As Congress considers necessary legislation to avert a depression, it must not only consider the urgent needs of today but simultaneously create the foundations for a new American economy ready for the threats and opportunities of the 21st century. Our complacency now shaken, it’s time to look with clear eyes at how America should position itself for the coming decades.
First, given global integration and environmental degradation, COVID-19 is not the last nasty virus that will sweep the globe. Notwithstanding the heroic doctors, nurses and others on the front lines today, our public health infrastructure is not adequate. We need a larger, highly trained public health workforce, more hospitals and rural health clinics, more secure supply chains for test kits, equipment suppliers, and better data collection and distribution systems.
Second, there are other risks in front of us that we have chosen not to see. We must use this moment to rapidly become more globally competitive in advanced manufacturing and modern industries so that American firms and workers can supply technologies and products needed in the transition to a cleaner, healthier economy that works for everyone.
As we design the stimulus, we should not just rebuild today’s economy, but also position U.S. workers to succeed in the 2030-2050 timeframe. Clean energy, energy-efficient homes, and clean transport are key because we need clean air, and also because of the looming dislocation from climate change impacts. Trillion-dollar markets exist around the world for us to do better by doing well.
To encourage new entrepreneurs and industries, the government must provide low-cost finance, establish performance goals and standards to hold them to account, procure new products, promote exports, and lower trade barriers for industries, manufacturers and service providers internationally. A doubling of funding for the nascent U.S. International Development Finance Corporation would rapidly deploy American-made products to emerging economies.
To create demand for these products and services, government should also create fiscal tools such as tax incentives and rebates for energy efficient products. National building standards for new and existing buildings would immediately create local construction jobs for retrofitting existing buildings and create demand for more efficient and green building products and services.
The United States has to come from behind. In clean energy alone, we’ve already ceded substantial ground in clean energy manufacturing to China, South Korea and Japan. Only one of the top 10 solar PV manufacturers, First Solar, is an American firm (eight are Chinese, one is South Korean). Of the top five Li-ion battery producers, there is only one American firm, Tesla, and it ranks fifth behind Korean, Chinese and Japanese producers. In electric vehicles, we can be proud that Tesla is the top global producer, but it is the only American firm in the top eight producers (four are Chinese, one is Japanese, one Korean and one French).
While our technological advantage remains strong, we cannot be complacent. Substantial investments by the U.S. government and corporations are imperative if we want to remain global leaders in innovation. Market-formation policies can, and will, pull those technologies into the economy.
Third, our workforce needs investment to be ready for these industries of the future. We should create a five-year, GI-type bill so that anyone who wants education or further training in public health, clean energy and low-carbon industry can do that for free.
We need to continue to recruit and retain talent. The United States is the top destination for international students, who contribute more than $40 billion to the U.S. economy. International student enrollment in the United States has been declining since 2015, creating budget challenges for many universities. If even more cannot come to the United States because of travel restrictions, it will be a crisis for higher education. A new low-interest or interest-free loan program should be established for international students studying in the United States.
Government and philanthropy should immediately provide grants and technical assistance to U.S. colleges and universities to create online and flexible degree programs that are accessible worldwide. Likewise, new scholarships for high-priority fields are necessary to encourage American students to apply for bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Finally, we need to make America more resilient to both public health and climate shocks in the future through infrastructure investment. It’s long past time to establish an U.S. infrastructure bank, with a remit to support the industries needed for the future; call it the U.S. Infrastructure and Industrial Investment Bank (IIIB). Prioritizing lending to public health, clean energy and infrastructure modernization, the IIIB could push money out to community banks across the country to revitalize infrastructure in U.S. states and territories.
An Infrastructure Modernization Corps could be established to build transmission lines, replace water pipelines, and create public transportation infrastructure. As extreme weather events worsen from climate change, we should create an American Resilience Corps (ARC) to increase resilience to wildfire, restore coastal wetlands to limit destruction from hurricanes, and reduce the incidence of flooding, particularly on our farms. The ARC also could work to revitalize and construct national parks and plant trees.
We cannot lose sight of the future as we address our present circumstances. We are rightly mobilizing billions of dollars to combat COVID-19. Let’s make sure we do no harm and seize the opportunity to transform our economy for the coming decades.
Kelly Sims Gallagher is a professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. From June 2014 to September 2015, she served in the Obama administration as a senior policy adviser in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and as senior China adviser in the Special Envoy for Climate Change office at the U.S. State Department. Follow her on Twitter @kellysgallagher.