't care about this. You don't come to see me at 4 p.m. (sic) in the East Bay if you don't care about climate change. But do you know? Has anybody told you? Has anybody tried? We are not well set up in the media, in liberalism more broadly, to follow the details. I can talk ideology all day long, but a lot of what happens isn't ideological, it's procedural. It's implementation. It's being unable to find the workforce you need to complete the project. Much more so than when you're sending out checks, building things is about the details. It's about how things actually go in the real world.

The fact that someone has applied for the money to build something, it doesn't mean that thing is actually going to get built. Again, look at the high-speed rail. I'll say this really flatly, we're doing a shit job paying attention to the details here. That's true in the media, that's true in the political movements. It's often been true for me. I don't know how many pieces I wrote about the housing shortage, but until last year when I really looked into it, I didn't understand what it took to build affordable housing in Los Angeles and why it was costing $700,000 a unit. I didn't know why that was happening, the picayune details that were making that so nightmarish.

And to be fair, it's not like there was one place to go look. It wasn't easy to find out. The reason I'm doing so much reporting on high-speed rail is that I've ranted about this for 10 years. But the piece I've wanted to read on what the hell happened here has never been written. We're not paying enough attention to implementation. That's true in the media. It's true in the liberal movement. There's not enough attention to implementation. Not enough people are out there organizing to get the things we need built and built quickly. How do we build a liberalism of the details? Because that's also the only kind of liberalism they can actually build. With that, I'd love to invite Amy Lerman up here and we'll have a chat. Turned out there was enough water here already. All right.

Amy E. Lerman: It's an abundance of water, Ezra. Thank you for those fantastic comments. I think the provocations that you laid out are really important and interesting. I want to start with a really basic question, which is, what do you mean by a supply-side progressivism? Why is it progressivism and not just supply-side policy? How are you thinking about this as a distinctly liberal either problem or set of solutions?

Ezra Klein: Yeah. The reason I focus so much on that idea of liberalism in this is that, I care about this yoked-to-liberal values, which are the values I share. There are things we have abundance of now, flat-screen televisions, iPhones. Yeah, it's fine. There are things that we've been pretty good at building, like natural gas pipelines. What I care about is 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 he works on the daily to save, 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.

It's simply opening up the supply side, well, you get into this question of supply of what? Conservatism had its own supply-side economics, you might remember. There was a lot of tax cuts for rich people. I don't think that what we lack is money in the pockets of rich people. We did a good job on that. We solved that problem. The value is the rooting this in a vision of not just the present, this will be a very important part of the book, of the future. A sense of what kind of future we want to get to, that's the reason all this matters. You only need directions if you have a place you actually want to go.

Amy E. Lerman: Thanks. I think that brings up this question of how we make trade-offs. 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 trade-offs between engaging with communities and avoiding NIMBY problems. Is that necessarily a feature of supply side progressivism that we need to contend with?

Ezra Klein: Yeah. In many ways, this is all about trade-offs. The problem with conservative supply side economics is 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 Galts, and that would lead to the economy growing and everybody getting more.

And then they kept trying it and you kept not raising taxes and blowing up the budget. It kind of give the whole thing a bad name, which the supply side of the economy is really important. So you bring up the question of trade-offs, and I think that's really the core of what the whole project is trying to highlight.

I'm not going to remember the citation here, but there's a great piece about green triage. What it basically says is that liberals have been focused for a very long time on climate denial correctly, people who deny the reality of climate 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 to come anywhere close to meeting our climate goals.

I think that's right. I mean, I cannot tell you how many conversations I've had around this set of ideas where I wouldn't even describe what I'm having with somebody, the conversation, as an argument. It's just a desire not to face trade-offs, a desire to not deal with the reality that unless we make different decisions, we're not going to get to where me and my interlocutor both want to go.

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. There was a very viral essay by the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen about 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.

It struck a chord and for a reason. A lot of stuff about building has struck a chord, including Donald Trump in 2016. But my criticism then, and I wrote this 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?

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, the thing I'm trying to get people to look at is the very specific trade-offs that we will either make differently or not.

Take the affordable housing I looked at in San Francisco, when you break down why it is so lengthy and costly... I'll give a quick bit of background. I wrote this piece about everything bagel liberalism, 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. Thank you. My first applause of the night. But you got to take rhetorical license.

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. You don't want that kind of bagel. The point of that piece is that there is a tendency in liberalism to layer too many objectives onto a single project such that the project begins to collapse under its own weight.

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 normal. It was about 400,000 bucks a unit, about three and a half years, routinely twice that to do this kind of work. What happened? Well, the Charles and Helen Schwab, who you might've heard of, they used to have commercials about money, they gave $50 million to this group, the housing something accelerator, Housing Innovation Accelerator. They said, "If you can build this fast, you can use this money."

What happened is that by using private money, that group didn't trigger a series of mandates and requirements and process loops that using public money does require. The act of taking a public dollar, for instance, means you have to go by what's called the 14B subcontracting rules. These have this weird history in San Francisco of they used to be a preference for minority based contracting, but then there was a proposition in the past and a Supreme Court case and then you couldn't do that anymore.

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 million a year, but maybe the reason that a contractor begins to make more than $7 million a year is that they're good at what they do and can do things fast. Anyway, there are not that many of these small subcontractors doing this kind of building and you have to wait for the one that comes up. So it adds millions of dollars and 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?

What's frustrating about this work is that there's not one thing I can point to. It's not one bill. When I do national politic, 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 are 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 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 E. Lerman: 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, important to protect labor, important to protect the environment, also important to build housing as quickly as we can.

I wonder how we think about who gets to make those choices and how we protect against the idea that we move these choices forward and the people who lose out are the people who always lose out and that we're in the case that you're talking about privileging these sort of large already wealthy companies in order to achieve this goal. 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, and this is a really bad problem I think that exists across a lot of our statutes, in not overly privileging the status quo. 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.

One thing is that we often have processes which though used sometimes for good reason, maybe even often for good reason, net net we're not getting good outcomes. 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, to kind of focus in on that for a second, 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, you can't possibly get... It's ridiculous.

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 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. The students may be bad and they may not be. The court does not yet have an opinion, but you cannot do it without doing a multi-year assessment of what it'll 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.

We've gotten procedural as opposed to outcome focused. 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. 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 spend on public transit. You should not spend four years on an environmental impact report to get fewer cars to drive in Manhattan. You just shouldn't. That should be exempted. So that's one set of things.

Look, this is harder because you change process and people will misuse it, but they misuse it now. I mean, take affordable housing or just housing. Take housing. 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. Why are they done that way? Because rich people know how to get lawyers to work processes in their favor. The question of whether or not the current processes are actually preventing the things we want them to prevent is important.

This goes back to the question of progressive liberal. I would like us to have a sense of the world we are trying to create and then ask the question, 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. May we be so successful we become the problem later.

Amy E. Lerman: I'm curious, in a time when many of us don't feel terribly optimistic, do you see the abundance agenda as an optimistic project that really is thinking about a future where these things are achievable? 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 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. I think that the vision of what the future could look like has become a little attenuated. We can imagine slightly better and worse versions of the present.

But I mean, it's why I write pieces about true energy abundance. There's a great paper of what if everybody just had access to the same amount of energy as people in Iceland do because Iceland is functionally just a volcano. And so the geothermal energy there is very abundant. 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.

I think a lot about the possibilities of lab-grown meat. They don't like to call it that now, cultivated meat, but something like a third of all arable land is given over to raising livestock for human beings to torture and then kill. It's great. What if you didn't have to do that and you could let that land re-wild and the meat was cheaper and everybody could have it?

We haven't talked about this much, but 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. My kind of go-to line on this is most liberals can tell you the three or four or five social insurance programs they would like to see created, pre-k and single payer healthcare. Everybody can think of their set.

But they can't always say what are the five inventions they would like to see brought forward? 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 and led to millions of lives saved. It distributed that advance more equitably, not perfectly, but more equitably than any medical advance anybody can think of in history, certainly any technological advance. 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 hell happened there? The Republicans turned against their own program because they stopped liking vaccines and the Democrats don't want to give credit to ... It's crazy, but it also reflects a lack of politics of technology. Technology is how the human race advances. You don't just want to be redistributing the possibilities of the present, you want to be creating new possibilities in the future. Growth is a function of change, not stasis.

I hate, I hate the metaphor growing the pie. I hate it, the worst metaphor in economics. If you grow a pie, and pies also don't grow, that's the first problem, that's not how pies work, but if you grow a pie, what you get is more pie. When you grow an economy, what you get is change. The difference between four percentage points year-on-year growth in an economy over 20 or 30 years and one percentage point year-on-year growth is stagnation vs. the Jetsons.

Things become different. We should care about how they 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.

We argue endlessly over our interpretations of the past. 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. The injustices compound. But you can't stop there. You have to imagine a future.

Amy E. Lerman: Yeah, no, absolutely. Now I'm hungry. Yes bagels, no pie. I wonder if we're thinking about this idea of technology and innovation, and we're thinking also about government being in some ways the problem, overly process, 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 sort of functioning in a better model?

Ezra Klein: Oh, that's such a good question. It'll differ space to space. But what a fucking shame Elon Musk went so nuts. What a shame.

Amy E. Lerman: That's all, people.

Ezra Klein: Yeah. Sucks. What a walking advertisement for the power of public-private partnership. He now sort of denies it, but 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 possible if electric cars did not get as good and as desirable as they now are. Those electric cars could not get as good and desirable as they now are without the... And SpaceX is just a NASA contractor.

Now, the government can't make amazing electric cars. No government is currently an 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, 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. It 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. 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 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 an answer that doesn't deny the problem, but aesthetically puts them to my left, is it, well, the problem is that we just don't have enough public housing provision?

But again, 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. I think because I'm nuts that if we are going to build housing to meet important public needs, we should make it easier and faster. That's my politics.

You can do that with public housing. There's beautiful public housing out there. The idea that public housing has to be shit is just not true. Go to Singapore. We have great public housing in America, too, but public-private, that line, it doesn't do the work people need it, want it to do. It's not just public good, private bad, or private bad, public good, or I forgot which way I did it the first time so I possibly just said the same thing. These things, often 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 public, I'm sorry, to private builds. The idea was that it is something that the state of California when it built 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.

A series of wealthy vacation homeowners in Mammoth, Friends of Mammoth they were called, sued. They sued under this bill that was pretty new, a year or two old, had not been signed with much fanfare. The LA Times didn't give CEQA even one full article when it passed. Nobody thought it was that big of a deal. But they sued and they said the government had this needed environmental impact assessment and mitigation measures.

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 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 Ninth Circuit. They said, "No, this applies to any project that requires a public permit." A Sierra Club lobbyist then said in a great quote, "Now it applies to anybody who rubs two sticks together for commercial reasons in California."

Everything then became a public private partnership because in a way, everything is. In a way, that's not wrong. But then you have to take what that means seriously, which we often don't.

Amy E. Lerman: I wonder why it's always friends of, Friends of Mammoth, Friends of Berkeley. These people are not my friends. But I wonder, it's easy to mock the NIMBY instinct, but one of the things that we know is people are protective about the value of their house or the quality of their neighborhood. That's not a crazy impulse.

How do we balance these broader public needs with the private interests or the sort of local, hyperlocal in some cases, interests of communities that may be concerned about things like having a whole influx of young people in their neighborhood or more seriously having a garbage or recycling plant put in their low-income neighborhood that is already struggling with a lot of the same kinds of installations over the years? I guess it's back to the trade-off question, which is 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: The instinct to preserve your neighborhood is very deep. I don't even really like the term NIMBY because lots of people are people phase between these things. There's a term some academics use of neighborhood defenders, which I think is good. I have a couple thoughts on this and they're unformed and there's no one answer. My first though is that I have a different standard for highly economically important cities than I have for anything else. I don't think the most economically valuable cities, and this is like a chapter one of my book, I don't think those operate. Those are not for the people who live in them. Those are of national and even international importance. They have forever in human civilization, cities 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% more productive, even controlling for income, for education, for IQ, for anything, but they're also engines of opportunity. One of the pieces of research that has affected my thinking here most is do I have the... I'm not going to try to do the names, it's Ganong and Shoag (sic) I want to say, but I could be wrong about that. But they basically show that over much of the 20th century, the income converged regionally across the U.S. year on year in this unbelievably steady fashion, 1.8% across the states. 

Year by year, we 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 talk about the great compression, the thing we always want to get back to when you look at those charts of wealth going like that, a third of that was people moving from poorer areas to richer areas.

A service sector worker, 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 haircutter. 

There's a lot of research on this, much of it from your own Enrico Moretti, whose work is fantastic. Anyway, this paper, Ganong and Shoag, what they show is that somewhere around the '90s, 2000s, that process slowed down and then went to reverse. And what happened is it instead of richer everybody moving from poor to richer areas, richer people kept moving to richer areas. Maybe you go from Houston to Seattle. Poor people stopped. It went the other way.

And the reason it went the other way was 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, which should make us ashamed to complain about inequality. And then have, I have a joke, I'm not sure I fully believe this, but that every single story building in San Francisco is a policy failure. Cities should not have the same rules they should be. 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. 

So cities, I think particularly the ones where there's a lot of economic power in them, I think that that needs to be kicked up. I don't think the idea that the fact that you happen to buy into SF in 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 there are things I would do and things I would change and you're dealing with a lot of little tweaks and a lot of differences.

I would exempt affordable housing from different kinds of permitting review and give it density bonuses and whatever. But the big one I'm worried about first when we think about NIMBYism or neighborhood defenders is cities. Cities are where this really hits the road and 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. I'm about to go to Tokyo.

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. And 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 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 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 E. Lerman: I have a thought and I am curious how this lands with you. Liberals talk a lot particularly recently about existential crises. The existential crisis of climate or of democracy or 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 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. My path to this came through decarbonization. We just need to build so much so fast to make that work that the question be is like can we and when the answer is clear, no, then the question became well and what do we need to do? I have found though that a lot of the people most committed to the language of existential, I'll be very careful here because this is the shit that gets me in trouble.

There are a lot of people who speak about this as existential but don't feel to me like they're acting with an existential level of concern. Sometimes I feel foolish. I'm like, "I believed you told me we were all going to die. And so I put all this work into figuring out how we could build the not die infrastructure and now you're like, 'Well, let's slow down. I didn't know you need to build it here.'" This is sort of mixing policy areas, but I don't remember his Minnesota or Minneapolis, but Min. passed a ban on single family zoning and 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 those people seemed to have reside and eventually they took themselves out of 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 much of the environmental movement, and I don't take away from how hard it is. 

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 conserving land as it currently exists and in fact is the exact opposite of it. We need to build a quantity, a length of transmission lines, orders 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. When you really run the numbers I don't have them in my head, so I'm not going to try to do them from memory. 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.

There are people who have done this shift, but these organizations weren't built to do this and that's just tough. But if you believe it's existential, then you have to be willing to go into bring up this piece. I mentioned earlier triage. That piece is written by the head of the founder of the environmental law center at Columbia whose his name I'm blanking out on. And his point is that 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, you'll hear it was such common language that we need a World War II scale mobilization.

They broke some eggs in that. World War II was not chill. What it took to build all those, the government just nationalized the factories. It just took the factories away and if you didn't do what they wanted to do, they took your factory, too, and they built a bunch of factories. What we did there, what the environmental boom was calling for, I don't think people actually faced up to. And then it's like there's a bit of a dog that caught the car thing. And so now it's like there are real leaders in this. There's a lot of environmental groups doing a remarkable work, but then a lot of people I think just in politics who bought into the language of existential and I think sort of feel betrayed in a way that what that's going to require is really at odds with their intuitive commitments to land that they love.

And the point is not that there's an easy answer to that. The point is that 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. And there are going to be people come out in different places in that and that's totally fine, but we can't deny that The really dangerous thing is to per se, it's existential and then implicitly make choices that rely on waiting because that's what we can't do is wait.

Amy E. Lerman: Thank you. And just to be clear, you don't have to worry about getting in trouble here because friends of Ezra Klein here.

Ezra Klein: You do my work for a while, you don't say things like that.

Amy E. Lerman: So I wonder, you write a lot about polarization, you authored an excellent book. For those who haven't read it yet, I'll just assign it in my class. But I wonder the kind of change that you're talking about, the scale at which we would need to roll back some of the last generation's ideas of what was going to lead to progress or the kind of investment that we would need. How do we get there given the fact that we right now it seems like we can't actually get anywhere optimistic vision. We were going to talk about optimistic vision.

Ezra Klein: Yeah, I wouldn't tell you that. I know that we can get where I would like us to go. I would say that remarkable things have been happening. I think the Inflation Reduction Act is a remarkable piece of legislation to have passed in as narrowly divided a congress as it did. Fun fact about that it gets scored at $390 billion for climate investment, but those are completely open-ended. If we can build more, it could be a trillion dollars. They'll just give that tax credit out to anybody. Go build some solar panels people. 

I think the IRA is remarkable. I want to spend some time thinking about this and looking at this. There's been a lot of really pretty strong housing legislation passing California, the movement in politics on that and San Francisco, Scott Wiener I think deserves just a tremendous amount of credit, as does very much the east base Buffy Wicks, but we're not seeing the numbers turn in the way we need to.

So why, that's a piece I want to do when I get back from book leave. Why were the YIMBYes are winning? Are we not seeing much more housing being built? One good thing is that other states are looking California and passing really great YIMNY legislation. He's like, "We don't want that to happen to us." I raised this question earlier about solar and wind. Here's the answer to it.

Solar is tracking at about twice expectations. We're doing great. We're on track to do 40 gigawatts of installation over the next year. Wind is at less than half. So we're having a boom of solar and wind is tracking way under what we need, which nets out to not that bad, but we need to figure out the wind problem and wind is harder to cite because it's just bigger. But the solar thing is really remarkable, right? That's something we should be excited about. Technology is a really bright part of this vision. 

There is absolutely no way we would have any shot, any shot at all, at non-completely catastrophic outcomes if solar, wind and battery advances hadn't blown past all expectations year after year after year after year. It's a great paper looking at thousands of different estimates of solar panel cost and it basically finds that the median estimated price fall each year was 2.6%.

The largest estimated price fall is 6% and the reality was 15% year on year on year. 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 and I think I don't see what I'm doing here, what Derek is doing here. I don't see this as some kind of summoning of a whole new idea into politics. I see myself as functionally doing something descriptive. I think this is happening. I am trying to unite a lot of things that are happening and create a sort of framework and a usable and correct political history behind them. But the YIMBYs predate this work, the moving climate to realizing that we would need to build our way out of this.

It predates any of my work on this. When I wrote the initial piece that led to, for me at least to this book called The Economic Mistake, the left is finally confronting. I don't say "I have an idea, it's called supply side progressivism." I say correctly that 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 how quickly it happens, where it happens, it's never going to, and it both won't and shouldn't swing the pendulum all the way to the other end, but there's no review of anything. But it becomes a lens on which a lot of different changes are made quickly in a lot of different places. A lot of different people begin to see their jobs in slightly different terms and hopefully things happen.

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 muddling, it's always messy, but we often do muddle through and maybe some technological stuff breaks our way quicker than we're realizing maybe some other stuff happens. It's not clear. And it's also worth noting that with climate, you're dealing with literally degrees, right? It's not yes extinction, no, we're fine. There's this huge range. I would prefer to see 2.1 degrees and 2.6. I prefer 2.6 to 2.9. I'd really prefer 1.3 to any of them, but it matters every 10th of a degree and so you're just pushing.

Amy E. Lerman: So it's an accumulation of small choices, small changes

Ezra Klein: And big, like the IRA. But yeah.

Amy E. Lerman: And so if you were to think about where this is going to happen, is it also a distributed solution? So are we thinking about local government and this maybe runs counter to the Tokyo example of not doing all of this at the federal level, but really making these choices around things like citing new housing at the local level.

Ezra Klein: Yeah, this is very, when you're talking about housing, you're talking about local government. That is full stop how we do it in this country. We are not nationalizing housing supply here. So this has to happen at the local level and different cities are going to do different things. I think it's very encouraging. There's a lot London Breed has done recently that I don't like. So I'm feeling much more mixed on London Breed than I used to. For instance, I think the thing where she wants to drug test anybody using welfare is abhorrent, but she's got pretty good YIMBY proposals and her recent housing reform proposals have been excellent. Karen Bass in LA has been, I think doing great work. Eric Adams is a complicated situation as a person I would say, but his recent housing proposal is pretty good. And so I think you're seeing the politics of this shift.

Again, not because I'm so convincing or Matt Yglesias is so convincing or any of the other kind of [inaudible] is so convincing, but because the problem is really bad, the problem is really bad and they need to find solutions to it. And those solutions aren't working quickly, but maybe they will work and maybe there comes a tipping point where the accretion of small fixes tips and all of a sudden, like you really can, if you build up all this policy and then three years from now interest rates are really low again [inaudible], maybe something happens, maybe not, right? But that's where I think the more optimistic cases come from. I think you're seeing this problem emerge particularly on the housing side in a decentralized way. There's a great book by William (sic) Fischel called Zoning Rules! It has an exclamation point, so you have to, by law, say it that way.

But the point he makes is that what's really weird about zoning is that it basically rises in two very disjunctive periods. So you actually have to explain a time series that looks very strange. It doesn't exist anywhere until 1916, I believe 1912 or 1916. And then within something like 15 years, it's covering 70% of America. That was different cities doing it. And his answer of why has to do with transportation. It used to be that geographically you could decide what went where just by where you built things. But with the advent of the automobile, and particularly for him, trucks and buses, which could move both material and people around en mass, it really shifted that. So you needed all these zoning rules. Then in the '70s and more complicated story. But his version of it has to do with a rise in housing prices.

I don't think that's the whole story, but nevertheless, in the '70s you have a huge rise in what he calls growth control zoning. But it happens in many different places all at the same time. Very specifically, it happens in Marin who emerge as huge villains. If you look at zoning. So if any of you live in Marin, you should feel a little weird about that. But the whole thing about Marin refusing to hook up to a larger reservoir and the city planner's like, "We're going to run out of water," and he gets voted down and actually run out of office if I remember the story correctly, because they're like, "If you add a bunch of water here, people are going to move here and we don't want them to move here, so we're not going to add any water."

Then, of course, a drought comes and Marin's going to die of thirst. And so what they do is they close a lane of the bridge and run an overground pipe pumping water from San Francisco to Marin so Marin doesn't die of thirst. And Jake Anbinder, who's a great historian now at Cornell who let me read his dissertation on this stuff, has just unbelievably dry caption on this picture of it where he's like, "It was the pro-growth, California past keeping the anti-growth, California future alive." Think about that Marin residents.

Amy E. Lerman: The parable of Marin. So I want to make sure that we have time to ask you some questions that came from the audience. Very nicely done audience. These were great questions. So I'm going to ask on behalf of the folks who are here, and some of these questions had to do with the... Going back to this question of the political context we live in. And so as someone who has been long in the media, I'm curious what you think the role is here of information of the media environment, whether it's educating people about policy, whether it's checking its own misinformation, but several of the questions that were asked were about how to encourage the mainstream media to rise to the challenge.

Ezra Klein: You don't think I'm doing my best?

Amy E. Lerman: Friends, friends of Ezra Klein.

Ezra Klein: The big thing I'd say on the media here is that I don't think we're good at covering... I think we're getting better at this, and I think... Look, it's always hard for me to hear the media take the blame on this, because how do we know about a bunch of the stuff I'm talking about? It's the media. Conor Dougherty at the New York Times has been doing great coverage of housing and BNB movement for a really long time now. His book, Golden Gates, about San Francisco's housing, it's excellent. I recommend it to everybody. Jerusalem Demsas at the Atlantic doing amazing housing reporting for years now. Rachel Cohen at Vox, Matt Yglesias at Slow Boring. There are a lot of people who've been doing great work here.

The big thing I would say is that I just don't think we cover, when it comes to this question of building, I don't think we cover the details of actual implementation of things well. I think that we are overly concentrated on the Washington legislative process. And reasonably so. It's much harder to cover all the shit happening everywhere all at once. We don't have the staffing for that, but you learn a lot by zooming way in on individual examples.

Years ago what I thought was the media didn't cover policy enough. That was the driving thesis of Wonkblog. And now I think we don't cover governing enough. Actually we do plenty of coverage of policy proposals, but what actually happens when those move from ink on a page to something in reality or not is not enough. I would say colleagues of mine have done good work on this, people at the LA Times have done good work on this. There have been good pieces on high-speed rail. For the size of that disaster there have not been enough, and deep enough. We just need more.

But one reason this has gotten really hard is the regional and local media has been gutted by shifting digital landscape, by the big platforms coming in the middle and taking all the money, the weakening of regional news. I can really commend to you Heatmap.News. They're doing great jobs covering decarbonization, but it's not the same as having the Baltimore Sun and the Boston Globe and the St. Louis Post Dispatcher and so on, at the power they once held, where they could do the kind of investigative deep-dive work they once did.

I could talk about this forever so I'll stop there. But I don't really think the problem in the media is we're not doing enough good work although we could always do better. I think it's that there actually is less media now, but there's not less country problems, news, etc.

Amy E. Lerman: To be fair, too, if we think about the recipients of news and the extent to which there's a reciprocal relationship between what people are interested in reading about and what gets printed, we here as educators also hold some of the blame there, and could do a better job educating people about how to be critical around news, and how to be interested in the details and why those details matter.

Ezra Klein: I'm glad you brought... I didn't want to say it was specifically your fault, but obviously it was implied.

Amy E. Lerman: Obviously. Sticking with this question of really who's at fault, I want to talk about Republicans. So some of the questions were thinking about coalition building and the role that an abundance agenda might play in bringing together people who are interested in supply side, and interested in innovation and investment and technology with the liberals who are historically ignoring that piece. Is one of the appeals of this agenda that there is this crossover potential to bring together a cross-party coalition?

Ezra Klein: No. Look, on some issues maybe a little bit. There's maybe some stuff you could do on permanent... Y'all saw what happened in Washington just the other day where they deposed Kevin McCarthy, eight of them. It was like none of them. Because he cut a deal with Democrats to not close the government for no reason. Then they're like, "It's the Democrats' fault." Because when the Democrats said, "If you want our votes, you have to trade us something," they said, "No." 

The Republican Party's lost its mind. It's not a functional governing institution. So on some things I think it could be fine. I actually think a number of Republicans have perfectly good housing policy, and where they govern, they do a perfectly fine job on that. So that's great. And it's something frankly that liberals could learn from.

On decarbonization, specifically, it's much harder. The Republican politics around that are very bad. There were no Republican votes for the Inflation Reduction Act. There's been a little bit of Republican votes for some stuff on the margins, a bipartisan infrastructure bill, that kind of thing. The red states are getting more of the IRA's money than blue states on climate, and they're getting it because among other things it's easier to site projects there and build them quickly. But you're starting to see backlash. The more this stuff moves to the center of politics, the more polarized it will get. That's sort of the point of my previous book.

And so I am not naive enough to think... I think this cleaves the parties in interesting ways, and there are points where there'll be interesting backdoor dealmaking and backroom dealmaking. But because I actually care about the liberal outcome side of this... Republicans functionally have no power in cities, which is where I care a lot about the housing question. There's basically no major cities that Republicans run. Miami, I think they might. And then decarb, they're just not going to help out on, so it's not that promising.

Amy E. Lerman: So switching gears a little, I want to come back to the question of technology, which does play a really central role. And I agree with you, it's really hard to imagine that we're going to build our way out without technology, without really investing in innovation and new ideas and new ways of doing things. 

On the other hand, we can think of a lot of examples where technology has run afoul or run astray. And I think the conversation we're having around AI right now is an example of that, where unintended consequences for democracy, or maybe intended consequences, I don't know. I'm sure that there's a social media channel I could be checking out to know whether this was intentional. But some of the questions that we got from the audience were about AI specifically. What do you see as opportunities for AI to help strengthen our democracy? And more generally, how do we leverage the possibilities without being subject to the challenges?

Ezra Klein: It's an interesting question. I think in terms of what people are often thinking about when they hear the term AI right now, I don't think it's that relevant. ChatGPT is not going to help. And for people who've heard podcasts I did with Demis Hassabis, who is the founder of DeepMind, I'm more interested in narrower forms of machine... I almost think it's weird to call it artificial intelligence, narrower forms of deep machine learning programs aimed at solving a particular problem. So I find this project AlphaFold very inspiring where they were able to create an AI that solved the protein folding problem.

DeepMind has been working on an AI program that will help. Basically one of the problem... I'm going to mangle this because I don't know anything about it. There's a particular problem with how to do containment on the plasma in nuclear fusion, and it appears that AI can do learning and reaction at the pace you would need to keep something working. Whatever that is would be good is my understanding of the situation. There are technical problems that AI, machine learning, neural nets, etc. can really do a lot to help with.

Political problems, yeah, it can't help that much with. It's just not its role, it's not its capacity. I'm a little less worried about some of the disinformation dynamics right now. I think that that mistakes the interest in fake news as a supply side and not a demand side problem. I think there's plenty supply of political bullshit, and the issue is how many people want political bullshit. I don't think AI is actually going to change that all that dramatically, at least not in the U.S. People know how to check information if they want to. When they don't, it's because they don't want to, not because it's uncheckable. It's like all those people believe in QAnon, it's not like nobody told them that 4chan is a weird place to get your information. I have different thoughts on that.

So AI for science I think is interesting, and it goes back to something I was saying earlier. One thing I would like to see the U.S. government do, the kinds of AIs we're going to get are related to the business models we have for AIs. And my worry is that AI is going to be hooked in to a traditional surveillance advertising model, and it's going to be just sitting there. The most powerful computer system ever known to man trying to get me to buy a bike when I just bought a bike on the internet. And this is happening. It's like I just buy some luggage. It's like, "Would you like some more luggage?" I'm like, "No." It's like, "Have you seen this luggage from the place you bought the other?" It's like, "No. Yes, I don't want more lugg..." I don't think that's good. I don't want behavioral manipulation in my AI.

I would like to see the U.S. government to say, "If you can create an AI program that solves any of these 15 problems, you get a billion dollars and we get your solution." I'm like, "That's the deal." And then Google and everybody else should have reason to build that AI program. 

Getting them to build AlphaFold because it seemed like fun is not the way you want to solve problems with AI. And just letting the development of AI be dictated by a race between Google, Microsoft and Meta to dominate online advertising is not going to get you the kind of AI you want for the public interest. So it feels like some other thing should be possible here, and that's where I'd like to see a more sophisticated politics of technology develop.

Amy E. Lerman: I like this question a lot because I think a lot of the focus has been on institutions or political institutions or technological advances. And this question really gets at the role that individuals can play. And I think it comes back to this question of is there a public-spiritedness that is needed in order to build? And the question is what are the non-obvious behaviors that have a strong correlation to the ethos of building that we should encourage in society, like donating blood, taking care of your neighbor's pets or returning a grocery cart that isn't yours? Is there some sort of public-spiritedness that is part of the equation?

Ezra Klein: Show up to local meetings and speak on behalf of people who don't live in the place yet.

Amy E. Lerman: And return a grocery cart that isn't yours.

Ezra Klein: Do what you want with the grocery carts. You've got to rank your problems. If you want a grocery cart, but you get a solar farm built, I think you go to heaven. The problem with a lot of the processes we've created is obviously and correctly, they reward those who show up. And we actually have quite a lot of research on this. People show up when they don't want something to happen. They don't show up because abstractly they would like to know what's going on and speak on behalf of things they think might be good in principle. God bless the YIMBYs who started doing that. If you read Conor Dougherty's book, it's very funny on this, just like how weird it was to have these people just showing up at meetings, being like, "So yeah, I don't live here, and I won't probably, but I do think an apartment building would be good." Thus was a movement born.

So being civically engaged, I mean it really matters. Very few people show up to things. And being then engaged on behalf of your values, not your exact immediate interests, really matters. That's the fundamental problem with the systems of direct democracy we've set up. They're built for people to argue their interests, not their values. Or even worse, they're built for the people who know how to argue their interests, and have the money and the time to argue their interests to do that. Whereas the immigrant family who would like to live near their work but don't know there's a city council meeting in a city they do not live in...

One of the things that broke my heart a bit was when I was out reporting on the high-speed rail, I was just talking to some of the workers there. And he was telling me what a blessing the job was for him, because before that he was commuting each way to his construction job five hours. And nobody should have to do that. But he couldn't live in the place he was working. You just need a thicker zone of care than to allow that to happen in cities.

Amy E. Lerman: I think this is a related question. What makes you hopeful for the future of the Bay Area? What would you tell a young person who's considering staying or leaving this magical and messy place?

Ezra Klein: What I think makes you hopeful for it is that it's the center of AI development, right? It's fucking crazy that it's all right here still, right? We have Zoom and everything else, but nope, except for DeepMind and the major Chinese companies, it's all just going to happen within 85 miles of this. So the Bay Area, it still has this remarkable quality. First, it's remarkable what your economists here would call agglomeration economy, that just makes it the place technological, at least software-based advances happen. But behind that is something that I believe deeply having lived here, having been in California, is that there's a culture of tolerance and openness that makes that possible.

The thing that is why, in my view, or at least one of the reasons why, the kind of... So many cities and so many countries have wanted to steal Silicon Valley from Silicon Valley. Everybody wants it. I was actually looking into this. What's the biggest software company in New York? All the big software companies have offices there. There's no end of educated workers. There's all the money in the world. People want to live in New York. 

The biggest pure software company is something called arguably MongoDB. It's not that it's small, it's a $25 billion valuation software, something, something, something. Does anybody actually here know what it is? All right, so developers know what it is. Most people I ask don't. That they have not been able to build that, that no one has, speaks to something special happening here.

And I think one of the things that happens here, and I see it a lot in my reporting on AI, is that part of the culture here is that you can sit in front of somebody or have somebody sit in front of you, and they will tell you the craziest goddamn thing you've ever heard in your life. And the culture here is like, "Maybe. But what's the capital ratio?" I don't think there's anything changing in the magic of the place. If you can live here, it's a wonderful place to live. I just lived here. I was heartbroken to leave. The thing I want to say about it is more people should be able to live here. The future's incredibly bright. You don't want to gate it.

One of the other pieces of research I think is very compelling in this area is by Raj Chetty. And they've done a lot of looking at social mobility. I've talked a little bit, although I could say a lot more, about the ways in which being near these kinds of jobs, near the people backstroking through their pools of AI money, how that affects local service sector jobs. But it also affects their children and their children's children. Growing up in a place makes you much more likely to have patents, to patent inventions in the exact same thing that is being done in that place.

Innovation is geographically located. Growing up in a rich, highly educated area, no matter where you start on the income ladder makes you much likely to move up it. The consequences of the ability to live in a place like this are intergenerational. It's not just about whether the firefighter can live in the city he saves. It's whether his children can have the advantages of the city he saves.

So yeah, the Bay Area is great. It's wonderful. It's a wonderful place to live. For all the shit on Fox News about it, that's why the median house in SF is $1.4 million. If the Bay Area was actually unlivable, then its housing and homelessness problem would be solved. The way you know that it is not actually unlivable is that it is not solved, and is in fact getting worse. And so there's just this kind of weird... The problems and the possibilities are the same. But it's a great place to live, and it's a great place to work to make fairer.

I remember when I lived in Santa Cruz when I was a student there, and one of the reasons I left was I was very involved in politics. It just felt it was too nice to live in. The city council was very proud that it was the first city council to vote to impeach George W. Bush. That was the sort of politics of Santa Cruz. And it just felt a little bit like Fantasyland. I love Santa Cruz, I adore that place, but it didn't feel like you could get any real political work done there. It was all shadowboxing. And I don't really believe that now. The work of trying to make these cities fairer is fundamental justice work. So the Bay Area is also a great place to do political work.

Amy E. Lerman: I am going to ask you one last question. It's a predictable question. Anybody who wants to ask it along with me...

Ezra Klein: All right, three books I would recommend to the audience. I'm going to recommend three that I've been reading because it's been one of the joys of book leave. I actually really, really miss the show and really miss doing columns, and increasingly feel like a crazy person the longer I'm out of it. But the great joy of book leave is how many books I can read on a subject. 

And so I'll recommend a couple that are just about what I've been thinking about. So one is Ed Glaeser's A Triumph of the City. It's just a great book. A great book about cities, will make you think about cities and see them a little bit differently. Beautifully written, really, really fascinating work.

For everybody that lives here, y'all should read Conor Dougherty's Golden Gates. It's great. It's really important. If you live here specifically, it's really important, and it's important to read things about the place in which you live. 

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? I want to say Brian Potter. No. Brian Potter writes a Substack on construction.

Audience: David Potter.

David Potter. Thank you. David Potter. And it's about how economic abundance... The subtitle I think is "Economic Abundance and 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. And I think it's pretty clear-eyed about that. There are very interesting ideas about democracy and equality. It's written in a very different time so you get a very different perspective. But that book has become very foundational for me in my thinking, and has helped me see a lineage in these ideas that I can connect back to. But if you want to be way ahead of where I am in my work, you should read that book. Before we do this, wasn't Amy Lerman great?

Amy E. Lerman: Thank you. So I want to say thank you to the Jefferson Memorial Lecture Committee for inviting both of us to take part in this event. Thank you all for joining us, and please join me in thanking Ezra Klein.

[Music: "Silver Lanyard" by Blue Dot Sessions]

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