Want abundant clean energy, a universal antivirus vaccine, a house on Mars, and supersonic planes that can get you from Los Angeles to New York in about two hours? According to American Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow James Pethokoukis, we could have these things and more in the not-too-distant future. In fact, some of them would already be here if we had made different choices in the past.
How to accelerate and sustain faster technological progress is the theme of Pethokoukis’s new book, The Conservative Futurist: How to Create the Sci-Fi World We Were Promised. Pethokoukis opens his book with a discussion of Walt Disney
Though neither EPCOT nor its sister-attraction, Tomorrowland, ever met Disney’s expectations, both ideas exemplify his optimistic view about the future and humanity’s ability to do remarkable things.
Pethokoukis would call Disney an Up Wing guy. Instead of Left Wing and Right Wing, which is the dominant labeling in politics, Pethokoukis separates people into Up Wing and Down Wing. Up Wingers are solution-oriented and optimistic about the future. They think technological progress can solve big problems and create a better world. Down Wingers are generally skeptical of economic growth and new technology, believing the latter mostly benefits the rich and may even kill us all.
Pethokoukis argues that America has become more Down Wing and uses the disappointments of EPCOT and Tomorrowland as a symbol of America’s inability to build the sci-fi future that once seemed so certain. He notes that from 1948 to 1973, average real GDP growth was 4% annually, meaning Americans’ living standards more than doubled over this period. In 1969, Americans landed on the moon for the first time, an amazing demonstration of human ingenuity and grit. TV Shows like The Jetsons and Star Trek showed viewers a future with flying cars, teleportation, and routine space travel. Serious people were making predictions of underseas colonies and 150-year lifespans.
But then something happened. The coming atomic age and space age were replaced by an oil crisis, high inflation, and pathetic productivity growth. Shows, books, and movies about the future turned more dystopian: Goodbye Jetsons, hello Terminator. Pethokoukis argues that the period from 1955 to 1973 was the false start of Up Wing 1.0. We looked like we were heading for the stars, but instead we barely got off the ground.
As Pethokoukis tells it, this was not the only false start. From 1995 to 2000, it looked like we were going to get Up Wing 2.0. Real GDP growth again exceeded 4% annually and labor productivity growth grew by more than 3% per year through 2004. Pethokoukis notes another encouraging sign—there were three different Star Trek shows in the 90s. As in the previous Up Wing era, there were optimistic predictions about widespread gene therapy, hydrogen-powered cars, and quantum computing arriving by 2020.
But again, it did not last. The dot.com bubble burst, economic growth slowed, and by 2004, Pethokoukis reports only 40% of Americans thought the country was on the right track, down from 71% in 1999.
Pethokoukis explains why we had two false starts. First, things happened to us. World War II killed a lot of people—meaning less human capital and fewer innovators—and nearly destroyed Western Europe, which was a key hub of innovation. Some of the best European scientists eventually found post-war success in America and Russia, but there was a costly transition period that likely kept some innovations from happening and slowed down others.
A counter to Pethokoukis’s claim is found in The Rise and Decline of Nations. Economist Mancur Olson argues that war can make places more productive if it destroys the sclerotic, rent-seeking special interests and institutions that tend to develop in stable countries. He points to the strong growth in West Germany and other European countries in the decades following World War II as evidence. I will leave it to the reader to decide which effect dominates.
Pethokoukis says the 1970s oil shock had a negative impact, as well. By raising the cost of energy, it slowed productivity growth, especially in the most energy-intensive industries. He also cites evidence that transformative ideas just got harder to find. Studies show it requires more resources—labs, equipment, scientists—to find new ideas than it did in the past. Federal R&D spending as a percentage of GDP has fallen in America since the 1970s, though some of the decline has been offset by more private R&D spending.
Humans are not passive observers of reality, though, so if bad things happen, it is up to us to adapt. Pethokoukis argues we did adapt, but in a Down Wing direction. Nuclear meltdowns at Chernobyl and in Japan caused us to reject nuclear power as a source of energy even though Pethokoukis shows more people have died due to higher energy prices and pollution in places that ended their nuclear programs than have ever died from radiation exposure.
He also reminds us that we made it hard to build things. The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, requires an ever-increasing amount of paperwork before needed permits can be issued. This slows down projects and stops others altogether. Several states have their own versions of NEPA, too. In the 1970s cities implemented strict land-use regulations to inhibit new housing construction. This has led to higher prices that keep all but the most affluent out of most high-opportunity areas.
Pethokoukis mentions other Down Wing moves. After 1972 we quit going to the moon, and in 1973 the FAA banned supersonic flight over the continental United States. We became a country unwilling to accept risk and more scared than excited about disruptive innovation.
In the 1970s the environmental movement gained steam, and Pethokoukis, like several others, links rising environmentalism and its emphasis on safety, beauty, and nature to the slowdown of progress, which became a secondary consideration. One of his more interesting conjectures is that America’s failure in Vietnam increased political polarization by allowing each side to portray the other as evil, not simply wrong, and boosted the environmental movement by confirming some environmentalists’ worst fear: Technological progress did not simply mean better consumer goods. It also gave militaries the power to destroy the planet through chemical warfare, herbicides, pesticides, and other advanced, non-nuclear weapons.
This Down Wing shift showed up in our cultural works. Pethokoukis provides dozens of examples of movies, TV shows, and novels becoming more pessimistic about the future. One interesting example: From 1968 to 1981, Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and famous de-growth advocate, appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 20 times, while Up Wing futurists made only two appearances.
In the final half of the book, Pethokoukis explains why we need to embrace Up Wing growth and steps we can take to get there. As to why, he persuasively argues that Up Wing societies are more resilient societies. Effectively dealing with climate change, an asteroid strike, energy crises, or another pandemic requires more knowledge than we currently have. Technology helps us solve big problems.
We need more experimentation to generate more innovation, he says, and this involves accepting more risk. Failing to act until it is deemed completely safe typically means not doing anything at all, which means we will not be better prepared for future challenges.
Pethokoukis is on to something. Because of technological progress, the number of global deaths caused by natural disasters dropped from over 500,000 in 1920 to 41,000 in 2020. Similarly, life expectancy worldwide has increased from 47 years in 1950 to 71 years today. Technological innovation is the only way to keep these trends going.
Pethokoukis recommends focusing our efforts on artificial intelligence, biotechnology, energy, robotics, and space. To improve our chances of success, he suggests several policy reforms, both at the federal level and state level.
First, he thinks we should upgrade our infrastructure. He acknowledges the private sector can provide most infrastructure, such as futuristic vertiports for air taxis, but thinks the federal government should play a role, too. However, since nearly 97% of infrastructure is owned by state and local governments and the private sector, I think they should be the ones taking the lead on any upgrades. We both agree that cutting red-tape, such as state NEPA laws, would make infrastructure dollars go further.
Pethokoukis wants us to build more housing in our cities, too. Land-use regulations increase the price of housing, which hinders mobility and slows economic growth. We cannot be an Up Wing country or land of opportunity if we do not provide enough housing where people want it. State and local governments control land-use regulations, so state reforms are needed to fix the problem. There have been some successful reforms, but there is more to do.
He also argues for investing in Up Wing education i.e., investing in STEM programs and alternative education models that inspire kids to tackle big problems in creative ways. He does not explicitly advocate for more education freedom, but there is evidence that more school choice makes kids more entrepreneurial. More choice would also create space for different education models, some of which could emphasize fostering an Up Wing mindset.
If Pethokoukis is right, states that minimize the amount of red tape entrepreneurs need to get through to bring innovative ideas to market are more likely to be the launch pads of Up Wing 3.0. Based on the Cato Institute’s recent Freedom in the 50 States report, which ranks states by their levels of economic and personal freedom, New Hampshire, Florida, Nevada, and Arizona could be the states that lead the way.
Pethokoukis regularly reminds the reader that culture and beliefs matter. Towards the end of the book, he notes how World’s Fairs used to fill people with wonder about what was possible. Like him, I love the idea of a new World’s Fair. Instead of fearing the worst versions of AI, small modular nuclear reactors, autonomous vehicles, nanobots, or asteroid mining, people could see positive versions of these things up close. A better understanding of the upside of these and other technologies would help people tolerate the risk required to make them happen at scale.
He also thinks more optimistic sci-fi novels, movies, comics, and TV shows can change how people think about the future. We need more people from the Up Wing community working on such projects.
Pethokoukis closes his book with a short letter to Americans in 2076, the tricentennial of the country’s founding. In it, he hopes we have achieved some of what we are capable of, such as abundant clean energy and new vaccines and treatments for diseases. More optimistically, he asks how the settlement on Mars is going.
I do not know if humans will get to Mars by 2076, or ever. But The Conservative Futurist makes a good case for why we should be trying much harder than we are. If you are already Up Wing, this book will help you convince others. If you are Down Wing, this book will help change your mind.