⤴ Imagine a US political party built around faster economic growth and technological progress
Next week's California primary scramble might give clues about whether Up Wing politics has a (near) future
Writing a news story about an independent or third-party candidate maybe winning the White House is a journalistic lark. Something a Washington political reporter might do during a slow news cycle. Or when some public-opinion survey shows a successful bid actually looks possible — at least if you squint a bit.
For example: A recent Harvard/Harris poll asked the following question: “Do you think that you would consider a moderate independent candidate for president if the 2024 match was between Donald Trump and Joe Biden?” And a pretty solid majority, 58 percent, say they would be willing to take such a historic flyer. (A majority also say neither elderly gentleman should run again.)
Perhaps those headline-grabbing numbers got Forward Party founder and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate (as well as failed New York City mayoral candidate) Andrew Yang feeling a bit of a tingle. Maybe Sen. Joe Manchin, too. “2024 may prove to be a whole different ball game,” said Nancy Jacobsen, CEO and founder of “No Labels,” of the Harvard/Harris survey.
Understanding Up Wing
As loyal readers and subscribers of Faster, Please know, I contend that neither major party in 2022 — and neither America’s current Left Wing nor Right Wing — satisfactorily promotes and reflects what I call “Up Wing” policies and values. Up Wingers are all about economic and technological acceleration for solving big problems, effectively tackling new ones, and creating maximum opportunity for all. They accept the necessity of change, although sometimes that disruption is really uncomfortable. They demand public policy be judged by its potential impact on America’s ability to discover, invent, and innovate.
Broadly, my flavor of Up Wing wonkery would dramatically boost science and infrastructure investment, expand international trade, increase immigration, reform or eliminate anti-progress, anti-entrepreneur regulations (often dating back to the country’s 1970s eco-pessimist shift), promote housing density, link top federal pay to economic performance, and create a more pro-investment tax code — among many, many other policy ideas. (There’s a Moon and Mars colony in there somewhere, too.)
My kind of Up Wing America would be digging superdeep holes for unlimited geothermal energy, pushing hard on nuclear fusion, vacuuming carbon from the sky, extending the maximum human healthspan, and fully embracing the potential of a thriving orbital economy. At century’s end, I want our kids and grandkids to look back at this current period as when we began the most creative and expansive period of human civilization, well on our way to mastering the Solar System.
Interregnum: Late last year Time reporter Molly Ball interviewed me for the magazine’s Person of the Year profile of Elon Musk. The quote she used is a good summary of Up Wing thinking:
James Pethokoukis, an economic analyst with the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, thinks Musk does have a coherent politics, whether or not he articulates it. “The reason it’s confusing is it’s not on the traditional left-right spectrum,” he says. “It is a politics of progress.” At a time when segments of the right and left alike champion protectionist populism — from Republican Senator Josh Hawley’s hostility to free trade to Bernie Sanders’ redistributionism — this puts Musk at odds with both. “It is a view that says the solution to man’s problems is growth and technological progress and maximizing human potential,” Pethokoukis says. “It’s not a view fully represented by either side in this country.”
California political dreaming
Which brings us to the Golden State. California is deep blue, politically. Joe Biden won by almost 30 percentage points in 2020, a margin surpassed in only five other states. So it’s hardly shocking that Governor Gavin Newsom — he of the back-combed, Gordon Gekko-esque coif — almost certainly will be spending another four years in Sacramento. An eventual Newsom win seems so certain, in fact, that there’s been little polling for the state’s June 7 top-two primary scramble. (The top two finishers proceed to the general election in November.) But betting and prediction markets such as Metaculus show Newsom to be heavily favored.
Even so, I will still be paying close attention to the primary next week — if only to see whom Newsom will be facing in the fall. Maybe Californians are in the mood for a political independent and will make policy analyst and author Michael Shellenberger the runner-up to Newsom. Prediction markets suggest it’s within the realm of realistic possibility:
Even if Shellenberger, who cofounded the eco-modernist Breakthrough Institute think-tank in 2003, should win, the next California governor is still probably going to be the current governor. But a strong showing by the pro-nuclear energy Shellenberger might suggest the potential political purchase of an Up Wing agenda of abundance, albeit one with Californian characteristics. This from his campaign website is pretty Up Wingy:
Abundant and cheap clean energy are the keys to California’s prosperity and pro-human environmentalism
I can end the war between city-dwellers, farmers, and environmentalists by creating water storage, water recycling, and cutting-edge desalination
We can protect neighborhood character and add more housing that ordinary Californians can afford by growing cities upward and outward in ways that protect the environment
Energy abundance (“Energy is life”), technological solutionism, greater density. Not bad at all. And even if Shellenberger finishes far back in the pack, there are other reasons for optimism about Up Wing thinking. Among them:
Polls (of course wording is always crucial here) show considerable public enthusiasm about a space economy, more housing, and greater science investment.
The inability to meet carbon goals and war-related energy shortages is boosting nuclear popularity in Europe. (Here at home, Newsom is now looking to delay the long-planned closure of Diablo Canyon, California's last operating nuclear power plant.)
JPMorgan recently put out a big report on nuclear fusion startups and concluded: “On a very long scale, all of the current sources of energy will be viewed as transitional to a safer, cleaner, and cheaper source of energy. Long term, this might only be provided by nuclear fusion.”
The pandemic has shown the value of cutting-edge science and the current inefficacy of government bureaucracy. (Between federal agencies’ failures and supply-chain bottlenecks, there has emerged a group of “supply-side progressives” who have finally noticed that bad government had made it hard to “build more homes, trains, clean energy, research centers, disease surveillance,” according to New York Times columnist Ezra Klein.)
Space launch costs are now 40x lower than they were in the Space Shuttle 1980s and could fall another 95 percent or more, according to Citigroup. (New space applications — space-based solar power, space logistics, and Moon/asteroid mining — could generate $100 billion in annual sales by 2040, according to the bank.) Blue Origin, the rocket company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is teaming up with other firms to build an industrial park in orbit.
AI can now predict the shape of all human proteins, opening up amazing possibilities for new treatments. CRISPR gene-editing treatments continue to advance.
Prime Movers Lab, a “deep tech” venture capital firm, had published a roadmap to the future, speculating on the first commercial nuclear fusion power plant in the 2030s, near-Earth asteroid mining in the 2040s, and genetic technologies to restore lost species and ecosystems by 2050.
Moving beyond ‘owning’ the other side
So, yeah, there’s a lot going on. (And I haven’t even mentioned bringing back woolly mammoths.) It seems like an opportune time for a political party built around solutionism, around the notion of building — not around fighting culture wars. In a recent Q&A, I asked policy analyst Alec Stapp of the new Institute for Progress how a pro-progress movement might appeal to the left and to the right today. Stapp:
In a time of extreme polarization, it’s easier to work on policy areas that create abundance and avoid triggering the culture war machine. A scarcity mindset — which means fighting over a fixed or dwindling pie — makes progress that much harder in public policy. Fortunately, there are obvious wins, such as cutting regulatory red tape to make building easier, that can appeal to both conservatives and liberals (usually for different reasons!). The key to unlocking all this economic surplus is selecting a policy mechanism that can’t be blocked by local NIMBYs. There are also some issues — high-skilled immigration, pandemic preparedness, reforming public R&D — that enjoy some degree of bipartisan support and are much more difficult for populists to demagogue. In these cases, it’s more about moving the issues up the list of political priorities rather than persuading one side or the other to abandon deeply held positions.
Strengthening and expanding the Up Wing parts of the two existing major parties seems like it would be a more fruitful path than attempting to create a third-party competitor or running an independent Up Wing presidential candidate. Of course, the Ds and Rs aren’t static. Both have changed a lot in recent years (and not for the better in my opinion). Given the technological advances mentioned above, along with the various macroshocks of recent years — the pandemic, the worst inflation in 40 years, war in Europe — perhaps one party becomes a thoroughly Up Wing one.
And the other party? Perhaps a more thoroughly Down Wing and backward-looking populist one focused on the costs of progress rather than the benefits. Drawbridge-down politics vs. drawbridge-up politics. But to be honest, my political optimism isn’t nearly as strong as my technological optimism. Then again, maybe California voters can change that next week.
Thanks for reading this far! Just a quick note for first-time visitors and free subscribers. In my twice-weekly issues for paid subscribers, I typically also include a short, sharp Q&A with an interesting thinker, in addition to a long-read essay. Here are some recent examples of those interviewees: