Progressives need to build more in the US – 7/18/2023 – Ezra Klein

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Two smart writers have written thoughtful articles – one from the right, one from the left – explaining where I went terribly wrong. Both texts aim at the same target: what I called supply-side progressivism. Many of the problems that American progressivism is trying to solve today depend on building much more of something — and doing so at breakneck speed.

Clean energy capability. Electric vehicle chargers. Houses. Semiconductor factories. Mass transport. Transmission lines. But progressivism is not growing at the pace needed to resolve any of these challenges. And some of the worst examples of government struggling to build are in the most democratic places: high-speed trains in California, the Big Dig in Boston, the subway in New York, housing in basically every major city you can imagine.

To solve the problems we face, progressives need to build more, faster.

Reihan Salam, president of the conservative Manhattan Institute, and David Dayen, executive editor of the progressive American Prospect, think I was wrong. Interestingly, their criticisms are almost exact inversions of each other. For Salam, a progressivism that builds may be desirable, but it is politically impossible. For Dayen, building is already very easy, and making it even easier would be politically damaging.

We started with Salam. Modern progressivism, he writes, is not a set of ideas aimed at different ends, but “a political formula, a set of compromises to unite a diverse democratic coalition”. For him, the main agents are “unionized civil servants and wealthy progressive metropolitans”. Unions want the government to employ labor at higher prices, and metropolitans want low rates, and these demands are non-negotiable.

Salam is offering a classic stakeholder analysis of Democratic politics, and there is truth to that. At the very least, by limiting his concerns to organized labor and educated urban dwellers, he underestimates the magnificent range of interests that Democrats have to manage.

Where are the environmental groups? Defenders of the homeless? The CEOs who can’t take the GOP anymore and turn their donations into influence with the Democrats?

Where I take issue with Salam is the way he describes the demands and desires of interest groups and voters as fixed, but in reality in constant flux. Demands are rarely non-negotiable. Priorities change not just for self-interest reasons, but because voters and, yes, interest groups become convinced of new ideas.

We don’t need to debate this in theory. Politics is changing. Just look around.

Berkeley, California, was the first city to pass single-family zoning (which allows only one house per piece of land). In 2021, the Berkeley City Council voted to end single-family zoning, as progressives came to see it as a tool of exclusion.

California followed suit, passing a bill banning single-family zoning across the entire state. In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed has proposed reforms to the way housing is built in the city, which has delighted even the toughest of housing activists.

In Los Angeles, voters raised taxes on themselves to deal with the homeless, and Mayor Karen Bass and the City Council have just exempted affordable housing from a long leg in the planning process. Across the state, Governor Gavin Newsom has already signed more pro-housing bills than I can reasonably describe here, and he just passed a package of licensing and acquisition reforms, despite initial protests from environmental groups.

And it’s not just California: Oregon and Maine have also banned single-family zoning, and Connecticut and Massachusetts have taken steps in the same direction. That’s not to say that California’s housing crisis will reverse quickly. But policies are changing, as voters are being convinced that more housing and more construction is needed for a just and decent future.

Salam paints supply-side progressivism as a circle of “thought leaders without thought followers,” but I think this reveals the opposite: residents of Democratic states are furious about the problems that supply-tight progressivism has created, and politicians and theorists are following this fury to its natural political conclusions.

For politicians in Democratic states, it’s a matter of survival. Newsom, for example, has clear presidential ambitions, but they will be stillborn if he is not seen, by 2028, as the governor who solved California’s housing crisis, not as the one who simply presided over it.

Which leads to Dayen’s critique, which starts from a very different place than Salam’s critique. He begins by noting that the US has gone from being an importer of liquefied natural gas to a dominant exporter in less than a decade. “What cannot be said is that this industry is the product of a country that has forgotten how to build it,” he writes. “A mix of national politics, voluntary funding, and economic and political power easily overcame any lethargy considered endemic in the US system.”

For Dayen, the rise of natural gas reveals that when an industry has enough political power – like the fossil fuel industry – it can achieve remarkable construction feats. What is needed, then, is not “a progressivism that builds, but a progressivism that builds power.”

The way to do this is through grants, mandates, standards and review processes that involve unions, environmental groups and community organizers throughout this construction.

But there are too many differences between natural gas and decarbonization or housing construction for the analogy to serve the purpose Dayen wants. Housing, for example, needs to be built in residential areas. The infrastructure for the export of gas, for the most part, does not. Politics is different.

And there is no reason to look for imprecise comparisons when we can examine the industries of interest. Are we building housing fast enough to make it affordable in our most dynamic cities? No. Are we building solar panels, wind farms, transmission lines, battery plants and electric vehicle charging stations fast enough to meet our decarbonization targets? No. Then we can ask the question directly: why not?

When Dayen turns directly to topics like housing, his arguments backfire. He argues that part of the housing crisis is insufficient construction after the Great Recession. And truth.

But that doesn’t explain why it’s functionally impossible to build a six-story apartment building in the poorest neighborhoods of San Francisco and Washington. Yes, builders misjudged demand ten years ago. But that’s not why they can’t increase supply more quickly now. Buildings aren’t technically difficult to build. They are politically difficult to build.

Dayen’s central argument is that what we build reflects who has power — and how it’s built changes who has power. What we need, she says, is “for government to support groups that have been left out of past economic transitions, building a coalition for long-term transformation.” But who exactly is in this coalition? What happens when your interests conflict?

Organized labor is a natural constituency for a progressivism that builds, and their leaders tell me the same in conversations I’ve had with them. More construction really means more jobs. In practice, however, the phrase “organized labor” belies the reality of fragmented and disorganized labor organizations at the state and local levels.

California housing and environmental bills, for example, often have unions in opposition and others in support. I have already spoken in previous columns about cost and speed gains to be obtained with the use of modular housing produced in factories that use unionized labor.

A policy geared towards this production process is good for the manufacturing unions that employ these factories and harder for the construction unions that would otherwise have done the building on site. Who wins this fight?

I would like to see a stronger US labor movement, which is one of the many reasons I support industry bargaining and mandatory appointment of workers to corporate boards. Many countries with stronger unions than the US complete transit projects faster and more economically than we do.

But one of the biggest challenges to US labor policy is the public perception that unions often slow construction rather than improve it, and that perception is rooted in real failures of real projects in places where progressives and unions hold real power.

I don’t think it’s fixable, but it’s fixable if progressives refuse to admit it’s true and refuse to make the necessary changes to prove it’s not true.

Reading Dayen reminded me of an article by Michael Gerrard, founder of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law in Columbia, “A Time for Triage” [tempo de triagem, em português]. In it, Gerrard argues that, “Instead of climate denial, the environmental community is in compensation denial. We don’t admit that it’s too late to preserve everything we hold precious and slow to make decisions.” This is, I would suggest, a broader problem on the left.

There is always the hope of a policy without losers, or at least without the losers we like. But no policy at the speed of decarbonization can realize these hopes.

In the article “The Greens’ Dilemma”, JB Ruhl and James Salzman, professors of environmental law, put this vividly. “Consider that the largest solar installation currently operating in the US is capable of generating 585 MW,” or megawatts, they write. “To meet even an intermediate renewable energy scenario, two new 400 MW solar power facilities – each occupying at least 8 km² – would need to be put into operation every week for the next 30 years.”

Or look at the transmission lines. The maximum transmission line infrastructure installed in a year was 6,560 km in 2010. We’re going to need to double that, and do it year after year. I asked Robinson Meyer, executive editor of Heatmap, an organization that keeps pace with decarbonization, if we have the capacity to build this infrastructure, at this speed, under the laws and processes we have today.

“Absolutely not,” he said.

And here is a compensation that we cannot deny. Decarbonizing will require progressives to make a series of choices that change the way we build. To refuse to make these choices is to make a different kind of choice. It’s picking the problems of a world warming faster than the problems to come – and there’s no doubt there will be problems – if we build fast enough to do what we promise.

#Progressives #build #Ezra #Klein

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