⤴ Forget about Left Wing and Right Wing. How about an Up Wing America?
A vibrant and resilient society is one with a firm belief that tomorrow can be better than today — if we choose to make it so
“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” - Interstellar
Imagine a 21st century politics that explicitly embraced rapid economic growth and technological progress. Not as some sort of “line goes up is good” GDP fetish, of course. But because those are the best ways to create a wealthier, healthier, and more resilient society for everyone. Not left-populist “middle-out” economics obsessed with redistribution. Not right-populist economic nostalgia for 1960s industrial America.
Now imagine such a forward and long-termist “politics of progress” happening in 2022 America. Right here, right now. What might that look like? Kind of like the following, I think:
Ezra Klein, the liberal New York Times columnist, is worried that 1970s-era environmental regulation and thinking is blocking progress on some big issues, including housing affordability and clean energy.
Derek Thompson of The Atlantic magazine, another center-left journalist, has been touting an “abundance agenda” built around housing deregulation, more immigration, and more government R&D, among other things.
Over in Silicon Valley, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen says “it’s time to build” — more housing, more domestic manufacturing, more university capacity, maybe even a hyperloop or two — with the effort aided by deregulation, increased investment, and a can-do attitude.
Then there’s Elon Musk, an entrepreneur who once described himself as “half Democrat, half Republican.” He’s already innovating and building lots of stuff: electric cars, reusable rockets, and, perhaps eventually lots of housing … on Mars.
So where do you put all of the above on the traditional Left-Right political spectrum? If the answer isn’t immediately obvious, that’s OK. Kind of a trick question. The politics of progress really isn’t about Left or Right. It’s about Up.
See, despite what cable news and social media tell us every day, the cultural, economic, and political divide that matters most for America’s future is not Left Wing versus Right Wing. It never has been. Rather, the key divide that has always been most critical in shaping our everyday lives, our nation, and our world is Up Wing versus Down Wing.
The core claim of Up Wing thinking is this: A vibrant and resilient society is one with a firm belief that tomorrow can be better than today — that is, if we choose to make it so. An Up Wing society is a “no pain, no gain” society. It accepts the necessity of change, although sometimes really uncomfortable, as it strives to generate fast economic growth through scientific discovery, technological invention, commercial innovation, and high-impact entrepreneurship. Up Wingers are all about acceleration for solving big problems, effectively tackling new ones, and creating maximum opportunity for all Americans.
Embracing a three-dimensional politics
Can folks on the Left be Up Wingers? Absolutely. From its earliest beginnings, the political progressive movement saw scientific and technological advances as key to a more just society. As author and social activist Jack London said just after the turn of the 20th century, “Let us not destroy these wonderful machines that produce efficiently and cheaply. Let us control them.”
Can folks on the Right be Up Wingers? You bet. Principled conservatives should be as future-oriented as anyone. Society, as the conservative statesman and political theorist Edmund Burke wrote in 1790, “is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
Down Wingers see things a bit differently. For them, stagnation is an immutable fact of American life. (After all, living standards are supposedly no better today than 50 years ago, right?) We live in a zero-sum society. And if faster growth were possible, it would merely benefit Silicon Valley uber-billionaire weirdos and harm the environment. Indeed, Down Wingers think climate change is an existential threat that means rich countries must live more poorly. Down Wingers cannot imagine what jobs will replace the ones the robots will surely take. Americans exploring the Solar System and beyond? What a waste with so many problems right here on Earth. Plenty of Down Wingers across the political spectrum.
The origin of Up Wing
“Up Wing” isn’t my idea. It’s an extension of the Right Wing/Left Wing ideological framing that dates back to the French Revolution. It was coined in the 1970s by futurist writer Fereidoun M. Esfandiary. He’s considered the godfather of modern transhumanism, a movement seeking to use science and technology to transcend our biological limitations. Esfandiary himself went by the name FM-2030 because he hoped to live to the year 2030. (He did not.)
Rather than FM-2030, however, my brand of Up Wing thinking harkens back to Herman Kahn, a true American original. A nuclear war theorist during the Cold War, Kahn provided at least partial inspiration for film director Stanley Kubrick’s maniacal Dr. Strangelove in his 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
But the 1970s detente between the US and USSR led to the second act of Kahn’s career, that of futurist. This former strategist of Armageddon became a sunny purveyor of pro-American, techno-capitalist optimism. In his 1976 book, The Next 200 Years, Kahn outlined a vision of material abundance and human potential that at its edges is nearly as ambitious as what FM-2030 imagined. “New and improving technologies aided by today's fortuitous discoveries [will] further man's potential for solving current perceived problems and for creating an affluent and exciting world. Man is now entering the most creative and expansive period of history. These trends will soon allow mankind to become the master of the solar system.”
Talk about a major Vibe Shift. But too much of today’s politics on the Left and Right is Down Wing politics. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are clearly and strongly championing the idea that faster technological progress and greater economic dynamism need to be national priorities that broadly and deeply inform public policy. Neither Left nor Right is laser-focused on producing future-oriented attitudes, ideas, and policies. There are Up-Wingers on both teams, but not enough of them right now.
Yet if America is to fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and then launch itself into a brighter tomorrow far more prosperous than almost anyone is currently imagining, it must again become a risk-taking, future-oriented, techno-optimist country. An Up Wing country.
America was this way once, before getting mired in eco-pessimism and then shocked by a surprise economic downshift. And we still have our occasional Up Wing moments. Up Wing America constructed the Transcontinental Railroad and Panama Canal, passed Social Security, implemented the Marshall Plan, split the atom, adopted a containment strategy to fight the Cold War, constructed the Interstate Highway System, landed on the Moon, built and commercialized the Internet, decoded the human genome, rolled out pandemic-fighting vaccines ASAP. And it accomplished all those things confident — at least for a bit — in its ability to discover, create, and invent a future of greater abundance and of greater opportunity for all its people to pursue their dreams
This is a moment of great civilizational promise and also great peril — and not just because of war in Europe. Will we choose More Stagnation or New Acceleration? Unfortunately, the Great Pandemic has raised the odds that this dream of a richer and more resilient America and world will be suffocated by COVID-shaken societies that turn inward, avoid risk, and cannot imagine a future worth striving for, a future worth building.
That must not happen. Economic shocks and slow, uneven growth over the past decade helped make this a period of cruel, intolerant, backward-looking politics. Imagine what a second disappointing decade would do to us. Or a third. Or a fourth.
We can do better (especially in terms of productivity growth, as the above chart suggests we need to). We can break out of this rusty ideological cage. The shock of a lethal pandemic, the threat of a killer climate, the challenge of a rising geopolitical rival in China, the inadequacy of an economy that still does too little for too many — all of this presents an opportunity for Up Wingers stuck in both Down Wing parties to present a vision of the future and to inspire the American people to make it happen. So do all the good things happening: rapid vaccine development, America’s return to space, stunning advances in genetic science, the emerging reality of nuclear fusion and advanced geothermal, AI as a super research assistant.
And maybe we can start by looking up. Maybe some of us already are.
I’ve written a number of things on the notion of an Up Wing political economy, though not with that nomenclature. Some key issues of Faster, Please!:
Is AI finally ready to supercharge the US economy? (03/17/2022)
'The Limits to Growth' at 50: Still saving the Earth at the expense of humanity (03/07/2022)
When will the Next Big Thing arrive? (02/03/2022)
The Smithsonian’s dreary 'Futures' exhibition is stuck in the eco-pessimist 1970s (01/07/2022)
Why 2022 won't be anything like the 2022 of 'Soylent Green' (12/30/2021)
Technological stagnation and the Zero-Risk Society (10/22/2021)
How to get the AI-powered US economy that we want (09/14/2021)
Why optimistic science fiction is still possible and really important (08/27/2021)
Is slow population growth the ultimate obstacle to tech progress? (08/11/2021)
Lost Future: What if America had avoided the Great Stagnation? (04/25/2021)
I like your spirit -- and optimism -- Pethokoukis. I'm going to have to switch to a paid subscription. Keep up the good work!