A long piece today, from the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of The Atlantic.
The Atlantic, Derek Thompson, 12 Dec 2022: Why the Age of American Progress Ended, subtitled “Invention alone can’t change the world; what matters is what happens next.”
The piece begins with an amazing capsule history of a disease that ravaged the world, from antiquity through the 1500s, when it contributed to the downfall of the Aztec, Mayan, and Inca empires, and into the 1700s, and the discovery by Edward Jenner of inoculation, and eventually vaccine, for what came to be called “smallpox.” Which was completely eradicated around the world by 1980.
For many, progress is essentially a timeline of the breakthroughs made by extraordinary individuals like Jenner. Our mythology of science and technology treats the moment of discovery or invention as a sacred scene. In school, students memorize the dates of major inventions, along with the names of the people who made them—Edison, light bulb, 1879; Wright brothers, airplane, 1903. The great discoverers—Franklin, Bell, Curie, Tesla—get best-selling biographies, and millions of people know their names.
But progress is as much about implementation as it is about invention. The way individuals and institutions take an idea from one to 1 billion is the story of how the world really changes.
The most fundamental is that implementation, not mere invention, determines the pace of progress — a lesson the U.S. has failed to heed for the past several generations.
So the government has funded basic research, and left it up to business to decide what inventions to deploy.
The U.S. remains the world’s R&D factory, but when it comes to building, we are plainly going backwards. We’ve lost out on industrial opportunities by running Bush’s playbook so strictly. But there are other problems, too. Since the early 2000s, the U.S. has closed more nuclear-power plants than we’ve opened.
“And then, around 1980, we basically stopped building,” Jesse Jenkins, who researches energy policy at Princeton, told me. In the past 40 years, he said, the U.S. has applied several different brakes to our capacity to build what’s already been invented. Under Ronald Reagan, the legacy of successful public-private partnerships was ignored in favor of the simplistic diagnosis that the government was to blame for every major problem. In the ’70s, liberals encouraged the government to pass new environmental regulations to halt pollution and prevent builders from running roughshod over low-income neighborhoods. And then middle-class Americans used these new rules to slow down the construction of new housing, clean-energy projects—just about everything. These reactions were partly understandable; for example, air and water pollution in the ’70s were deadly crises. But “when you combine these big shifts, you basically stop building anything,” Jenkins said.
So the article blames both conservatives and liberals, who have different motivations for inhibiting the implementation of progressive discoveries.
The article goes on to describe the ‘warp speed’ program for covid vaccine.
The COVID vaccines underline a second lesson from the smallpox story. Some technology myths make it seem like progress is exclusively the work of geniuses, untouched by the grubby hands of politicians and bureaucrats. But a rogue cadre of inventors didn’t eradicate smallpox. States did. Agencies did. Progress is often political, because the policy decisions of states and international organizations frequently build the bridges between discovery and deployment.
One regrettable feature of history is that it sometimes takes a catastrophe to fast-forward progress. The U.S. directly advanced airplane technology during World War I; radar, penicillin manufacturing, and nuclear technology during World War II; the internet and GPS during the Cold War; and mRNA technology during the pandemic. A crisis is a focusing mechanism. But it is up to us to decide what counts as a crisis.
The article swings back around to identify its broad issue with the anti-vaxxers.
Operation Warp Speed was ingenious, admirable, and wildly successful. But despite all that, it was not enough.
Having overcome the hurdles of scientific breakthrough, technological invention, and rapid distribution, the mRNA vaccines faced a final obstacle: cultural acceptance. And the skepticism of tens of millions of American adults proved too much for the vaccines to overcome. This is the third lesson of the smallpox story—culture is the true last-mile problem of progress. It doesn’t matter what you discover or invent if people are unwilling to accept it.
The problem wasn’t supply, but demand. Tens of millions of American adults simply refused a free and effective vaccine in the middle of a pandemic.
Core issue, perhaps:
Americans are deeply polarized; that much is obvious. Less obvious, and more important for our purposes, is how polarization might complicate material progress today. One big problem the country faces is that as coastal, educated elites have come to largely identify as Democrats, Republicans have come to feel ignored or condescended to by the institutions populated by the former group. As if recoiling from the rise of a liberal scientific and managerial class, the GOP has become almost proudly anti-expertise, anti-science, and anti-establishment. Cranks and conspiracy theorists have gained prominence in the party. It is hard to imagine scientific institutions flourishing within right-wing governments averse to both science and institutions. But this is only part of the problem, culturally speaking.
The other part is that some Democrats—many of whom call themselves progressives—have in meaningful ways become anti-progress, at least where material improvement is concerned. Progress depends on a society’s ability to build what it knows. But very often, it’s progressives who stand against building what we’ve already invented, including relatively ancient technology like nuclear power or even apartment buildings.
When you add the anti-science bias of the Republican Party to the anti-build skepticism of liberal urbanites and the environmentalist left, the U.S. seems to have accidentally assembled a kind of bipartisan coalition against some of the most important drivers of human progress. To correct this, we need more than improvements in our laws and rules; we need a new culture of progress.
Still, it doesn’t solve the problem of cultural unreadiness for progress, a problem that afflicts the left and right differently, but that ultimately comes down to trust. Every form of institutional trust is in free fall. Fewer than half of Republicans say they have faith in higher education, big businesses, tech firms, media, the entertainment industry, and unions. Among Democrats, too, confidence in government has declined. Why is social trust so important to progress? In a country where people don’t trust the government to be honest, or businesses to be ethical, or members of the opposite party to respect the rule of law, it is hard to build anything quickly and effectively—or, for that matter, anything that lasts.
In 2022, the medical journal The Lancet published an analysis of which variables best predicted the rates of COVID infection across 177 countries. Outside wealth, one of the most powerful variables was trust in government among the public. “Trust is a shared resource that enables networks of people to do collectively what individual actors cannot,” the authors of the Lancet paper wrote. When I first read their definition, I stared at it for a while, feeling the shock of recognition. I thought of how much that could serve as a definition of progress as well: a network of people doing collectively what individual actors cannot. The stories of global progress tend to be the rare examples where science, technology, politics, and culture align. When we see the full ensemble drama of progress, we realize just how many different people, skills, and roles are necessary.
Final line: “Perhaps there is our final lesson, the one most worth carrying forward. It takes one hero to make a great story, but progress is the story of us all.”