About the project
The goal of driving more progress across the world—scientifically, politically, economically, socially, etc—is one shared by many. And yet, debates about the best way to maximize progress continue. After all, how, exactly, does progress happen? What are the best ways to measure progress? What should we prioritize? How do we nurture it and how are we stifling it?
Since Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison published their essay in The Atlantic a few years ago calling for “a more focused, explicit study of progress”, there has been an increased interest and discussion about how we better understand the drivers of progress and apply those findings to improve our world.
But, of course, there continue to be robust debates on where exactly to focus our efforts and what to prioritize. To better understand those current debates, we spoke with a handful of experts from a variety of disciplines and asked them the same ten questions about the nature of progress and what they see as the priorities that deserve our collective attention.
Historian and New York Times Bestselling Author
This is discussion that often happens in economics about whether we should choose economic growth or equality. A lot of people assume there’s a trade-off that, sure, you can redistribute the wealth, but that will cost you a lot of progress in innovation. I think one of the interesting recent findings actually from a lot of smart economists is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Actually, you can get both. There’s now new evidence that the higher inequality gets, actually, you get less economic growth and you get less innovation. I think what you want to do is to give as many people as possible the opportunity to contribute.
In that sense, poverty is an extraordinary waste. It’s not just immoral that in a world of plenty there are still living people in poverty, but it’s also an extraordinary waste. It’s also the rich who suffer from that because the homeless man on the corner of the street, he could have been the next Einstein. How much talent has been lost there? I guess we don’t have to choose between equality of opportunity and economic growth. I think we should strive for both.
Dr. Hannah Ritchie
Head of Research, Our World in Data
I think again, this comes back to how we look at the agenda for progress and it comes back to starting at the fundamentals of identifying what the largest problems are. I think when you go through that exercise, you naturally gravitate towards the issues that are most prevalent in countries that have been left behind. So there are, again, low-hanging fruits in global health or global education where if that’s your starting point, you’re naturally bringing people with you and I think that is how you then start to close the gap and make sure that everyone’s involved in progress forward and we don’t continue to divide the world even more. And I think just another fundamental point is making sure that there are a very large, diverse group of people at the table of what the progress agenda looks like. We can’t have a progress agenda set by a small group of elite individuals. It has to be a very inclusive progress.
Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development
Yeah, to some extent I don’t think it’s progress unless it’s widely shared and I think a really important part of that is to listen to those people who currently face the greatest challenges or have the least access to the kind of technologies that lead to material progress and live in places where freedoms are not guaranteed and so on. Certainly, it’s something that I enjoy about my current position. I used to work in the World Bank and in the World Bank we spent quite a lot of time sitting in Washington coming up with policy prescriptions for Ghana. I’m actually much more comfortable being in a position of trying to find out what it is Ghanaians want and seeing how it is institutions in Washington could deliver them. I think we need as a planet to move in that direction.
Co-founder and co-CEO of the Institute for Progress
Yeah. I think this is twofold. At the top of the funnel, the earliest stages of science and innovation. This is why government funding is so critical and rules around what happens with the fruits of government investments and research. So for example, we just saw last week, an announcement from the White House that there’s a new policy that federally funded research is going to be open to the public immediately. There’s no longer a waiting period where publicly funded research can sit behind a paywall and be inaccessible. So that’s one general step of when the government is making massive investments in research that should benefit everyone, is it actually in practice? And then two, the innovations we’re funding, are we making sure that those have maximum spillovers for the rest of the world? So you can think about this in terms of a lot of biomedical innovation.
The government often funds the earliest stages of research for the next great drug or therapeutic, but then often it’s patented and not really available for a long period of time. You want to maintain those incentives to actually invent those new drugs, but then you can do creative things we don’t do enough of patent buyouts, where the government spins a fixed amount of money and makes that technology available to the world. So I think thinking about access to that level is really important. And then at the bottom of the funnel, just in terms of incomes and people’s day to day welfare, that’s where democratic institutions that engage in redistribution, so general tax and welfare policy, is super important. Just to make sure that if the market and economy, for whatever reason, based on the technologies of the day or the institutions is distributing income in a very unequal way, that the redistribution happens to make sure that a rising tide really does lift all boats.
CEO, New America
Putting as many people around the table as possible, and not presuming that you know what any of them think. And I really mean that because you put people around the table, and we understand that we need diversity and that we will get better results. But that African American woman might be culturally conservative. And that senior white man might actually be a former Ralph Nader supporter, you just don’t know. And so you have to believe that we can find some collective consensus. Again, not including everyone. It never includes everyone, but substantial majorities.
But you really have to just try to take off your… They’re not your blinders. They’re those glasses that condition your expectations about what someone’s going to say because of what they look like, what their age is, or all the other identifiers.
Founder & Managing Partner of FutureMap
I believe there are two simple ways to articulate, if not to achieve, the basic thrust of how we can achieve progress at a civilizational scale. One is to move people to the geography of resources, and the other is to move technologies to where people are who need them.
If you are doing either of those two things, moving people to resources or technologies to people, you are in fact contributing directly to progress, even if that is progress with a small P. But if we do those things in a systematic way, then we’re achieving progress with a big P, at a big C civilizational level, and that’s how we need to think really at scale.
Senior Research Fellow, Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University
There are economic policies where there are winners and losers, and a lot of these policies are good ideas, but there they create winners and losers. And the amount that the winners win by is more than the amount that the losers lose by, and so economists generally favor them and policies like free trade and so on. What I’m talking about is a little different, right? So industrial progress, I think by and large, does benefit everyone in a pretty rapid timeframe. So real world progress in areas like housing, health, energy, and transportation, they disproportionately benefit the poor because the poor spends a higher fraction of their incomes on these things. So I don’t think that this is like some of these other policies, which are also a good idea. But that create winners and losers or at least over a very long period of time you still have to compensate the losers. This is something that benefits everybody pretty much out of the gate.
Founding Editor, Works in Progress
I think involving a wide range of people in the conversation is really important. So humanity has made huge amounts of progress by noticing and acting on problems that affect minorities disproportionately, and people who are often left out of the conversation. And those people aren’t necessarily the only people who are affected by these problems, but they can bring our attention to them. So one example is in occupational health. In the 20th century people who worked with lead and other toxic gases and chemicals had major health problems that were very noticeable. And identifying those problems and identifying the risks and toxins that caused them meant that people could develop technology and develop regulations that helped people who were at the highest risk, but also help everyone else who was affected by those same pollutants even if the rest of the population was affected to a smaller degree.
Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
The big lesson of modern American economic history is that despite all the changes in our economy, that if the economy grows rapidly on a sustained basis, everybody benefits. Even though we’ve been in this period where we worried a lot about inequality, right before the great pandemic wages were rising across the board, they were rising fastest for people toward the bottom. And that’s because we had a very long economic expansion, a record long economic expansion. I think there’s been too much focus on, or rather we haven’t focused enough on what happens when policy works well enough, not perfect. The post global financial crisis expansion wasn’t particularly strong, but it was long. And if we have growth that continues, and it doesn’t even need to be that strong, but if it is strong, everybody still benefits. That fundamental mechanism in the American system still works.
Co-founder, Living Room Conversations
Well, for me, when I think about progress, I’m often thinking about human relationships and that we have become so distrustful of each other and seeing the worst in each other, in fact. And progress for me is when we can connect and care about people that we disagree with. And the faith community has really put it in a way that speaks to me, which is seeing the divinity in everyone. I may not be a part of the faith community, but there is a ring of deep truth to that for me.