In housing, health care, climate change, and the pandemic, there is too much venting and not enough inventing.
Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Welcome to Work in Progress, a newsletter about the world’s most important mysteries.

Click here to read and share this article on the web.

During the holiday week, I spent a frigid afternoon standing in a long line outside the local library to pick up a rapid COVID test. Lines for essential goods are a pretty good sign of failed public policy. When food runs low, there are bread lines. Where gasoline is in short supply, there are gas lines. But there I stood, nearly two years into a pandemic, shivering inside a depressing metaphor of state failure. As I bounced from foot to foot to stay warm, I asked myself: How on earth did this happen?

America’s miserable—and miserably timed—testing shortage was a policy choice. The FDA has continually slow-walked the approval of rapid tests for development. The Trump administration was utterly uninterested in any COVID policy outside the vaccines. The Biden administration and Democrats didn’t announce bulk orders of rapid tests until the Omicron wave had already swept the country. Other countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, approved more kits and prioritized their manufacture and distribution, giving their citizens access to millions of free tests throughout the past year. America lacks the test abundance of the U.K. and Canada because instead of choosing abundance, we chose scarcity.

Zoom out, and you can see that scarcity has been the story of the whole pandemic response. In early 2020, Americans were told to not wear masks, because we apparently didn’t have enough to go around. Last year, Americans were told to not get booster shots, because we apparently didn’t have enough to go around. Today, we’re worried about people using too many COVID tests as cases scream past 700,000 per day, because we apparently don’t have enough to go around.

Zoom out more, and you’ll see that scarcity is also the story of the U.S. economy. After years of failing to invest in technology at our ports, we have a shipping-delay crisis.  After years of a deliberate policy to reduce visa issuance for immigrants, we suddenly can’t find enough workers for our schools, factories, restaurants, or hotels. After decades of letting semiconductor-manufacturing power move to Asia, we have a shortage of chips, which is causing price increases for cars and electronics.

Zoom out yet more, and the truly big picture comes into focus. Manufactured scarcity isn’t just the story of COVID tests, or the pandemic, or the economy: It’s the story of America today.  The revolution in communications technology has made it easier than ever for ordinary people to loudly identify the problems that they see in the world. But this age of bits-enabled protest has coincided with a slowdown in atoms-related progress.

Altogether, America has too much venting and not enough inventing. We say that we want to save the planet from climate change—but in practice, many Americans are basically dead set against the clean-energy revolution, with even liberal states shutting down zero-carbon nuclear plants and protesting solar-power projects. We say that housing is a human right—but our richest cities have made it excruciatingly difficult to build new houses, infrastructure, or megaprojects. Politicians say that they want better health care—but they tolerate a catastrophically slow-footed FDA‪ that withholds promising tools, and a federal policy that deliberately limits the supply of physicians.

In the past few months, I’ve become obsessed with a policy agenda that is focused on solving our national problem of scarcity. This agenda would try to take the best from several ideologies. It would harness the left’s emphasis on human welfare, but it would encourage the progressive movement to “take innovation as seriously as it takes affordability,” as Ezra Klein wrote. It would tap into libertarians’ obsession with regulation to identify places where bad rules are getting in the way of the common good. It would channel the right’s fixation with national greatness to grow the things that actually make a nation great—such as clean and safe spaces, excellent government services, fantastic living conditions, and broadly shared wealth.

This is the abundance agenda.

Let’s start by diagnosing our scarcity problem. Take a look at this graph of prices in the 21st century, which shows that some products have become cheaper, such as TVs and computers, while many essentials have become more expensive, such as health care and college.

A mainstream liberal might look at the red lines and think: The government isn’t spending enough money to help people out; spend more! The typical conservative might think: The government is spending too much money and inflating the cost of these services; slash taxes and spending! What I’d prefer to focus on is perhaps the real problem: a national failure to increase the supply of essential goods.

Health care: The U.S. has fewer physicians per capita than almost every other developed country, in part because our medical-residency system has for 40 years constricted the supply of U.S. physicians by forcing them to go through scarce and poorly funded residency-training programs. Meanwhile, the American Medical Association, the country’s top trade group for doctors, has in the past few decades blocked nurses from delivering care and impeded foreign-trained doctors from practicing here. America has tried very diligently to create medical scarcity, and in typically plucky American fashion, we’ve succeeded.

Housing: Homes have become famously unaffordable in many coastal cities. Since 1980, average house prices in the New York City metro area have risen about 700 percent; in San Francisco they have increased by more than 900 percent. Simply redistributing cash or slashing taxes alone won’t do much to fix this problem. The culprits are largely regulations that prevent the construction of taller apartment buildings that can hold more units.

College: Elite colleges are failing every abundance-agenda test imaginable. They’re hardly expanding the total number of admissions; their share of total enrollment has actually been shrinking; and they’re admitting fewer of the low-income students who gain the most by attending elite colleges in the first place.

Two areas not highlighted on the prices graph, but which I would feel remiss not to include, are transportation and energy.

Transportation: Building big infrastructure projects on time and on budget has become nearly impossible, even in liberal states where a given project, such as high-speed rail, enjoys broad liberal enthusiasm. This, too, is a policy choice. Since the 1970s, new laws and regulations have stymied new building projects just about everywhere. Some of these laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, arrived with the best of intentions. But endless and expensive impact analyses and environmental reviews have ground our infrastructure construction to a halt. From 1900 to 1904, New York City built and opened 28 subway stations. One hundred years later, the city needed about 17 years to build and open just three new stations along Second Avenue.

Energy and climate change: Clean-energy technology has made huge strides in the past decade, but we’re not deploying it fast enough. Solar, wind, and geothermal progress has been impeded by regulations that benefit the fossil-fuel industry, by antigrowth attitudes among Americans who don’t want new energy projects in their neighborhood, and by questionable cost-benefit analyses by environmentalists. (To pick one example: The proposal to build the biggest solar plant in the U.S. hit a snag when environmentalist groups objected to the possible impact on Nevada’s desert-tortoise population.) It remains a cataclysmic shame that excessive concerns about radiation have led to nuclear-power regulations that make it impractical to build new plants. Nuclear power is 99.6 percent greener than oil in emissions per unit of energy created and 99.7 percent safer in deaths per unit of energy. But the U.S. has closed more nuclear-power plants than we’ve opened this century.

For the rest of this year, I’ll be fleshing out the abundance agenda in my Work in Progress newsletter. For now, I just want to point out how much good we can do by simply taking on the enemies of abundance.

Let's start with the crisis of the moment: the pandemic. For more than a year, Democratic leaders have implored Americans to take the pandemic seriously by wearing masks, cancelling plans, and accepting broad restrictions to normal life. We ought to serve the question right back to our leaders: Why isn’t a Democratic-controlled government taking the pandemic seriously by developing a plan to win the next war with supply-side abundance? The federal government still hasn't passed pandemic preparedness legislation that would accelerate vaccine production for the next variant or the next virus, despite both seeming practically inevitable. The U.S. needs a 100-day plan that includes creating a super-team of virus hunters to monitor viral strains around the world and an Operation Warp Speed for building vaccine manufacturing facilities around the world. Nothing is stopping us from enacting these policies except our own complacency.

In health care, we could pass laws to increase the number of U.S. physicians. We can do this by raising funding for federal residency programs, or by making it easier for foreign-born doctors to practice here. Telemedicine has been a surprising silver lining of the pandemic, and reducing regulatory barriers here would also increase access. In housing, more states and cities should follow the example of California in banning single-family zoning, or follow the example of Houston and basically do away with zoning entirely. Increasing the scale of high-quality education is tough, because close and personalized instruction seems so important for developing mastery. But we might foster more experimentation with digital education to encourage colleges to pull back tuition costs, or to pare back administrative sprawl.

In clean energy, the U.S. needs to rethink every level of innovation. We need to dramatically increase high-skill immigration, since foreign-born geniuses starting American companies—in green energy, yes, but also in software and beyond—is perhaps the greatest free lunch in all of economics. We need more research and development in nascent projects such as carbon-capture technology; more purposeful deployment of solar technology; regulatory reform to allow for the construction of more solar and wind farms; and a rational approach to nuclear energy that encourages the construction of more plants. Some people think of a clean-energy revolution as the next moon shot, but it’s not really. In the past 10 years, the price of solar electricity has already declined by 90 percent while the efficiency of lithium-ion batteries has increased by 90 percent. What we need is a plan to solve some very earthbound problems—such as the objections of NIMBYs and the fossil-fuel industry—and build a green-energy policy that deploys the tech we’ve already developed.

One bottom-up way to build this coalition would be to convince a large group of Americans of the benefits of clean-energy abundance. This will require a bit of cognitive restructuring. In the new book Electrify, the entrepreneur Saul Griffith writes that the U.S. is stuck in a way of thinking about the environment that dates to the 1970s energy crisis, when the need for Americans to live more efficiently gave rise to the mantra “Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!” This mindset can be succinctly summarized: With great sacrifice, the future might be a little less terrible.

But Americans won’t enthusiastically support decarbonization if they believe that it is the path to pain and deprivation. Building a green-energy movement requires convincing people that they can still have big cars and home comforts if we build a clean-energy grid that electrically powers better cars, better houses, and a better life. To win the political battle for a cleaner planet, we need an energy mindset focused on plenty, which says: If we build the right infrastructure today, your future will be awesome.

An abundance agenda needs a target. What should we make more of? One answer that I’ve given you is: essential goods and services where productivity rates are declining. But that’s a bit fusty and technical. Let me try to offer a simpler answer. We should aim for abundance of comfort, abundance of power, and abundance of time.

By expanding access to essential services such as health care, we can reduce Americans’ pain. By going all-out on clean energy—solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, and beyond—Americans can power more luxurious lives, free of the guilt that their luxury is choking the planet. By focusing on productivity and growth, we can become a richer country that shares its ample winnings with the less fortunate, reducing poverty and allowing us to work less with every passing decade, as economists once hoped.

This is an unabashedly utopian vision. But moving from venting to inventing, from zero-sum skirmishes over status to positive-sum solutions for American greatness, requires not just a laundry list of marginal improvements but also a defense of progress and growth. The abundance agenda aims for growth, not because growth is an end but because it is the best means to achieve the ends that we care about: more comfortable lives, with more power to do what we want, with more time devoted to what we love.

Did someone forward you this newsletter? Sign up here.

Most Popular on The Atlantic