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Serious musings

The future is just waiting to be built

Last fall I started getting a strong vibe that 2020 would be a transformative year. It is not disappointing. So many seeds planted over the previous decades are now sprouting. Some, like coronavirus, are quick-growing weeds that must be immediately and uncompromisingly dealt with. Others have grown slowly, and are only just beginning to break the surface; it's hard to tell what fruit they'll bear but, weed or wheat, their emergence shows us what we have to work with.

Marc Andreesen summarized one of these seeds by saying: "It's Time to Build." This raises some basic questions: what have we been doing and what should we stop doing so that we can start building? What should we build? And, why is now the time?

Why is now the time? Because coronavirus has shown how vulnerable we and our neighbors are to entirely likely events, how large the gap is between our perceived risk and our actual exposure. Quoting:

Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination. But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t do in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to build.

We see this today with the things we urgently need but don’t have. We don’t have enough coronavirus tests, or test materials — including, amazingly, cotton swabs and common reagents. We don’t have enough ventilators, negative pressure rooms, and ICU beds. And we don’t have enough surgical masks, eye shields, and medical gowns — as I write this, New York City has put out a desperate call for rain ponchos to be used as medical gowns. Rain ponchos! In 2020! In America!

We also don’t have therapies or a vaccine — despite, again, years of advance warning about bat-borne coronaviruses. Our scientists will hopefully invent therapies and a vaccine, but then we may not have the manufacturing factories required to scale their production. And even then, we’ll see if we can deploy therapies or a vaccine fast enough to matter — it took scientists 5 years to get regulatory testing approval for the new Ebola vaccine after that scourge’s 2014 outbreak, at the cost of many lives.

In the U.S., we don’t even have the ability to get federal bailout money to the people and businesses that need it. Tens of millions of laid off workers and their families, and many millions of small businesses, are in serious trouble *right now*, and we have no direct method to transfer them money without potentially disastrous delays. A government that collects money from all its citizens and businesses each year has never built a system to distribute money to us when it’s needed most.

Why do we not have these things? Medical equipment and financial conduits involve no rocket science whatsoever. At least therapies and vaccines are hard! Making masks and transferring money are not hard. We could have these things but we chose not to — specifically we chose not to have the mechanisms, the factories, the systems to make these things. We chose not to build.

Now is the time. As we emerge from our corona cocoons, what should we start building? Are disposable masks the most important thing or are they just a stop-gap until vaccines defeat the virus? Or stepping back, do we need to build a new FDA/CDC? But what if the correct response is even more fundamental, scaling back globalism so as to build resilient domestic manufacturing of strategic items? These are all political questions and partisans are very good at resisting the future. As Ezra Klein describes in his take on Andreesen:

America’s political parties are more ideologically — and demographically — polarized than ever before. We’re also in the most competitive period American politics has ever seen. In a system like that, both sides utilize the system’s bias toward inaction to foil their opponents....The result is a system biased toward inaction. The left can’t remake American health care. The right can’t voucherize American schools. The left can’t pass a climate bill. The right can’t privatize Social Security. Neither side can rewrite our immigration laws, hence the turn towards oscillating executive orders. Neither side can pass their infrastructure packages. Neither side can reform social insurance.

The problem is not just the stagnation of big ticket proposals but that their stagnation prevents all other smaller matters from any hearing. If a small, well-targeted bill can't score points, it isn't worth the effort of a vote. When faced with a hard problem, the default action is to divide-and-conquer, to break up a big problem into smaller parts that might enable an incremental solution. But today, nothing is passed unless it can ride on a must-pass budget bill. If we want to build anything, we must stop trying to score big wins, to create *one* solution for the whole world, to dramatically change history. Do good. Create value. Start with the suffering and inefficiency that's right in front of you.

Lastly, what should we stop doing so as to start building? As I've said on twitter since 2009, "the future is just waiting to be built," but I've left who and what they're building undefined. This is in part pithy, but also reflects my belief that no one person or one advance can build the future, as if it is a definable entity, but rather that it emerges from the significant and uncoordinated-yet-collective efforts of many people to make tomorrow different than today.

The problem is desire. We need to want these things. The problem is inertia. We need to want these things more than we want to prevent these things. The problem is regulatory capture. We need to want new companies to build these things, even if incumbents don’t like it, even if only to force the incumbents to build these things. And the problem is will. We need to build these things.

As Ross Douthat recounts in his just-published book, "The Decadent Society," review, interview), by and large what we've been building is apparatus to ensure our physical and intellectual comforts. We haven't wanted to return to the Moon, even as space became essential to our economy. We haven't wanted to solve global poverty, even as agriculture became able. Yes, we've seen great improvements in technology, but this past month has shown how insufficient and limited those developments have been. Just as the key to success in the internet era is the ability to scale a simple innovation to massive numbers of users, many other sectors of our economy lost the ability to innovate. Instead, formerly robust economic systems were reduced to the point of being interchangeable (financialization) to enable paper gains completely dissociated from any real creation of value. Our modest attempt to prepare for a ventilator shortage has been twice undermined by insufficient margins.

We invented and at one time produced every single kind of personal protection equipment that we're now short of; we chose other priorities over the ability to maintain our standard of healthcare and living in the event of a pandemic. Coronavirus is showing, quite clearly, that we have stopped building in the most general sense, that we have stopped building homes, communities, institutions, and governments for tomorrow, but rather have turned inward on our inheritance. Tomorrow will only be better if we work today to improve ourselves and society; if we resist escapism, fantasy, and nostalgia and stay rooted in the reality and the dignity of the human person.