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Still Chugging Along

Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

America’s Next Economy

Featuring Natalie Foster

What is the cost of not investing in families in America? How can economic security be guaranteed? Zachary and Emma speak with Natalie Foster, president of the Economic Security Project and author of the new book ‘The Guarantee: Inside the Fight for America’s Next Economy.’ Baby bonds, student loans, why so many Americans dislike dealing with the government, and raising the economic floor are among the topics discussed today.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

Natalie Foster: The thing we know about economic security is that it works. That people, when they have it, are able to have so many more options, are able to start the business, participate in democracy, be part of their family. What is the cost of not investing in families, of not guaranteeing economic security in America?

And I literally think the price is as significant as democracy itself.

Zachary Karabell: What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network, and What Could Go Right? is our weekly podcast where we look at, oddly enough, what could go right, given that so many people are so much of the time asking the question of what could go wrong?

Let us pause for a minute and take a deep breath and ask what it is that’s going on in the world that could go well. One of the great challenges of our day is what we do about our various safety nets in terms of health care and welfare and housing and education. So we’re going to talk today to someone who has written a compelling brief for why there should be a set of basic guarantees for every American.

What is it that we should be saying that everybody who lives in this affluent society should have? So who are we going to talk to today, Emma?

Emma Varvaloucas: So today we’re going to talk to Natalie Foster. She’s the president and co founder of the Economic Security Project, and her work focuses generally on economic security, as the title might suggest.

The future of work and the new political economy. As you mentioned, we’re going to talk to her today about her book, which is called The Guarantee: Inside the Fight for America’s Next Economy. She served as digital director for President Obama’s Organizing America, and they were a key player in winning transformative health care reform that we all might know as the ACA, the Affordable Care Act.

Ready to talk to Natalie?

Zachary Karabell: Absolutely. Natalie Foster, thank you so much for joining us today. You have a new book out called The Guarantee and it’s actually many guarantees. It’s not just The Guarantee. It’s like The Guarantee of guarantees. Right? But tell us what the things are and then expand on why’d you write it? And why now?

Natalie Foster: Yeah, well, it’s really lovely to be here. So thanks for having me. I mean, the idea of reflecting on what could go right is exactly what this book is trying to do. So it’s really an honor to be here. You know, this book is about envisioning the economy that we deserve in America, envisioning the economy that we deserve in the richest nation on Earth, in the richest moment in history.

And it’s naming a framework, or a North Star, that I’m calling the Guarantee Framework, and argues that every American’s basic needs should be met, and the stakes couldn’t be higher for that, given the era of disruptions we’re in, artificial intelligence, climate chaos, More important than ever that we raise the floor for people in this country, and that we can do it, and there’s proof of concept for how to do it.

And the book introduces us to a lot of the architects who have laid the groundwork for these guarantees in America.

Emma Varvaloucas: So let’s go over the guarantees. So I’m going to list them. And then if you want to double tap, that’s a phrase that someone used in a previous podcast episode that Zachary and I went really crazy on.

If you want to double tap on any of them, feel free. So there’s health care, a home, income floor, dignified work, family care, college, and endowment at birth. Where would you like to start?

Natalie Foster: First, just sort of the big idea that it’s a framework. And let me explain sort of why. The last 45 years of economic policymaking have really been summed up by three tenets.

Total faith in the market, zero faith in government, and people left pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. But that’s been the economic orthodoxy of my entire lifetime. Frankly, I’m not sure I thought the American economy could look any different than that, but it turns out it can. It has historically; there have been moments like the New Deal where government played a very different role in creating the middle class and supporting people.

And it can again. And I believe we’re at a moment of transition where the last 45 years of economic policymaking have left us brittle, have left us in debt, and have perhaps brought our democracy to the brink. And we’re at a crossroads, and I think the last few years have shown us a different economic policymaking is possible.

And so what I do with these seven guarantees is show the proof of concept. I have spent the last eight years heads down building the income guarantee. My colleagues and I formed Economic Security Project right after the 2016 election with Donald Trump being elected to build on this big idea that there should be an income floor in America.

It’s an old idea and it had a surge of momentum during that period of time. And so we started the economic security project to help turn that momentum into actual money in people’s pockets. And so, as I put my head up, I looked around and realized it wasn’t just the income guarantee that had had so much progress.

It was a whole host of guarantees. And so you list them out beautifully and we can talk about any one of them. But the point is simply to illustrate a march toward a new future economic paradigm.

Zachary Karabell: You know, we had on this podcast, Alissa Quart who wrote this book, Bootstrapped.. I was just thinking about that because you referenced the bootstrap part.

Natalie Foster: Yeah.

Zachary Karabell: And also the bizarreness of that particular metaphor and that no one can actually physically pick themselves up by their bootstraps. It’s sort of physically impossible, which was known at the time. But then it became kind of a stand in for hard work, resilience, follow all those things and then rewards will come your way, which I guess was sort of the embedded promise of whatever we now call the American Dream.

Frankly, this idea of an American Dream is kind of a, in many ways, a much newer concept. It doesn’t mean people weren’t living it in the 19th century. It just means that by the time that idea solidified in American culture in the 20th century, it was already a bit of a romantic fantasy, but be that as it may, let’s talk a little bit about the income part or more interestingly, you write a lot in the book about the promise of the New Deal, and you write kind of eloquently about how that was a framework, which we largely live with today, meaning all the institutions of the New Deal continue to be Washington departments or institutions and many of the institutions of the Great Society as well, you know, meaning that’s our, that’s our framework.

Just like the National Security State is a post 1945 framework. I want to plunge into something in this, and I guess this is my own set of questions and biases, of guaranteeing basic human rights seems to be absolutely essential for a wealthy society. The idea that you need an incredibly complicated bureaucracy to distribute it is far less obvious than if anything, you could have a system of complete guarantees and a much smaller government.

What do you make of that particular equation? Again, I kind of feel like we’re diving in a little bit. This is my, this is my big question in all these things. Like, couldn’t you have all these guarantees and less government rather than all these guarantees and more government?

Natalie Foster: Yeah, I mean, the point of the book is to name the North Star and it really deliberately does not get into the inter, the tensions within how we get to each guarantee.

You know, I talk about one way to guarantee things might be the public option. This idea that government should create a low cost, high quality option that sits inside the private market. We have public golf courses, we have private golf courses. We have public libraries, we have bookstores. And that might be a way that you guarantee that you get to the guarantee. A public option for housing being I think one of the sort of new surges of guarantee energy that I see growing and in that case you wouldn’t necessarily have larger bureaucracy per se; you would just have what it takes to ensure that that product is in the marketplace. So I don’t think I’m philosophically opposed to what you’re saying; I think it’s just a matter of how we get there.

Emma Varvaloucas: Well, this might be a good segue into guaranteed income. I think it’s known by a few different terms, right? Like a lot of people know from Andrew Yang, universal basic income, it’s the same thing, right?

Natalie Foster: Well, I think that universal basic income is arguing that everybody should get a check no matter how much money they make.

And a guaranteed income might be means tested, meaning it might go to the people who need it the most. The big idea there being guaranteed. So I think what I track in the book and what I see a lot of promise around is guaranteed income that would start by going to families that need it the most in the United States, like the child tax credit did, which whereas a guaranteed income for families with children, it was, you know, a big part of the Biden plan that was supposed to stabilize the economy in the aftermath of the pandemic.

And for six months, every parent in America who made under $400, 000, which is about 90 percent of parents in America, received checks with no strings attached, but that made a big difference, and it wasn’t universal. It was focused on people who needed the most. So that is the difference. But to your point, I think what they share in common is this idea that it’s cash with no strings attached. People don’t have to stand in long lines and apply for it. They don’t have to prove how they spent it or show up to take tests or pee in a cup or any of the things that the current safety net requires, but that it’s simple and it comes on a regular basis.

Zachary Karabell: So the one U. S. experiment that I’m most familiar with, and there have been a few, was the city of Stockton under Mayor Tubbs, and I believe you were pretty involved in that as well, which was heralded as kind of a microcosm, a laboratory of what would a universal basic income program actually look like if you picked people and sent them money.

And then it all became very politicized, and I’m not entirely sure what the conclusion was of that, but maybe you could walk us through what the real world experience of that was and how much one could extrapolate from it.

Natalie Foster: Yeah, I think it’s actually pretty extraordinary. You have this young mayor, who at the time was one of the youngest mayors in America, who himself grew up in poverty, and goes away to Stanford, comes back to Stockton, California, and says, I want to do something that will eradicate poverty in my city. And we teamed up, we at the Economic Security Project teamed up with Michael early on. I actually sat next to him at a conference and I was calling around to cities at the time, trying to find a mayor who would demonstrate this idea because at the time there was a lot of research, a lot of white papers, and a lot of sort of cool, detached ideation around the idea. That does not get you policy. You need to open up the political imagination and prove that it’s possible and to demonstrate what it would look like. And so that is in fact what Mayor Tubbs did. And he stood up about eight years ago and announced, I’m going to do this in Stockton.

And I’m going to demonstrate what an income floor would look like here in the city. And so for two years, 125 families received $500 a month with no strings attached. They were families who all made at median income level or below. That’s a wide swath of Stockton, which is a very diverse city, about an hour and a half away from the Bay Area.

And it was studied closely by researchers who are at the University of Pennsylvania. And the conclusions were after two years of people receiving $500 a month with no strings attached, that people were less stressed. They had more room to breathe in their life. And the people who had received the money actually found full time employment at double the rate than the people who did not.

And that is because people had time to invest in themselves and invest in finding a job that was meaningful to them or closer to home or on a managerial track. And those are some of the findings that come out of Stockton, notably the room to breathe and the decrease in anxiety and stress.

Emma Varvaloucas: And then the idea is that this is on top of any other benefits that a family might qualify for from the state or federally.

Is that right?

Natalie Foster: Exactly. That it sits alongside wages. That it is on top of, you know, any sort of housing vouchers or supplements that people get, that it’s just cash that people can use each month, whether it be a transmission that breaks in the car that prevents one from getting to work, whether it be paying the final bit needed to get to the rent check that comes due every month, or whether it be buying athletic uniforms for kids right at the start of the season, when the kids, you know, need the uniform, something as simple as that, that families who have a lot of disposable income take for granted. And so many families in America, it’s about 4 in 10 families in America, cannot pull together $400 in an emergency if they need to. And that’s when it becomes much harder.

Zachary Karabell: So the pushback, both from conservatives and I think a lot of, whatever, people in this vague thing we call the center, is where’s the money going to come from to do that? Like if you’re going to send everyone a check, who’s going to pay for those checks? Now you could say, which is more of a progressive answer that there is a X amount of wealth at the top, whether it’s billionaires or centimillionaires or corporations, that is not taxed commensurate to their use of a commons that they somewhat free ride on and therefore there’s some kind of money at the top that could be otherwise used or collected. I suppose it’s questionable whether there’s even sufficient money at the top to redistribute enough to get to your UBI. But I think there’s the question of, A, where does it come from?

B, should it come from there? And C, back to Emma’s question, should or should not that be in conjunction with altering the rest of all the variegated spendings that we already do messily.

News Clip: My vision of the Freedom Dividend is that it’s universal and an opt in, but if you opt in, then you’re foregoing benefits that are accruing from certain other programs.

So if you’re receiving housing benefits and heating benefits and SNAP and some other things, then you would look at it and say like, do I prefer a thousand dollars cash to these benefits?

So you are having people choose between existing benefits they have or the thousand dollars.


And that would enable you to wind down some of those other programs.

It would reduce enrollment and subscriptions.

Natalie Foster: America always finds a way to pay for what America deems important. And the question is not how do we pay for it, but how do we get the political will needed to really modernize the social contract for the new age in which we live. The truth is that there is reams and reams and reams of research on how we can generate the revenue needed to frankly see all the guarantees in America, much less the income guarantee from reports that the National Economic Council puts out to think tanks like the Roosevelt Institute.

An example is a small fee on high frequency trading that would generate, you know, billions and billions of dollars a year. So there are a number of ways that it could be paid for. The question is, how do we generate the political will? And I frankly wrote this book to invite economists and policymakers and others to the table to help answer the question of how we would get there.

That said, I’ll also say that with the income guarantee specifically, we now have this experience of really a natural experiment in America with the child tax credit, the expanded child tax credit, meaning that nearly every parent in America received a check. And we in America fared better than so many other countries who dealt with the same set of economic forces during the pandemic, during the supply chain crisis, during the start of the Ukraine war, and whose economies have bounced back in less of a robust way.

And I think it’s largely because we did things like the child tax credit, we invested in families, we sent people stimulus checks, we canceled student debt, and we made sure that it was really a middle out economic recovery which changed the trajectory of this country.

Emma Varvaloucas: Well, I guess that’s an interesting follow up to the political will question, right?

Because if what you say is true, like we did come out of a period and you talk about this in the book during COVID, where a lot of the normal rules of operation got juggled around and the federal government did vastly different things than it had done, you know, the decade prior. And yet coming out of that, the architects of this juggling that apparently has led us into good economic fortune does not seem to be rewarded politically. Like people don’t seem to be excited about it the way that there was energy around it for Occupy Wall Street, for instance. So how do you explain that? What does that look like to you?

Natalie Foster: Why do we have the vibe session?

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah.

Natalie Foster: Yeah, I think it’s a really good question.

You know, I think that people see the economy as a proxy for politics and what they’re really saying is I’m very disappointed in politics today in America. And I think that a lot of what we are talking about holds well on both sides of the aisle. So if you just take the child tax credit, for example, you see a significant support among Democrats and you see a pretty good support among Republicans, particularly Republican parents who received the checks.

And when you point to this is an elected official who brought you these child tax credit checks, support for that elected official goes up significantly. So we know that the support is there. I think it’s getting through the malaise of the moment. And that is the work to do over the next several months as we march down toward a November election.

Zachary Karabell: One of the waves of malaise that I think we don’t look at enough, and what I’m going to say now is clearly debatable, but interested as to how you would debate it. You write in the book at one point that America’s social spending, housing, some basic education, public education, is a meager social spending.

And it struck me for many years that in many ways the United States compared to Western Europe, compared to Canada, compared to Singapore, Taiwan, manages to kind of have the worst of all possible worlds in the way we approach social spending, in that we spend an immense amount of money on healthcare, housing, and all these other things, emergency room medicine, we demonize safety nets, we being a portion of us, We have an ineffective but extremely bloated bureaucracy that distributes it, and so we end up both having an incredibly expensive safety net that doesn’t make people feel safe, that doesn’t function effectively as a net, and in that sense, we’re neither like some countries that just say, you know, you’re poor, you’re poor, sorry, whatever, you know, this is how you were born into a system of you’re just poor, and that that part of the continual roiling this, which you see each time, the federal government attempts to address health care, both in the 90s and then again with the Affordable Care Act, and then even with the Republican attempts to, you know, demonize Obamacare and repeal it, meaning for all the demonization, it’s not like they actually could repeal it or replace it.

That explains some of this both massive opposition to whatever we call safety net on the right. And also massive discontent with the safety net on whatever we call the lab.

Natalie Foster: Yes. Yes. I have finished reading Jen Palka’s book, Recoding America, where she talks about really how we start to get at a government that works by expanding state capacity and taking seriously user generated government services.

And I feel like it’s a real clarion call for people that want to see government work. But zooming out, I’d say that, you know, we, As a nation have lost the sense that so many of these things are public goods. But instead we view them as individual investments to make. So take college. We’ve shifted from the idea that it is good for society to have an educated populace and to have people who dig into the big questions of the time, and instead treat it as an individual investment where you take out tens of thousands of dollars of debt a year to have and it doesn’t have to be that way. Same thing is true for housing. The same thing is true for health care. The costs of those things have skyrocketed and people have shouldered that on their own backs. There’s not even a sense that it should be a safety net to use or that it should be a public good that we invest in in society. And that’s what I think is starting to change. You know, one of the things we saw during the pandemic was not just here is more Section 8 housing vouchers to go try and find a landlord who will take them and a apartment that will work for your family, which is like more of the same.

We said, you know what? We’re going to buy hotels that sit empty in America, and we are going to move the unhoused in, and we are going to give people their own room and a key to their room, and we’re going to do all of that over the course of weeks. We’re going to do all of that over the course of months.

And that was the man on the moon spirit that I want to see on problems that feel intractable like housing that I think will cut through the malaise we’re talking about and reinstill the trust in what’s possible to the point you’re making.

Emma Varvaloucas: So I want to go back a little bit to what you’re talking about vis a vis college.

This is like one of my biggest bugaboos on the left. And I should preface this by saying that I did graduate college with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. So I don’t say this from a lack of sensitivity to the issue, but my bugaboo is that there’s so much focus, particularly on the left, about canceling student loans.

And to me, it’s just a band aid overthe problem.

News Clip: Biden administration announced its latest round of student debt relief Wednesday. More than 6 billion will be canceled for 317, 000 borrowers who enrolled at any art institute campus between 2004 and 2017. President Biden and the education department say the art institutes, a now defunct system of for profit art schools, knowingly misled prospective students with inflated salary expectations.

This brings the total amount of student loans forgiven by the Biden administration to almost 160 billion.

Emma Varvaloucas: There’s a limit to what the government can do vis a vis private universities, but I have to wonder about why the left is not spending their energy talking about funding public universities or maybe there are other ideas out there that I haven’t considered and why is it always a canceling that you’ll then just have to cancel again and again and again in the future?

Natalie Foster: Yeah, I just couldn’t agree more. And so the guarantee I look at in the book is. The guarantee of debt free college, that we have to make an investment in this as a public good, and I show how much progress we’ve actually made. So, in the book I trace the story of Astra Taylor, who makes a bunch of films and documentaries and then teams up around the time of Occupy with David Graeber.

And they’re talking about cancelling debt, medical debt, student debt, and so they start to buy it on the secondary market and cancel it, you know, raising thousands of dollars to cancel millions of dollars of debt, and it’s very inspiring work, but it’s all a drop in the bucket. Right around that time, student debt in America hits a trillion dollars.

It’s much higher now. But that was an extraordinary moment. And she realizes we have to be organized. So starts the Debt Collective, one of the many organizations fighting for debt free college. And from there, an idea that was almost laughed out of the room during even an Obama administration, the idea of cancelling debt becomes a Rose Garden event in the Biden administration as millions and millions of dollars of debt get cancelled.

You know, it’s bandied about in courts, but it is certainly the desire of the administration to cancel the debt, which is a step toward debt free college. And to the point you’re making, there is all kinds of promise programs that start to grow during this period, which start to get at free community college, free four year college.

And there’s more and more of an emphasis on that than there has been in the past. So there’s still a long way to go to reinvesting in public education in a way, you know, there was a time in America where high school was not a right and high school wasn’t free and it certainly wasn’t for everyone. And that was a movement that said, no, we want kids in this country to go to four years of high school and we did it.

And there’s no question in my mind that we can do it again with college if we continue on, you know, this path we’re on.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah. I mean, we could probably have a whole hour long conversation about all the vagaries of student debt. There’s also, in some sense, there’s multiple different issues of student debt.

The most egregious one really is not under 25 year olds going to four year colleges. It’s people going to for profit schools who have full time jobs and have been kind of lured into a questionable degree at very high prices with very high interest rates that are then backed up by the government, which also disproportionately affects people of class and minorities, meaning that people go back for the Two year for profit associates degree proportionally tend to be either African American or Hispanic or from a lower income where that debt becomes absolutely unsustainable as opposed to and using Emma as our other guinea pig here, somewhat more affluent four year elite colleges where you know there’s a huge difference about like going to Harvard and having 15, 000 or 20, 000 of student debt and being 30 years old, working full time and going to the University of Phoenix or whatever the current version thereof is. And I feel like to some degree, because it’s easy in politics to talk about this as one problem, mostly because we’re not used to our politicians talking about anything in terms of sophistication or complexity, that all these things get lumped in a way that isn’t particularly healthy to solving the problem.

Natalie Foster: I think you’re absolutely right. Tressie McMillan Cottom writes a lot about the dangers of private colleges in her book, which I pulled from a lot for this book and in some ways the private colleges, which to your point, I think have had, you know, about 80 percent of their funding coming from taxpayers.

Zachary Karabell: Not just private for profit colleges.

Natalie Foster: Private.

Thank you for profit colleges. Yes. Funded through, you know, Pell grants and other student loan support that government gives are stepping into the void of a guarantee. If we had a guarantee of college in America, like so many developed countries do, then you wouldn’t have a need for the for profit colleges and our current Vice President, Kamala Harris, when she was Attorney General of the State of California, sued the Corinthian schools, which is one of the most infamous private colleges for profit colleges out there where you saw government take action and they in response, you know, pulled out of California.

And then that is one of the first instances of student debt cancellation was the cancellation of those debtors. They were called the Corinthian 15 who fought for years and years and years in the courts and legislatively to make the point that you’re making that this is a predatory way of educating people in America.

Zachary Karabell: And by the way, that’s a really important point, which I know you make in the book, but just for people listening, to remind people of these hidden government guarantees that currently exist, there are within our system, as it has evolved and accreted over decades, multiple guarantees that exist that we don’t really recognize as such.

And the student loan one is indeed a guarantee, right? It is a federal government one. Saying that in the absence of students being able to pay the lender, the government will make those lenders whole. There’s no more guarantee than that, right? That’s the ultimate. If it’s not money spent, you know, Fannie Mae and some of the ways in which we underwrite housing finance, same thing.

There’s an embedded guarantee. Doesn’t necessarily help those who can’t qualify for a mortgage, right, because it’s a guarantee of a loan, but the more that you can remind people of that again, or the more that people can be made aware of the multiple guarantees that we currently fund, even if we don’t recognize or identify them as such, I think the less it seems some sort of, yeah, it wouldn’t be great if everybody had anything and everything and much more, we could do such a better job and potentially even spend way less money providing all these things, some of which we provide covertly and badly, some of which we don’t provide at all, but many of which exist in some bizarre form or another through some government agency, state or federal.

Natalie Foster: Yeah, the guarantees are actually foundational to capitalism.

But to function, businesses in this country enjoy a number of guarantees from bankruptcy protection to courts that work to the monetary system. There’s so many guarantees built in to capitalism. So I’m arguing let’s just extend it to the people that make this system run each day.

Emma Varvaloucas: So Natalie, let’s talk about one of the other guarantees, which is the endowment at birth. I feel like this is one that is not talked about that often. So can you walk us through that?

Natalie Foster: Yeah, so this is one of the newer ideas, a guaranteed inheritance. Or a baby bond as it’s colloquially called. And, you know, this is building on the work of Derek Hamilton, a professor at the New School, who’s done a lot of thinking about the nature of wealth and equality, the racialized implications of wealth and equality, the fact that, you know, a white family has eight times the wealth of a black family in America.

And in some places that is, in Atlanta, it’s a white family has 46 times the wealth of a black family in America, that that is one of the great moral stains of this modern economy is the racial wealth gap. And any sort of income supports, whether it be raising the minimum wage or a guaranteed income, that those are important but will never get at wealth.

Wealth is different from income, but one of the things that would get at wealth is a guaranteed inheritance. And the idea is that you’d create an endowment at birth, a bond that would accrue money over the years, and you target it by income. And so a low income child, when they turn 18, might have 50, 000 in their bond and a higher income child might have 5, 000, but that it would be something that every child in America has.

That’s one way of articulating the policy idea. And this has gone from the margins to the mainstream in rapid speed. You had Cory Booker running for president on this in the primary of ideas of 2020. And over the course of the last few years, we’ve seen several states actually pass this idea. So the state of Connecticut has a baby bonds program. Washington, D. C. has passed a baby bonds program. In California, last year, my home state, we had a significant surplus. We were still in the aftermath of COVID policymaking. And Senator Nancy Skinner, a forward looking legislator in California, created baby bonds in the state of California for children whose parent died of COVID or who are leaving the foster care system.

And so I think of this as the laboratories of democracy, where the idea is being worked out at the city level, at the state level, and ultimately can be scaled. To the federal level as part of a guarantee economy down the line.

Emma Varvaloucas: Let me ask you a follow up question about that. So does that just happen automatically about birth?

Because I asked, I’m thinking about a friend of mine that grew up with someone, his mother definitely should have had them on benefits, right? But she did not have her act together to get them on benefits. So is this something where a baby is born and there still needs to be something filed to, you know, get the application through?

Is it just like the baby’s on the register? This is the account. You turn 18. Here you go.

Natalie Foster: That is a great question and that gets to the like policy implementation details. There’s no reason why we couldn’t automatically, you know, we assign social security numbers. There’s no reason why we couldn’t automatically open accounts for children.

I think most of them today, they’re really building on the work of the last several decades of something called child savings accounts. And that tended to be parents, a school district or some public entity encouraging parents to open these accounts for their children. And then the entity would start to put some money in and encourage the parents to save as well. So that’s a policy implementation question. And your point, or at least that I’m hearing in the story is it will be better for kids if it was frictionless and automatic so that they weren’t held back by decisions parents made 18 years prior.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah, I mean, this gets to this. There is an aspect of people’s dislike or distrust of government that is not just the proliferation of neoliberal ideas and the virtues of the market.

And I think some of the critique of neoliberalism has obscured the degree to which many people’s experience of government is humiliating, particularly because of the way in which means testing or the way in which the interaction with the bureaucracy, whether it’s healthcare reimbursements, whether it’s getting your food stamps or qualifying for whatever level of aid, it’s a constant like supplicant position, where no is a potentially devastating answer and somebody who you have no actual relationship to, literally the nameless bureaucrat, appears to have the power to manifestly make you feel small and harm your life, which is the opposite of a safety net, right? It’s like a humiliation net or something.

There is a degree to which people simply don’t trust government because their experience of government hasn’t been trustworthy. Not just the, intellectual ideas from the Chicago school and the kind of debates that educated people have about what the nature of the system is. And I do think that’s something we need to grapple with as we propose solutions is that I don’t know how that divide gets bridged.

I mean, clearly people expect certain basics. I mean, there was a famous, might’ve been apocryphal, but I think it wasn’t, signs at a Trump rally in 2016, you know, “Government Hands Off My Medicare” as a kind of an example of, there are things that people of all political persuasions expect of government, full stop, whether they’re Democrat, whether they’re Trumpian or Bernie Sanders progressives.

But I’m not sure you get into that a lot in the book, but you’ve thought about this a lot in terms of what’s the role of government. So what do you say to people who just don’t believe government is capable of doing anything other than making things worse or complicated or just incredibly intractable?

Natalie Foster: We are living in the aftermath of the last 45 to 50 years of policymaking that said it’s government’s job to get out of the way and to leave it to the markets to solve the problems and people are out, you know, they’re on their own to figure out how to make it in this world and so we’ve intentionally made it such that government doesn’t work in so many instances and that your experience of government is one that you call humiliating.

And that’s something that we hear over and over. Not only that, but the story we tell is that if you don’t make it, it’s your fault. And we hear a lot of conversation about shame, shame for having hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, even though the story in America was that was exactly what you were supposed to do in order to go to college.

The shame of having bought a home in 2008 before the crisis hit, and then your home being worth a quarter of what it was supposed to be. And the shame of getting cancer and then having to go to GoFundMe in order to afford the treatments in the wealthiest nation on Earth. And so it’s humiliation and shame.

And I think it is time for a new story. And I think the book is filled with a few of those stories. Let me tell you about Montgomery County, Maryland. For a long time, you know, government has left housing up to the private market to solve. And here we are with 6 million units short in this country, the inability to build in most cities for a whole host of reasons that we get into in the book and rent skyrocketing. So a true housing crisis in America and in Montgomery County, Maryland, the housing authority said, we actually think it’s our job to ensure that there is housing built in this county that supports middle income earners, that is kept off, permanently off the speculative market, so that it can always be available to middle income earners and that it’s good housing and that it’s housing right on a transit line.

And so they shouldered, you know, the financial risk of building housing and worked with private builders and did just that. And that is government working. They now have thousands of units that Montgomery County Marylanders can live in. And we’re seeing housing authorities all over the country take note and start to do something similar.

So I think we have to look for stories of where government is working and really support that in order to tell a new story of an economy that can ensure the good life.

Emma Varvaloucas: And this is the importance, right? Of talking about things on a state level, but also a regional local level, right? Because I feel like it gets flattened a lot into blue states, red states or like progressive mayors or non progressive mayors, or conservative mayors, this is working, that’s not working, but you don’t actually get into, here’s a real life example of something that worked, and like, whether that’s red or blue, or whatever the strategy was, let’s just copy it.

I also wanted to ask, this is kind of a piggyback onto, Zachary’s question is, what do you say to people that, you know, I live in Greece; we’re sort of the quintessential warning story of government waste and the government squandering of money. You know, we certainly had a period that reminds me of Oprah, like you get a check, you get a pension, you get this, you get that.

And we certainly, paid for it severely. So what do you say to people that are afraid that we’re going to tip too far on that side of the spectrum? Let’s say you waved a magic wand. All these guarantees came true. There was a lot more money being spent than there’s money being spent now. And then it turns out these things didn’t work and we are in debt as a nation heavily.

Natalie Foster: The thing we know about economic security is that it works. That people, when they have it, are able to have so many more options, are able to start the business they want to start, be entrepreneurial, just participate in democracy, be part of their family.

We know that economic security works. So the question in my mind is, what is the cost of not investing in families, of not guaranteeing economic security in America? And I literally think the price is as significant as democracy itself.

Zachary Karabell: Well, I think on that full throated note, we will bring this particular phase of a much longer conversation to an end, but I would urge everyone to go and read the book, The Guarantee.

It’s got a lot of history about how we kind of got to where we are. It’s certainly a partisan book, but probably in a good way. You know, it’s an honestly partisan book, but it’s a discussion that I think is much more bipartisan than people think, you know, back to that poverty is not a political party. No political party has a lock on people struggling to provide basic needs for themselves.

And, you know, different people come up with different political expressions of that discontent. Some people go right, some people go left, but that core issue is much more human and ubiquitous; and one that I think neither party has really done a great job squaring the circle of, certainly not a great job of squaring the circle in a way that creates some consensus amongst people who have similar needs and similar challenges. So I want to thank you for your work and the conversation and we will, I hope, continue it.

Natalie Foster: Emma, Zachary. Thank you so much for having me on. It’s been a real pleasure to talk to you today.

Emma Varvaloucas: Thanks, Natalie.

Zachary Karabell: So like so many of our conversations, that one feels to me like just getting started as we’re coming to an end of it, such as the nature of even in a long form, medium like podcasting.

But there is a lot more to say there. I mean, I certainly did, as I indicated at the end, I found the book partisan in a way that I think will turn off some people and will absolutely energize others. She’s very much a progressive and of that and owns that. And I think that’s really important in its own way, meaning kind of own where you are and state what you believe.

I do think that there’s a far greater realm of human consensus about a lot of these needs and issues that has gotten so mired in the political identities that it obscures the degree to which these are shared issues across states, geographies, frankly, across many parts of the world. And that’s another one of these conundrums, you know, meaning that there is so much that people by virtue of where they are economically share, where they become so divided, either by cultural issues or by political tribe that that gets completely obscured.

Emma Varvaloucas: Well, that was what was fun about the Andrew Yang moment, right? That he just didn’t really fit into anyone’s particular, narrative? I mean, he ran as a Democrat, right? He wasn’t an Independent.

Zachary Karabell: He did create a third party and he’s a member of the Progress Network, but he never seemed really at home in the Democratic Party.

Emma Varvaloucas: Right, exactly. And I think that’s why he attracted people, both who might’ve voted for Trump or might’ve voted for Bernie Sanders. And that was the sort of genius simplicity of the UBI thing at the time. I also learned recently, I read an article somewhere that apparently UBI back in the day, I mean, long before this moment of discourse, it was actually a compromise between the left and the right.

So there is a way that these things, as you’re saying, could be brought outside of partisan lines if they’re just presented in a way as, Hey, as a person, you deserve X, Y, Z, and divorce it from certain leftist, maybe, or progressive language.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah, I mean, I had dreamt of a consensus of an extremely robust set of guarantees, a la what Natalie Foster has written about on the one hand, and a real dedication to paring back the size of the bureaucracy that’s in charge of administering them. Because if you do have guarantees and they are direct like UBI or even some of the ones she talked about in a public private partnership way, you presumably don’t need the sheer scale of a bureaucracy to administer because you wouldn’t have means testing in the same way.

You wouldn’t have all these different hurdles, much of which costs a huge amount of money, right? So every, every tax dollar that we wish to redistribute, the more expensive the bureaucracy is that’s redistributing it, the less percentage of that dollar actually gets to people and needs and services. And the more just pays for the system of administering it.

So I thought you could potentially have some sort of odd middle ground of really robust spending on the one hand, which we basically did during COVID and much less bureaucracy on the other and much less red tape. That would satisfy the right, shrinking the size of government, a much more robust set of safety nets directly administered would satisfy the left, and you could have sort of a consensus around where we are going forward.

I’m still surprised that that hasn’t coalesced as such.

Emma Varvaloucas: I don’t think it’s really the moment for coalescing as far as politics on the national level, but.

Zachary Karabell: Are we in an anti coalescing moment? What’s the opposite of coalescing? We’re in an atomizing moment?

Emma Varvaloucas: I think we’re in a non coalescing moment. I think we’re definitely in it.

Well, we’re in an, not an atomizing moment, but a two group moment and nobody wants to be in the groups. So atomization would be better actually.

Zachary Karabell: We’ll save that for a more idealistic future, which we can talk about in the depths of our future despair. Okay, so let’s look at some of the…

Emma Varvaloucas: No, I’m, I’m with you though.

Zachary Karabell: Let’s look at some of the headlines of the week, shall we?

Emma Varvaloucas: Yes. All right. So progress news for this week. Let’s start with some green energy transition figures. The International Energy Agency is forecasting that in 2024, one in five cars sold worldwide is going to be electric, which doesn’t sound like that much until you also know that in 2020, it was one in 25.

Zachary Karabell: Wow.

Emma Varvaloucas: So an astounding uptick in the last four years of electric cars. Wow. In the US, Bloomberg reported that there’s now one fast charging EV station for every 15 gas stations. So not a lot, but more than you might expect.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah. That’s always been my, along with a gazillion other people’s thoughts main issues/ question of, you know, where do you charge if you’re driving longer distances?

Now, it is also true in the United States and in most parts of the world that the vast preponderance of people in their cars stay within something like a 60 mile or 50 mile radius on a regular basis, and therefore, you know, 300 mile range for a plug in vehicle is vastly more than adequate for any daily needs, meaning you’re almost never going to expend a daily charge before you get somewhere.

But in larger open space countries where people actually are going to do drives of two, three, four, five hundred miles, let alone a thousand, that whole charging issue definitely becomes much more acute.

Emma Varvaloucas: Well, I guess nobody wanted to put a bunch of money into charging stations and then it turns out that no one wanted to buy electric cars.

It’s a little bit like which comes first, the chicken or the egg, you know?

Zachary Karabell: Right. That’s the catch 22. Like, I don’t want to buy an electric car without a charging station. I don’t want to build a charging station unless you’re going to buy an electric car. So that clearly is working itself out as the demand accelerates and the need increases.

Emma Varvaloucas: I think the number was between 8, 500 and 9, 000 of the fast charging EV stations in the States now.

Zachary Karabell: Getting there.

Emma Varvaloucas: It’s more than I would have expected, to be honest, yeah. There’s a really fascinating piece in The Atlantic that I would love to point people to, which is about how the prospects of someone finding a bone marrow transplant donor has changed dramatically.

And probably with almost zero notice. There was a drug, I believe in the 90s, but they had not realized that it could be used for this until relatively recently. It’s called cyclophosphamide. And essentially what it does is that you need to find an exact match for a blood marrow donor. And this drug allows them to open up their prospects.

So if they take the drug, the transplant can happen regardless of whether the bone marrow donor only has, let’s say three out of the 10 markers needed rather than 10 out of 10. So if somebody doesn’t find an exact match or they have one exact match in the entire world, it used to be like, that’s it. It’s kind of game over.

And that is no longer the case, which is pretty amazing.

Zachary Karabell: Yeah, I mean, even when you were an exact match, you still had to take intensive amounts of drugs to make your body not reject the transplant as a foreign alien. I had two friends who had rare diseases, both of whom had transplants, and then both of them died because their body didn’t accept it. So even when you found that exact match, which was rare, it was almost always a sibling or a relative. It’s very hard to find an exact match kind of randomly in the universe. If we get to the point where we are both able to expand meaningfully the number of donors and also reduce the body’s natural tendency to attack, that’s a total game changer for all of us.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah, I don’t know if there have been advances about drugs to help you not attack the foreign object. I do know what’s been so wild about like the pig kidney transplants and the pig liver transplants and all that wild stuff that they’ve been up to in the last year or so, and those patients actually surviving for a few months would suggest to me that they’ve been able to figure out something that has been a bit of a game changer on that front, but I don’t know.

I don’t know. That’s a big question mark.

Zachary Karabell: This is like one of the other many examples of radical breakthroughs, medical breakthroughs, and this is an area we should probably do a show this year on this, where the promise of artificial intelligence, just being able to go through multiple scenarios, different proteins, different ways the body reacts.

The promise of that as an enhancement tool to making these discoveries is really substantial as opposed to all the other areas where people are worried about the risks of AI.

Emma Varvaloucas: Absolutely. Not to mention, you know, the mRNA personalized cancer vaccines. Now they’re finding that there might be long acting drugs that you can take for HIV, tuberculosis and other diseases.

There’s a, just a vast field of medical breakthroughs that I think doesn’t get a lot of play outside of the science world.

Zachary Karabell: Yep. I want to thank all of you for listening to this week’s episode of What Could Go Right?. Please send us comments if you have them and suggestions. We’d like this to continue to be as much as possible a conversation with you, not just between us that you’re listening to.

Please sign up for The Progress Network’s newsletter, What Could Go Right?, conveniently named, same title as the podcast and you can sign up for that on your mobile device on the Progress Network page or on your computer and it’s free and it’s weekly. So we will be back next week. Thank you, Emma. Thank you all for listening.

We’ll talk to you soon.


Meet the Hosts

Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas


Being Jewish Today

Featuring Noah Feldman

What does it mean to be a modern Jew? How do Jews in America handle their relationship to Israel, especially after the atrocities of October 7 and the subsequent war with Hamas? Zachary and Emma speak with Noah Feldman, Harvard professor and author of the new book 'To Be a Jew Today: A New Guide to God, Israel, and the Jewish People.' The Israel-Hamas war, levels of Jewishness, and how Gen Z sees things are talked about in today's conversation.

Veterans and Invisible War

Featuring Phil Klay

In the modern age of warfare, what does it mean for Americans to enter the armed forces? Zachary and Emma speak with veteran and author Phil Klay about the disconnect many people who serve in our current wars feel when they return back home, as well as the lack of understanding that American civilians have toward the complexities of these conflicts. Yet the military remains a major factor in the government’s budget and in Americans' patriotic pride. This discussion leads to questions about the morals of modern warfare and the care the nation owes to the veterans who have provided their service and the allies who have assisted in our efforts.

The Honesty of Our Economy

Featuring Allison Schrager

Many news stories tend to focus on the doom and gloom of our current economy. Zachary and Emma speak with economist and author Allison Schrager, who tends to see things differently. Climbing wages, retirement planning, and even the current state of inflation are all positive elements of today's economy. TikTok and the rise of younger generations living at home are also hot button topics in today’s conversation.