10 things we learned at Brookings in December

Sparkle 10

There are so many policy ideas and research papers to choose from each month, but here are just 10 items that caught our attention.

1. Credit card companies benefit the rich

Credit cards of American Express are photographed in this illustration picture in this March 17, 2016, file photo. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach/Illustration/Files GLOBAL BUSINESS WEEK AHEAD PACKAGE - SEARCH 'BUSINESS WEEK AHEAD APRIL 18' FOR ALL IMAGES - GF10000384784
Aaron Klein calls today’s electronic payment system “yet another engine of income inequality.” Higher-income consumers use credit cards more often, and are rewarded for it through rebates and discounts, while lower-income people tend to use other forms of payment, or higher-rate cards. “The wealthier you are,” he writes, “the higher the rewards and bigger the perks the card companies offer.”

2. Trump’s policy threatens key Asia alliances

US-ROK Foreign policy experts Bruce Klingner (Heritage Foundation), Jung Pak (Brookings), and Sue Mi Terry (CSIS)  write that President Trump “is trying to shake down Seoul and Tokyo” by demanding that South Korea and Japan pay more toward the cost of stationing U.S. troops in those countries. They point out, however, that these countries contribute to their defense and support U.S. security in many other ways. “Alliances are not valued in dollars and cents, and American service members are not mercenaries,” they argue. “Excessive U.S. monetary demands degrade alliances based on shared principles and goals into mere transactional relationships.”

3. National climate strategies fall short in attention to girls’ education

A girl looks on as people take part in a "youth strike for climate change" demonstration in London, Britain February 15, 2019. REUTERS/Simon Dawson - RC1F44A5E6F0
In the Paris Agreement, ratified in 2016, nearly 200 countries and the European Union agreed to develop ways to limit the rise in global temperatures through their own Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). A team of researchers—Christina Kwauk (Brookings), Jessica Cooke (Plan International), Elisa Hara (Plan International Finland), and Joni Pegram (; UNICEF)—analyzed the NDCs through the lenses of gender, age, and education. “Climate strategies that are ‘gender-blind’—or, that do not take gender into consideration,” they write, “can inadvertently exacerbate gender inequality.” However, “climate action that is gender-sensitive, gender-responsive, and gender-transformative can bring about the systems-level change needed, not only to eliminate gender inequality, but also to achieve a sustainable, just, equitable, and fair human society.”

4. New policies needed to address opportunities and risks of transportation developments

2018.01.03_metro_Local transportation investment photo

New technologies and behaviors are transforming urban transportation and service delivery. These include decreasing car ownership among younger Americans and increasing ride-sharing; investments in autonomous vehicles and package delivery by drone; and increased use of new digital systems in disaster relief and public safety. Darrell West writes in his new report that these changes raise risks but also possible benefits. Still, he writes, “there are considerable concerns about privacy, data usage, human safety, and legal liability. It is important to resolve these problems in order to move forward with emerging models.”

5. The US innovation sector is concentrating in a handful of metro areas

Kansas City

Metro experts Robert Atkinson (Information Technology and Innovation Foundation) and Mark Muro and Jacob Whiton (Brookings) propose a major federal innovation and support package to stem the growing divergence between a top-tier of innovation-sector cities and the rest. Noting that Boston, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle and San Diego have accounted for more than 90 percent of innovation sector growth from 2005 to ’17, they argue that “the time has come for the nation to offset the pull-away of the innovation superstars with a concerted intervention to support the emergence of new tech stars in new places.”

6. US poverty is declining, but about a third of the poor are children

Cattle hauler truck driver and his daughters standing in front of his truck. It is raining.
The rate of poverty in the U.S. returned to pre-Great Recessions levels in 2018, and has been in decline since a peak in 2010. The rate now stands at 11.8 percent of the population. Experts at the Hamilton Project have analyzed the characteristics of those living in poverty, showing that more than half were working-age adults (aged 18-64), about a third were children, and an eighth were senior citizens.

7. Mexico’s president holding his country back from a more modern energy system

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador addresses supporters after receiving the staff of command from indigenous people during the AMLO Fest at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico December 1, 2018. Picture taken December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
Samantha Gross reviews Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) approach to the energy sector in his first year in office. Mexico—traditionally an important oil-producing country whose people are proud of their national oil company, Pemex—imported more than 70 percent of its refined fuels last year. “AMLO’s energy policies could be worse,” Gross writes, “but they are bad enough. He is holding Mexico back from creating a more modern energy system with lower prices for consumers and in terms of environmental and greenhouse gas emissions performance.”

8. New strategies needed to combat global hunger

Agricultural fieldsIn a new report from the Global Economy and Development program, Geoffrey Gertz and Homi Kharas observe that global hunger has risen over the past three years, and the international commitment to end hunger and malnutrition (the second of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals) by 2030 is failing. They write that “a business-as-usual scenario in countries will leave most people behind on specific hunger-related SDG targets,” and that international support for food and nutrition security and agriculture “is lagging.”

9. Re-zoning for “gentle density” could increase housing, lower costs

Row houses

Researchers Alex Baca (Greater Greater Washington), Patrick McAnaney (Somerset Development Co.) and Jenny Schuetz (Brookings) note that in most American cities, about three-quarters of land is zoned only for single-family detached homes. As availability and affordability worsen across the country, these experts argue that “replacing detached single-family homes with ‘gentle density’ could increase the number of homes available and bring down average housing prices in high-cost locations, while retaining the physical scale of the neighborhood.”

10. FCC is falling behind in freeing up critical 5G spectrum

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks next to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Ajit Pai during an event on United States 5G deployment in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., April 12, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria - RC19EF413F60
Tom Wheeler, visiting fellow in Governance Studies and former chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), explains why a recent decision by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai—following a call from President Trump—on allocating the C-band part of the spectrum sets back 5G progress. Wheeler says this effort “is farther behind at the end of 2019 than it was at the beginning of the year.”