Marc Andreessen tells us that we have a problem. Which, clearly, we do, in fact we’ve more than one. The thought that the best two people to run the place, as decided upon by tens of millions of primary voters, are those two chosen is clearly a problem. The existence of Simon Cowell is obviously beyond all rational explanation. Andreessen is though more specific:
IT’S TIME TO BUILD
Err, no, not really. Certainly not until we’ve worked out what, why and how.
Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings. This monumental failure of institutional effectiveness will reverberate for the rest of the decade, but it’s not too early to ask why, and what we need to do about it.
Being unprepared for something unexpected is not a failure. See meaning of “unexpected” for why.
Sure, we can dig deeper and point out that this just emphasises the problem with trying to plan the world, or something as complex as an economy. Because, as Macmillan pointed out, there are always those “Events, dear boy, events”.
The best we can do is have a flexible system which can react to those events. This being something that politically based institutions have considerable problems with which is what makes it such a pity that our institutions are politically based these days.
Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed — no Western country, or state, or city was prepared — and despite hard work and often extraordinary sacrifice by many people within these institutions. So the problem runs deeper than your favorite political opponent or your home nation.
Fair enough – but if all variants of political organisation have failed then perhaps looking to politics isn’t the solution?
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*.
Given that we didn’t know what to build – see above about “unexpected” – the fact that we didn’t build is not surprising and also a really great idea. The universe of possible happenings is rather greater than our ability to protect against all such therefore a certain parsimony over those we try to prepare for is justified.
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!
Sure, and if the last unexpectedness had actually been Chinee eating bats (as opposed to the Chinees eating bat that it was) we’d be looking pretty stupid right now preening atop our piles of perfectly prepped face masks.
What matters is not being prepared – Sorry Tom – but having a system adaptable enough to protect against either being eaten by or eating chiropterids.
At which point a slight digression. The Dowager Mrs. Worstall is, as she should be at 86, in self isolation. I’m also 1200 miles away. The terror of an empty wine fridge was something that had to be averted. The national delivery systems are on 14 day delivery times. The supermarkets aren’t taking new delivery customers. Even the click and collect (and calling the taxi company to get round there and deliver) doesn’t work because I’m not the vulnerable person but I have to be in order to register for the service. And part of the point is that – laughable though it is – my computer skills are greater than the Dowager Mrs’. The local wine merchant that is answering the phone and doing same day local deliveries doesn’t have the desired vintage, brand nor even grape varietal – might be a clue as to why he’s available.
Scratch head, hmm, I wonder. The local Co Op. Doesn’t do click and collect, doesn’t do delivery, is generally thought of as grocery shopping for the working class and, hmm. Ring Ring. “Slightly odd question for you. Do you stock Oyster Bay?” “Yes, got three cases” “Great, now, the problem, the Dowager Mrs. can get to you, she does every day for the paper. But she can’t carry a half case 100 yards down the road” “That’s no problem, we’ll carry it for her” “Ah, OK, great, thanks!”
For full effect read the second and fourth there in full-on Bathonian. And with good cheer.
We could look at the FDA. Empty ethanol plants – empty because driving is down, therefore so is demand for ethanol to blend with gas, this being such a closedown that there’s a risk the country will run out of bubbles for beer, a byproduct of the ethanol creation process – can’t be used to create hand sanitizer because they’re not licenced to produce goods for human consumption.
Well, I suppose so, although my only impulse toward drinking hand sanitizer is when contemplating the FDA.
At which point, of course, the FDA is first up against the wall now that the neoliberal revolution is finally here and Huzzah for Burke’s little platoons.
Or, to get back to the actual point, it’s not time to build so much as time to unbuild. Unbuilding that web of regulation that stops us from being able to do anything useful in this unexpectedness. My proposal would be to start with anything with the words “Federal” or “State” in the title and work on from there. Sure, mistakes there will be, Federal Express for example, but the general injunction is Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius. Better to destroy by mistake than find that we’ve allowed any of that societal bindweed to survive.
it took scientists 5 years to get regulatory testing approval for the new Ebola vaccine
Fortunately, we’ve already dealt with that in the previous paragraph.
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.
A system incapable of giving away free money. A reasonable epitaph for government?
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*.
Ah, but that’s an error. We have built. We do have factories. We have the mechanisms. It’s just that we built the thing that we should have built. Which is a system adaptable enough to – with a little tinkering – build the requirements for any exigency, any emergency. That is, we went out and built a rich society with an awful lot of fat in it – otherwise we couldn’t afford the government we’ve got – and when push comes to shove we can burn some fat in producing, in that extremis, those things we need.
A complex and adaptable economy. What the hell else do we need? For it’s the potential to deal with a problem that is required, given the variance of problems.
You see it in housing and the physical footprint of our cities. We can’t build nearly enough housing in our cities with surging economic potential — which results in crazily skyrocketing housing prices in places like San Francisco, making it nearly impossible for regular people to move in and take the jobs of the future. We also can’t build the cities themselves anymore.
See above about Federal and State things. Add zoning to the list to be placed against the bullet studded wall. We don’t face a shortage of land, nor the ability to build, we face a limit upon the permissions to build on a piece of land.
We can even test this. Andreessen is rich enough to be able to purchase a decent sized plot of land in one of the SV areas. Palo Alto say. Do so. Then try to get planning permission to build something. Something 5 stories high say. Whatever – a mansion for himself. Some 1,000 sq foot apartments for the people who do yard work. Why not, some 2,000 sq footers suitable for the small and young families of those who code for a living. Just try it. Report back to us in a decade on how that permission process is going. It ain’t land that’s the problem, nor the physical building process.
When the producers of HBO’s “Westworld” wanted to portray the American city of the future, they didn’t film in Seattle or Los Angeles or Austin — they went to Singapore. We should have gleaming skyscrapers and spectacular living environments in all our best cities at levels way beyond what we have now; where are they?
That being the wrong solution anyway. There’s nowhere in the US that faces the same land problem as Singapore. Not even Manhattan does – sure, moving the housing to the Bronx means entering AOC territory and going over to NJ is just leaving civilisation but it’s still not the same as having to move to the next country in order to gain land for a garden. Building up and high isn’t modernity in itself – LA is modernity too it’s just modernity adapted to the specific circumstances of the place.
The last major innovation in K-12 education was Montessori,
Nonsense. The last major innovation was something like Khan Academy. The last major accepted and credentialed innovation was Monetssori but see above about what we should be putting up against that increasingly riddled wall. Those who grant educational credentials are going to get their turn.
…why has so much manufacturing been offshored to places with cheaper manual labor?
Because that was the correct response to technological change. Cheaper transport (of ideas and conversations through telecoms, of people through air transport, of things through shipping) meant that increasingly economic resources from outside the country boundaries could be used in the supply chain for that within the country economy. Quite apart from the fact that we rather like the way that poor people getting rich enough to stop scavenging on garbage piles is a byproduct of the process.
You see it in transportation. Where are the supersonic aircraft? Where are the millions of delivery drones? Where are the high speed trains, the soaring monorails, the hyperloops, and yes, the flying cars?
The perceptive have noted how the high speed train set in S California is turning into $100 billion for a commuter line near Bakersfield. We also tried supersonic aircraft – Concorde – and decided the time saving wasn’t worth the extra cost. We can also look at what did happen in aviation to inform transport systems more generally. The A 380 is being phased out, the 787 isn’t. Why? Because smaller numbers of people point to point is better than larger hub to hub. So, who is going to win, high speed train or autonomous vehicles?
The problem is desire. We need to *want* these things.
Ah, no, getting dangerously close to the planner’s delusion here. The aim is for the economy to facilitate people getting what they want, not for people to want what is produced for them. Utility maximisation is the name of the game and utility is always intensely personal.
And then the rest of it is “We must build!” And, well, sorta. To return to the top it’s what should we build, why and how? The only way we’ve ever worked out how to match what can be built with what people want built is the free market economy. So, agreed, let’s have more of that.
But wanting more free market isn’t a matter of building. It’s a matter of unbuilding much of what has been created over the decades to prevent the free market happening. It’s that taking the regulatory state out around the back and slitting its throat.
That is, to create a better America we need to unbuild the current one. Bureaucratic blood need not be spilled, true, but it’ll be more fun that way.