On what matters

Taking stock of the most important topics

Slow Boring celebrates its first anniversary this week, and that feels like a good time to step back and think a bit about where we stand on the really important issues.

What does “really important” mean? I don’t know exactly; you could think about it in a lot of different ways. But one way is to imagine people looking back from 2100 and ask what might look most consequential from 2021 from their perspective.

Some things that I personally find very interesting probably won’t attract much attention 80 years into the future, including the recent rise in shootings and murders. This impacts my life as a city-dweller, but it’s probably not of much global or historical significance.

Today I want to consider where we stand on several issues that I think genuinely matter globally over the long term, including issues that I find very interesting and cover frequently, like climate change and energy, and others I don’t write much about but that are clearly important, like the United States’ relationship with China.

Climate change

Of the many issues that cleave sharply to the contours of American partisan politics, I think two are most clearly important in this sense: climate change and child poverty.

Your feelings about the climate situation depend a lot on your perspective. Activists often look at a target goal (1.5 degrees of warming) and assess how close the policy trajectory is to meeting that goal. Here, I’m afraid the news is very bad. While world leaders somewhat perversely insist on annual summits where they reaffirm commitment to that goal, it only gets clearer with every passing year that they are going to go above it. The world is going to get hotter, and this is going to cause a lot of problems for a lot of people.

That said, my perspective on this is a little different. Ten or 20 or 30 years ago, the climate problem seemed devilishly hard to solve — a joint problem of politics, economics, technology, and international relations. And the biggest worry in the climate space wasn’t that the average outcomes might be bad, but that the tail risks were potentially catastrophic. And the very good news is that the catastrophic RCP 8.5 scenario has gotten clearly less likely. This high-emission scenario was sometimes characterized as a “business as usual” scenario, but that’s not quite right. What actually happens in RCP 8.5 is that poor countries get richer largely by burning a ton of coal (essentially South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa following China’s path).

But thanks to renewables getting cheaper, natural gas getting cheaper, and electric vehicles getting cheaper, this scenario now seems off the table. China’s industrialization process created a lot of pollution, but it was less in the aggregate than western industrialization created. And future industrializations will be cleaner still.

This all means that the “current policies scenario” is now way better than the one from 10 years ago.

I think this saga really underscores the relative unimportance of the target-setting process relative to actually deploying zero-carbon energy sources at the largest possible scale. We are not going to hit the 1.5-degree or even 2-degree target, but 2.7 is much better than 3, and 2.4 is much better than 2.7 — we need to do what we can.

Child poverty

I think there are pros and cons to both the U.S. and European social models, and left-wing people on the internet sometimes underrate the United States.

But our dramatically higher rate of child poverty strikes me as the big moral scandal of the American social model. It is tragic and absurd for kids in such a wealthy country to live a life of intense material deprivation. And unlike the health care issue, it does not pose any particularly difficult technical or interest group problems. Other countries give cash assistance to families, and we do not.

The Covid relief bills created an exception to that rule, and so child poverty fell during the pandemic. Right now we can count the expanded Child Tax Credit as a major win. Exactly how a big a win is a matter of some dispute due to administrative issues that have made it challenging for the poorest families to get their money. The Urban Institute models a 40% fall in child poverty if the CTC is made permanent, while a University of Chicago team finds only a 22% drop.

What’s really uncertain is the current legislative situation. Democrats are looking at spending about $1 trillion over 10 years on welfare state initiatives (the rest of the money is for climate initiatives). If they prioritized cash assistance to parents over other family case ideas, then you could make the CTC expansion permanent, and if it were permanent, you could keep plugging away on the administrative issues. Instead, Democrats seem inclined to take the risky course of initiating several different programs that are all scheduled to expire. It’s probably too late to change anyone’s mind on this, but I still hope they will reconsider. If they don’t, then I hope the CTC expansion is extended when it expires next year.

Either way, we have made big progress on both climate and child poverty, and passing Biden’s BBB proposal will lead to more progress. Although nothing is perfect here, that is good news. But future outcomes hinge largely (though not exclusively) on partisan politics.

Relaunching economic growth

A much less partisan topic is general economic growth. This one is hard because while it’s pretty easy to understand the mechanics of climate change or child poverty, it is much less clear where economic growth ultimately “comes from.”

That said, scientific and technical progress has something to do with it, and the Senate passed a bipartisan bill to substantially boost science funding earlier this year. Along the way to passage, unfortunately, it not only accumulated a lot of China-related provisions, but it also became much less ambitious in terms of changing how science gets funded. Chuck Schumer recently floated the idea of attaching the whole thing to the year-end defense appropriation bill, but House Democrats objected because they have some different ideas about how this should be done, so there is apparently going to be a conference committee to try to hash it out.

Another big contributor to growth, I believe, is housing. A society becomes wealthy over time by accumulating a stock of long-lasting capital goods. The most important long-lasting capital goods are buildings, most of the building stock is dedicated to housing, and we have tons and tons of local regulations that make it difficult, impossible, or expensive to expand the housing stock.

This is a bad situation, but California passed reform bills this fall, following other reform bills passed in recent years. The work there is not done, but the legislative coalition exists and has shown the ability to win multiple fights across multiple sessions. I’m optimistic! What’s unfortunate is we haven’t seen the same fighting spirit in other blue states, especially not in the New York City region where it is badly needed. There are good groups organizing in these places, and they now have a winning model in California, so progress is happening. But it’s still far too little.

In another bit of promising housing news, it seems like Republicans in the Utah state legislature are doing a couple of good things on this front. Utah is not an especially high-cost state, but their cities have limited sprawl potential due to the mountains, so density is relevant. Utah is also growing very fast, so it’s smart of them to get ahead of the curve. I think highlighting Republican support for density is particularly important because common sense says that “excessive economic regulation is harmful” is an obvious GOP idea. But recently, Tucker Carlson and other right-wing populists have been leaning into pro-NIMBY advocacy on the theory that if progressives say upzoning is anti-racist, it must actually be bad.

Two scary global threats

Here’s where things take a dark turn. In 2014, I believed that pandemics were an underrated problem. When I had a chance to interview then-president Barack Obama, this was one of my questions (a really inartful leading question), because I thought the media overrated terrorism relative to emerging pathogens:

Do you think the media sometimes overstates the level of alarm people should have about terrorism and this kind of chaos, as opposed to a longer-term problem of climate change and epidemic disease?

At the time, I wasn’t surprised that the media and political system underrated pandemics. But I thought that if a global pandemic did occur and did kill millions of people and did wreak economic havoc all around the world, that we would see a sharper response in the future. Instead, while Covid did induce the Biden administration to draw up a smart plan for biodefense, it did not induce Congress to appropriate the money or change the basic reality that this has low priority among Democratic Party interest groups.

On the Republican side, meanwhile, we seem to be moving backward. The George W. Bush administration, like Biden, had a kind of low-key theoretical interest in pandemic defense, but the post-Trump GOP is all-in on the idea that the only problem with the pandemic was bothering to try to contain it at all. Instead of trying to offer smart, market-oriented critiques of America’s excessively inflexible public health bureaucracy, the right is going all-in on anti-vax propaganda. Republicans have become less likely to take flu vaccines as a result of the anti-vax backlash, and GOP state legislators are working to repeal longstanding state-level vaccine mandates against all kinds of diseases.

This is a really bleak situation (and note we already have a new poultry pandemic).

Also bleak is the artificial intelligence situation. I don’t write takes about how we should all be more worried about an out-of-control AI situation, but that’s because I know several smart people who do write those takes, and unfortunately they do not have much in the way of smart, tractable policy ideas to actually address it. It’s not like pandemics where we have the smart PDF and need to kick Congress’ ass to get them to actually do it. There is no great PDF here, in part because the international dimensions of the problem are very hard to grapple with.

Competition with a rising China

I feel like competition with China became a hot topic in American politics just a few months too late for it to really help the marketing of “One Billion Americans.”

This is too bad, both because I like to sell books and also because I think this discourse has gone in a mostly unhelpful direction:

  • We are not embracing the One Billion Americans agenda and moving to strengthen the country in a non-alarmist way.

  • We are definitely not becoming a more unified, less polarized country in the face of growing awareness of an external threat.

  • We are also not doing anything about the tangible way that U.S.-China economic integration has become a threat to free speech in the United States.

At the same time, American military officials keep warning that China might invade Taiwan soon. American war games show Taiwan struggling to defeat China even with American assistance. And while this may well be hype to get the Navy more money, the PRC regime seems increasingly brutal and authoritarian. Each story you read out of Xinjiang is more horrifying than the next.

The Taiwanese are increasing their own defense spending, which is good since probably the best way to avoid a war is for the PRC to think starting one would be unacceptably costly. But everyone I ask about this says that not only does Taiwan spend too little, but they don’t buy the right things — investing in prestige-oriented military hardware rather than the kind of stuff that lets smaller countries win asymmetrically against bigger ones when fighting on their home turf.

I don’t really have a strong view on what the right diplomatic approach to Taiwan and China is — it legitimately seems like a very hard question. But I firmly believe what I said in the book, which is that we ultimately need a vision for America that doesn’t rely on hoping the Chinese economy collapses if we want to remain the number one economy in the world. It might collapse, but it might not. And a sense that we are banking on Chinese collapse while possibly falling behind fuels both U.S.-China antagonism and Chinese adventurism. We want to stay ahead on our own terms and have a friendly strategy for global leadership.

It’s good to focus on things that matter

Some of these are issues that I write about a lot. Some of them are issues, like AI and U.S.-Taiwan diplomacy, where I feel a bit out of my depth.

But the thing about all of them is that they are issues with largely tangible consequences. An unfortunate aspect of our current politics is that more and more of it is taken up with issues that are not just “cultural” in nature but largely intangible. We traditionally had a divide between bread-and-butter economic issues and cultural topics like abortion, gay rights, and gun control. But whatever your position on those topics, the laws governing abortion or gun ownership have a tangible impact on people’s lives. They are real things with clear stakes.

A lot of today’s politics is taken up with issues that are not just cultural, but symbolic — what do we teach in middle school U.S. history classes, which meaning of the word “racism” do we use, is it okay to watch Dave Chappelle, which statues do we pull down, etc.

People care about symbols for a reason, and I’m not going to try to talk anyone out of it. I, personally, enjoy the symbolism of living in a neighborhood named after Robert Gould Shaw near a traffic circle named after John Logan and sending my kid to a school named for William Lloyd Garrison, and I would be upset if it was all named after old racists instead. That being said, with my rational brain turned on, it is obvious that this symbolism is less important than whether zoning rules in the neighborhood promote displacement of working-class Black people, and the answer is that they do. And given those bad zoning rules, everything else you might try to do in the neighborhood (better schools and parks, better transportation, safer streets) has weirdly perverse impacts via rent increases.

I think everyone agrees on some level that these material impacts matter more than the symbolism, but we seem to really struggle as a society to focus on concrete things. And that’s a shame. Concrete things are not only more important, but precisely because they are concrete, they are more amenable to compromises and win-win solutions than zero-sum symbolic battles over symbolism and social status.