Dear Marc, It’s Not Building Stuff, It’s The System That Allows Us To Do So

20
1397

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?

Quite.

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.

20
Leave a Reply

avatar
4 Comment threads
16 Thread replies
11 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
8 Comment authors
David MooreSpikeBloke on M4Chester DrawsTD Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Bloke on M4
Guest
Bloke on M4

My faith in government is even lower at the end of this than it was at the start. I assumed that when the shit hit the fan that the pointless rulebooks would be shredded and everyone would get on with doing what is necessary. I’m sure there’s aspects of the CE regulations around PPE that can be ignored in a crisis (like a lot of environmental laws). Supermarkets haven’t been able to get a list of vulnerable people to help because of GDPR. Government can’t just hand over the list to supermarkets to contact, so, everyone has to be contacted… Read more »

Spike
Guest
Spike

[Not being accepted as mainline comment] Quite; the tightest network of regulations designed to keep us safe from all foreseeable risks will promptly trip up on the first unforeseeable one, though it will succeed in retarding innovation in unrelated areas that might help us meet those risks. Likewise, world Climate Crisis government will not ultimately end extreme and frightening weather, but it will tend to keep us from getting rich enough to rebuild Boston somewhere else in the face of rising oceans or advancing glaciers, we don’t know which.

Spike
Guest
Spike

PS – The only moments that the FDA has shone during the COVID-19 outbreak in the US have been: (1) Finally to allow independently produced test kits to be used, rather than its own, which didn’t work; and (2) Its announcement that new therapies will not be subject to the usual two years in the queue.

David Moore
Guest
David Moore

Spike, so it’s only value in this situation was for it to realise it needed to get out of the way.

Spike
Guest
Spike

That was its only value. However, although it got out of the way, it’s not clear it realized it needed to get out of the way! The talk about reopening America “safely” means conceding to the Public Health establishment that it was right to sequester us over a chest cold and letting it save face.

David Moore
Guest
David Moore

I don’t doubt that they will take back control with renewed vigor the moment they get the chance. The word ‘safety’ seems now to be the most powerful in politics that excuses anything.

Chester Draws
Guest
Chester Draws

The education thing is off the mark too. Like health, education is improved through incremental advances. My students are now reaping the benefits of all the advances in computing and the internet. I long ago put all my resources into digital form, so already have them to e-mail out. My dad had every resource on paper. When schools closed in his day, that was that. The biggest disasters in Education are whole scale revolutions. There’s too many moving parts and it all falls down. Any good ideas get burnt with the bad. (The “flipped” classroom being a recent one.) Incremental… Read more »

David Moore
Guest
David Moore

In NZ teachers are pushing back hard on a return to half a work load out of ‘fear’. I do wonder if people are going to realise that there are better ways to educate, and 90% of them never have a job to return too? I also am amazed at how many ‘academics’ fully support the current madness seemingly completely unaware this could completely end the current system of universities. Why blow $100k a year to be taught by a 3rd rate prof when you can get Feynman on Youtube for nothing? International students have propped up the unis for… Read more »

Chester Draws
Guest
Chester Draws

It’s early child educators
1) who can’t be put online, and
2) tend to be better at emoting than thinking.

The government was telling them that the risks were trivial.

I think you are extremely optimistic about schools going online. I’m currently doing it and there are, to put it mildly, issues. The kids are at home “learning”, but the parents aren’t. No issues there at all! Giving a test online without them cheating? And that’s before we get to educational issues.

Universities though should be worried.

David Moore
Guest
David Moore

I’m mostly thinking of high school and unis truthfully when it comes to online learning. I can see challenges to the monolithic schooling system coming should people start questioning how it currently works and the value it brings. You have very good points for younger people.

This is an outsiders view of course!

Spike
Guest
Spike

As technology advances, high-school and university students continue to sit at desks and fill out forms. As we’ve discussed here, necessity may again be the mother of invention. The only vital function of university is certification, and you don’t need a pristine campus, a Div I football team, and a decade of debt. (It is helpful to have a guiding hand to keep you out of common rat-holes, especially when trying to learn by “reading the law.”)

But yes, yours is an outsider’s view; universities benefit from lots of subsidies and legal monopolies.

Bloke on M4
Guest
Bloke on M4

Do we really need as many certifications as we have now? Something like 80% of graduates don’t deploy their skills. All those history, photography and film studies people. And if you’re just interested out of curiosity, why not just buy books, watch videos, read articles. We’ve somehow turned photography into a degree subject, when it never used to be. It used to be about reading Amateur Photographer, learning tips, taking photos and sharing them at a camera club. You evolved your knowledge. If you were particularly good, someone might get you doing some work. Something like 90% of people with… Read more »

Spike
Guest
Spike

We need certification – especially in the increasing portion of the world where lawyers rule and you have to cover your ass against the possibility of hiring someone who simply can’t do the job when “you should have known.” As many certifications as we have? Surely not. Real-world hiring is based on word of mouth, apprenticeship, or watching someone solve a problem and wanting him to solve mine. Guy is certified in C++? I still want to see him discuss some code with my staff, or take a piece and rework it. If I’m the guy, I want to dig… Read more »

Quentin Vole
Guest
Quentin Vole

Increasingly, exams are becoming ‘open book’ – and why not? It takes a bit more skill and ingenuity in setting the questions, that’s all.

TD
Guest
TD

Once you get out of school you do, indeed, learn that life is mostly an open book test. Knowing how to look something up is more important than having it memorized, unless, perhaps you’re being grilled at a press conference.

Chester Draws
Guest
Chester Draws

Not true. As an adult you simply have already memorized the core of the subject and only need to look up details. Beginners are not in this position. A lawyer might look up obscure legislation, but you’d expect them to know most of the law. Otherwise we wouldn’t need lawyers, we could look it up ourselves. But context is far more important than simple facts, so it isn’t that easy. You actually have to really know the subject first to locate the meaning of the facts. If a dentist working on you stopped to look up what they were doing… Read more »

Chester Draws
Guest
Chester Draws

You obviously have zero experience of setting exams for school kids.

Open book exams are ideal for experts. They are useless for beginners because you are testing foundation skills. You need linear algebra to be an engineer, but GCSE level you can have an app on your phone that does it all.

Also, open book and not in an exam room are very, very different. My students have access to all their formulas anyway. What they have at home is access to others to do it for them.

Bongo
Guest
Bongo

Brilliant by Tom. Lovely last two paragraphs.

jgh
Guest
jgh

I was just pondering this a few days ago. In the 19th century the Americas were the place of expansionist opportunity because Europe had loads of people and no land, America had loads of land and no people, so landless European peasants could get a boat over the Atlantic and suddenly become wealthy by occupying and utilising the essentially free land.
Amercia still has loads of land and no people, but has banned itself from utilising that land.

TD
Guest
TD

Well, the Indians might have argued over the loads of land and no people comment, but much of what was settled by the early pioneers in quarter section tracts did not prove to be viable farm land. But, yeah, much of it was. I do agree that we’ve tried very hard to restrict the use of land. Going through the grief of trying to obtain a zone change on a piece of property can yield results better than high tech stock options. Interestingly, almost half of California’s land area is owned by the federal government. The percentages are higher in… Read more »