10 things we learned at Brookings in January

Number 10 in ice

In this first month of the new year 2021, Brookings and outside experts continued to release research and commentary on a range of critical policy issues, from preventing future pandemics, to shoring up the U.S. economy, to addressing the for-profit college system.

1. A better approach to preventing pandemics

Macaques seen inside the cages during on sale at animals market store in Medan, North Sumatra province, Indonesia on February 22, 2020. Topeng monyet or the monkey mask is a show using monkeys. In some regions of Indonesia this performance is no longer allowed because it is considered torture of animals. Photo by Sutanta Aditya/ABACAPRESS.COM
Zoonotic diseases like the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, plus Ebola, SARS, and others, cause millions of deaths and billions of infections every year. In her policy brief for the Blueprints for American Renewal & Prosperity series, Vanda Felbab-Brown says that “[r]educing the likelihood of another viral spillover sweeping the world requires a fundamental change in how we interact with nature.” We should not react defensively, she explains, but rather with “deep prevention based on a fundamental restructuring of how we treat nature, even after COVID-19 vaccines become widely available.”

2. How a COVID-19 relief package would affect the US economy

Wendy Edelberg and Louise Sheiner examine how the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion fiscal package would affect the overall economy. “Without additional fiscal support” they observe, “we project that real GDP would remain below the pre-pandemic level for the next several years.” However, their projections show that the package “would boost economic activity, as measured by the level of real gross domestic product (GDP), by about 4 percent at the end of 2021 and 2 percent at the end of 2022, relative to a projection that assumes no additional fiscal support.”

3. COVID-19 can bring public and private sectors together in Africa

Foresight Africa 2021 Chapter 4In his chapter from the new Foresight Africa 2021 report, Edem Adzogenu, chairman of the Executive Committee of AfroChampions Initiative, observes that micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) provide 80% of youth employment on the continent, but are facing severe challenges during the pandemic. One in five of these businesses is going bankrupt, 40 million people are falling into extreme poverty, and foreign direct investment is declining. “For African economies to survive these shocks,” Adzogenu argues, “policymakers and private sector actors must work more closely together than ever before,” including working together to smoothly implement the African Continental Free Trade Area.


American familyWilliam Frey has analyzed Census Bureau surveys and studies leading up to the release of the full results of the decennial Census, and notes some key demographic trends in the U.S. population. “These trends,” he writes, “include an unprecedented stagnation in population growth, a continued decrease in Americans’ geographical mobility, more pronounced population aging, a first-time decline in the size of the white population, and rising racial and ethnic diversity among millennials, Gen Z, and younger groups, which now comprise a majority of the nation’s residents.” The chart above shows that if the white population decline is confirmed by the Census, it would be the first time since 1790 that the white population did not grow.

5. Tracking Biden administration appointees

U.S. President Joe Biden signs an executive order after speaking during an event on his administration's Covid-19 response with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, left, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Biden in his first full day in office plans to issue a sweeping set of executive orders to tackle the raging Covid-19 pandemic that will rapidly reverse or refashion many of his predecessor's most heavily criticized policies. Photo by Al Drago/Pool/ABACAPRESS.COM
“One of the president’s most significant constitutional powers,” writes Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, “is the ability to staff the top tiers of the executive branch with the advice and consent of the Senate.” Tenpas is tracking the new Biden administration’s Senate-confirmable appointments, in terms of both demographics (race and gender) and pace of confirmations. The data for the Biden administration will be tracked and compared to the previous three administrations.

6. Developments in AI governance

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau high fives a robotic arm as he takes part in a robotics demonstration at Kinova Robotics in Boisbriand, QuebecAlex Engler writes that 2021 “is poised to be a highly impactful period for the governance of artificial intelligence (AI).” Noting that the Trump administration successfully pushed for millions of dollars in AI funding, and that federal agencies under the Biden administration are now working on AI compliance issues, Engler lays out six developments in AI governance over the coming year.

7. Why building more public housing is not the best solution to affordable housing

At the start of the new Biden administration, with Democrats also in charge of Congress, many hope low-income housing will become a top priority. Jenny Schuetz argues that “helping low-income families gain access to good-quality, stable, affordable housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods should be a goal of the incoming Biden administration and the new Congress. But building more public housing is the wrong way to achieve that goal.” This piece offers four reasons why “building more public housing is not a cure-all for the nation’s housing woes—as well as ideas for more effective solutions advocates can push for in the months ahead.”

8. A new quality education FRAMEWORK for climate action

Young girl holding a "save earth" sign
The global education sector has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, but will face additional challenges in the future from climate change and emergent diseases. Christina Kwauk and Olivia Casey write that to “leverage our present moment of disruption for good, the education community must begin to see how building back ‘better’ from COVID-19 is intertwined with both the road to achieving the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees Celsius target … and the road to achieving greater gender equality in and through education.” In their report, Kwauk and Casey present a new framework “to ensure the needs and experiences of those often most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and social inequity, especially girls and women, are prioritized.”

9. The broken for-profit college system

Students wear protective masks as they wait in line at a testing site for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) set up for returning students, faculty and staff on the main New York University (NYU) campus in Manhattan, New York City, New York, U.S., August 18, 2020. REUTERS/Mike SegarAriel Gelrud Shiro and Richard Reeves observe that for-profit colleges, which have rebounded under Trump-era deregulation, “yield higher debts and poorer labor market outcomes for students when compared to other forms of postsecondary education.” And, while Black and Latino students constitute less than a third of all college students, they represent nearly half of enrollment in for-profit colleges as a result of, say Shiro and Reeves, “predatory recruitment tactics targeted at Black and Latino communities.”

10. US should expand its focus on a new set of domestic and global dangers

A FireEye information analyst works in front of a screen showing a near real-time map tracking cyber threats at the FireEye office in Milpitas, California, December 29, 2014. FireEye is the security firm hired by Sony to investigate last month's cyberattack against Sony Pictures. Picture taken December 29. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY CRIME LAW) - RTR4JTQC
In his policy brief for the Blueprints for American Renewal & Prosperity series, Michael O’Hanlon writes that the Biden administration should add focus to a new set of threats, in addition to the “4+1” group of Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and transnational violent extremism. Such a new “4+1” would include, O’Hanlon explains, “biological weapons and pandemics, nuclear weapons, climate change, nefarious aspects of digital technologies, and America’s own weakening internal cohesion and strength.”