This interview is adapted from a segment in the Brookings Cafeteria podcast called “Coffee Break,” where a scholar new to Brookings introduces their background, research interests, and offers book recommendations. The transcript has been slightly edited from the audio recording.
My name is DJ Gribbin. I’m the former special assistant to the president for infrastructure. Currently I serve as a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Brookings as part of the Metropolitan Policy Program. I’m also a senior operating partner for Stonepeak Infrastructure Partners and I’m a founder of my own consulting firm.
Q: Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the D.C. area, so I’m a Washingtonian. My parents came from Casper, Wyoming, when I was about four years old. But I lived in D.C. for a while, Maryland for a while, grew up in Bethesda for the most part, went to Georgetown Law School, Georgetown University, and currently live in Leesburg.
Q: What inspired you to become a scholar?
I recently finished up a tour of duty as the special assistant to the president for infrastructure in the White House. And in that role, my job was to coordinate amongst a dozen different Cabinet members and senior White House staff, working with governors, mayors, every stakeholder in infrastructure to develop the president’s infrastructure plan.
One of the things I found was that there was a shocking lack of knowledge generally about how infrastructure works, how we currently deliver it. So I had worked with Brookings in the White House, became enamored with the team that they had on infrastructure, and decided it made a lot of sense to team up and have a conversation where we can start filling people in on how infrastructure works.
Q: What do you think is the most important issue we’re facing today?
If you have a policy objective—in this case we want better infrastructure—it’s hard to get there if you don’t know where you are. So you would probably expect me to say the most important issue we’re facing today is infrastructure, but I actually think it’s debt and the way we think about debt.
Starting way back when Grover Norquist set up Americans for Tax Reform and had Republicans sign a pledge saying they won’t increase taxes, the thesis was essentially if we don’t increase taxes, government will have fewer resources and government will shrink.
The challenges of what that triggered, in essence, was we don’t raise taxes, we just borrow. So there was a natural dynamic where Republicans would be resistant to increases in revenue and Democrats would be resistant to decreases in spending and services and that created a balance.
I think we’re up at around $22 trillion now and we just had a $2 trillion dollar infrastructure plan posed [in April], so we could be $24 trillion any minute. The challenge is then the hard choice that needs to be made between scarce resources and the quality of service has been bypassed by the ability to borrow very cheaply and to borrow at levels that I think in the last generation would have been unimaginable.
Q: What are you working on now?
I’m working with the Metro team and we’re trying to get a conversation started on infrastructure. And part of the challenge in talking about infrastructure is it’s owned primarily at the state and local level. Federal government owns only about 8 percent of our nation’s infrastructure, so the challenge in Washington is that you have these conversations but no owner is at the table, because the governors, the mayors, and county executives actually own the infrastructure.
So, we’re working on pulling together a task force that will think about a new infrastructure partnership to examine how do we as a country change the way and make more efficient the involvement of the federal government in the delivery of infrastructure.
Q: If you could recommend any book to our listeners, what would it be?
I would recommend two books to your listeners. I know you guys only asked me to recommend one, but let me recommend two; the first is The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. The subtitle is “Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” It is absolutely the best book to help you understand why you can have very bright, very capable people look at a political situation and come to diametrically opposed opinions on whether that’s right or that’s wrong. Unlike a lot of social scientists, Haidt actually does research and data gathering. It’s unbelievably well written and very well researched and quite helpful.
The second book is different, but it’s Life on the Edge: The Coming Edge of Quantum Biology by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili. It has nothing to do with infrastructure, it has nothing do with policy, but it is really interesting in terms of quantum effects that we thought early on would only be done in really extreme environments may be taking place in traditional day-to-day biological environments.