Chelsea Follett: Joining me today is James Pethokoukis, he is a senior fellow and the Dewitt Wallace Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, AEI, where he analyzes US economic policy, writes and edits the AEIdeas blog and hosts AEI’s Political Economy Podcast. He is also a contributor to CNBC and writes The Faster Please Newsletter on Substack, which I am subscribed to. I think the whole Human Progress team is subscribed. You should check it out. He is also a former columnist for both Reuters and the US News and World Report, a Jeopardy champion and the author of the Thought Provoking and very refreshing new book, the Conservative Futurist, which makes the surprising case for how what he calls up-wing thinking can help us achieve the epic Sci-Fi future of our dreams. Jim, how are you?
James Pethokoukis: Ah, I’m excellent. Thank you for the introduction. Very refreshing. I hope the book’s refreshing. Thank you for having me on the podcast.
Chelsea Follett: So tell me about the book and what inspired it.
James Pethokoukis: Well, I think everybody who has a book coming out now, mine comes out October 3rd, available for pre-order now. They’ll say like they were somehow inspired by COVID. It all started during COVID and, I mean, that is true for me. That’s when I began writing it the summer of 2020. But it was a very different book when I began, typing away. Originally I was gonna write, a book kind of about our lost future, the future that we didn’t get, a sci-fi future that we didn’t get. Of course, flying cars, [laughter] but also clean and abundant energy, an orbital economy, space colonies, everyone being like, two to three, four times richer, all that stuff. Why didn’t we get it? And why are we sitting here in, summer of 2020? Like, not being able to supply people with masks or respirators.
James Pethokoukis: Like, why don’t we already have a vaccine? All that stuff. So it was gonna be like, we just blew it. So it was very negative. But then I started reading these stories calling America a failed state and a failed country. I’m like, well, that seems a little much. That seems like that’s a little harsh. I mean, things aren’t as good as what they could be nowhere close. But I think that was just taking it too far. And then of course, we developed a vaccine, like in record time. I’m like, well that’s a strange thing for a failed country to do. And then we began seeing a lot of other interesting things happening. We saw the emergence, machine learning obviously in AI predate, the pandemic. But we, I started seeing more advances there. I started seeing more advances in nuclear energy, nuclear fusion, all these technologies. And I began thinking, “Hey, like this stuff is all possible. All the stuff they dreamed of back in the ’60s.” It’s, cause we don’t even have that. So we should be like 50 years ahead of where we are. So I began thinking hard, not only what went wrong, but what we can do different today to make that future finally happen and then go far beyond it.
Chelsea Follett: So tell me about the title as you point out in the introduction. It’s very counterintuitive. People don’t normally think of futurism as something conservative and by conservative, you say that you mean a custodian of the classical liberal tradition in the words of George Will, to clarify. So how did you come up with the title?
James Pethokoukis: Yeah. It does sound like an oxymoron. Like the classic one was like military intelligence. It’s a real kinda like, man bites dog kinda thing. Those things don’t go together, but I think they do. Else, I wouldn’t have written the book that, part of how I view conservatism is preserving what is best, preserving the best parts of our inheritance, which I view as liberal democracy, market capitalism. And that’s like a sacred responsibility to be able to preserve that, work to make it better and then hand it off to the future generations. I mean, the classic Edmund Burke quote that there’s this connection between the past, the present, and the future. So for me to be a conservative is to inherently think about what kind of world we are going to, leave our children and our great-grandchildren.
James Pethokoukis: So to me, there’s nothing, contrary about it. To me, it, that’s what we should be thinking about. It’s not what people… A lot of people think of today where it’s, nostalgia for the 1950s, nostalgia for like, oh, if, everyone should be working at a factory, and it’s economic soldier that we’ve seen over the past years. It’s something very different. It’s really using all these fantastic tools that we’ve developed and creating a better world, not just in the United States. So obviously, I’m an American and I want the US to be a, richer, more technologically advanced country, but the whole world, raising poverty, to me, there’s nothing more conservative futurist than bringing people out of poverty, enabling them to have the future they want to build. That’s my kind of conservative futurism. Oh, and by the way, if we have more people in the world who are reaching their potential as they see it, that’s gonna be, that’s good for all of us. So that’s the vision I’m trying and optimism I hope I can get across through the book.
Chelsea Follett: So you’re using conservative in the sense of classical liberal, pro-innovation, pro-free market, all of those things. But there’s another term that you use far more often in the book than conservative, which is up-wing. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
James Pethokoukis: Well Obviously it’s a play on, you know, left-wing and right-wing. I didn’t come up with the… I didn’t come up with the term, but it sort of stuck with me. And to me, if you think about like the, you know, you’ve probably taken an online survey, like where do your politics fall on this spectrum? And it’ll be left and right, you know, how far left, how far right. Well, that, to me, the idea of up-wing is to sort of transcend those sort of classifications. And to me, if you want a better tomorrow, if you think we have the agency and the tools and the will to create the better tomorrow that we want, that we sort of all want organically, not necessarily that somebody in Washington wants to create, but that we can begin to create that future for ourselves.
James Pethokoukis: Again, you could be, you know, a Democrat, Republican, left of centre, all that stuff, to me that is up-wing, up-wing is seeing the potential of humanity and then working to achieve it. And I think that, you know, I may be the right of center, but there’s people left of centre who wanna do that too. You know, people left and right, you know, think, gosh, you know, it’s been a big waste that we don’t have nuclear power and now we’re worried about not having enough energy, to run our AI models and we have to have, you know, shortages. Like you don’t, that is not a left or right issue to me, that is an up versus down wing issue. People who want, who want to go backwards, people who worry, who want a world that is poor so we don’t use up the earth. People who tell people who are in poor countries, you can never get as rich as we are in the West. That can’t happen. That is a false street. Those are down-wing people. And I hope people who are on the traditional left and right reject that vision though I see a lot of that vision, unfortunately, all around.
Chelsea Follett: So this book, despite the title, it’s not really aimed at the right. It’s something that I think could appeal to center right center left people, moderates, libertarians, classical liberals of all stripes. And you describe America as the original up-wing nation. Tell me, what sort of characteristics would you say define an up-wing nation? And does that also imply that there can be down-wing nations? And what advice would you have to someone who fears they may be living in one of those?
James Pethokoukis: Well, I fear that there’s too much of that. I think all nations have those elements all sort of, listen, if you’re a rich country, then you have mostly embraced a more up-wing vision, but you have down-wing elements. And of course, my concern is that too much of that down-wing stuff has been dominant in the United States and many Western countries, over the past few decades. And what I, and I think the key characteristics of an up-wing country, of course, any country that begins at, with, you know, 3 million people on the windy North Atlantic coast, you know, clinging to the edge of [laughter] edge, the edge of survival to become a continent spanning global superpower, they’re doing something right. And that right isn’t just policy, though. There’s plenty of policy in the book, but it’s also an attitude. And there’s a great, there’s a great quote where, how is it when we… When we have nothing, we’ve seen nothing but progress in reality.
James Pethokoukis: Do we somehow think, well, we’re not gonna have that anymore. We’re only gonna have, we’re only gonna have pessimism and failure ahead. That hasn’t been… That hasn’t been our history. Our history has been constant improvement. Yet today, too often we seem to be telling ourselves, well, that needs to stop. We can’t have that, we, there’s not enough earth to have that. We don’t know how to do it. We shouldn’t be. We should be preparing our children for, lower living standards, less opportunity. It was interesting that I saw this floating around, the internet, this quote from, what’s his name? Ah, I’m dying here.
Chelsea Follett: Take Your time.
James Pethokoukis: Oh, Hunter F Thompson, you know, well known for sort of the fear and loathing, continued to have fear and loathing about the future of America back then. But it was a quote from 2001, and the idea that we need to be, we had to begin to, prepare people, our children for 20 years of decline. And beyond that further decline and that 9/11 marked the end of everything. And we, our children would never live our lives. Well, that didn’t happen. Like there’s a lot of things went wrong. We had war, we had financial crisis, yet people are better off today than they were in 2001. Again, we’ve seen nothing but progress, yet we somehow believe that it won’t continue. And really the point of my book is, we have seen progress. Boy, we could be doing so much better. We can be so much better, and we shouldn’t settle. We shouldn’t settle for what that this is the best possible world and that it may slip away from us in any second.
Chelsea Follett: And you delve into that history with, four chapters, which you call the false startup, the false start of up-wing 1.0, the false start of up-wing 2.0, and then two chapters exploring the mystery of the Great Downshift. Now there’s a lot in those chapters, but could you give us sort of overview of some of that history?
James Pethokoukis: Well, the first, the first period, which I call the first like up-wing period where there was… Where there was not just economic progress. So it wasn’t just line go up numbers, but there also a broad attitude that, you know, we can kind of do anything and we can create a better future. So that first period is really in those first two decades after World War II. I put somewhat arbitrarily actual dates on those of 1955 to 1973.
James Pethokoukis: And, the reason I picked 1955, that was the opening of Disney World and Tomorrowland, I love that. So, I read a lot about Tomorrowland and that sort of the attitude that was embodied. Also in ’55, we had really the beginning of the space race, a cure for polio. We started seeing a lot more kind of science, like positive science fiction in 1955. And the end, I almost made the end 1972 because that’s when the Apollo program ended. But I picked 1973 for kind of a wonky reason, because that ended two decades of very strong economic productivity growth which we’ve never seen that kind of long period of productivity growth since. So that first period, very bullish fast growth, even more important, like a very up-wing pro-growth culture. I mean, you saw that in like movies. You saw it, Star Trek being the classic example, 2001 Space Odyssey also, I find to be a very fundamentally, optimistic film.
James Pethokoukis: And you had a lot of, you had intellectuals back then. It seems hard to believe not, but you had these kind of futuristic intellectuals like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, and Herman Kahn, who I read about a lot in this book, who thought the future would be much better and focused on trying to predict that future, talk about how to make that, I mean, that was like the prevailing intellectual belief back then was being positive about the future. And then that ended [laughter] and that ended, I’ll mention why it ended. And of course, the more recent period I call the late ’90s is an up-wing period, internet boom economy going crazy, really maybe the last period, of real economic progress and like really pure optimism, I think that most people can remember. And if you’re young enough, then like you’ve never experienced it. Why did that end? Go ahead.
Chelsea Follett: No, that’s what I was gonna ask you. Well, why did that end? Where does this more negative view of technology come from? How did we go from that optimistic view of the future to, Black Mirror and the science fiction that seems much more negative and just a more negative view of the future in general?
James Pethokoukis: Yeah, it’s hard to believe that like it used to be… It was hard to find negative science fiction. Now it’s just the opposite. It’s so rare to find sort of positive science fiction. I read a lot about science fiction in the book because I think it plays a key role in sort of helping us imagine the possibility of what a better future might look like. Listen, I mean, I certainly make the economic case. If you have a bad economy, a slowing economy, it’s tougher to be positive. And one reason we had this economic slowdown, which began in the early 1970s, were sort of things that may have happened no matter what we did initially. You know all these great inventions of the industrial revolution, which really boosted productivity. Everything from electrification, factories, the combustion engine, the chemical industry.
James Pethokoukis: And we seemed to have like extracted all the big productivity gain from those technologies. So that was gonna happen. But what did have to happen was like, our response, so a big part of what I try to write about is we have a choice to play. We are not just, victims of fate. We can do things. And I think two obvious things that we really stopped doing, which given that other technological slowdown is really important that we do, was one, continue to fund basic science at levels that we saw during the space program. So that was like one basic thing that government should do, which is fund basic science. And the other one, we just regulated it. We regulated, up-wing 1.0 away. I don’t think it’s even a truly debatable point that from an… And I went in this book not wanting to blame environmentalists.
James Pethokoukis: Because I think there was a kind of environmentalism, which is good, but when we made it very difficult to build things in this country, when we created this caution about technological progress through actual environmental laws, which then began seeping into the culture as well. And you suddenly saw all this negativity about, the future, that it was gonna be a poorer future. You had these limit, the book Limits to Growth came out. You had Silent Spring, you had this confluence of factors, which really created this notion that it was… It was silly. It was silly to think that somehow the future would be better. And unfortunately, that is basically, I think where we still are, where we think that the future will be one of poor volatile climate, more poverty, more inequality.
James Pethokoukis: I remember talking with someone, somebody in their 20s about this. Because I was making the case as I do in this book, tomorrow could be richer. It can be funner, it can be cooler. All those dreams that we saw, from the Jetsons, like that’s all kind of actually possible. She’s like, you’re telling me exactly the opposite [laughter] of what I am told every day, which is tomorrow is gonna be worse and we are just gonna have to swallow it and just take it that’s not the case at all.
Chelsea Follett: So do you see the degrowth mindset that’s very popular today as a direct descendant then of that change in the 1970s when suddenly these great big new ideas became harder to find and the regulatory environment changed and entrepreneurs weren’t able to implement their ideas?
James Pethokoukis: It’s so funny to hear the same kind of language and the same kind of ideas today that you heard 50 years ago. Talk about stagnation. There is sort of an idea stagnation where you had a certain point of view that just froze. It froze about 1972 and has not changed. So you had this sort of, you can imagine environmental movement that wants cleaner air, which is great. We should have cleaner air. That’s like a really important thing. That doesn’t want lead in our gasoline. And the reason that it does that was so that we are healthier. We are happier. Our brains work better. One can imagine that kind of environment, but the environmentalism we got was not to help people, but that we were kind of like the problem, that we were the problem on this planet. So it became an environmentalism in Which we were, was not primary for our benefit, but was for a different kind of benefit, for the planet’s benefit.
James Pethokoukis: And yeah, so that really started a lot of fears about radiation, which turned into the sort of the anti-nuclear craze. You had people who were sort of had a problem with capitalism, only saw it as like a consumerist conspiracy to like strip the planet. A lot of these views sort of came together in the Vietnam War, which they saw as a perfect example of US techno-capitalism run amok. And they saw it all as, and I use a phrase by one technological scholar from back then, this guy Lewis Mumford, who called it the mega machine, that there was this mega machine of the military and science and corporate America that was not only ruining this country through war, but would eventually ruin the planet. And you see a lot of those exact same ideas today with people who, they don’t like big tech. They don’t like the university system. They don’t, they fear science.
James Pethokoukis: You know, why can’t we go back to a simpler America? Why can’t we go to a back, back to America that’s less urban? They don’t like self-driving cars ’cause that’s not the America of the 1950s that they would love to have back. So that view is just re-manifested itself in this de-growth movement, which remember, isn’t just about preserving, it’s not just preserving our way of life, but it’s about radically changing our way of life, saying that not only can we never have poor people live like Americans, Americans can’t live like Americans, that we all must settle for something different. We must settle for a greater equality of income throughout the entire planet in order to save the planet. I’m saying something very different. I’m saying, first of all, that is a pessimistic message, which beyond the fringes of social media is not gonna gain widespread adherence among most people, most.
James Pethokoukis: I think we saw during the pandemic, here’s what people don’t like. They don’t like shortages. They don’t like being able to go to the store and not find what they want. They don’t like that kind of chaos. So to think that as a society, as a global civilization, we’re gonna settle for… No. There’s only one way and that’s forward, and that’s creating more prosperity, more wealth, and a greater ability to deal with big problems, whether it’s the climate or pandemics.
Chelsea Follett: So you’ve identified a number of them over the course of that answer, but who exactly are today’s enemies of progress and how do they use the regulatory state to, or how does the regulatory state impede progress through over-regulation?
James Pethokoukis: I think they manifest in a couple of different ways. People, here’s how you can identify them. If when they hear about these advances in AI, if one of the first things they say is, either it will kill us or it will take all our jobs or it will take all our jobs and then kill us, that’s an enemy, that’s a down-wing enemy of up-wing progress. That’s how you can know them. If they are still saying, we can’t have nuclear power because of nuclear waste or it’s just too dangerous, that even though you have countries which are shutting down reactors, having to go back to coal, which I thought was bad for us, to me, that is a sign that somebody is a down-wing enemy of up-wing progress.
James Pethokoukis: If their basic theory is, but any new advance, any new technology is guilty until proven innocent, that is a down-wing enemy. And again, you can find these people on the left. Unfortunately, too many environmental groups would qualify, but also you have people on the right who, again it seemed to echo, it seemed to be talking about a lot of similar things. They’re talking, when they talk about AI, they talk about, oh, the job loss, it’s gonna disrupt the community. That is their go-to. They don’t think, like, gee, I can see how that might change jobs, but maybe the jobs would be better. Maybe the jobs would be better paying. Maybe there’ll be new jobs, making new things that will make our lives better. It doesn’t… That argument, you’ve seen a lot of that argument in all the conversation about generative AI and chat GPT.
James Pethokoukis: And I was kind of hoping that when that technology really emerged about a year ago that we wouldn’t hear these arguments about it might as well be 1970s and Three Mile Island and we can never build another reactor. The argument and the attitude has not changed in a half century, and I don’t want another half century of that and you shouldn’t either.
Chelsea Follett: So you have an entire chapter on this in the book but what are some of the down wing myths about economic growth?
James Pethokoukis: I watch, I want everyone to buy this book but I tell you these myths you just read the New York Times or, unfortunately, a lot of other papers just same constantly. That wage growth in this country has been flat for a half century that why should we worry about making workers more productive it won’t affect their pay. Upward mobility we’re gonna be worse off than our parents. Really? Money doesn’t really affect poverty and what does it, it doesn’t really help us it’s very materialistic we’re running out of earth, we use five earth so we only have one earth, all this stuff, and I just gave, I just gave the data, is wrong.
James Pethokoukis: But it’s part of the fabric of this myth, which is, and you see how it plays sort of in a broader way, which is like, if you’re making the case that that technology companies, and I do have a whole chapter on policy and letting the world strivers come to this country. That’s good for economic growth. Then you have to start making the case that economic growth doesn’t matter, or never exist, or we can’t do it. You know, that is totally false. And I see these myths repeated over and over and over. And I guess I’ll have to keep responding to them over and over, and probably until my dying day hopefully not hopefully, hopefully I won’t be the case in my book will be that powerful as the myth bust those myths completely but again, and the point, my point is, it really isn’t that like that.
James Pethokoukis: There’s been zero progress in the past half century that would be wrong. But My gosh, it could be so much we would have to worry about climate change ’cause you’d already be doing clean energy, we would, we’d already have universal vaccines, we’d already be mining asteroids for resources. All these stuff which seems like science fiction. All we needed to do was grow as fast, be as productive and have the level of progress that we thought we would have 50 years ago and we didn’t get. Well, time to get it.
Chelsea Follett: One thing that you bring up in the book that’s a very vivid example of some of these things you’ve been talking about is the Antikythera mechanism. What was that and what can we learn from the example of the Greeks, I hope I pronounced it right. In order to avoid another major technological delay.
James Pethokoukis: Antikythera. It actually unbelievably enough played a key role spoilers in the latest Indiana Jones movie. And it was pulled out of the ocean in the Greek islands, about 120 years ago. And it didn’t look like much. But, over the years as scientists poked at it, we had better imaging equipment they realized that it was this fairly advanced astrological device which they could use for keeping track of the seasons when there should be another Olympic Games. It’s been called the first computer and it’s not a digital computer but an analog computer. And what’s interesting is that it sort of disappeared from history, and we were not able to reproduce that level of technology for like 1000 years.
James Pethokoukis: So I just began thinking, boy, what, what if they hadn’t been lost from history like where would we be today. How about… We would have that sort of Star Trek future probably already and the reason I bring that up is that throughout history there’s been all these detours and reversals, where today, we could be healthier and wealthier, and be and if we have a comet coming toward us, knock it out of its way, we should already be able to do that.
James Pethokoukis: And one of the key reasons that over and over throughout history is that some people have been anti-progress because they fear it will change their lives, they fear will change their jobs and people who are the winners fear they may not be the winners anymore. I mean the Luddites are sort of the classic case but throughout history you can find examples of innovators coming up with new ideas, but they weren’t the ones in power, the people in power did not want the change, they feared the change more than perhaps the eventual benefits of the change.
James Pethokoukis: And that’s why you have this great combination of sort of democracy and capitalism progress in the 19th century, when people began to have more of a say. And people began to think we like the progress we’d like what it’s giving us. And if you don’t give us that progress, and we can’t also win wars ’cause other people have the progress that’s bad too. Instead of siding with the incumbents, governments began siding with the innovators who are making lives better, producing wealth, and also making them more military capable.
James Pethokoukis: So those early days of the Industrial Revolution, we saw that change, and today still the enemies of progress. You see it with driverless cars all the time. I was just reading an article about the expansion of driverless trucking in Texas, and why not California because the unions are more powerful out there and they fear the loss of those drivers. So even today, you’ll see the exact same people wearing more up-to-date clothes worried about the impact of progress on their livelihoods. And that’s fine. And those people are always gonna worry, but the rest of us shouldn’t give in. And I don’t wanna see the rest of us give in because we are unable to envision a better future.
Chelsea Follett: You continuously described throughout the book one of the reasons for the industrial revolution and for so many other, breakthroughs in the past as an ability to think about the future in a positive way, belief in the future. In the case of stagnating societies today, how much of a factor do you think an inability to properly think about the future is to a lack of growth or development?
James Pethokoukis: Well, if you’ve lived your whole lives during a period where growth has been, there’s been economic growth, but it’s been slow, so slow, there might not even seem like there’s been any growth. And if you ask a lot of people, they think why, maybe I’m not any better off. Maybe my family’s not any better off than maybe I’m not better off than my parents ’cause growth has been slow. So one, they haven’t experienced it. And two, they are constantly reinforced with images about what progress means that seem negative. I mean, should it be any surprise that the go to example for AI is the Terminator? That’s where it’s gonna come, that it’s gonna be Skynet and robots and they’re gonna kill that is the, and if there might be other sort of metaphors, but I’m pretty sure they’re all negative as well. What? And, but I can’t blame people ’cause you know what? We don’t have any positive images. We have so few that certainly seems like we don’t have any positive images, and that used to not be the case.
James Pethokoukis: One of the great things I would like to, return to is that, these notion of World’s Fairs, World’s Fair used to be places where people would see new technologies, be able to see them up close and what they could do. That was not uncommon. I mean, you had a whole World’s Fairs, which seemed to be devoted to the notion of progress. You think of the Futurama exhibit, I think of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, which was the leading exhibit where people did a… It was like a ride, and it was like a 20-minute ride through the world of tomorrow and had all the classic like stereotypes under sea cities, space colonies, just soaring cities. So, people saw, oh, this is what we’re trying to get at. This is a lot scary, this looks awesome, but we don’t do that anymore. So it’s almost hard to ask people to take risks and accept the disruption that economic growth brings us, fundamentally economic growth is about change, change for the better, but it’s still change. You have to ask people to tolerate that, and they’re not gonna tolerate it so easily. They think it’s fundamentally not gonna make their lives better. Maybe it’ll make their lives way worse.
Chelsea Follett: It’s easy to say people should be more open to change, but what do you tell someone who fears that technological change could lead to them becoming unemployed in their career, or could destroy the economy of their hometown or something, that could really affect their lives like that?
James Pethokoukis: People need to believe that and need to believe factually that it’s all worth it. That the change that comes with economic growth, which fundamentally will be driven over the long term by being more innovative and through technological progress. Those are the fundamental drivers of economic growth and higher living standards. That one, I can adapt, that I can adapt to that change. And right now I think people feel like they’re on their own, right? So they feel like, if something happens, like I’ll never be able to like, work in this new sector AI, I don’t, why don’t what? I gotta work in AI now.
James Pethokoukis: So they need to believe that they can, and that there will be programs to train them. And again, there are gonna be people whose lives may get made worse. That’s, I mean, I can’t promise a sort of a society where nobody is ever worse off, and then they have to believe this would be a better world for my children too. It’d be a better world for my children if we don’t have pandemics, it’ll be a better world for my children. That everyone in the world is so busy raising their living standards, that we’re not gonna have what, we’re not gonna be worried about war because these economies are gonna be growing so quickly that that’s what people are gonna be focusing on. They need to think that, oh, we will make the world safer. I don’t have to worry about climate change. I don’t have to worry about killer pandemics. I don’t have to worry about asteroids that I have made that what am I doing today will make the world safe for that future?
James Pethokoukis: So that’s what we have to get across. I mean, one of my, I think a lot about this kept popping back into my head. I was writing this book, this notion, the ‘ Doomsday Clock’, you know about this, the ‘Doomsday Clock’, which was, it started in the Cold War, and it was supposed to tell us how close we were to midnight or absolute nuclear destruction, since then it’s still around now it’s nuclear destruction and it’s AI killing us, and it’s pandemics and it’s inequality, and it’s like everything. I will, I don’t want a Doomsday Clock, I want like a Genesis Clock. The how close are we to a period of amazing progress? How would you judge that? And I give some criteria like are we reducing the number of people in extreme poverty? How close are we to creating energy sources that are clean and abundant and cheap? I create all these criteria. How close are we to like dawn, not midnight? I mean, thinking that way about possibilities rather than the constraints, I think you have a very different society, a society more likely to make those achievements happen.
Chelsea Follett: So that mindset is the goal, but how do we get there? How do we nurture a culture that is truly an Up-wing culture and build an Up-wing economy?
James Pethokoukis: So I think the cultural part is actually, is important. And I hope that some of the ideas of whether it’s my Genesis clock or it’s world fairs or maybe investigate some big, exciting, inspirational projects. I mean, we did Apollo. I don’t know. I mean, maybe we should think about trying to build a space elevator, one of these [laughter] where we could get things off the earth by basically going up an elevator to orbit. Maybe it’s not possible. I think big ideas and invest, those are extremely inspirational, but listen, I work at a think tank. I’m gonna talk about actual policies. And I think, again, a lot of what went wrong is really sort of policy related. So I give, I mean, I won’t go through them all here, but I think when thinking about like, what should we do? You have to think about like, what is the purpose of an economy? The purpose of an economy is to turn dreams into reality. And the way we do that is by bringing smart minds together in ways that they can connect with each other. And then the ideas they can come up with, they can make them happen.
James Pethokoukis: So you’re talking about lots more money into R&D, thinking hard about the kind, whether regulations make it, every policy a government does, someone should be saying, “Is this making it easier or harder to innovate?” That, I mean, that may not be the only factor, but if you’re not making that one of the factors. Listen, economic openness. Sorry, populist. That’s good for growth. Letting strivers, smart people, talented people come to your country where they can make, do great things. Great Elon Musk quote, that “There’s no better place in the world to make your dreams come true than the United States.” That’s important. We should remember that. So I go through a number of policies on immigration and the labor market, all that great stuff. But I think what’s more important than policies is thinking about what we want those policies to accomplish. And what we want them to accomplish is connection, ability for people to connect, their ideas to connect, to create the kind of economy that allows us to create the kind of world we want.
James Pethokoukis: And I want to be very clear. This isn’t about, yeah, again, the department of progress, the department of the future in Washington handing out their five-year plans. It’s about giving each of us the tools we need to create the future that we want. I think collectively, if we’re all doing that, we’re going to come up with something pretty good.
Chelsea Follett: So speaking of that role of people connecting to make progress, one part of the book that I really liked, because I just wrote a book about progress in cities, is when you described the role of cities in progress.
James Pethokoukis: Outstanding, you are an outstanding book. Don’t be shy, it’s an outstanding book.
Chelsea Follett: Thank you. You write, an uplink future depends on getting the most possible out of our cities. It always has. Urban economist, Edward Glazer has explained that these dense agglomerations that dot the globe have been engines of innovation since Plato and Socrates bickered in an Athenian marketplace. And to study them is to study nothing less than human progress. What policies can we implement to help our cities thrive and increase that economic mobility and opportunity that you were talking about? And also help young people afford homes more easily and banish that myth of economic decline for the next generation.
James Pethokoukis: A few years ago, maybe not, I think it was the, maybe it was a 2004 election. One of the things that, one of the Republican catchphrases was, I think, drill, baby, drill. I think build, baby, build is good. Sometimes the simple econ 101 answer is, oftentimes it is the answer. And make it easier to build in these cities. Listen, we’re not forcing people to move to cities if they don’t want to go to cities. But for people who do want to, they should be able to move to these cities, find affordable places to live, affordable enough that the income gains from moving to these high productivity, high wage cities aren’t completely eaten up.
James Pethokoukis: And then this is gonna be more of a state and local issue than a national issue. But boy, I didn’t say it, but housing does seem like the everything problem. If you’re worried about inequality, if you’re worried about faster economic growth, if you’re worried about wage growth, all these things come down to these productivity engines not operating the way they should. And when you begin to look at all these bottlenecks to growth, cities, inefficient R&D, which I talk about, these regulations, you start looking at the best estimates we have of how they could boost growth, you begin to see some big numbers. I mean, we have a $20-$25 million economy, depending on how you want to figure it. Listen, we should have a $50 million. Imagine if we had a $50 million economy. What would we do with an extra $25 trillion? I may have been saying million, trillion. What would we be doing with an extra $25 trillion?
James Pethokoukis: I think we’d give some back to the people. We’d pay off some debt. And boy, I think we do some amazing things and creating, just an absolutely more amazing country.
Chelsea Follett: Now, most of the book is about creating the kinds of environment that will allow us to progress, but you do give some ideas of what sort of technologies we might be able to look forward to in an up-wing future. Could you, paint a vision for our podcast viewers and listeners of where we could be right now if we weren’t getting in our own way.
James Pethokoukis: It seems science fictional to talk about getting energy from orbiting solar collectors or taking one shot and never getting any virus ever again. Mining asteroids, Elon Musk multi-planetary civilization, being able to get from New York to Paris in 35 minutes. And yes, of course the autonomous electric flying cars. All those… I get… Those are just… Those are… I bet the coolest things that we would create with a more technologically advanced, richer world are ones we haven’t even thought of yet. Those are just like, what I thought of what science fiction authors have thought of. But that’s just like a taste, I think, of what we could create to imagine often… Again oftentimes we think about… We… It’s sort of like where it’s a flying cars, but the fact that we could have an asteroid pop up out of nowhere and devastate the planet like that, like we should be thinking hard about that.
James Pethokoukis: Like, why are we spending more time on that? And NASA is doing more, but that, If I was running for president, that would be [laughter] that might be on my top five list of things that I’d wanna focus on, but to have the resources, that’s one thing we really should have learned during the pandemic to have the technological capabilities. It is super helpful to be a rich, technologically capable country no matter what the problem is. Whether it’s the climate, whether it’s some pandemic or anything else. It gives you the options to solve problems, even unknown unknowns.
Chelsea Follett: In this book, you very clearly set out what you see as the problems and the ways that we can overcome those problems, including, problems that may arise in the future. But how hopeful are you that humanity will ultimately embrace this up-wing vision and achieve this sci-fi future?
James Pethokoukis: I wasn’t hopeful when I started writing the book [laughter] I was not very hopeful at all. I’m more hopeful now, and when you look around, I see things like this nuclear renaissance. That’s a big… That’s almost… If you’re gonna talk about what went wrong and what sort of encapsulates everything that went wrong, you would talk about nuclear power and the rejection of nuclear power. But that is obviously changing, not in this country across Europe where they’re gonna build new reactors, recommissioning reactors, and for that to also happen after a nuclear disaster in Japan, which people thought like, that’s it. If you had any hopes of there being a nuclear renaissance, it ain’t gonna happen. Well, it’s even happening there. I think that to me, it’s hard to do a poll about people’s views of technology, but that’s a great stand-in.
James Pethokoukis: Like, what do you think? Are you more fearful about nuclear power or do you focus more on what it could bring us? So I think that’s great great news and it says a lot. I think about my friends on the left who are talking about the abundance left or supply side liberal who are talking about creating a more productive… Now, I may not agree all the ways they wanna do it, but to be thinking that way, how to make our America more productive. That’s fantastic. And of course, listen the sort of the China thinking about China and wanting to compete with China and not wanting China, just imagine that when that news came out about ChatGPT that was introduced, if that had been a Chinese company rather than an American company, this would be a Sputnik moment and we would be in a panic. So I think fear [laughter], I think that fear of losing the AI race, I think is also a sort of a tailwind here.
Chelsea Follett: You conclude the book with a very touching letter to the people of the future at the tricentennial 2076. If you could just sum up what you’d like to say to people then, or even further in the future, in case someone from the future watches this video too, at some point or listens to this podcast recording, what message would you hope to convey to them?
James Pethokoukis: I hope I can congratulate them [laughter] That you did it, that you did not let the negative images, that you did not let the people saying, “we can’t do that, there’s not enough Earth,” capitalism is bad. It won’t work. The the naysayers didn’t win. They didn’t win. That the people who are like, we’re gonna take a risk. We are an entrepreneurial risk-taking country. That’s how you move forward. That’s what we did. So I hope that is what I can say to them is like, congratulations that in 2076 the America of the tricentennial is far beyond what the America of the bicentennial even could have imagined. I hope that’s what it is. And I hope I can deliver that message in person.
Chelsea Follett: And I hope that your prediction in the letter, in the book, that, your book becomes a best seller and you’re able to build a Tony Stark dream mansion. I hope all of that comes. Let’s make it happen.
James Pethokoukis: I was being humble. I was being humble.
Chelsea Follett: Right. Let’s make it happen. Buy his book. It’s really, really a good read. Thank you so much for talking with me, James.
James Pethokoukis: Thanks so much for having me on.