My latest for Exponents: Green Tech and the Post-Decadent Society

I argue in Exponents:

Ultimately, it is alchemy – cultural and technological creativity – or as Douthat puts it, the capacity to “imagine and work toward renewal and renaissance” that counteracts decadence. So where to begin the post-decadent project? Well, green technology – to avoid the worst of climate change and, perhaps, transcend yet more spiritual disillusionment.

In the discussion of stalled growth, Douthat paraphrases Tyler Cowen for the proposition that green technologies are “defensive” in nature – helpful for sustainability but “not a world-altering innovation in the style of the steamship or the airplane or the gas-powered automobile that it aspires to replace.”

Douthat’s reservations here are overstated, as sustainability is underrated. In Cowen’s own case for the morality of economic growth, Stubborn Attachments, the watchword is “Wealth Plus,” with the “Plus” encompassing the essential feature of environmental and societal sustainability. To the extent the crisis in cultural confidence Douthat depicts is the result of deceleration and subtle backsliding, even modest steps forward are vital inflection points and potential origins for yet greater ambition. With further imagination, green tech is the beginning of our renaissance.

Imagine a grand bargain that sees a carbon tax enacted alongside wise deregulation – of the Saul Griffith, not C. Montgomery Burns, variety – to make nuclear and solar energy more affordable and devote a greater share of national GDP to research and development. Imagine, as Peter Thiel invokes in a review of The Decadent Society, compact nuclear reactors cheaply powering, with zero carbon emissions, the factories to produce and the electricity to fuel Teslas for mass consumption. Imagine those same reactors powering hyperloops to carry commuters from abundant, affordable, and aesthetic carbon-sink housing to prosperous urban cores. Imagine in the heart of the city (as well as the cloud) Stripe University – educating minds for creativity, not credentialism – where the Department of Progress Studies is pioneering institutional incentives to speed the replacement of compact fission with fusion reactors.

Imagine a reporter from the Srinivasan Post – her retirement fund and children’s college funds secured with assets from initial coin offerings that seeded transformational technologies – delving into her latest in a series of investigations of fusion technology, which help scientists, regulators, venture capitalists, and the public parse PR puffery from bona fide breakthroughs. Imagine students and researchers the world over inspired by those articles to make significant contributions to fusion and other digital science hub repositories – from the COVID-25 vaccine to the Martian Excursion Module repos – in return for their own coin stakes in that technological progress via the a16z “It’s Time to Build” exchange.

Is this future far-fetched? As Douthat might say, have some faith – and let’s get to work.

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Preference Cultivation and Overcoming Inertia

Alexis de Tocqueville (*This portrait is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.)

For many problems, local and preference-sensitive solutions are more efficient and effective than distant fiats (e.g., U.S. university-based network computing was far more advanced than Soviet computing). However, local preferences themselves can be inefficient (e.g., single family home owners opposing new construction). Between market mythologizing and top-down, central planning lies an option of preference cultivation.

Local cruft and inertia often need to be fracked. But centrally-chosen alternatives leave much to be desired. For example, well-run charter schools employing common core materials can outperform stagnant district schools, but the common core can stymie good teachers. Centrally-imposed solutions might raise the floor but lower the ceiling.

What if we could raise the floor against the wishes of vested and complacent special interests opposing reform but also raise the ceiling against arrogant technocrats demanding standardization? What if local preferences themselves could be reformed without the need for preference-denying guardrails. It would be like having a market that eschewed fast food instead of requiring a mayor to tax or ban it.

Incentives and self-interest matter. An individual teacher’s union member can understand where her bread is buttered and oppose non-unionized charters competing for students and per-pupil funding. That’s rational. But it may not be rational on a longer time horizon. One generation may benefit from an inefficient allocation. But the next generation will be left with underperforming schools and unaffordable public employees.

Civilization is premised on one generation caring about the welfare of the next. Somewhere among those with vested interests lies concern (even if overshadowed by other considerations) for the long-term well being of the community or at least one’s own progeny. (Note: civilization will not work without progeny.)

Individuals’ understanding of self-interest can be expanded to “self-interest properly understood” a la de Tocqueville. Horizons can be broadened, consequences can be ascertained, lessons can be learned, and tastes can be made. Rejecting those premises would mean rejecting any possibility for education, political persuasion or cultural transformation. Those premises would seemingly have to be accepted by both the left and the right, otherwise why do people ever open their mouths?

If education is at all possible, preferences can be changed. Preparing market and political participants to better understand their own self-interest as enmeshed in long-term community values, and cultivating their preferences accordingly, should lead to better outcomes.

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