⚔ How culture wars undermine America's future
Also: 5 Quick Questions for … economist Walker Hanlon on communications and innovation
In This Issue
The Essay: How culture wars undermine America's future
5QQ: 5 Quick Questions for … economist Walker Hanlon on communications and innovation
Micro Reads: nuclear energy, Elon Musk, flying cars, and more
Quote of the Issue
“The human thirst for excellence, knowledge, every step up the ladder of science, every adventurous reach into space, all of our combined modern technologies and imaginations, even the wars that we've fought have provided us the tools to wage this terrible battle. Through all the chaos that is our history, through all of the wrongs and the discord, through all of the pain and suffering, through all of our times, there is one thing that has nourished our souls, and elevated our species above its origins, and that is our courage.” - The American President from Armageddon, in honor of the DART planetary-defense mission.
Having an extra option for breakfast would seem to be an intrinsically good thing, or at worst a non-controversial thing. But such is the silly age in which we live. Back in August, Cracker Barrel, the country-themed, high-calorie restaurant chain (“Sugar pie, even our menus have butter all over them”), announced it was adding Impossible Foods sausage to its menu. As it stated on Facebook, “Discover new meat frontiers. Experience the out of this world flavor of Impossible™ Sausage Made From Plants next time you Build Your Own Breakfast.”
If you made the mistake of reading the comments to the Cracker Barrel post, you quickly realized again why reading the comments is almost never a good idea. Among the more reactive ones gleaned by The Washington Post:
“All the more reason to stop eating at Cracker Barrel. This is not what Cracker Barrel was to be all about.”
“If I wanted a salad … I would in fact order a salad … stop with the plant based ‘meat’ crap.” wrote another.
“Oh Noes … the Cracker Barrel has gone WOKE!!! It really is the end times.”
But this odd backlash — though I wonder if that last comment wasn’t being sarcastic — against plant-based meat isn’t limited to Cracker Barrel, apparently.
Just a few years ago, with a blockbuster initial public offering from Beyond Meat Inc. and the unveiling of an Impossible Whopper at Burger King locations nationwide, plant-based meats were ascendant. Now, after once enjoying double-digit growth, sales are not just flat but declining, due to possible saturation of the US market, according to Deloitte Consulting. Sales of refrigerated meat alternatives at retailers are down 10.5% by volume for the 52-weeks ending Sept. 4, 2022, according to data from Information Resources. … Deloitte believes the industry is suffering from a perception problem. In July, it surveyed 2,000 consumers and found a decline in the belief that plant-based meat is healthier and more environmentally sustainable than meat from animals. … Deloitte also suspects that the addressable market may be more limited than previously thought with a growing cultural resistance to its “woke” status — even among those seeking to reduce red meat consumption.
What’s more, plant-based meat is hardly the only thing not about the Big Three of class, race, and gender (probably toss religion in there, too) being turned into hot-take culture war controversy. The NFL is scrapping the Pro Bowl, its annual all-star game, in favor of a multi-day event that will match the best players from the AFC and NFC against each other in a series of skills-based events, as well as a game of flag football. And some people seem to care:
If the notoriously flaccid Pro Bowl can generate culture-war hot takes, literally anything can. (Also, football has long been a socialist sport, so relax.) Unfortunately, some far more important subjects are also getting swept up unnecessarily in culture war controversies, including a number of innovations and policies that I cover in Faster, Please! Among these emerging culture war battlefronts:
Autonomous vehicles. More than a million people die every year in car crashes. Then there are all those lost hours spent in traffic staring at the bumper in front of you. Of course, if you’re disabled, the loss of independence in our car-centric country is a far bigger deal than lost productivity from traffic jams. Now I’m not surprised that some technophobes worry self-driving trucks might cost human drivers their jobs. I didn’t anticipate claims AVs would be seen as hostile to the American Way, as some conservative opponents argued in a recent National Review debate.
Housing deregulation. So many economic problems are housing problems. This from “The Housing Theory of Everything,” a 2021 Works in Progress essay: “Western housing shortages do not just prevent many from ever affording their own home. They also drive inequality, climate change, low productivity growth, obesity, and even falling fertility rates.” Seems like building more housing is a solution with something for everyone. Certainly the idea of deregulation to boost economic growth would appeal to folks on the right. But not so much. Apparently building more housing in high-productivity regions means the left wants to abolish the suburbs.
Immigration. This might seem like an old story, but it has a new twist. The complaint among some conservatives used to be about “illegal” immigration. Newcomers were fine, they just had to do it “the right way.” A law-and-order issue, basically. Now, not so much. Almost half of Republicans, 47 percent, think legal immigration should be decreased, compared with just 16 percent of Democrats.
I could go on. In a country where vaccines to halt a deadly pandemic are controversial, I wonder what sort of culture war disputes will arise as CRISPR-based medical treatments become more common. Or maybe just lots of anti-automation arguments as AI and robotics become more commonplace. One explanation for these battles — and it’s not necessarily the only one — that I will keep coming back to: When a society lacks an aspirational and attractive vision of the future, something will fill the void. And right now in America, that void has been filled by a vision that many — certainly many on the right — find unattractive, even if you set aside the more hysterical speculations about everyone having to eat bugs and being forced to live in tiny apartments in mile-high skyscrapers. It’s a scarcity-driven vision where Americans must be compelled to live less well so that others can live better. Certainly when it comes to climate change, many on the right are suspicious of the motives of many environmentalists. As Alec Stapp writes in The Atlantic:
Many progressive commentators similarly believe that countering climate change requires a fundamental reordering of the West’s political and economic systems. “The level of disruption required to keep us at a temperature anywhere below ‘absolutely catastrophic’ is fundamentally, on a deep structural level, incompatible with the status quo,” the writer Phil McDuff has argued. The climate crisis, the Green New Deal advocate Naomi Klein has insisted, “could be the best argument progressives have ever had” to roll back corporate influence, tear up free-trade deals, and reinvest in public services and infrastructure. Such comments raise a question: What is the real goal here—stopping climate change or abolishing capitalism?
Oh, and the phenomenon I’ve been describing also exists on the left. Elon Musk is helping electrify the US economy and create a space economy of myriad potential benefits — and yet many on the left despise him because he doesn’t publicly despise Donald Trump and the GOP. The impulse is closely related to assigning the worst motivations to center-right policy preferences, such as conservatives who wanted to keep schools open and opposed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan — both of which look evermore reasonable as time goes by.
Anyway, if pro-abundance, pro-technocapitalism types like myself don’t like one vision, then we have to come up with alternatives.
💡 5 Quick Questions for … economist Walker Hanlon on communications and innovation
Walker Hanlon is an associate professor in the department of economics at Northwestern University. Earlier this year, we podcast chatted about the role of the engineering profession in the industrial revolution. It's definitely worth checking out! He also released the working paper "A Penny for Your Thoughts," co-authored with Stephan Heblich, Ferdinando Monte, and Martin Schmitz, which investigates how communication costs affect the production of new ideas and inventions. Here are 5 Quick Questions on that subject!
1/ What historical circumstances made 1840s Britain an attractive case study in communication costs in science and innovation?
The 1830s and 1840s are interesting decades because it is a period in which we are seeing stronger ties between scientists and inventors. The emergence of new technologies, such as the telegraph and photography, reflect the increasing dependence of innovators on scientific insights in areas such as electricity and chemistry. So this is a great period in which to study the impact of communication on science and technology development.
2/ With cheap, reliable postage and phone service today, have we squeezed out all the gains of reducing communications costs? Or is there still room to boost science and technology by making communication cheaper?
I still think that there are plenty of gains to be had in terms of improved communication. There are still plenty of communication frictions that exist, such as language barriers and translation issues, and I think a substantial amount of knowledge remains difficult to communicate over distances. To me, one of the lessons of the pandemic is how much easier it still is to communicate in person compared to from a distance. So, I think there is still plenty of room to reduce the frictions involved in communication.
3/ Your work shows that reducing communications costs promoted idea generation. What about idea implementation? Did cheap postage hasten the spread of new ideas throughout the economy?
Our paper shows that there were increases in both information flows between scientists, reflected in citations, and in technology development, reflected in patents. The fact that we see increases in patenting is a pretty good indicator that there was an intent to implement the new ideas being developed, because patenting at this time was quite expensive in Britain and would have only made sense if an inventor thought that there was some probability that their invention would be successful.
4/ Lower communications costs promote more correspondence, but might they also lower the quality of communication? One might put more thought and time into a message that is more expensive to send, for example.
This is a good point, and one where I don't think we have clear answers. At some point the key constraint on communication may not be the act itself, but human limits on the attention required. This seems like an interesting direction for future research.
5/ Do you think cheaper and better communication, in combination with urban housing costs, could break down the agglomeration effects of today’s cities?
This seems unlikely to me, for two reasons. First, I think that there are still certain types of knowledge that are difficult to communicate virtually. Think, for example, of transmitting to a new hire a particular workplace culture. As other types of communication become cheaper, these types of communication become the key bottleneck, and so I think that face-to-face interaction may actually become even more important (as appears to have happened since the introduction of the internet). Second, I think cities offer more than just communication advantages. In particular, many people now seem to be moving to cities to take advantage of the amenities they offer, such as fine dining, nightlife, or cultural events, and those seem difficult to enjoy from a distance.
▶ Energy Saving May Kill: Evidence from the Fukushima Nuclear Accident - Guojun He, Takanao Tanaka, AEA | Following the Fukushima nuclear accident, Japan gradually shut down all its nuclear power plants, causing a countrywide power shortage. In response, the government launched large-scale energy-saving campaigns to reduce electricity consumption. Exploiting the electricity-saving targets across regions and over time, we show that the campaigns significantly increased mortality, particularly during extremely hot days. The impact is primarily driven by people using less air conditioning, as encouraged by the government. Nonpecuniary incentives can explain most of the reduction in electricity consumption. Our findings suggest there exists a trade-off between climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation.
▶ Elon Musk activates Starlink for Iranian Citizens - Johnna Crider, Teslarati | Elon Musk announced that he was activating Starlink in response to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s tweet announcing the issuing of a General License to provide the Iranian people with access to digital communications. “We took action today to advance Internet freedom and the free flow of information for the Iranian people, issuing a General License to provide them greater access to digital communications to counter the Iranian government’s censorship,” Secretary Blinken said. Currently, in Iran, massive protests are happening as a result of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was detained by the morality police for her head scarf not being properly worn. Although she had no known heart-related health problems, the police said she suddenly died of heart failure.
▶ Larry Page's Flying Car Failure Is a Lesson For Us All - Parmy Olson, Bloomberg Opinion | Kitty Hawk had raised $75 million from investors including Page, according to Pitchbook, a market intelligence firm. But Page’s wealth and Google connections weren’t enough to keep the company alive. Neither was the cachet of being named after the North Carolina town where the Wright brothers’ held their first flying experiments. But someone will make eVTOL’s a reality, most likely as a kind of flying taxi operated by an airline or ride-share firm. Boeing and Airbus are building them, as is Uber and a raft of smaller companies, who are just as likely to crack the puzzle. As much as a billionaire backer inspires confidence, it doesn’t make a highly ambitious project any more feasible. Page’s Kitty Hawk project has made that all too clear.
▶ Whatever Happened to the Starter Home? - Emily Badger, NYT | For a long time, that suburban model worked, although only for white families at first. But the economics and the politics shifted as the land within a reasonable driving distance of downtown filled in. Land grew more expensive. But communities didn’t respond by allowing housing on smaller pieces of it. They broadly did the opposite, ratcheting up rules that ensured builders couldn’t construct smaller, more affordable homes. They required pricier materials and minimum home sizes. They wanted architectural flourishes, not flat facades. “Local communities in the last 30 to 40 years have gotten really good at this — way better than they used to be,” Joseph Gyourko, a professor at the Wharton School of Business, said of rules that restrict development that neighbors don’t like.