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To Boost The Economy, Biden Plans To 'Go Big,' Journalist Says


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's taping a special interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci today, which we hope to bring you on tomorrow's show. Our guest today, New York Times economics reporter Jim Tankersley, is covering the debate in Washington over what could be some of the most consequential steps in decades to affect the lives of American families. President Biden is proposing an economic stimulus and COVID relief package worth nearly $2 trillion. And he has big plans beyond that for infrastructure work and clean energy investment.

Jim Tankersley grew up in northwest Oregon in the 1980s, where he saw the devastating impact of the decline in the local logging industry on his friends and neighbors as they lost jobs that had allowed them to own homes and cars and send their kids to college. For much of his reporting career, Tankersley has focused on the declining fortunes of the American middle class that emerged in the decades after World War II and what the country can do about it. That's the subject of his book published last year, "The Riches Of This Land: The Untold True Story Of America's Middle Class." We've invited him to talk about the middle class, how it's fared in recent years and what its prospects are under the Biden administration. Before joining The New York Times, Jim Tankersley worked for The Oregonian, the Rocky Mountain News, The Toledo Blade, the Chicago Tribune, Vox and The Washington Post. I spoke to him yesterday morning. He joined me from his home in Alexandria, Va.

Well, Jim Tankersley, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about what's happening in Washington. President Biden's $1.9 trillion American rescue plan - what's in it? What does he want to do?

JIM TANKERSLEY: Well, it's a big plan meant to meet the needs of a unique economic crisis, which is now barreling toward its second year alongside this coronavirus pandemic. The plan includes direct aid to families. This is the big checks that the Democrats campaigned on in special elections last year. But it also includes a lot of - hundreds of billions of dollars for testing, for PPE to reopen schools, for vaccine distribution, ways, basically, to combat the pandemic so that the economy can reopen faster. And then a lot of other money, especially direct aid through unemployment or food stamps or tax credits to help the low-income families, the people who have been hardest hit by this recession, and recovery to help them basically get by until such time as the economy is back up and running at full speed again and to help them put food on the table, pay for rent, do all the things to keep them from falling through the cracks at a difficult time.

DAVIES: Right. And there's hundreds of billions also for aid to state and local governments, which are sorely strapped during all this, right?

TANKERSLEY: Yes. And this is a case where the Biden team sees what happened in the last recession, where it took state and local governments almost a decade to recover from the budget holes of the financial crisis in 2008. And that meant a lot of laid-off workers well after recovery had begun. They want to avoid that mistake this time. They want to make sure that firefighters and teachers and police officers aren't being laid off because tax revenues fell while the pandemic spread.

DAVIES: OK. So President Biden's plan is ambitious, it's expensive. And he wants to get some Republican support here. I mean, we would - he would like to end this era of harsh partisanship in Congress, but he can do it with just the bare minimum of all of the Democrats if he uses this technique called budget reconciliation. It's a parliamentary move that allows him to do it with just a bare majority, as opposed to the 60 votes that would normally be needed to get over the filibuster rule. Can you just explain what this thing is, this budget reconciliation, how it works?

TANKERSLEY: Absolutely. I learned a lot about it while covering the big Republican tax cuts in 2017 under President Trump because this is the process the Republicans used. Ironically, they are - many of them are now complaining the Democrats are using it, but they used it for the same purpose back then, which was to do a piece of legislation that their party thought critical for the economy. And they thought they weren't going to be able to get very many, if any, Democratic votes for, which in that case was true. They didn't get any Democrats onto the tax cut bill. Here's how it works. Usually, you have to pass - to pass legislation, you have to clear a filibuster. But there is this - I don't know - arcane rule written back decades ago for how to pass measures that relate to basically taxes and spending, direct appropriations, revenue-focused things. And it's sort of a two-step process.

First, the House and the Senate have to both pass a budget which doesn't need the president's signature. They just pass a budget that sort of sets spending priorities. And that budget includes instructions for ways that the Congress should appropriate money to be spent or cut taxes in a way that is in accordance with the budget instruction. So that's phase one. You pass the budget. Democrats are moving this week to do that for their spending bill, the rescue plan. And then step two is to actually pass the plan. And here, it's a little bit tricky. They build components of a bill like any normal piece of legislation.

But Republicans in this case can challenge particular components of it as not meeting the rules of reconciliation. So basically, they can say, this isn't really about taxes and spending, and we don't think it belongs in the bill. And the Senate parliamentarian can kick it out. It's a long and complicated process, but what it ends up doing is the surviving bill can be passed with just 50 votes, plus the vice president to break the tie, which is what Democrats have in the Senate now. And that's why they're teeing up this process for their rescue plan.

DAVIES: Right. OK. That's - you got to know a lot about Senate rules, I guess, to get the details. So they could employ this technique, which was used by Republicans in the past, and get what they want with their bare majority. What's the argument against doing it that way? What's the risk?

TANKERSLEY: Well, I think there's two big risks. The first is that the - first is political. The president campaigned on this idea of bringing people together to pass legislation. And, you know, the case - Republicans are making the case that if he passed a party line vote to do this, that that would not be bringing people together. It would be issuing his own calls for unity. And to be fair, under President Trump, all of the COVID relief legislation was bipartisan. It also was subject to negotiations that lasted months. And that's why the Biden team is saying very strongly that they are not going to wait around to bring Republicans on to this bill, that the relief is needed now.

But the second, I think, big risk here is that legislation tends to be less durable if it's only one party doing it. So there are some things, I think, in this legislation that Democrats would like to see made permanent or made the law of the land beyond just a few months' worth of help - tax credits for the poor. Obviously, they want to raise the minimum wage, which they would like to be a permanent policy. Keeping that in place could be easier if you have a more broad coalition that passed it in the first place.

DAVIES: Now, on Monday, a group of 10 Republican senators met with President Biden. They say they want to support a stimulus and COVID relief measure, but what the president has proposed is too expensive. Give us a sense of what they're proposing.

TANKERSLEY: Well, what they're proposing is pretty dramatically scaled back from what the Biden plan is. It's basically a third of the cost of his plan. It still has the money for vaccine distribution and for testing and for PPE. But it has way less money for schools. And it has the direct checks to Americans, which, again, are very politically popular. But a lot of economists are - say are not as well-targeted as other parts of the Biden proposal. They scale back those checks. It'll be less money going to fewer people, basically. And then they drop entirely the direct aid for state and local governments, which is a big deal for Democrats and, I think, one of the huge impediments to finding compromise between these two sides.

We've seen it between Democrats and Republicans for months. They've been unable to agree on state and local aid. So it's just a much smaller package. They - even things like extending unemployment benefits, which they do, they extend them for less time. Democrats want them all the way through September, to have additional unemployment benefits, just to make sure that nobody falls through the cracks as the vaccine really spreads throughout the population. Republicans want to do it for a few months fewer.

DAVIES: And on this business of the direct checks to American citizens - and the Republicans say that under the Biden proposal, you'd have a lot of families that make six-figure incomes get checks that they don't really need and would not likely immediately spend, thus defeating the purpose of stimulus. Do they have a point?

TANKERSLEY: They do. They do have a point on that. I mean, there are checks - depending on how you draw the eligibility lines, you can very easily end up with checks going to people who have not lost any income at all in this crisis. And to be clear, you could have that even if you very tightly defined the universe of who gets the checks because you aren't targeting aid to the people who have definitely lost their jobs or had their hours cut. So I think it is an absolutely fair critique that you might end up with a lot of excess savings that comes from higher end people getting those checks. The Biden team understands this, actually. And I think they have signaled some real willingness to negotiate on the universe of who gets the money. But, you know, the flip side of this is this is probably the most politically popular component of the proposal. And so - you know, everything in politics is not perfect economics. And I think that is part of the calculation here also is, how much do you do of this very politically popular program in order to buy goodwill for some of the more targeted things, like increased unemployment and food stamps?

DAVIES: Right. Now, the Democrats - given the two sides are very far apart and President Biden and the Democrats want to get this moving quickly, have the help in place by March, they could go ahead and use the budget reconciliation technique and pass it with just Democratic votes. Can they count on all 50 Senate Democrats given where things stand now?

TANKERSLEY: That is, I think, the big question. They are certainly acting like they can. I've talked to a lot of Democrats who say that there are moderate Democrats in the Senate who certainly would be much happier if this package passed on a bipartisan basis. But there's nobody who's really been standing in front of the process yet on the Democratic side and saying, nope, stop, this is too much money. Some of the more conservative Democrats, like Jon Tester of Montana, basically, told reporters this week, look; this isn't exactly the package I would have designed. But we need to be aggressive here. And I'll support it if push comes to shove.

Democrats, in general, I think - even the more conservative ones in the Senate - have learned this lesson from 2009, that they think it's better to go big and do popular things than to wait around to try to do something bipartisan because what you end up - you possibly end up with the worst of both worlds, doing something smaller, less popular and also not getting any credit for reaching across the aisle. That's absolutely what they feel happened with the 2009 stimulus, for example. And so - you know, I think that the Democrats are barreling ahead with the reconciliation process with a credible threat to Republicans that they do have the votes to pass this on their own. But the president is engaging in these negotiations with the Republicans in hopes that he can find some sort of deal. And the White House has said, look; the details can be somewhat tweaked to bring more people on board.

DAVIES: You know, that's an important piece of context you mentioned about the 2009 stimulus plan. This was, of course, after that horrific financial crisis and the damage to the economy. And Democrats wanted to get Republican help. Remind us what happened then.

TANKERSLEY: Yeah. Democrats made the package very big on tax cuts. They kept the cost down. I mean, they started lower than some economists were telling them they needed to go - less than a trillion dollars - because the Obama administration calculated there just wasn't going to be political will to get a full trillion-dollar package. And what they ended up getting was about an $800 billion package that had some components that really seemed to have helped and others that really didn't. And some things that they got absolutely zero political credit for.

They had some - basically, a tax refund that came into people's checks, sort of a tax cut on a - every time you got paid. And nobody noticed it. And they didn't get any goodwill from it. And it didn't really seem to provide much stimulus. And so I think that the Democrats' political and economic lessons there were we didn't go big enough. And we didn't get credit for what we did. And, you know, the president's party lost the House in 2010 following, you know, that bill and the Affordable Care Act being passed. And Democrats, in retrospect, wished they had been much more aggressive and had tried to produce a much faster spark in the economy so that maybe the voters would have rewarded them for it.

DAVIES: So he ended up getting a lot of criticism from the GOP. And they campaigned against him on parts of it after his efforts to bring them in.

TANKERSLEY: Yeah. And that was true on health care and on the stimulus. What - the Republicans said, the president spent all this money and he wasn't acting. He promised to be bipartisan, and he didn't. And what Democrats - I've talked to a lot of Democrats about this. And one of their big takeaways is that Obama couldn't just turn around and say, yeah, but we got results. Yeah, we did things that people loved right away. And you saw the results in the economy. And that's what the Biden team is trying to do here. They're trying to say, we are going to go big. People are going to be able to see the benefits. The economy's going to recover faster. The vaccine is going to get out faster. And, you know, particularly, the most vulnerable people in the economy are going to see the help that they get from this bill. And they will be pleased by that.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Jim Tankersley. He covers economics and tax policy for The New York Times. His book, published last year, is "The Riches Of This Land: The Untold, True Story Of America's Middle Class." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to the interview I recorded yesterday with New York Times economics reporter Jim Tankersley, who's covering the debates in Washington over President Biden's proposed economic stimulus and COVID relief package. His book, published last year, is "The Riches Of This Land: The Untold, True Story Of America's Middle Class."

You know, we talked about the fact that President Biden has - is facing some reluctance among moderate and conservative Democrats to go along with a package that is very, very expensive. There's another side to this, which is that there's - you know, there's a progressive element of the party that wants a lot and wants it now. And Senator Bernie Sanders is now chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. What impact will that have?

TANKERSLEY: I think it's having - it's already having an impact. Bernie is - and I talked to him about this for a story earlier this year. He is feeling very much like he wants to be aggressive with this budget reconciliation process. So he and the chairman of the House Budget Committee have written a budget reconciliation document that would allow for, in the first cut, an additional $1.9 trillion in deficit spending, just like the president's calling for. That's an aggressive use of reconciliation to drive up the budget deficit. But he also wants to push the boundaries of what might even fit under reconciliation.

So he's - he very much wants to try to get a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour federally into this recovery package like the president has proposed. That's not something that a lot of people who are well-versed in, you know, Senate procedure thought possible before this year. But Senator Sanders is really going to push that. He's going to make an argument that if you increase the minimum wage, people pay more taxes because they're earning more money. And therefore, you should consider that something that has to do with the budget and that can survive reconciliation. So his aggressiveness, I think, will be, actually, you know, ironically, an important part of how ambitious the Biden agenda can be after losing to the less ambitious Biden agenda in the Democratic primaries in the last presidential election.

DAVIES: And just so we understand the term - when we say a $15 federal minimum wage, that means that is the minimum wage across the land.

TANKERSLEY: Across the land.

DAVIES: Every fast food worker is going to get $15 an hour at least.

TANKERSLEY: Yes. The idea - right now, it's $7.25. It hasn't been raised in a long time. And the proposal is that over the course of just a few years, it would rise to $15 an hour. And that would mean, essentially, no one in the country could earn less than $15 an hour for, you know - whether you live in West Virginia or New York or wherever.

DAVIES: Do we know if the Republicans that President Biden is negotiating with are prepared to accept a $15 minimum wage?

TANKERSLEY: They are not. I think that there is almost no chance that you get a single Republican on that size of a minimum wage increase. They very much cite concerns that it will reduce employment or hurt small business owners. Whereas Democrats push the idea that it will help workers and will help the economy overall by giving people more money to spend who are more likely to spend it. But, no, I think that if there were to be a compromise package with Republicans, this would be something that's dropped from it. And to be clear, we don't know for sure that 50 Democrats support a minimum wage of $15 an hour. In the Senate, there's legislation that would do that that's been introduced in the past. And it does not have 50 Democrats on it. So I think it's a real question if that could pass in the form that they're proposing it.

DAVIES: Just to be clear, the $1.9 trillion plan here, is - are there any revenue measures associated with it? Is this all going to be funded by borrowing?

TANKERSLEY: So at the moment, that's what it looks like. It's all going to be funded by borrowing. Now, a group of Democrats in the House and Senate actually would like to offset some of the borrowing by rolling back some tax cuts, temporary tax cuts, that passed in the stimulus legislation last year for corporations. So that may be part of the ongoing, unfolding debate this week. But in general, the way the Biden team has been looking at its two big, early legislative packages on the economy, they've been looking at it as, we borrow money in order to save the economy now from its current dire situation. But they will, at least partially, and, perhaps, fully pay for the next big package, the infrastructure jobs, clean energy package, by raising taxes on businesses and the rich.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. Jim Tankersley covers economics and tax policy for The New York Times. His book, published last year, is "The Riches Of This Land: The Untold, True Story Of America's Middle Class." We'll talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with New York Times economics reporter Jim Tankersley, who's covering the debates in Washington over President Biden's proposed economic stimulus and COVID relief package. Much of Tankersley's reporting over the years has focused on the declining fortunes of the American middle class and what can be done to create more family-sustaining jobs in the economy. His book published last year is "The Riches Of This Land: The Untold, True Story Of America's Middle Class."

You know, you spent so much of your career reporting on what's happened to the middle class that emerged after the Second World War, people who had family-sustaining jobs even without a college education. I'm wondering how you see what's happening right now in that context. I mean, is this an opportunity to make a big difference for people who've been suffering for so long?

TANKERSLEY: It is an opportunity. It is also just a huge challenge. I think if you were to design a recession to hurt most the people who have most helped to build the American middle class, you would design basically this one. And I think that that is, on the one hand, a really big challenge. We need policy that's going to help those people, which, to be really clear, those people are women of all races, and they're men of color and immigrants. History shows us that they are the ones who actually powered the great growth of the American middle class after World War II. And they are the ones who are being hammered by this recession. Women are being pushed out of the labor force by having to care for children who can't be in school. Communities of color are dying at a disproportionate rate from the virus, and they're out of work at a disproportionate rate. Black unemployment is still in double digits. White unemployment has fallen dramatically since the start of the crisis. So we need to find ways to help those left-behind workers get back on their feet again.

On the other hand, it's also an opportunity to really see that reality of this recovery in a way that maybe has not been targeted in past recoveries from recession. And I think if policymakers really make a point to say - what can we do to get women back to work? What can we do to get men of color back to work? What can we do to rebuild wealth and go beyond rebuilding, to build new wealth in these communities and to empower these workers to really get ahead and contribute again? - there is real opportunity there. And it's hard to be in optimism sometimes about such a difficult period in our country and in our economy. But I think if there is an optimistic place to inhabit, that's it.

DAVIES: One of the things that would make a big difference is new job creation. And, you know, once President Biden gets beyond this stimulus package and COVID relief plan, assuming it happens, he's got another big initiative that he wants to push. He calls it Build Back Better. It's, you know, spending trillions on infrastructure, clean energy. Tell us - I guess we don't know all the details here. But what's involved here? What would it do? How would it be financed?

TANKERSLEY: We don't know the details, but we know what he talked about in the campaign. And everyone I've talked to within the administration says that it's going to track in many ways what the president talked about when he was running for president, which is - I mean, Washington has been talking about a big infrastructure bill since I got here more than a decade ago. He wants to actually do it. He wants to do big public works projects. And that's - I think a lot of people think, well, that means highways. Sure, it does mean highways. It means some roadwork, roads and bridges. But it also means rural broadband to bring these communities that have been, you know, left behind in the knowledge economy of the 21st century, hopefully give them more of a chance to compete.

It means, you know, in the president's view, investing in a whole bunch of different energy infrastructures for clean energy that will reduce the amount of carbon emissions from the United States and help lead the way in the fight against global warming. So this means - he talks a lot about, like, 500,000 electric car charging stations across the country and a bunch of sort of grid infrastructure. And some of it is sexy. Some of it is decidedly not.

But there are also things like federal employment programs, just ways in which the government will directly create jobs. And he wants to pay for all of it by raising taxes on the very high end - raising taxes on corporations, particularly multinational corporations, and raising taxes on rich people and in particular investors.

DAVIES: Well, Jim Tankersley, I want to talk about the book that you've written. A lot of it - it's not heavy on economic charts and data. A lot of it is looking at people in the middle class who have suffered in recent decades - them, their children. And you say that for a long time, you have been considering the question of why the economy isn't producing the kind of jobs it did for guys who went to high school, jobs that were, you know, family-sustaining - would allow them to have a house and a car and health insurance and a college fund. People who didn't necessarily go to college - in your case, it was the logging industry where you grew up. It's a big question. But what happened? I mean, where - why did all of these jobs disappear? Was it foreign competition? Was it opening trade with China?

TANKERSLEY: Yes. I mean, there's a lot. There's a lot of reasons why the American economy has stagnated in the last 40 years. And I do think that it's important to look at this question of where the jobs went. But it's also been sort of one of the big answers that I've come across and really become convinced of is it's not just about the jobs that went away, it's about the new, better jobs that haven't appeared. You know, we - there are lots of reasons why jobs, particularly jobs for men who didn't go to high school - or who didn't go to college, who only graduated high school, have gone away since, you know, basically the Reagan administration. The - we have had a lot of automation, computers taking jobs away from humans. I mean, in some cases, computers make people more productive. But in other cases, they just replace them. And we've seen that.

We have seen jobs that have gone overseas to China in particular. In the early 2000s, the China shock, by some economic estimates, cost us 2 million jobs. That's a lot. But what we've seen in America's history is that there have been lots of times when jobs have gone away. We had better farming technology that drove a bunch of jobs out of the fields. But what happened in that time was that the workers largely went to factories where they did new, better, more productive things that actually paid them more money.

And that's the real mystery of the American economy over the last 40 years is, why haven't those new, better jobs appeared? Why is Ohio now not awash in even better-paying jobs than the steel mill jobs or the auto manufacturing or any other sort of blue-collar jobs that they've lost? Why not? And I come to an argument in the book that's about people. And that took a long time and a lot of research and a lot of talking to people who have struggled in this economy for me to piece together.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Jim Tankersley. He covers economics and tax policy for The New York Times. His book, published last year, is "The Riches of This Land: The Untold True Story Of America's Middle Class." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Jim Tankersley. He covers economics and tax policy for The New York Times. He's currently covering the debates in Washington over President Biden's proposed economic stimulus and COVID relief package. Much of his reporting over the years has focused on the declining fortunes of the American middle class and what can be done to reverse that decline. His book, published last year, is "The Riches Of This Land: The Untold True Story Of America's Middle Class."

You know, one of the central ideas in the book is the observation that when jobs in the American economy have opened up to those who were previously excluded - women and people of color - those were the periods when we saw the most robust growth and that even white men benefited from it, this idea that when you open up the economy to those previously excluded, it's a zero-sum game and white men lose. You think it's exactly the opposite - that drives growth, which benefits everybody.

TANKERSLEY: I do. And don't just take it from me. Take it from detailed economic research about sort of where growth comes from. I think that's one of the most striking things that I've discovered in my career as an economics reporter is that there is deep empirical evidence for the following proposition - that the American economy, for much of its existence, walled off its best opportunities to a very small group of people, white men. White men were allowed to pursue the education and the careers that made them doctors and lawyers and other very highly paid, high-talent jobs, and that after World War II, for a combination of factors, including the war effort itself, which pulled a bunch of women off the sidelines, and then the hard work of civil rights, which allowed Black men and, you know, other groups of workers into the workforce in ways that they hadn't been allowed before, we started to see a change.

And it turns out that when you have really talented people and you allow them to pursue their talents to the fullness, that's good for everybody. What happened when we reduced barriers for women of all races and for men of color is that they flowed into more productive jobs. They were able to put their talents to use, and the economy grew faster. And when it grew faster, because they were able to work harder and better and more efficiently, then that growth, coupled with low unemployment, lifted incomes for everybody. It pulled millions of Americans into the middle class. So the progress of left-behind groups of Americans was great for everyone and created the true rising tide that lifts all boats, even the boats of the white men who had been holding back progress for so long.

DAVIES: You know, I did this little thought experiment on this because it did puzzle me. Let's say you have a company that has 20 accountants in its finance department. And in the old days, they were all white guys because that's - because other people were excluded. And then the economy got moving, and things changed, and others were invited in. And then afterward, let's say you have - I'm going to pick numbers out of the air - you know, eight white guys, six white women and then the rest, you know, people of color. And because we're now in - we're now letting people with talent into the business, into the workforce, we're getting a better mix of talent in the right jobs. So that accounting department is more effective. It does better for the company. It improves its productivity.

What puzzles me is, how does it create jobs? I mean, in that circumstance, I'd say we'd have like - what? - 12 white guys who are no longer in that accounting department, and maybe some of them belong on the shop floor driving a forklift or in the security force or the custodial employment. How does - I can see how getting better talent in all those jobs makes a company more productive. It's mysterious to me - how does it create new jobs and grow the economy?

TANKERSLEY: Let's think about it a couple of ways. First off, let's think that maybe one of your new accountants had worked at the company before but wasn't allowed to do anything but answer phones. And so now she, after years of only being allowed to answer phones, she's finally allowed to be an accountant. And she immediately proves to be an incredibly good accountant who is able to save lots of money for clients. And so more clients sign up. And essentially, you know, more business is created and so much more business that she can't handle it all herself. And so the company hires more accountants to handle the business that she's helping to create. I mean, that's - that is the sort of simplest way of thinking about increased productivity creating growth in an economy that creates jobs. There's just more money to go around, which is going to create demand, which will be met with supply of jobs.

But the second way to think about it, which goes beyond the study from Chicago and Stanford, is an entrepreneurial way, that it's not just that woman who was having to answer phones might become an accountant for this company. It's that, well, what happens if, actually, now she's allowed to spin off her own company with her own new idea for some great new way to solve a problem in the business world? And now she's creating jobs. She might create a whole new industry of people who approach accounting in a completely different way that's better for everyone.

And that's the other really big missing ingredient here is that immigrants are incredibly entrepreneurial, and their contributions have helped create new jobs and industries across the country, and that women and men of color have been denied the opportunities to get capital to start companies to the same level as the white men have throughout American history. It's still the case. And so it's an opportunity of, well, if you can empower those entrepreneurs, if you can take that woman who was only allowed to answer the phones and turn her into an entrepreneur, a job creator, then you're going to get a lot of new jobs that come from that.

Now, I don't know what industry those will be in. I can't tell you where the jobs of the future are going to be. But I do think that the evidence is pretty clear that the macroeconomic effects of investing in people will create some of those jobs. And then just the individual effects of empowering entrepreneurs means we know who will create those jobs if we just give them the chance.

DAVIES: You know, you say that people who were excluded from the economy - women, people of color - got in during World War II when there was a labor shortage and then with the passage of the civil rights legislation of the '60s. What changed after all that - after 1980, say.

TANKERSLEY: Two big things changed. The first is that the government started to walk back some of the Civil Rights Act and some of the - and sort of declared victory. But the Reagan administration sued over affirmative action in court and tried in other ways to block progress that had come under civil rights, sort of declaring that it wasn't necessary or that it was giving unfair advantages to people of color. But then the economy kind of changed, and we didn't change policy to keep up. And that's a harder concept to get. It's not some villain blocking progress. But it is true that over the last several decades, the economy has moved away from producing things, particularly manufacturing things, in a job standpoint and more toward services, a knowledge economy. And that's in part because of technological change and in part because of globalization.

But what that's done is that it's prioritized the skills in the job market of a certain type of worker. And in this case, it's really a story that focuses heavily on women. Women have become the most educated workers in America. They go to college and graduate more than men now on a percentage basis. And we have not done what we need to do to support those talented, highly educated women who should be the big winners from globalization and automation. We haven't done enough to change policy to make sure they can work and do all the things our society demands of them and also have the same opportunities that men do to advance. And by not sort of having that type of policy to support them, we've left them behind.

DAVIES: You end your book by addressing the question of, what do we do to bring the middle class back. And you don't have a list of policy prescriptions exactly. I mean, you have some ideas, but the theme you say is invest in people. You want to share this with us?

TANKERSLEY: Yeah. I think it's a way to try to think about it at an individual and a government level. But the idea is, if you could give me one thing to do to supercharge the economy, I would say, end discrimination across the American economy. Discrimination is holding back our economy. It's holding back our middle class.

And so what we all can and should do is invest in empowering people to overcome discrimination and overcome the sort of legacies of discrimination in their own lives and invest in the government policies that will lift people up. And that includes improving education at the, you know, the very most local level for children of color who are still consigned, in so many cases, to underperforming schools. It means improving access to capital for women who want to start businesses and men of color who want to start businesses. It means attracting high-talent people from all around the world who want to come and investing in their success here in the United States as they create jobs and businesses.

And it means investing in a suite of policies that allow people the flexibility to do what they're best at. And the one that I often bring up is child care. It's just remarkable that this incredibly talented group of women that we have in the workforce are so often forced to choose between staying on a career path and taking care of children because of the realities of the American child care system. And if we had a much better, lower-cost, less friction way for - to handle child care in this country, women would be able to balance the responsibilities that society puts on them with the difficulties of being a career - you know, someone who's trying to advance a career while also have a family.

And it's, you know, really tragically, the same does not apply to men. We just do not see the same penalties for men in the job market of problems with child care. So if you could solve that and so many other things and if you could reduce discrimination across the economy and invest in each other's success, then we really could see this upward flow of talent and this boom of job creation and growth.

DAVIES: Jim Tankersley, thanks so much for speaking with us.

TANKERSLEY: Oh, it's been a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Jim Tankersley covers economics and tax policy for The New York Times. His book, published last year, is "The Riches Of This Land: The Untold, True Story Of America's Middle Class."

Coming up, John Powers reviews a book he says belongs on the shelf of great books about women struggling to forge their own destiny. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JASON MORAN'S "BIG STUFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.