Can Pete Buttigieg Deliver Joe Manchin?
- archived recording
(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?
I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” In 2020, Pete Buttigieg was an upstart political candidate, whose resume included a deployment to Afghanistan and being mayor to roughly 100,000 citizens in the relatively small town of South Bend, Indiana. Now, Mayor Pete is Secretary Mayor Pete. As the new head of the Department of Transportation, he’s part of President Biden’s so-called “Jobs Cabinet.” That’s the five-member team tasked with pushing Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan through Congress — that is, if they can pry it from Mitch McConnell’s cold, live hands. You knew I had to make a turtle joke.
Secretary Buttigieg, welcome to “Sway.”
So, last we talked, you were running for president, and now you preside over an agency. So it’s a huge job you’ve gotten yourself into. And I know you got this question when you announced you were running for president at 37-years-old, but I’m asking you two years later. What do you think qualifies you most to take this post?
A big part of it is the perspective of being a mayor on the front lines of dealing with these issues. One of the things I’ve found talking to communities across the country is just how overlapping the concerns of communities are. And I have the experience also of trying to get a call returned by a federal agency in Washington.
O.K., Congressman Garret Graves was interviewed, and he said, “I’ll be really candid with you. My initial impression when they announced the appointment was, here we go, a guy who has no knowledge or background or understanding of infrastructure. But I do think he’s been able to demonstrate some proficiency and clearly has some experience in the department’s portfolio. I’m trying to keep an open mind.” We’ll get into that in a second — of how to deal with Republicans — but what do you think you’ve done to prepare yourself for this? This is a $90 billion budget, so many employees now. It’s your biggest job you’ve had. I mean, I know you were a consultant and everything else. But what have you done that’s critically important for this particular job?
Yeah, I mean, like most Cabinet officials, I’ve not run a federal agency before I came here to do this. And so one of the things you find immediately is how important it is to plug into a talented team of people who think about these things every day. There are 55,000 people at the Department of Transportation doing everything from air traffic control to pipeline inspection. This is one of the biggest differences from being a mayor where, by definition, you’re the only one in the room. And a lot of it, of course, is making sure that you understand their perspective, their expertise, the reason things have been done a certain way, but also the reasons why maybe we shouldn’t do certain things the way we’ve always done them.
O.K. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave its four-year report card on the country’s infrastructure. It got a C-minus, which is pretty good, actually, because it’s better than what it’s been. And we’ve gotten Ds for the last 20 years. And anyone who lives in a city, or anywhere, actually, in the country knows our infrastructure is bad. Why do you think our infrastructure is so bad?
I think we stopped investing. You can tally up how much different countries spend, for example, as a share of their G.D.P., and ours is way down from what it used to be here in the U.S. And it’s way down from what a lot of our allies and competitors are doing. There was a frenzy of tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations. That actually has consequences on the services side. That’s part of the story. And I think, frankly, we were coasting off of infrastructure choices that were made one, two, three or more generations ago, which you can get away with for a while when you’re talking about assets that have lifespans that are counted in the decades. But that is catching up to us. I mean, you look at tunnels the trains go through in the New York area. The entire national economy would feel it if they closed. And they’re 100 years old. So many areas where we’re relying on things that were done a very long time ago. It’s time for an update.
But what is it in the American impulse to do this? Because — I know you like numbers, so projected investment as a percentage of G.D.P. is less than countries like China, Australia, Japan, France, U.K., Germany. As of 2019, the U.S. was the 13th in the world in terms of infrastructure quality broadly, behind France, U.K., Japan, Spain. In terms of resilience, we’re behind several European countries — Switzerland, Germany, Norway. I’m not surprised in general. But what is — is there something about — it’s just giving money to rich people? Or what is the lack of interest? Because this is something you’d imagine politicians would like to do — shower their communities with money.
Well, and that’s one of the reasons this is more bipartisan and less ideological than most areas of domestic policy, although we’re still just very far behind to summon the political will at the national level. And I think some of this also goes to trust. There’s a kind of vicious circle where we’ve disinvested. Americans have had lower expectations for public assets like infrastructure. Because of that, there’s a skepticism that government can deliver. And there’s even less support at the next turn of the wheel for a major public investment. Now, here’s the other interesting thing. At the local level, we’re seeing it more and more. You look at efforts like Measure M in Los Angeles, Project Connect in Austin, where, often with the leadership of mayors, communities have rallied, including the willingness to raise local revenue. Because there’s a clear sense of what it was going to be used for. Somehow, that’s gotten more attenuated at the national level.
The Trump administration promised “infrastructure week” pretty much every week. For years, it went on and on. It became kind of a national joke, essentially. You know, this finally infrastructure week, and then it was, I don’t know, “Rudy Giuliani does something bad” week or whatever. So now, the Biden administration has made it one of his first major legislative pushes with the Jobs Plan, a $2 trillion package they’re trying to pass. Everyone’s asking if $2 trillion is too much money, or at least, that’s what the Republicans are asking. I have another question. Is it enough money?
So that’s a question that’s being asked too. And you look at the transportation infrastructure backlog alone. My department estimates that to be in the neighborhood of a trillion dollars. But let’s be clear. This is the largest proposal for an investment in American jobs since World War II. So, yes, this is a major investment. And by the way, it’s going to take a lot of work. I mean, it’s one thing to write the check or sign off on the authorization for spending. It’s another to actually get these things in the ground, to get the broadband out to people, to construct the roads, whatever part we’re talking about.
Right, which has the multi-parts.
Absolutely, yeah, and that’s another thing that I think is really important to understand about this. The closest thing we’ve experienced to this in my lifetime would be the 2009 package, but that was a response to a need for economic stimulus. This is about economic strength across our lifetimes. The rescue plan was bringing us back from the brink with Covid. This is not about getting through a business cycle. This is about laying the foundations for America to win the 2020s and beyond.
Part of the urgency is about climate change, obviously, which is what you’re discussing quite a bit. The White House held a virtual climate summit on Earth Day. You spoke at the summit about the Jobs Act. I mean, why? You’re the head of the Department of Transportation, not the E.P.A. So make the argument for why so much of your time is spent thinking and talking about climate change.
Well, if you look at the U.S. economy, the sector that puts the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is the transportation sector. So there’s no escaping it. Every transportation decision is a climate decision. So when I hear somebody saying, “I want to hear about transportation, but I don’t want to hear about climate,” to me, that’s like saying, “I want to hear about food, but don’t talk to me about health.” You just can’t separate those things.
Well, they actually do say that, but go ahead. [LAUGHTER] People do say that.
No, but look — and by the way — and this is maybe the most important thing and the most exciting thing about how the president thinks about and talks about it, and he did this in his joint address to Congress — transportation is the sector where we break the old false narrative of climate versus jobs. Because so much of the job creation that we’re about to unleash is through the national project of confronting climate change. That’s what it means to put people to work, retrofitting buildings and building the electric vehicles of the future and all the other things that we need to do, which, by the way, are abundantly blue collar in their nature. So we can transcend this idea that doing the right thing on climate was somehow wrong for the economy or vice versa.
Right, and you’re the most prominent face of the infrastructure bill right now, I would say. Contrast your predecessor, former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who we rarely heard from, I guess, barring a scandal. But why do you think you’ve been selec — and I’m not trying to be ageist here — as the — I don’t mean to say poster boy, but they’re putting you out there quite a bit. Is it because you’re really good at explaining complex topics or very appealing to Republicans?
Yeah, I’d like to think that I can contribute partly by explaining what we’re doing to places like where I come from, right? I’m from the industrial Midwest, a place that has lost a lot through policy choices over the last decades. And a place where there’s some people who have been made to feel that they’re part of the problem on things like climate, who we actually need to enlist and recruit to be part of the solution. I think your question might also be getting at a generational factor. And I think that’s important, too. People in Congress will say, “I just don’t know if we can spend this and stick our children with the bill.” And as somebody who sometimes is about the same age as the children of people who say that, I want to point out that we can handle the investment. What my generation cannot live with, let alone the generation to come, is a failure to respond on climate.
So what does it make you in particular? What do you think you do well? I want you to — you try to be super Mr. Humble, but what do you think that you do effectively? I think one of it is, you’re not very scary to some people as a Democrat, to some people who might immediately reject Democratic proposals.
Yeah, on some level, it’s not for me to say. But —
But I want you to say.
I mean —
What do you think you do that is — like, look, you went on Fox News for the Biden campaign. You were — you talked a lot. What do you think you do that works?
I mean, part of what I try to bring is a vocabulary that’s maybe a little different than either the wonky — don’t get me wrong, I’m a wonk — but the wonky ways we talk about infrastructure. This is about enlisting everybody in a shared national effort. And I’m trying to communicate very clearly, we’re not hiding the ball on what we’re trying to do, including substantial change to our tax code and major, major investments with a lot of zeros and commas in those numbers. And it’s nothing to be scared of because America is at our best when we do things like this. I feel comfortable making a case like that, whether it’s on conservative media or, increasingly, on trips. I’m looking forward to a safe return to travel where I can go to a lot of places that are a little more like where I come from in their size or their layout, if not always the same region.
O.K., so let’s talk specifically about the Jobs Plan. Transportation infrastructure is slated to get around $621 billion of funding. Around 31 percent of the total $2 trillion will go towards projects like modernizing 20,000 miles of roads, repairing bridges, spending on ports and airports. Around 28 percent of that $621 billion is going towards electric vehicles. Why so much for EVs instead of public transportation?
So I don’t want to sound like we’re shorting public transportation. We’re proposing to double the federal investment in transit. But you’re right that there’s a major investment in these EVs. So you think about something like the U.S. aviation sector. Actually, a really big part of how that happened was New Deal-era decisions to invest in airports. I think we’re at a similar moment in terms of EVs. The technology is maturing. The interest is there. You’re seeing not just new big names coming out of the startup world, but some of the most storied and longstanding automakers in the country in Detroit making big bets on EVs. But we also know that that market’s not arriving on its own. And the reason it’s important to do this in a hurry is that the world is headed toward EVs. In many ways, the question is not so much will EVs happen, as will the EVs of the world be made in the U.S?
Well, EVs are one of the most competitive areas in tech. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Elon Musk is one of the richest men in the world because of EVs or electric vehicles.
You don’t say.
Yeah, I’ve heard this. Also Dogecoin. But the industry is way ahead. G.M. announced they’d stop making gas-powered passenger cars, vans, and S.U.V.s by 2035. Honda recently pledged to go all electric by 2040. Why is this so important to have government funding here? I mean — and we’ll get into Elon Musk, because the government lent him money to do that, to become the richest man in the world and have his company. Why do we need more of that if it’s already happening? Why not just add regulation? Why does it have to be funding in this case?
We don’t think it’s happening fast enough. For example, electric vehicles are still viewed, in many ways, as a luxury item. Actually, it’s lower- and middle-income Americans who have the most to gain from the fuel savings that you could get if the sticker price is not a barrier. So that’s an example of where we need to do some things to move that price point so more Americans can take advantage of it. But we also know that range anxiety is an issue. So the idea of range anxiety is you asking yourself that question, O.K., can I actually get to where I need to go? Or will I run out of a charge? And you can’t, at least not in the same way, have a gas can in the back of the car for an emergency. It’s really in a rural area that people have the most to gain. The more you drive, the more gas you burn up, the more you’re going to benefit from an EV, especially as you look at these pickup trucks that are coming onto the market. So it’s one thing to kind of position the people in the easiest places to own an EV to do well. It’s another to make sure we have a national network where you know that wherever you’re going, you can charge up. That’s why we’re teaming up with the Department of Energy to identify what we call “alternative fuel corridors” to really specify where the charging stations ought to go in order to have a full national network. And some of those are not places that would pencil out on their own. We should point out that electric vehicle charging station is not like a gas station. In some ways, it’s easier because if you have a detached house, you can plug-in at home, which you’re not going to do with a gas pump. On the other hand, it’s harder because you can’t fill up in five minutes the way you do with gas.
And the quick ones are, what, an hour?
It — yeah, depends, but, yeah, sometimes you can get 75 miles in a matter of minutes, but then it slows down to top up the tank, the proverbial tank. The point is, we need to do something about that to speed up adoption because the clock is ticking. Look, if we didn’t have terrifying climate deadlines being imposed by the science of the atmosphere, we might say, O.K., let the market do its thing. There will be winners and losers and 20 years from now, we’ll see what happens. We don’t have the time.
But let’s get this part of, government spending effectively subsidizes private companies. Let’s not forget the $465 million loan that Tesla received from the Obama administration — has done rather well with it. How will you get a return for taxpayers? Because you’re advantaging the richest person — one of the richest people in the world, and some of the richest companies in the world. Economist Mariana Mazzucato, who I just recently interviewed, said, the government could get a return if “they weren’t so naive.” Why aren’t we asking for something with this funding? You’re doing a favor to a lot of people who already have a lot and have been serving the luxury market and not the lower market. How can you force them to do that?
Well, I think that does raise some really good policy design questions about how we capture the most value for the consumers that we’re trying to benefit and how we make sure that we do right by the taxpayer as well. But the biggest returns we’re trying to capture here are social. And that’s why we believe there needs to be a policy move here. And some people do well by it. As long as it’s fair, fine. Just as long as we make sure nobody is made worse off, which is the most important thing I think we need to consider as we look at a lot of profound transformations within the auto industry alone.
All right, but I’d like you to answer the question of, shouldn’t the government get some of this? I mean, we don’t want this to be the Elon Gets Richer Act or G.M. Gets Richer Act. What do you do to get a piece of this? Because that was a critical loan for Tesla at the time. It was in trouble, and now it’s one of the most valuable companies on Earth. So how does the government become a partner in that way with these companies and then get them to make the things we want? Because only 2 percent of the new cars on the road are electric. And around 80 percent of those were Teslas, for example.
Yeah, well, first of all, I’ll point out that the way we’re proposing to fund this is through taxes on corporations and the wealthy, right? So if people do very well —
Oh, so you’re going to take it back. You’re going to give it to them and then take it back on the other side?
While getting a major gain for the country? Yeah, that’s one way to think of it, right? I mean, everybody wins, or at least, everybody can win if we structure it the right way. There are important policy design questions here. I mean, even the chargers themselves, right? There are some big business opportunities in these chargers, but not everywhere. So it depends on how we structure this so that no place is left out. So that’s where policy comes in. And yes, some people will do well by it. The most important thing is to make sure that the American people do well by it. And at the same time, it is almost always corporations and the wealthy who seem to benefit from things like excellent public infrastructure, which is why we have no qualms about asking corporations to pay their fair share. And I think the American people get this because public support for these proposals actually goes up when we explain how we’re going to pay for it.
Have you spoken to people like Elon and G.M. over this thing? They would probably like something like this. But how have you interacted with those companies?
Yeah, we’re definitely having a lot of conversations with auto companies, Partly from a policy perspective. Partly just because we’re regulators, right, where our first concern is the Department has to do with the safety of vehicles. So we’re constantly having this conversation as an administration and often as the D.O.T.
What is their reaction?
I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm, there’s a lot of interest. They’re also businesses, right? They want to know what this is going to mean for them. And our job is less about the business bottom line, but it is about the economy and the well-being of the American people as a whole.
I wrote several columns about getting rid of my car. And the reaction was quite strong by especially people from — I think I got an email from every single person in the Midwest talking about their trucks. Because I think I said cars someday will be like owning a horse. It’ll be fun. You can do it on the weekends, but you’re not going to have one. No one is going to have them. Essentially, public transit in other ways and electric vehicles will be the other way. And I was waiting for an affordable electric car. So I think there’s a part — people like their cars. They like their trucks. And they haven’t seen an alternative that’s any good from the market yet.
I think that gets to some really — two really interesting issues that are going to really change potentially very dramatically over the next 10 plus years. How much people use cars, and how much people own cars, which is actually a totally separate question. The question of how much people use cars is important because we need to make sure cars are cleaner. That’s what EVs and, by the way, fuel standards are about. But we also need to give people alternatives to using a car. You shouldn’t have to drag two tons of metal with you everywhere you go. And that shouldn’t just be the case if you live in the middle of a big city. I noticed this when — it took me a couple of years, and I realized that the distance in South Bend, Indiana, between my home and my office was the distance it had never occurred to me growing up in Indiana to walk, even though it was about a mile or two. Whereas in a big city, it’s a distance it would almost never occur to you to drive. And so some of these things are about just whether we need to use a vehicle or feel the need to use a vehicle, right? So another thing that we’re seeing more and more is this question of should the second-most expensive thing I own after my house be this object that I don’t use 95 percent of the time? And it’ll be very interesting to see how that interacts with other things that go on technologically with automation and just socially in terms of the way we relate to our vehicles. But you know, whether you own it or not, cars are going to be a very big part of American life for the foreseeable future. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. And matter of fact, we think it’s a great thing. We just got to make sure that they’re clean. And we prefer that they be made by union workers on American soil.
How do you spark demand from consumers? Right now, 98 percent of new cars are not electric. What type of rebates and tax incentives are you considering? I remember back in the day, Google, for example, gave money to employees in California and let them drive in certain lanes. And my family bought one because of that, very, very early because it was costless, essentially costless. So what kind of things do you think the government needs to do to do that?
So the rebates and the tax incentives are what helps bring the cost within reach or, yeah, even gets to where you come out ahead, especially when you consider the fuel savings. But we also just need to be talking to Americans more about this. I learned in the context of a congressional hearing recently based on the questions that a lot of members of Congress are unaware of the development of electric pickup trucks, for example. And they’re serving rural areas that have a lot to gain. Now, look, on some level, it’s up to the companies that make these things to market them, to demonstrate that in terms of perception and reality, that they’re superior, excellent products. And that’s their job. Our job is to make sure that if there is a public policy benefit to speeding up adoption, that we’re using resources in the right way to do it.
Will you consider gas and mileage taxes?
So that’s not part of the president’s plan, and really because of a very simple reason, which is the president has insisted that we not put together anything that’s going to raise taxes on people making less than $400,000 a year, especially because you don’t have to. We’re not talking about a plan that calls for enormous deficit spending. We’re talking about something that can be paid for and, notably, not with high taxes, just with reasonable taxes, fair taxes, on corporations, on the wealthy. So we don’t need to turn to that in order to raise the revenue we need.
But in one case, you greenlit the next stage in assessing New York City’s congestion pricing plan, which has been roadblocked by the Trump administration’s plan, miraculously supported by both Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo. It would charge drivers an extra toll when entering Manhattan during peak traffic hours. It’s going to affect a lot of people, not just rich people. Will you be watching for this congestion pricing experiment to see if it can serve as a model for other cities?
Yeah, we’re very interested to see how that will unfold. And that’s a decision that the local, or, in this case, a consortium of local authorities, is making.
That is a tax, though, right?
Yeah, I mean, I’m talking about federal policy and federal taxes. But when there are local and state moves that a community wants to do or a set of communities wants to do, we want to watch that develop and unfold. Now, of course, congestion pricing isn’t just about revenue. In fact, you could argue the most important thing about it is the effect on behavior and the effect on, well, on the congestion. That’s why you’re doing it. There’s a similar range of ways to think about something like carbon pricing, right, which is, is it really about the revenue, or is it about improving the economic efficiency of the signals you’re getting? There’s tons of innovation going on out there in states, in communities, on a policy level. Our job is just to make sure that we’re taking care of federal expectations and that we’re being as supportive as we can.
So let’s talk about actually pushing through the Jobs Plan. So far, Republicans in Congress have countered with a $568 billion infrastructure plan, a lot less. It’s around 30 percent of President Biden’s proposal. They took out all mention of funding electric vehicles. Their argument is basically that electric vehicles aren’t infrastructure, unlike roads, bridges, et cetera. So explain — what is the sticking point, and how do you try to convince them that electric vehicles are a part of infrastructure?
So the plan we’re putting forward in the American Jobs Plan, that’s over the baseline. In other words, if you just renewed the surface transportation bill and kept up the regular spending that would have happened anyway. We’re talking about going over and above that. And it’s not clear that the same is true in the Republican proposal. So it’s part of the math that we’re unpacking in the dialogue we’re having right now. I am working to persuade Republican legislators that we have a lot riding on getting EVs right. And again, it will often benefit the less dense and more rural communities that many Republican legislators come from. Because you’ve got people driving more miles, burning more gas, spending more money, who will therefore save more money, if we can help them get EVs. So that’s something we consider important.
O.K., so one of the sticking points for Republicans on the funding — one of the biggest ones — of the Jobs Plan, is, the proposal that involves raising the corporate tax rate, which you’ve referenced several times, from 21 percent to 28 percent. It’s going to be tough enough to push through a package as it is. Why link corporate taxes?
Well, we think it’s the most logical way to pay for this. I mean, you look at the relationship between the disinvestment that we’ve been making as a country for pretty much the whole time I’ve been alive and the way we’ve slashed the revenue sources that we have for good public goods and assets, pretty much the entire time I’ve been alive. And it’s catching up to us. You also add to that the fact that, again, it is the business community that will gain a lot of the most profitable outcomes of having a strong infrastructure as a country. And you look at the fact that so many companies paid zero on billions of dollars in profit. And the fact that the current corporate tax rate is probably lower than what a lot of conservatives thought it ought to be just a few years ago before they kind of overshot. So if you ask most Americans — and I think in their heart of hearts, if you ask most or at least many in the private sector — is the corporate rate right now, is it too low, is it too high, or is it just right? It’s just really tough to say that it’s just right, and it’s really tough to say it is too high.
Is the administration open to a lower tax rate, say, 25 percent?
I mean, that’s the kind of thing that’s being discussed right now as we come to the table and see where the deal space lies. And the president keeps saying, look, if you’ve got another idea on how to pay for this, bring it to me. Just know that taxing regular Americans is not the way he wants to get this done.
O.K. So as a bill on the Senate floor, the Jobs Plan will need 60 votes, meaning 10 Republicans will have to get on board. But you do have the option of a budget reconciliation, which means you could push the plan through with 50 Democratic senators and Vice President Kamala Harris. Is that the likely route, given that Mitch McConnell has said he’ll fight the Jobs Plan “every step of the way“?
Well, we prefer a bipartisan approach. And I believe there is a way to do it. And we’re going to do everything we can to get there. I can’t speak to all the twists and turns that are ahead, but I can tell you I’m talking in good faith with Republicans and Democrats literally every day about where a deal space might lie, about alternative ideas for how to pay for what we need to do. The bottom line is, we’ve got to do something. We’ve got to do something big. And we’ve got to act quickly. But there are a lot of different ways to get there. And we can talk through it.
In the Republican rebuttal to President Biden’s first joint address, you mentioned bipartisanship. In Congress, Senator Tim Scott said the president who promised to bridge the country together should not be pushing divisive agendas. Do you think the bipartisan approach will continue to work? I mean, that’s their new thing. They’re saying you’re not bipartisan.
I guess, the question on my mind is, how can you call something a divisive agenda when it has 70 percent of support among the American people? I mean, we’re seeing this weird law of political physics that something that is wildly popular among the American people on both sides of the aisle can’t always get that same support from Washington and that — that’s a dynamic we’ve seen. But I don’t think we have to give into it, especially because every one of these senators and members of Congress is from somewhere. And where they come from, their constituents know that we need to be investing in big and ambitious ways on physical infrastructure and that we need to be investing in big and ambitious ways on making it easier to get through life, like a child tax credit or supporting healthcare or elder care. How much of this can Republicans vote for? That’s what we’re working through right now. But I’ve got to believe there’s 10 votes or 20 or 30, for —
— on that side of the aisle.
I’d like to think so. Look, I’d like 50. I’d like 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats to vote for our vision. Obviously, it doesn’t work that way. Nothing’s 100 to zero, but —
Well, Secretary Buttigieg, I’d like to be 5-foot-7, but it’s not going to happen. But budget reconciliation still depends on support from Democrats like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who’s also voiced concerns about corporate tax hike and inclusion of home care in the package. Where do you see the roadblocks in your own party? How do you react to Senator Manchin, who is sort of the pivot point of a lot of this stuff now?
Well, you know, he’s a big believer in a bipartisan approach. And that’s good news because so is the president. So we’re going to keep pursuing that. I think ultimately, I haven’t heard him say anything that’s against the idea of even some of the human infrastructure stuff we’re talking about. There’s a question about policy design, there’s a question about how to get there. And the idea of doing this through regular order and working through the committees is one that we prefer, too. It’s just that our bottom line is, something has to get done.
And how are you going to convince him?
Well, the same way I’m trying to convince everybody, talking it through with them, listening to their ideas, and evaluating where the space is to actually make something happen. When the American people want something so emphatically, when everybody, even here in Washington, at least says that this needs to happen and that they want to get there, we are on pretty good ground to seek a bipartisan deal. And we’ll keep pushing it as — I was about to say as long as it takes, but, obviously, there’s a clock here, too, which is that we’ve got to get something done. [MUSIC PLAYING]
We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with Senator Amy Klobuchar. And you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Secretary Buttigieg after the break.
If the Jobs Plan goes through, it could mean a lot for construction. Bill Gates, who I just recently interviewed, has been very outspoken about the need for clean steel and clean cement — bringing down the green — the green premium is essentially what he calls it. Manufacturing currently emits more greenhouse gases than transport globally. Steel production alone accounts for 7 percent to 10 percent of total carbon emissions. Biden’s plan promises to establish 10 facilities that demonstrate carbon capture retrofits for steel, cement, and chemical production, but is vague on details. So how big are these facilities? Is this enough? Is this enough? It seems small scale to me.
So there’s a lot of potential in these technologies, but they’re not going to allow us to sidestep the fundamental problem of reducing our emissions. We got to do both. But again, part of why there is a really exciting, and maybe underemphasized in the media, research dimension to this is that we have to be making the investments that may not look profitable on the balance sheet, even of the companies with the biggest R&D shots, but that will be beneficial to the American people in the long run. And we shouldn’t be afraid to make those investments.
Mm-hmm. I imagine being Secretary of Transportation wasn’t really your dream, although you seem to have been diving right into it with a lot of enthusiasm. What do you imagine you doing next after doing something like this? I know you’re just starting on this, and you’re busy, and I suspect that’s going to be your answer. I know you’re focused on your current job, but how do you look at it as important to what you’re going to do going forward?
Yeah, I’m less than 100 days into this job, so I’m definitely not thinking about the next one. I do think about what it will be like whenever the day comes that is my last day here at D.O.T., and what it would mean to have succeeded. And I think that what that looks like is to be able to say that because of the work we did here in transportation in this pivotal season of the early 2020s, that our country moved in a more equitable direction, that we made step changes in terms of being ready to meet the climate challenge, and that communities got better, became better off, as they so often have, because of great U.S. infrastructure policies and choices. So when I think about — you know, when we’re at the climate summit and we’re talking about what we’re going to do by 2050, I mean, I’m hoping that that will be, more or less, when I retire. And we’ll be looking back at the early 2020s, either saying that those were the moments just before it was too late that we stood up and did what was required to prosper in the future, or we’ll be saying we blew it.
O.K., my last question. You’re obviously the first openly gay Cabinet member to be confirmed by the Senate. Let me not get Richard Grenell all up in my grill here. But there are hundreds of anti-L.G.B.T.Q. bills proposed in state legislatures this year. I’d love you to address this, including bills banning trans athletes, banning transition care. How do you look at this? Here you are breaking a barrier that is shocking that it took this long. How do you look at what’s happening across the country in states, having come from a state where you had to deal with that issue when you were mayor?
Well, it’s a really upsetting thing to watch because you know — it’s not so much how it feels to me reading the news, but how does it feel if you’re, let’s say, a transgender teenager, which just makes you one of the most vulnerable people in America, watching the news as people are deciding — people in positions of power and responsibility are deciding to pick on you for political reasons? And that’s one of the reasons I thought it was so moving for the President of the United States standing at the roster in the House of Representatives to let transgender Americans and youth know that the president has their back. I do think that we’re seeing signs that compassion is arising in places where you might not have expected it. Seeing a conservative Republican governor in Arkansas veto an anti-trans bill, saying that this is wrong and goes against our values was revealing. But we’re going to continue to see these kinds of policies rearing their ugly head. Sometimes I wonder if we’re going to see more of them. But this can do real harm to real people in families and communities across the country. And so, it’s another moment where, in the name of compassion and empathy and decency and freedom, we’ve got to stand up for —
What is your role to do that?
Well, part of my role, I hope, is to do a good job here and demonstrate that someone from a background that would have been considered excluded from being in the Cabinet just a few years ago — hell, I probably couldn’t have kept a job in the Department of Transportation as a pipeline inspector 40 years ago or 60 years ago in predecessor departments if it was known that I was gay. So we’ve made that progress. But that progress is not always secure. And so I want to be a voice — I want to be effective at my job and be a voice within an administration that really believes in supporting transgender Americans and LGBT Americans and all Americans. And one of the most moving moments I’ve had here was our first Cabinet meeting and just looking around the table and just seeing America. Seeing, across the room, Kamala Harris, the first woman of color, the first Asian woman as vice president, Deb Haaland, the first Native American woman overseeing the Interior. I mean, just everywhere I looked around the table, I saw this country. And there’s enormous power in that alone, in addition to the policies that are so important, like the Equality Act, like everything we’re trying to do around equity in this administration.
O.K., one last thing. I promised her I’d do this. I had Senator Klobuchar on recently. You had some fame battles on stage during the presidential primaries. Her book is called “Antitrust,” yours is called “Trust.” I get it. But she told me that you’ve hung out since then. She sort of called you her B.F.F. Is that true? Is that — what’s going on with you two?
Yeah, she’s great. She’s great to hang out with. I’m really looking forward to reading the book because it touches on something important. It is a little bit comical. I’ll put the books next to each other on a bookshelf. But look, she’s a phenomenal legislator and a real leader. And I’m enjoying — with her and a lot of the people who we were competing with, sometimes pretty fiercely, a year or two ago — that we’re all on the same team, getting really good things done.
All right, kicking back with Pete and Amy — that would be interesting. Thank you so much, Secretary Buttigieg. I’m sure we’ll talk a lot in the future.
Good being with you.
All right, thank you.
Bye. [MUSIC PLAYING]
“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong, and Daphne Chen; edited by Nayeema Raza and Paula Szuchman; with original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Erick Gomez and Bryson Barnes; and fact-checking by Kate Sinclair, Michelle Harris, and Ben Phelan. Special thanks to Shannon Busta and Liriel Higa. If you’re listening on the Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you in an Elon Musk Cybertruck driven by Pete Buttigieg full of Dogecoin, download any podcast app and search for “Sway” and follow the show. We release every Monday and Thursday. Thanks for listening. Oh, and we’ve got an event coming up for Times subscribers. I’ll be debating my fellow hosts from Opinion podcasts, Jane Coaston and Ezra Klein, and columnist Farhad Manjoo on the merits and dangers of cancel culture. Comedian Trevor Noah will be weighing in on the subject, too. It’ll be on Wednesday, May 12th. Times subscribers can R.S.V.P. at nytimes.com/cancelculture.