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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: We Need a Politics of Abundance!

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from his blog:

I quite liked this piece by Derek Thompson on the Atlantic site. He’s singing my song!

“Zoom out, and you can see that scarcity has been the story of the whole pandemic response. In early 2020, Americans were told to not wear masks, because we apparently didn’t have enough to go around. Last year, Americans were told to not get booster shots, because we apparently didn’t have enough to go around. Today, we’re worried about people using too many COVID tests as cases scream past 700,000 per day, because we apparently don’t have enough to go around….

Zoom out yet more, and the truly big picture comes into focus. Manufactured scarcity isn’t just the story of COVID tests, or the pandemic, or the economy: It’s the story of America today. The revolution in communications technology has made it easier than ever for ordinary people to loudly identify the problems that they see in the world. But this age of bits-enabled protest has coincided with a slowdown in atoms-related progress.

Altogether, America has too much venting and not enough inventing. We say that we want to save the planet from climate change—but in practice, many Americans are basically dead set against the clean-energy revolution, with even liberal states shutting down zero-carbon nuclear plants and protesting solar-power projects. We say that housing is a human right—but our richest cities have made it excruciatingly difficult to build new houses, infrastructure, or megaprojects. Politicians say that they want better health care—but they tolerate a catastrophically slow-footed FDA‪ that withholds promising tools, and a federal policy that deliberately limits the supply of physicians.

In the past few months, I’ve become obsessed with a policy agenda that is focused on solving our national problem of scarcity. This agenda would try to take the best from several ideologies. It would harness the left’s emphasis on human welfare, but it would encourage the progressive movement to “take innovation as seriously as it takes affordability,” as Ezra Klein wrote. It would tap into libertarians’ obsession with regulation to identify places where bad rules are getting in the way of the common good. It would channel the right’s fixation with national greatness to grow the things that actually make a nation great—such as clean and safe spaces, excellent government services, fantastic living conditions, and broadly shared wealth.”

This reminds me of some of the themes in my recent essay on The Five Deadly Sins of the American Left:

“The final deadly sin I discussed in my essay was technopessimism. I observed that:

[M]any on the left tend to regard technological change with dread rather than hope. They see technology as a force facilitating inequality rather than growth, destroying jobs rather than leading to skilled-job creation, turning consumers into corporate pawns rather than information-savvy citizens, and destroying the planet in the process. We are far, far away from the left’s traditional attitude, which welcomed technological change as the handmaiden of abundance and increased leisure, or, for that matter, from the liberal optimism that permeated the culture of the 1950s and ‘60s with tantalizing visions of flying cars and obedient robots.

The passage of a year and a change in presidential administration does not seem to have altered this attitude much. There remains a distinct lack of optimism on the left that a rapid advance and application of technology can produce an abundant future. But there is an endless supply of discussion about a dystopian future that may await us thanks to AI and other technologies. This is odd, given that almost everything ordinary people like about the modern world, including relatively high living standards, is traceable to technological advances and the knowledge embedded in those advances. From smart phones, flat-screen TVs, and the internet, to air and auto travel, to central heating and air conditioning, to the medical devices and drugs that cure disease and extend life, to electric lights and the mundane flush toilet, technology has dramatically transformed people’s lives for the better. It is difficult to argue that the average person today is not far, far better off than her counterpart in the past. As the Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr puts it, “The good old days were old but not good.”

Doesn’t the left want to make people happy? One has to wonder. There seems to be more interest in figuring out what people should stop doing and consuming than in figuring out how people can have more to do and consume. The very idea of abundance is rarely discussed, except to disparage it.

These attitudes help explain why the left does not tend to feature technological advance prominently in its policy portfolio. The Biden administration did manage to get the U.S. Competiveness and Innovation Act through the Senate (it has yet to pass the House) but with far less funding and far less probable impact on scientific innovation than it had when it was the Endless Frontier Act. But nobody on the left seemed to mind very much since it just wasn’t very high on their priority list.

You can also see this in the rather modest amount of attention and resources devoted to technological advance in the Democrats’ other bills. The bipartisan infrastructure bill did contain some money for developing next generation energy technologies like clean hydrogen, carbon capture, and advanced nuclear, but the amount was comparatively modest. The clean energy money in the last version of the Build Back Better bill, now shelved, was mostly focused on speeding up deployment of wind, solar, and electric vehicles.

It is hard to avoid the feeling that the left thinks about the clean energy future in a dreamy, fuzzy way as entirely driven by all-natural wind and solar power. But if there is to be a clean energy future, especially on the rapid timetables envisioned by most on the left, it will depend on our ability to develop the requisite technologies—not all wind and solar—quickly. Here is an area, perhaps more than any other, where the left’s technopessimism does not serve it well.

In the end, most of what the left says it wants to accomplish depends on rapid technological advances. That would seem to call for techno-optimism rather than the current jaundiced attitude toward the potential of technology.”

One comment on “Teixeira: We Need a Politics of Abundance!

  1. pjcamp on

    Derek Thompson is missing a LOT.

    Everything has a history. The FDA approval process is deliberately slow and cumbersome to prevent any more Thalidomides. Now you have a different problem to solve and the previous solution is getting in your way. That’s what happens when you let politics instead of experts define the problem and identify the parameters of its solution. Every day is a new day.

    Similarly, we have plenty of doctors. I can get an appointment with a cardiologist tomorrow. But I can’t get an appointment with a primary care for 6 months, if I even have one. Doctors are poorly distributed among specialities because we are too cheap to train doctors. Instead, we subsidize hospitals to train them and hospitals produce more of the kind of doctors they need, not what the health care system needs. If we paid for medical education, we could fix this. Instead, we throw loans at students, insure the needed specialities are the absolute lowest paid, and use Medicare to bribe hospitals to pay for residencies.

    I take your point of power plants and it pisses me off too. But we aren’t alone. Germany is replacing nuclear with fossil fuels and Britain is opening a new coal mine. The less said about Chinese reliance on coal, the better.

    Now lets address “manufactured scarcity.” That refers to witholding materials to artificially goose prices, but that isn’t really what is happening. Instead, look at the history. Bits do not only enable progress, they also enable just-in-time manufacturing. So way fewer warehouses, way less waste, way fewer idled factories, and way lower prices. Everybody liked that until the pandemic caused demand to spike in a way that just-in-time was not elastic enough to deal with immediately.

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