The Economy Reimagined, Part 3: Climate and Technology

David Brancaccio and Kimberly Adams Aug 7, 2020
Heard on:
A maintenance boat works next to the turbines of an offshore wind farm. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The Economy Reimagined, Part 3: Climate and Technology

David Brancaccio and Kimberly Adams Aug 7, 2020
Heard on:
A maintenance boat works next to the turbines of an offshore wind farm. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The following is a transcript of “The Economy Reimagined,” a Marketplace special report.

Click here to read and listen to Part 1 on inequality.

Click here to read and listen to Part 2 on jobs, education and poverty.

David Brancaccio: With the tech economy generally still doing well in this very tough year, what’s to reimagine? Well, there is an argument for spreading it out. Here’s how Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., sees it.

Rep. Ro Khanna: I think we have to realize we’re going through a technology revolution that has benefited certain parts of this country. It’s actually right now what’s driving a lot of the stock market and growth, but a lot of people have been left out. And we have not been intentional about getting people a pathway to these jobs of the future.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Kimberly Adams: And the people who have been left out, like Roland in Houston, notice that disconnect.

Roland: People like me, I don’t have any money to be putting in the stock market. I don’t have the knowledge or the money. And so I don’t really have a nest egg like a lot of the certain percent of the population at the top. So, yeah, I’m not sure. I don’t ever see myself retiring, let’s put it that way, probably work until I die.

Adams: When I asked him about his future prospects, he emphasized his age. He’s 56.

Roland: It’s hard to accept that I’m at a point in my life where my financial future is in question. So, my sister, without her help, not sure what would have happened. I might have gotten very depressed and just gave up. Not sure. But, I don’t have an industry that I feel like I can make a living anymore. I have skills, but to attain another certificate or another degree at my age is going to be very difficult.

Adams: So how might Roland get connected to a job of the future?

Brancaccio: Well, that congressman, Ro Khanna, a Democrat representing California’s Silicon Valley, does not want to hoard the tech jobs. He wants more technology work in more places. He’s been working in West Virginia and Kentucky and the South to do that. Putting fast data connections everywhere to help with business development and remote education would cost, Khanna says, about $80 billion.

Khanna: I think the high-speed internet, that’s just the table stakes. And then we need incentives and imaginative policies that are going to get people to take a chance in recruiting from places where tech companies haven’t gone. I mean, there’s a lot of talent out there. But some of the recruiting has been myopic. We’ve overlooked historically Black colleges and universities, for example. So one example is Zoom, that just announced a partnership, which Rep. [James] Clyburn and I led, with Claflin University.

Brancaccio: That’s a historically Black campus in South Carolina linking with our ubiquitous new workmate Zoom. It’s a five-year deal built in part around internships. Khanna points out China is spending like mad to get its tech jobs sprinkled outside the usual places. And it’s just part of this trend.

As the reimagining goes beyond the U.S. economy to matters of global financial inclusion, we note the capital of Kenya, Nairobi, is now a thriving tech hub.

Mauro Guillén: They call it the “Silicon Savannah.” You see, African — especially sub-Saharan African — countries, are well ahead of the rest of the world.

Brancaccio: Mauro Guillén is a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Africa could be ripe for more Silicon Savannahs, beyond Nairobi, Johannesburg, South Africa, and Lagos, Nigeria.

Mauro Guillén (Screenshot via YouTube)

Guillén: When it comes to the adoption of mobile payments, for instance, and also telemedicine. We’re only discovering it now in the United States because we are selectively under lockdown, but they’ve been practicing telemedicine for at least 10 years. So in some ways, actually, Africa is ahead of the curve relative to the rest of the world. They’re innovating.

Brancaccio: Guillén’s new book is called “2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything.”

Guillén: It’s also a huge opportunity, because Africa will have by far the youngest population in the world. And economies tend to be more dynamic when the population is younger, on average.

Adams: Speaking of youthful dynamism: Nisa Perez, the daughter of Frances Cox and Jasson Perez in Chicago, she and I were talking about her view of the changing economy. She’s already active in social justice causes, and at 17, she says it’s clear to her the economy, as it exists, even before COVID-19, doesn’t work for her community.

Nisa Perez: To have everything that you need to survive, it shouldn’t be a survival-of-the-fittest game. You should have a house, you should be able to have water, you should be able to have lights, you should be able to have food, you should be able to have money.

Frances Cox (left) and Nisa Perez (Courtesy of Cox)

Brancaccio: What do we have, three of the most transformational events of our lifetimes happening at the same time? Wait, it’s four. A pandemic, an economic collapse, a national, if not global, reengagement on race and inequality. And, oh yes, did we mention that with all the carbon dioxide we let out, the planet’s heating up to the point that parts will no longer be liveable. Here’s a man who’s come up with a plan to take all the bad carbon out of the U.S. economy within just 15 years. Not 50 — 15. Not by making life austere and miserable, but by electrifying everything.

Saul Griffith: It may sound audacious, but it shouldn’t sound crazy.

Brancaccio: MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Saul Griffith is an engineer and CEO of a research group called Otherlab. He’s one of the authors of a report done with a nonprofit called Rewiring America. They did the math and found that if everything’s run by electricity, we probably need about half the energy we thought. A total conversion in what must sound like a shockingly short time would be a wild undertaking in the way the economy was ramped up for the Second World War.

Griffith: If we are serious about the what we should be doing for the planet in terms of our carbon dioxide targets, this is the level of effort required to do it. And, in terms of COVID, this is a historic opportunity, like the Great Depression, like World War II, to do sort of the massive infrastructure spending required. And it will create the jobs we need. And, ultimately, we will have a stronger, more resilient, better-prepared nation in the future with a healthier populace if we do it.

Scientist Saul Griffith speaks at “Powering the Planet” during the 2008 World Science Festival in New York City. Brad Barket/Getty Images for World Science Festival)

Brancaccio: And while shifting people out of fossil fuel jobs will be tough to bear for many, Griffith says the traditional energy industry has become more automated and is not as labor-intensive as what would be needed for his big switch-over. Griffith’s report estimates the conversion to everything powered by wind, solar and hydro would create 25 million jobs, with 5 million more jobs than we have now after electric-everything is in place.

Griffith: We don’t pay for the wind or the sunshine, as you do in extracting the coal and natural gas. And all of the machines required for that require a little bit more labor because we have to install them and maintain them. It will create more jobs.

Branccacio: The group’s total decarbonization plan is open to using some nuclear power for a transition period with the risks that come with that, although Griffith doubts nuclear can compete on cost with other renewables.

This crash program to decarbonize energy is one approach. Another way to address climate change that also claims more jobs is to make everything renewable, not just sources of energy. It’s called the “circular economy.”

William McDonough: Once you realize that something is not waste, it’s food for something else, then you design with “waste equals food.”

William McDonough poses backstage during Global Citizen 2015 Earth Day on the National Mall. (Kris Connor/Getty Images for Global Citizen)

Brancaccio: William McDonough is an architect and designer who co-wrote what is widely considered a watershed book in the history of the sustainability movement: “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.” You think of banana peels that become compost for plants and worms, but scale this globally. Instead of buying LED lightbulbs, maybe you sign up for a lighting service that retrieves the bulbs when they’re done and harvests all the components, including the rare earth elements inside. In Switzerland, McDonough helped the venerable office furniture company Steelcase do a fabric out of sustainable everything.

McDonough: We did it out of wool and ramie — ramie is a fiber — and then all the dyes and the mordants and the rinses are all so clean that the water coming out of the factory is as clean as Swiss drinking water, which is what it is. So you’re not polluting. The trimmings used to be hazardous waste, had to be shipped to Spain, from Switzerland, because you couldn’t burn it or bury it in Switzerland. So that’s a cost to the business. The trimmings of the cloth become mulch for the local garden club. And, by the way, a lot of people have sat on that fabric, it’s in the Airbus.

Brancaccio: Airbus the jetliners. McDonough also designed the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College in Ohio that controls its waste and creates more energy than it consumes.

McDonough: It’s a building like a tree. A tree collects more energy from solar energy than it requires to live. It actually accrues and grows. Amazing. And, it purifies water. And, so, we want to design systems that are like that, that are regenerative.

Brancaccio: He draws from the energy production part of this to make a larger point about the circular economy creating more work, even given the disruption it would produce for people whose jobs are rooted in the existing way of doing things.

McDonough: There’s so much to do in renewable power. There is so little to do in coal. So, focus — this is job creation. This is — how do we meaningfully engage with the world today, and have great work for people to do?

Brancaccio: Perhaps some of this is thinking more widely about whom you think you serve. Kat Cole is the president and chief operating officer of Focus Brands, which include Cinnabon, Jamba Juice, Carvel, Auntie Anne’s pretzels. Cole began her career first as a hostess before waiting tables at a Hooters restaurant. She often tells how she started traveling internationally for Hooters’ corporate office by age 19, working on the chain’s global expansion. While what she sells are indulgences, she takes a holistic approach to leadership. Ms. Cole, thank you for joining us.

Kat Cole (Focus Brands via Wikimedia Commons)

Cole: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Brancaccio: So you had to find a job as a teenager to, what, help your family get food on the table?

Cole: Really to help save money for my own needs. We had passed the phase where my mom was working three jobs and feeding us on a food budget of $10 a week, which she did for three years. By the time I was 15, my mom had a little bit of a better job, but not enough for college for her three girls. And so if I wanted anything, I needed to work for it. So I started working in malls and then eventually restaurants.

Brancaccio: Kat, your Twitter handle is different now, but I know in the past it has been about being a connected, conscious capitalist. What does that mean to you?

Cole: I think it means destigmatizing and redefining capitalism as an ecosystem that has people and more stakeholders pulled to the forefront as opposed to afterthoughts. Not the sole purpose of the enterprise being the shareholder, but rather understanding that by caring for connected stakeholders — employees, customers, vendors — that that is where capitalism is going, has been moving and must continue to go. So that the great divide of the haves and have-nots does not continue to widen.

Brancaccio: You refer to destigmatizing capitalism — is that part of the stigma, is that it’s made the gap between rich and poor worse in some cases?

Cole: It is the stigma, right? Is there any other stigma? When people hear capitalism, they either say, yes, I’m a capitalist, and I’m all about free markets and individualism and all of those things that are related, or it’s the other side, which is capitalism is only focused on markets and shareholders without consideration for downstream and social and economic implications. And so the shift from shareholder to stakeholder is needed — shareholders being a key stakeholder because they’re putting up the money to make the enterprise possible in the first place. So they’re critical. But if the other things aren’t impacted positively, there is no business over time.

Brancaccio: Kat Cole, president and chief operating officer of Focus Brands, thank you very much.

Cole: My pleasure.

Adams: So many people are challenging the way our economy works and who it’s working for, and those ideas are coming from everywhere. Frances Cox, who went to college, worked as a computer programmer and now has a job cleaning houses, wants drastic changes — starting with policies like reparations for Black Americans. But she also wants a shift in how we think.

Frances Cox: We have to make it a people-oriented economy versus a money-oriented economy.

Adams: Her daughter Nisa, and Nisa’s dad, Jasson, say there needs to be a way for people to get an education, college or vocational, without going into extreme debt.

Massage therapist Roland in Houston wants everyone paid a living wage, for example by raising the minimum wage. His sister, retired engineer Rochelle, wants to see more economic empathy.

Rochelle Rittmaster: It just seems like, as a society, we really do need to recognize that people are going out, they are working hard. They’re getting up every day, they’re going to work, they’re doing what they need to do, and at the end of the day, they still can’t make it. That’s wrong. That’s wrong, and as a society, we need to have more compassion and more support for everybody.

Adams: Compassion and support for everybody. Economic inequality in America is pretty extreme across race, in particular. Cathy Cohen is a University of Chicago political science professor who does a regular survey of millennials that makes sure people of color are properly sampled.

Cohen: We asked the question, what would be the best way to make racial progress in the United States? Voting in state and local elections, voting in federal elections, but also organizing in communities, community service, nonviolent protests, and we also included, yes, revolution. And the answer that was most prominent among African American, Asian American and Latinx young people was organizing in communities. That was the second-most popular answer, even among young whites.

Adams: It wasn’t number one, but many did pick “revolution,” especially many Black millennials. Cohen understands this as the belief it will take transformational, systemic change for things to get better.

Darren Walker: I do not want to restart the economy that we had. We have to reimagine.

Brancaccio: Darren Walker is the president of the Ford Foundation, the second-largest philanthropy, with a $12 billion endowment.

Walker: It was a conscience-less capitalism that in no way recognized the harm that inequality does to our democracy, because hope is the oxygen of democracy. Inequality asphyxiates hope, and it makes people believe that the institutions in our democracy that are supposed to advance their interests are rigged, are designed and manipulated by we privileged Americans to benefit us at their expense. And if I’m to be true and candid with you, David, they are right. They are right.

“Inequality makes people believe that the systems that are supposed to serve them are rigged — are designed by we privileged Americans to benefit us, at their expense,” Darren Walker says. (Courtesy of the Ford Foundation)

Brancaccio: Walker has been challenging those who win in the present economic system to consider what parts of their privilege they are prepared to surrender

And here’s what I learned talking to one of the tycoons of Wall Street, Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, the biggest hedge fund of them all. His reading of history tells him when interest rates are low (they are), great global powers are in conflict (think U.S. and China) and the gap between rich and poor gets wide (ditto, again), very bad things happen, like war.

Dalio: Isn’t our objective to work together peacefully and achieve greatness together, in a broad way, or do you want to be fighting with each other? And, there’s enough money to go around. Not to just redistribute it in a way where there’s not a motivation for work, but in a way that more people have an opportunity to get well-educated, and be working together, and that we pull together. Because I fear for us fighting with each other domestically, and I fear for us fighting with each other internationally.

Ray Dalio says the combination of debt, a large wealth gap and an economic downturn create instability that history has shown leads to extreme conflict. (Kimberly White/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Brancaccio: Over to Felicia Wong, president of the Roosevelt Institute, a think tank.

Wong: But here’s the thing, David, we’ve got to make sure that this isn’t just talk. Some of this stuff has to get into action if we are going to build a more humane and more resilient economy coming out of this than the economy we had going into this early this year.

Felicia Wong (Courtesy of Wong)

Brancaccio: There’s an idea called the Overton window, named after a public policy guy in Michigan who died quite young, Joseph P. Overton. It’s about the window of policy possibilities that the public, politicians and regulators consider worthy of serious consideration. You know, versus ideas so off the deep end why even talk about them. Here in 2020, many think the drapes on the Overton window have opened to a wider view. We’ve looked at some ideas here and will stay on the lookout for ways to reimagine systems that work better for more people.

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“The Economy Reimagined” was produced by Candace Manriquez Wrenn, Rose Conlon, Victoria Craig, Meredith Garretson, Daniel Shin and Erika Soderstrom. Alex Schroeder produced the digital elements. Engineering by Brian Allison and Jay Siebold. Our theme music was composed and recorded by Daniel Ramirez and Ben Tolliday. Our executive producer Nicole Childers oversaw the project.

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