It's the end of the year as we know it
A look back and a look ahead
You’re supposed to say, “Happy New Year!” on New Year’s Day, but I always think of New Year’s Eve as the real holiday because that’s when the parties are, so Happy New Year, Slow Boring readers!
After yesterday’s embarrassing look back at my year of bad predictions, I wanted to close the year out by thanking everyone who has subscribed and supported the site. I’m hoping to do more events next year, circumstances permitting, and to make membership a better and better bundle as the site grows. If you’ve enjoyed the free posts (or my tweets), I hope you’ll consider subscribing, and if you’re a happy subscriber and know others who might enjoy it, consider a gift.
Shilling aside, Slow Boring is mostly taking today off, but I thought it would be a good time to look back on the year and share some Slow Boring content that (unlike my predictions) has held up well.
I think a considerable share of progressive angst these days is caused by the fact that they’ve succeeded in getting the Democratic Party to reposition itself to the left. This claim is distinct from the one often advanced by mainstream Democrats that “the left” has undermined them electorally through cross-contamination. My view is that the leaders of the Democratic Party are to the left of where they were on key issues during Obama’s first term, even though they are by and large the same group of people. That includes everything from the stigmatization of immigration enforcement (which Biden walked back soon after taking office, too late to help him in the campaign) to re-embracing gun control in a way that loses votes but hasn’t moved policy to the embrace of counterproductive shunning tactics as an approach to trans rights. But it also includes a total failure to prioritize such that $1.75 trillion in new spending comes out as somehow not enough to make a big difference in people’s lives.
I’m starting to find this argument tedious and hope to engage in somewhat less of it next year, but I still believe it. In particular, I think online discourse tends to get the relationship between popularism and “Donald Trump is bad” backward.
Ignoring public opinion in favor of shoot-the-moon schemes makes sense if you think that losing is not so bad. The effect sizes of everything you do in politics are still really small, so if you’re pretty indifferent to losing you could see adopting lots of left-wing views as having a positive expected value, even if it makes you lose less. But to the extent that you take seriously this stuff about fascism and the looming end of democracy, then you want a big tent party, not one that tells people that positions Obama took in 2008 or 2012 are beyond the pale.
But in terms of what really matters for America, I think one of the biggest issues is housing. Last year I did three posts making the case that homelessness is about housing, not about drugs and mental health or vacant houses. What I want to do in 2021 is make the argument for the larger relevance of housing regulation as a key driver of overall economic growth and prosperity. If you care about raising American living standards in concrete ways, better housing policy is far and away the lowest-hanging fruit.
Yet the war on bad permitting rules is so much larger than housing!
Energy and climate policy are another key issue area, and I’ve become increasingly convinced that energy abundance is underrated. And relatedly, I think both moderate and left-wing Democrats tend to understate the barriers to deployment of clean energy relative to the need for R&D or subsidy. Whether we’re talking about interregional transmission lines for renewables or advanced nuclear plants, we need to make it easier to actually build the things.
Another big one that’s politically tricky is immigration. Immigration doesn’t reduce wages and, in an inflationary environment, we should see it as a very useful supply-side reform. There are some promising ideas for expanding legal immigration lurking in Build Back Better, and we desperately need an immigration politics that’s more focused on the potential benefits of broader channels of legal migration and less on fighting about ICE and CBP.
Last but by no means least, I enjoyed doing a post on human history in the very long run for the beginning of the holiday season. I’m hoping to do more “weird” posts in 2022 because I think it’s a good idea to try to make a more highly differentiated product and run stories that even a really good op-ed page wouldn’t take.
See you in the New Year!
Matt, a suggestion looking forward. In light of your points about blue states or blue cities getting things done, so that we can point to those and go "Hey, look, this stuff can be done well". I'd love to see you or guest writer(s) actually write about such successes. Partly I think in a world of doomscrolling, we (and I mean this in a non-partisan way) don't celebrate our successes enough. And partly it's just good to just shine a light on what interesting things are being done outside of our normal range of vision.
I've banged on this in the comments before, but I think what Fairfax County is trying to do with the Richmond Hwy corridor is both a very difficult problem to address, and also doing it in a way that shows real flexibility and prioritization of goals. It's an effort I worked on in the initial planning phase on a citizen advisory panel, and it's sort of amazing that we're going to try to take one of the worst stroads ever built and turn it into something much, much better. I'd kill to read some deeper dives into other areas of the country and how they've tried to tackle such issues.
This newsletter was a highlight of the year for me. I get a ton of them and pay for a few, but this is my “desert island” substack. It aces my test for incoming information: is it worth reading/listening to even if I don’t think I’m interested in the topic? I might even read/ see Dune!
This is a weird sentence to write but I also (especially?) love the comments. I have learned a lot and found quite a few new sources of information in this space.
Thanks everyone and hoping for a 2022 that somehow exceeds expectations!