10 things we learned at Brookings in December

Number 10

In this final week of a year that can’t end soon enough, here are 10 items from the past month to carry you into the new year.

1. Boosting long-run growth after the pandemic

In an essay for the Blueprints for American Renewal & Prosperity series, Martin Baily says that “once the pandemic is under control the problem of slow long-term growth will resurface.” Baily offers a number of policies to overcome this challenge, including worker training and re-training; loans and grants to struggling businesses, large and small; a reformed immigration policy that welcomes those with technical skills and entrepreneurial talents; and renewed federal support for R&D.

2. Amazon and Walmart profit during pandemic, but not their employees

Walmart employeeMolly Kinder and Laura Stateler report that “many of America’s top retail and grocery companies have raked in billions during the pandemic but shared little of that windfall with their frontline workers, who risk their lives each day for wages that are often so low they can’t support a family.” These include, especially, Amazon and Walmart which together earned over $10 billion extra profit over 2019, but were among the least generous in extra compensation for workers. “Companies like Walmart and Amazon have the means—and the moral imperative—to provide higher hourly hazard pay and raise wages permanently,” Kinder and Stateler argue. “Their frontline essential workforce, who have helped nearly all the rest of us get through the pandemic, certainly deserve it.”

3. Transforming global education systems for the post-pandemic world

Happy children learning
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many sectors, with particularly deep impacts on education worldwide. Jenny Perlman Robinson writes that the “disruption caused by the pandemic—and its far-reaching impact—requires large-scale, innovative education approaches that transform education systems to meet the needs of all children.” Learn more in this piece about a new partnership between Brookings and the Global Partnership for Education to address the concerns facing education systems around the world.

4. Rehiring foreign service officers to rebuild State Department is not a good idea

A pedestrian wearing gloves, goggles and a mask walks by the State Department in Washington, D.C. on April 23, 2020 amid the Coronavirus pandemic. After extended negotiations over an additional $500 billion in stimulus funding in response to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, the U.S. Congress is set send another economic relief bill to President Trump to sign into law after a House vote later today. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)No Use UK. No Use Germany.Jeffrey Feltman addresses one idea to restore the State Department after what he calls “the vandalism of the Trump years”—an “amnesty” to allow foreign service officers (FSOs) who resigned or retired since 2016 to rejoin the department. Feltman explains why this is a bad idea, and suggests alternatives. “Yes,” Feltman writes, “the foreign service suffered under the Trump administration. But an ‘amnesty’ for any ex-FSO will not revitalize America’s professional diplomacy in the ways most needed to meet contemporary challenges.”

5. How to eliminate the Electoral College

An election official creates a duplicate absentee ballot, which is evaluated by two officials for consistency, after the original was rejected by the sorting machine at a central count facility on Election Day in Kenosha, Wisconsin, U.S. November 3, 2020. REUTERS/Daniel Acker
Elaine Kamarck and John Hudak argue that the Electoral College must be eliminated because it leaves the most populous states in the country dramatically underrepresented in the electoral system.  In 1900, the state with the median population (Louisiana) held 19% of the population of the largest state (New York). However, by 2019, the median state (Kentucky) comprised only 11% of the most populous state (California). “These imbalances effectively ensure that some votes in presidential elections are worth more than others,” they say, “and as that imbalance scales up across the entire Electoral College, it can (under the right circumstances) provide the recipes for popular vote winners losing the Electoral College.” See also: “The Electoral College is a ticking time bomb,” by William Galston.

6. The future of natural resource governance

detail of white smoke polluted skyA new collaboration examines the future of natural resource governance at a time when the global pandemic is putting strain on economies and democratic institutions, especially in lower-income, resource-rich countries. The Leveraging Transparency to Reduce Corruption project at Brookings, the Natural Resource Governance Institute, and the Transparency and Accountability Initiative are focused on “opening new ways of thinking about natural resource governance global (and local) architecture and better responding to the short- and long-term challenges posed by COVID-19.”

7. War powers must be address by new president and Congress

The various boots worn by multi-nation troops are seen as the soldiers listen to U.S. President Barack Obama speak to military troops at the Fort Bonifacio Gymnasium in Manila, April 29, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing (PHILIPPINES - Tags: POLITICS)Michael O’Hanlon and Amy McGrath, a retired Marine Corps pilot and former candidate for U.S. Senate from Kentucky, acknowledge that President-elect Joe Biden’s nomination of retired four-star general Lloyd Austin to be the next secretary of defense raises some valid concerns. But, they say, there is an even more pressing concern: war powers and who wields them. “Since World War II,” they write, “the executive branch has usurped war-making powers that the U.S. Constitution entrusted to the people’s branch of government, Congress. This pressing issue demands major, comprehensive new legislation from a new Congress and president come 2021.”

8. One billion people in poverty hotspots worldwide

Antananarivo, Madagascar, Africa -January 11 2020: An aerial view of a group of poor children in a slum of the madagascan city. Malagasy kids play with tires in the dirt, surrounded by hanging laundryRaj Desai, Homi Kharas, and Selen Özdoğan document poverty “hotspots” around the globe, places that were classified as low income in both 2000 and 2015. These areas were home to 1.12 billion people in 2015, and are spread across 77 countries, though concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and South Asia. They offer three interventions to address regional development in these “subnational” areas: “those that improve human capital, those that compensate for geographical disadvantages through investments in technology and infrastructure, and those that improve the functioning of political institutions.”

9. Expand national service programs and EDUCATIONAL Awards

Young people are among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic wreckage, hurting jobs and job prospects, while also disrupting post-secondary educational attainment. In their essay for Blueprints for American Renewal & Prosperity, Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman argue that an expanded national service program—including more service positions, an increased living allowance, and more educational awards—can address both problems. “A more robust national service infrastructure,” they write, “will address key issues predating the pandemic, such as the need for more stability and guidance to help young adults gain a foothold in the labor market, and the need for structured opportunities that allow people to interact and work with a diverse group of peers.”

10. A post-pandemic plan for the middle class

Suburban household with American flag.
“A prosperous middle class provides the foundation for a strong society and a healthy democracy,” say Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill. But they note that over the last few decades middle class incomes have grown half as fast as incomes at in the top 20% and in the bottom 20% of the income distribution. To revitalize the middle class, Reeves and Sawhill propose policies that include tax reductions on middle class incomes, educational benefits for national service, two years of free college, and more.