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Transcript of Secretary Buttigieg Remarks Economic Security Project - Bold New Consensus Conference New York, NY

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Thanks for the kind reception, and thanks Chris for the kind introduction that motivates me to be the person you just introduced and try to live up to that, and most importantly thanks for your leadership and the great work that the Economic Security Project has been doing to make sure that the ambitions of our policy world actually live up to the scale of the problems in front of us and the potential in front of us.

I think this is a really timely gathering, because so much has happened in the last not-quite-three-years since the administration arrived that we need to pause and take stock of the profound change we have experienced and the extraordinary work that has been achieved, so that we can also gather our thoughts and gather our energies for what needs to come next.

And if it’s about three years since our administration arrived, it’s about four years since you came together to lay out a bold agenda which, I am pleased to observe, is now very much reflected in so many ways in so much of the work that is now underway in DC and around the country.

It’s also worth noting just how much has changed just in those four years since 2019. Some of the changes are bleak and terrifying: Covid; an insurrection; Ukraine; inflation; a dreadful and cruel end to the relative quiet that was believed not long ago to be prevailing in the Middle East; court decisions calling into question whether the steady expansion of rights and freedoms that has characterized most of American history would meet its high watermark in our lifetime before being reversed.  

Meanwhile, so many dramatic changes for the better have taken place – not just in the work that has been done to confront so many of those immediate challenges that were hurled at this country, but also in work that will serve us well for decades. Taken together I believe that is very much vindicating the premise that big and bold economic thinking was and is required in order to meet the moment. 

I would argue that the debate between whether to be  bold or whether to be be pragmatic has been settled, in much the same way that it was settled in the 1930s and 1940s – which is that events demonstrated that the only pragmatic approach is to be bold. And I think that’s what we’re seeing right now.

Progressive thinking has long been characterized as idealistic, and in some ways I’ll admit that it is. But I would also say that what argues most for the bold policy prescriptions that I know so many people in this community of thought have helped to shape, and things that our administration is now working to deliver, is that they are in fact the clearest and most sober response available to us in the face of our reality. In other words, not only our ideals but our realities – the dictates of realism, pragmatism, and common sense - have compelled us to be bold. 

And while there may be no “consensus” on Capitol Hill around the wisdom of these policies, I think the use of the term consensus for this conference theme of a Bold New Consensus is fitting, not just in terms of the left or any political party, but for an American people which is much more supportive of our policy solutions than most of the commentary or most Congressional debates would leave you thinking.

It’s true with regard to health care, where President Biden acted to cut the cost of insulin from $400 to $35 a month for seniors, made hearing aids available over-the-counter, and is negotiating drug prices for Medicare. 

It’s true with regard to climate and clean energy.

It’s true in terms of tax fairness.

It’s true with regard to our embrace of the labor movement and workers, most recently demonstrated by the first sitting president ever to join a picket line in a strike– and most importantly that the outcome of that is the UAW has now reached historic tentative agreements with the Big 3. 

It’s true in the way we updated the rules around wages and benefits on federal projects – so upwards of one million construction workers are getting much-deserved raises.  

It’s true with junk credit card fees and unfair non-compete contracts, where the President is using the power of government to give economic power back to people.

What is so striking to me is that not that long ago, each of these steps, at least ever since the onset of the so-called Washington consensus, would have been considered impossible – and yet that each of these specific policies also has resounding support from the American people.

That’s the context that we are gathering in today. In its proportions, as well as in its ambition, this agenda is a big deal. Such a big deal that I am making the case that it ought to be known as the Big Deal. We’ve had the Fair Deal, we had the Square Deal, and obviously so much of our work takes place in the shadow of the New Deal. I would like to think that the next generation of historians will look to the Biden era’s embrace of big moves, big ideas, big actions, and obviously, big investments, as the Big Deal. Because it’s a big deal. 

So what I like to call the Big Deal encompasses investments in everything from a broadband internet deployment that calls to mind the rural electrification of the Tennessee Valley Authority, to an American Climate Corps that echoes the WPA – and a pro-consumer, pro-family, pro-worker regulatory agenda to match. 

But obviously the dimensions of the Big Deal that I am most qualified, and most excited, to talk a little bit about while we’re together are those that have to do with transportation. 

Every time I am asked what Bidenomics actually means, I think of it at its core as: the opposite of trickle-down. And nowhere is there more literal concreteness and shape to the idea of building an economy from the ground up than in the form of transportation infrastructure. 

After decades of disinvestment and deregulation, we have entered a new infrastructure decade that will represent a big part of the answer to the question of what this bold new consensus can deliver. 

I want to use my time up here to give a short accounting of what that looks like in practice.

Our fundamental priorities in transportation are straightforward: to make transportation safer; to use transportation to support economic growth that lifts everyone up; to make sure transportation develops in an equitable fashion; to make sure transportation is part of the solution to climate change; and fifth, to make sure that innovation in the field of transportation unfolds in ways that are good for those other four priorities of safety, growth, equity, and climate.   

I’ll briefly touch on what we've done in each of those areas – especially the economic pillar - and how the infrastructure package is helping us deliver on those goals, again with a regulatory agenda to match.

First, safety. After years of increasing, roadway deaths have now declined for 5 straight quarters. But we’re still losing around 40,000 people a year – that’s on par with gun violence, but gets dramatically less attention. And like gun violence, it’s not the same across countries. The U.S. is performing frighteningly worse with regard to roadway safety compared to so many of our peers in the developed world. So we have a roadway safety strategy that we are investing in with concrete resources that’s about safer vehicles, safer streets, safer speeds, safer people, and a better standard of post-crash care.

As an agency that has seen once-bold ideas become a matter of consensus, at least since the battles over seat-belt policies in the 1970s and 80s, this is a clear example of where we have a lifesaving mission and lot more opportunity to do what’s needed.

Our Department is advancing new rules that would require Automatic Emergency Braking systems on new passenger cars, light trucks, and heavy vehicles, which would prevent tens of thousands of injuries and save hundreds of lives every year. 

We have awarded around $900 million through a first-of-its-kind program called Safe Streets and Roads for All, to directly help cities, towns, and tribes design and build roads that reduce crashes - projects that are already benefiting hundreds of communities.

And of course we’re looking beyond roadway safety, to railway and aviation safety. 

I have to note, as we draw closer to the one-year anniversary of the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, we are urgently calling for passage of the Railway Safety Act in Congress, and challenging any Member who was quick to speak out at that time to make clear in this time whether they will side with us or with industry lobbyists when it comes to that reform package.

And we are taking a range of actions to maintain the extraordinary safety record of aviation in this country, which is a living example of how the right kind of regulations can save countless lives. 

That’s safety.

On climate: climate change is threatening transportation, and carbon pollution from transportation is worsening climate change. This sector contributes more to pollution than any part of our economy, so it should also aspire to be the biggest part of the solution. And we’re acting in  every mode to do that. Major investments in transit, the largest in federal history, premised on the idea that you shouldn’t have to bring 2,000 pounds of metal with you everywhere you go.

We recently made $35 billion in loans available to Transit-Oriented Development recognizing that for low-income people, transportation and housing aren’t separate things, they’re very much part of the same family budget.

We’re helping make cleaner and greener transportation options available, from bus rapid transit to active transportation, and of course making EV’s more affordable and building out that nationwide network of EV chargers. 

And importantly, as we pursue this, we’re breaking the old, false choice of climate versus jobs - by creating a new generation of climate jobs in fields from smart grid development to EV battery manufacturing.

Then, equity. This infrastructure package is so wide-ranging and so great in its proportions that if we actually successfully make sure everyone shares in its benefits, this era will be remembered for wealth gaps beginning to close. 

It’s an example of where we have to not simply emulate waves of past public investment, which got the proportions right but often with tragically inequitable distribution. But rather, do better, and we are doing better – in terms of where the improvements go and in terms of who gets to participate. 

That means making sure small and minority-owned small businesses have a fair chance to compete for infrastructure contracts. We have boosted and exceeded our goal for federal contracts going to SDBs. 

And, of course, it matters where infrastructure goes and who it serves. An honest progressive accounting of past investment will see this as an example of where the question of big versus small government is not enough to answer whether we had good and fair government. Federal spending did a lot of damage in this regard even while it was doing a lot of good, as so many neighborhoods, often Black neighborhoods, were divided or destroyed to make room for highways, and it so often happened at the expense of those who didn’t have the power of means to resist or reshape the plans. 

So we launched the first-ever program to reconnect communities divided by past infrastructure decisions – with billions already available.  

I was just up in Buffalo not long ago, with activists who were moved almost to tears as they described having worked since the 1980s to do something about the way the Kensington Expressway divided their city from one neighborhood to the other, basically cut off the principally Black neighborhood on the East side from where most of the jobs were. So we're decking over it, basically building a roof over the highway, it’s going to make nobody worse off, and make a lot of people better off. Just one example of what we’re doing around the country on that.

When it comes to innovation and transformation, I believe the 2020s will be remembered as the period of the swiftest advancement in transportation tech since the jet age, so we have to work to shape them to benefit people in real ways; and I'll be very interested to see, among other things, the insights around AI that emerge from this conference. 

And then on economic opportunity, I want to linger here, and talk about three of the economic components of our work.

First, jobs. 

We're creating jobs with good wages, with a chance to join a union, for people with or without college degree. 

And we’re creating jobs for people who come from the same places where we’re building projects.

There are examples of this across the country. I’ll give you one called HireLAX, where I met a program, pursuant to a project labor agreement, that insists on hiring people from the same zip code as the airport, which is a disadvantaged zip code, to get a chance to get into the union pre-apprenticeship/apprenticeship training, that then got them these incredible jobs that they were so proud of when I sat down with the workers who were getting a shot at them.

We’re seeing some states step up and use the eligibilities that they’ve had all along, but not everyone was acting on, to take things like federal aid highway construction formula dollars, and use them for things like workforce development and workforce support, including what I saw in Pittsburgh where they built a child care facility on the site of the airport terminal construction project, which meant that more working parents, in particular more working mothers, had a chance to get those good-paying jobs.

We know these opportunities can change the trajectory of a family. Here’s a bit of napkin math that I don’t usually trot out in public but I think I’m with a just-nerdy enough fellow audience to be interested in this. 

If someone was working on the Interstate Highway System in 1967, they could be expected to make wages that would amount to about $60,000 a year in today's dollars. Over the course of a five-year construction project, they would have made enough to put a down payment on a house which would, on average, then be worth about $400,000 today. Plus, if they put 5% of their income into retirement savings back then, that would be worth over $350,000 now. And that collectively would put their household wealth at about six times the median - for that family, for that one worker’s descendants, one generation in.  That homeownership, the ability to educate your kids, would all spring from one good job. 

And it follows of course that, if we multiply that out across all the jobs we’re creating on the 32,000 and counting transportation infrastructure projects we’re building, it will change the trajectory of a generation.

In places like New York, we’re going to be making some big announcements with a lot of commas and a lot of zeros in the next couple days, but also in places like Grand Forks, North Dakota, where they’ve been trying to get rid of a railroad crossing that was dangerous for 30 years, but didn’t have funding to do it. Or Chamberlain, South Dakota, their general aviation terminal at their airport, which is important for medevac missions, is a mobile home, and with a 6-figure grant we were able to help them turn it into an actual building. 

All of these things stack up to a better future... and to better supply chains, which is why we’re shoring them up and shoring them a little closer to home. We know that so many of the jobs affected by supply chains, including manufacturing jobs undergoing a renaissance under President Biden, depend on us making those physical infrastructure improvements. And when we do, it’s also a part of the fight against inflation, because we know that shipping costs are a big part of what contributed to that. 

So there’s the direct jobs, then there’s the access to jobs that come from the projects once they’re completed.

Transportation is the difference between getting a new job or not, or keeping a job or not. That’s why we’re making the biggest investment in passenger rail since Amtrak was created, and the biggest investment in transit ever - faster, more reliable rail for more people.

For example, Saturday I will be in East Harlem with some really big and really long-awaited news about extending the 2nd avenue subway up to 125th Street! 

These projects matter and we’re really excited about them

And third, competition and anti-monopoly policy.

As we rebuild that physical infrastructure that has been eroded by the weight of tires and the passage of time, we are also working to restore a competitive landscape that was corroded by decades of permissive and deregulatory policy.

Some examples include the Ocean Shipping Reform Act, giving American companies leverage against shipping cartels, which again I think is a big part of the fight against inflation. 

The work we’re doing on EV chargers, where we put universal standards in place to ensure that the charging network can’t be made of walled gardens, but is interoperable between different charging companies, so no firm can unfairly exploit its size or position.

We’re taking action on trucking, to improve wages and working conditions for drivers, and to make sure that new truckers and owner-operators aren’t put at an unfair disadvantage or trapped in a predatory leasing arrangement. Because the truth is no matter how good we are at recruiting new people to become truck drivers, we will be filling a leaky bucket if we don’t shore up the quality of the job and the compensation that goes with it.

And then there’s aviation consumer protection and competition. Last year, hardly any of the ten major airlines had any enforceable commitments around things like free rebooking, hotels, or meal vouchers when they got a passenger stuck. Now, almost all of them do, because of enforceable commitments we secured. And we’re working on a new rule to ban junk fees for good, on things like sitting next to your kid, and to secure new forms of compensation for extreme delays.

Wherever the circumstances meet our responsibilities and our authorities, we’re going act to ensure a more competitive aviation sector emerges. And since the law gives us particular responsibilities on aviation, we are going to pay particular attention to aviation. That has meant picking up tools that have long lain dormant in our Department but are absolutely within our mandate. It is a change in approach, I would argue it’s a good change in approach. Because the times call for us to make sure we are doing what both the law and the moment require of us.

So, I’m proud of the work we are doing, and the thought that has gone into it – and I am excited about the potential ahead for more good policy work. But I also want to emphasize that as we’re leaning in, thinking about what we can do next, it’s going to take a lot to secure what we have achieved.

There are active efforts, right now, most notably in the House of Representatives, to slow, or weaken, or reverse, or dismantle a lot of this work – even wildly popular elements of it like infrastructure development, which House Republicans have repeatedly voted to cut, and might do so again as early as today - even as issues from supply chain delays to air traffic control staffing constraints have demonstrated that this would be a terrible time to cut resources going into our infrastructure. 

We’ve got a Speaker of the House who is a new figure with old thinking – he seems to favor the economic strategies of the 1980s, and the social policies of, I guess, the 1950s. Never mind that these policies and strategies have been discredited. Again, our commitment to our approach isn’t just rooted in idealism but in experience, in outcomes, in data. In fact, when I think about the hard lessons learned from failures in 1980s-style supply-side economics, from the practical failing of trickle-down policies to the empirical collapse of the Laffer curve, ironically they have proven to bear out the exact same critique that was heard in a previous generation’s dorm rooms talking about the left, which was of course that it “sounds good in theory but doesn’t work in practice.” The jury is in. And our way works better. 

So we can’t go back. 

We have to keep advancing this good policy work, consolidate our achievements with the courage of our convictions... and of course the humility to adjust what we need to based on what we learn as we go. That is our approach, our style, that’s our focus – and it compels us to keep thinking big.

We’re taking care of the basics, which itself can be a bold thing to do when you do it in the right way and at the right scale, and that is the premise of the Big Deal.

I hope you can see elements of the future, of a stronger, fairer country that we’re making real – that involves bringing costs down, bringing wages up, and improving the literal and legal foundations on which people live and work. 

It's not easy, it’s not quick. Just as we are currently physically working on what I like to call the cathedrals of our infrastructure, the totality of our work is like a cathedral whose cornerstones might be laid by different hands belonging to a different generation than the hands that will lay its keystones. But we are very much underway – and I would argue we already have a great deal to show for it. 

So I hope we can remain thoughtful, smart, serious, united in purpose even if not aligned on every detail, and above all, bold, because it’s the common-sense thing to do. That kind of boldness need not be divisive – in fact, it works so well in practice that I believe it is destined to be the stuff of consensus. 

Thank you again for the chance to join you today and thanks for everything that you do.