“Progress studies,” a burgeoning new intellectual movement that seeks to understand why progress happens and how to make it happen faster, has what should be an obvious advantage: on its own, nearly every policy proposal that fall under its aegis should be very popular.
We should find out how build buildings cheaper and faster? Yeah absolutely! We should invent more things so that consumer goods become cheaper and people get richer? For sure! We should make better vaccines and cure more diseases? Sign me up!
But the fact that ideas from progress studies are generally popular in themselves does not mean that they actually come to fruition. For all the politicians who promise health care reform, health care getting more and more expensive. Most components of Build Back Better may have polled well, but it’s still stalled in Congress. Even efforts to build the clean energy infrastructure needed to combat climate change are meets more and more opposition at ground level.
The apparent popularity of such theoretical ideas come up against strict limits in practice. Sure, better vaccines sound good, but can you get a spending bill through Congress that pays for it? Cheaper housing is a popular idea – except when people learn that it means developers in their neighborhoods are building buildings they may not like the look of.
And sometimes we know what’s broken and want to fix it, but we don’t know how. Example: Productivity Growth seems to have slowed down in recent years, which is very bad – but you can’t pass a law that says “fix productivity growth”.
All of this begs the question: if the The concept of progress is so generally popular, why does the United States and so many other countries seem to struggle to create the conditions and policies necessary for progress? But one key idea of progress studies is that progress has not been the default in human history. When progress is not prioritized, it does not happen. And prioritizing progress is not at all the same as vaguely thinking that it would be good.
That’s one of the reasons why Caleb Watney, a scholar who has worked at the Progressive Policy Institute and the R Street Institute on technology and innovation policy, helped found the new DC think tank. Institute of Progresswhich focuses on translating ideas from progress studies and related intellectual movements into a format that decision makers can use to actually solve problems.
Progress studies, Watney told me, “is a more focused and dedicated look at the question of why and how progress happens, and how can we encourage a new set of institutions to accelerate the pace of progress today”.
Do progress studies make sense?
In 2019, economist Tyler Cowen and Stripe CEO Patrick Collison wrote an atlantic article which served as a manifesto for a new discipline: “There is no large-scale intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or aimed at the deeper goal of accelerating it. We believe it deserves a dedicated area of study.
The reaction on the Internet was instantaneous and largely negative. Weren’t progress studies simply “brothers of technology” reinventing the wheel? Isn’t that just economic history, or development economics, or just another name for interdisciplinary studies in general?
But Watney told me that “progress studies are supposed to be a little more like medicine than biology.” Economic historians could be invaluable in understanding why the Industrial Revolution started where and when it did, but they don’t tend to try to answer the question of How? ‘Or’ What we relaunch growth now. Progress studies, adds Watney, “should try to tap into all of these disciplines – economic history, econometrics, psychology.”
At the root of all the unease on the Internet, I suspect, is something other than strong feelings about economic history: a feeling that studies of progress are at odds with our current national attitude of pessimism. Surveys show high rates young people who are fundamentally skeptical of technology, industry, the global economy and the idea that getting rich will solve the world’s problems.
While progress studies may be superficially made up of popular ideas, they risk coming off as something deeply unpopular: generic optimism for an audience of pessimists. Progress studies are popular in Silicon Valley, which is understandably excited about the value and promise of technology, and it’s easy to assume adherents believe the modern economy is working just fine and the only thing needed is more of what we are already doing.
Pessimistic critics, however, might be happier with a fuller articulation of progress studies, which is far less optimistic than a glance at their policy proposals might suggest. “A lot of what we’re saying is that things are not work,” says Watney. Technology should sweep the world and make us richer than ever – but importantly, it doesn’t seem to be (at least not in rich countries). Productivity growth is not keeping up. The cost of living is not going down. Advances in technology should mean more than just moving from 140 character tweets to 280 character tweets.
Progress Studies is therefore less of a love letter to Silicon Valley as it is and more of a frustrated cry for something better. Responding to studies of progress with “what all this recent ‘progress’ has given us” is off the mark – the past few decades have not brought rich countries the real and meaningful wealth and freedom that this wealth should allow , and progress studies is largely about trying to figure out why.
A fairer criticism, it seems to me, is that the cross-cutting questions posed by progress studies are simply too broad to be responsible. Perhaps our inability to build cheaply or halt the rising cost of medicine or accelerate the slowing pace of technological innovation are three issues that have little to do with each the others, and there’s not much point in creating a movement around solving all of them.
Proponents of progress studies counter that in liberal political circles, the basic argument that “abundance and prosperity are good” is actually a lot harder to sell than it seems. There are many doubts that the growth itself is good. It is this doubt that fuels the degrowth movement, which argues that we must shrink the economy to reduce carbon emissions and prevent catastrophic climate change. Instead of making the pie bigger, we should focus on a fairer distribution. And while the degrowth movement may not be politically credible – good luck finding a politician who sticks to its principles – the vague unease it speaks of is genuinely widespread.
But while we need economic redistribution in a increasingly unequal world, the emphasis on redistribution in a world without growth is zero-sum, controversial and ultimately ugly; our unease makes sense, but it doesn’t fit into a political program that would actually work.
Progress studies could accomplish a lot simply by taking the ideals of growth that many people pretend to and making them actionable and attractive – and separating, Watney told me, the argument that growth is important and good from the argument that today the industry must be fully supported. Right now, people are rightly skeptical of Silicon Valley’s ambitions. But to dismiss the whole concept of growth and prosperity as an answer would be a big mistake – and arguably immoral.
Progress studies are then, perhaps, best understood as an effort to get the baby out of the bathwater, preserving a space to celebrate the power of technological progress and material abundance while acknowledging that this does not does not occur by default and might, at this time, not occur as much as needed.
Weave disparate strands together
One of the interests of any intellectual movement is to unite many disparate issues of concern under the same tapestry, and part of the interest of any political movement is to unite many interest groups in within the same faction.
Right now, many individual efforts to break through the pitfalls of our current system and make construction cheaper, or build massive new vaccine factories, or fix health care, or totally transform the way we finance scientific research, tend to fail in the midst of forces that keep us tied to an unsatisfactory status quo.
These forces proved very intractable in trying to fight one by one, like anyone who followed California politics tortured efforts to expedite housingor the decades-long struggle for rural Internet access, can attest. Enormous gains could therefore be made by conceptualizing all of these separate struggles as elements of a single, larger political program, underpinned not by the generic and almost universal belief that progress is likely to matter, but by a specific conception of it. this.
Progress studies argue that progress is as fragile as it is important. Progress is not the default state of human societies and has been the exception rather than the rule throughout human history; it won’t happen unless there is deliberate and concerted work to make it happen.
And whether progress happens or not has the greatest stake for the future of humanity. Abundance and material prosperity, Watney told me, do not simply produce higher incomes and greater comfort; ideally, it also produces “moral growth.” A society with cheaper housing has less homelessness and more compassion for the homeless who remain; one with strong job growth may be more open to immigrants and more resistant to toxic populism.
We’ll see if progress studies can offer conviction that replaces generic pro-growth sentiment or policy prescriptions that actually get things done. I hope that’s the case, and I plan to keep a close watch.
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