.Complicated Abundance

Ezra Klein talks politics, policy and possibilities

Consider an oft-repeated line from a film: “If you build it, they will come.” Misquoted by actor Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella in the 1989 movie, Field of Dreams, it’s widely understood to mean that building a ball field, structure or enterprise will lead to reconciled relationships, economic success, a united community and the like.

New York Times columnist and podcast host Ezra Klein presents a riff-in-reverse during an interview given while working on Abundance, the forthcoming book he is co-writing with The Atlantic journalist Derek Thompson, a variation paraphrased here: “If you DON’T build, manufacture, invent, distribute or share it, people will come regardless. You will have escalating homelessness, poverty, political division, housing costs, traffic congestion, failing infrastructure, social injustice, environmental devastation and a host of other problems.”

Klein will bring this not-so-good news to UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall on Oct. 5, at an event co-presented by Cal Performances and UC Berkeley Graduate Lectures as part of the Jefferson Memorial Lecture Series. He’ll be joined by Amy E. Lerman, UC Berkeley professor of public policy and political science, and director of the Possibility Lab at the University of California.

Klein, who rose to prominence as host of “The Ezra Klein Show” at The Times after founding and launching the explanatory news site, Vox, will also provide insight into how California reached such a low point and how it can climb out of it to achieve greater abundance.

In 2020 Klein published Why We’re Polarized, a book exploring forces driving polarization and paralyzing politics in the United States. In the new book, he and Thompson tackle a host of crises related to climate change, housing, education and more.

Our conversation begins with agreement that, as Klein says, “Reality is always more complicated than we intend for it to be. It’s pesky.”

By this he means we’ve not lost the ability to foresee trouble coming down the pipeline, but that oftentimes we see bad outcomes ahead and just don’t care. “Either we didn’t have the consensus we needed or preferred not to act,” Klein says. “For example, we weren’t without the tools a long time before there were forecasts about the warming of the planet. We knew what was coming. Our not wanting to act was behind doubting what was coming, much more than doubt was.”

Consequences are often unintended, but not unforeseeable. “We’ve made it hard to build homes in California’s most dynamic and wealthy cities,” Klein says. “The people making decisions in the ’70s didn’t believe what they would see is the catastrophic homelessness where California has 40%-50% of the nation’s unsheltered homeless. But yes, they understood they were trying to control growth and not let people live [in homes] here.”

Another example he mentions is Marin, refusing to expand its water supply because if it had, many more people would want to live there. “Marin ended up having to run a large pipe across a bridge when there was a drought. It was not a lack of forecasting,” Klein says. “In some ways they got exactly what they wanted: high home prices. Sometimes you get what you want, but you don’t love what you get.”

The simplest overarching thing he can say about homelessness is that it’s primarily a housing supply problem and not due to other misnomered obstacles. “Mississippi has the second-highest rate in the nation of poverty and the lowest rate of homelessness,” Klein says. “So it’s not a poverty problem if you have enough homes. West Virginia has high—if not the highest—drug overdoses in the nation, but the seventh-lowest rate of homelessness. So it’s not a drug problem.”

Instead, Klein’s research showed California spent decades constricting its supply of homes even as it became an economic engine. Cities like San Francisco and places in Silicon Valley became more and more important to the economy, but constricted housing supplies led to predictable homelessness. People who are unsheltered suffer a problem that feeds on itself, evidenced by a study among many others conducted by the Benioff Center at UCSF.

“If your housing needs aren’t met, you end up on the streets,” Klein says. “They did a deep look at homelessness and how it happens. It’s a sequenced cycle. People get evicted, enter short-term non-lease situations, conflict erupts or they get kicked out. There’s no warning, then you’re on the street. Now, it’s harder to access services, get a job, you get victimized, people have to take meds to stay awake [to protect their possessions and be safe].”

“It’s a chronic condition,” he adds. “We in California have let that problem fester. Now we have truly decades of under-building, so the supply numbers you need to make a dent are really hard to fathom. I won’t tell you there’s a quick and easy solution.”

Which prompts an obvious question we decide he will answer gradually: As he begins writing the new book, does Klein believe these problems are eventually solvable, or in the end does he believe Americans are too politically polarized and therefore stuck?

One thing that propels him forward is that he doesn’t consider America’s past history idyllic.

“We’re not more or less able to compromise than we have been at other times,” Klein says. “My first book is about how the ‘Golden Age’ relied so much on tremendous amounts of suppression. There is a period in mid-century politics where you have wonderful collaboration between Democrats, Republicans, conservatives and liberals, and Congress seems like it’s in a golden era. But a large amount of that was resting on the acceptance of Southern Democrats bottling up anti-lynching and civil rights legislation.”

He continues, “The [unity] of the era was a kind of false peace. Compromise was built on what we were permitting; primarily white supremacy, particularly in the American South.”

Klein believes every era has its problems and its solutions. Often, the solutions of one era become the problems of the next. “The idea that it’s so much worse today—you don’t have to go far back in American history to find problems that were similar, or in some cases, worse,” he says. “The equilibriums were unjust and excluded many more people. It’s not ancient history. What comes off as my optimism is actually reliant on my deeper pessimism about the past.”

Klein’s personal past includes being interested in politics from a very young age. His older brother, who was involved in Los Angeles politics, took him to farm workers’ marches, union rallies and similar events. He recalls as a teen simply believing politics and policy were important.

“If you want to improve people’s lives at scale, you have politics and technology,” Klein says. “Those avenues are not necessarily separate; they mirror and shape each other. I’ve always been concerned with what it means to live a morally good life. With why so much we end up having in society seems so far below what we can achieve. That naturally brings me to politics and policy.”

Which brings us back to whether he feels America is stuck or unstuck.

“I have a deep belief that everything changes less in one year than you think and more in 10 years than you think,” Klein says. “I am encouraged by Democrats and some Republicans more than any other time I’ve followed politics being attentive to the supply of clean energy; not just the subsidized buying of it, but how do we make more of it? There’s a whole movement of people under the YIMBY banner who are excited about increasing the supply of housing. There’s a turn in industrial policies bringing manufacturing back to America.”

“Will politics move fast or dramatically enough?” he asks. “It feels tough, but not like I am tilting at windmills. It’s a political phenomenon, a movement; not primarily a story of villains. Now, we have to look in front of ourselves and in honest, unsparing ways act from that perspective. Trying to honestly understand a problem is less depressing than trying to deny there is a problem. Denial and suppression are powerful forces, so any step beyond that is progress and sets the stage for other possibilities.”

Cal Performances presents ‘Ezra Klein: A Liberalism That Builds,’ Oct. 5 at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley. Show starts at 4pm. 510.642.9988. calperformances.org

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