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
I would say the biggest barrier to progress around the world is the waste of talent. There’s just an extraordinary waste of talent going on right now, so many super-smart, young, talented people who work in jobs that don’t add anything of value to this world. It’s not me saying that, it’s people themselves saying it. The late anthropologist, David Graeber, coined the concept of bullshit jobs.
These are the jobs that according to the people themselves don’t anything, people can just go on strike and no one would really care because they don’t contribute anything. Now, what’s interesting, if you look at the data, it’s actually the people with higher salaries, who went to great universities, to IV league universities who have a much higher chance of considering their own job as a BS job. It’s really striking.
There’s also evidence from economists into so-called sin jobs, the jobs that basically destroy value. You work in the tobacco industry, for example, or you create algorithms that only make people addicted to their phones so that they buy more stuff they don’t need to impress people they don’t like, or you create destructive financial products that may cause the next financial crack crash.
It’s often that these jobs actually pay you more. What I see there is just an extraordinary waste of talent. So many smart people who could be thinking about the cure for cancer. How do we go to Mars? How do we solve some of the biggest challenges? How do we save millions of lives? How do we save all those kids who are still dying from easily preventable diseases? Much of what we call ambition today is just sad, empathetic. I guess what the world needs today is what I would call moral ambition. The yearning to stand on the right side of history. That’s what we need.
I guess that starts with asking a very simple question, which is, what will the historians of the future think about us? Because we can look back on the past, on people who live in the Middle Ages, for example, and say, “Oh, these people were barbarians. They engaged in witch hunts.” Or we can say, “oh, they were slaveholders. They were such bad people.” Surely, the historians of the future will look at us and will say, “Well, some of the things they did were horrendous just as well.” I mean, it would be a coincidence if we, here in the 21st century have arrived at the end of history and there’s nothing left for us to do in terms of moral progress.
That’s the question that I think we got to ask ourselves, what does it mean to stand on the right side of history today?
Dr. Hannah Ritchie
Head of Research, Our World in Data
I think there’s probably three big barriers that come to mind for me. I think one is this very strong polarization in opinions. I think on one end, you have cynics that don’t actually even really believe that progress is possible or is happening. I think that just leads us into a defeatist mindset where we don’t even start to try to approach solutions. I think on the other end, which I think is equally damaging, is this kind of status quo bias or people that get slightly complacent about progress because, okay, they’ve seen that it’s happening and they assume that, well, if we just continue as we are, then it’ll just keep happening at the same pace and eventually we’ll get there. I think both of those mindsets are dangerous and not useful in pushing progress forward.
I think a second fundamental problem is that often the lowest hanging fruits that we can address rich countries have done already, and they’re now moving on to other problems. Quite naturally, they’re moving on to other problems that now affect them, but often lower income countries are being left behind. And often these are the problems that we actually really do know how to solve, reasonably easy to solve if you just put the resources in the right places. So I think there’s this split where rich countries are moving away and moving on to new problems, but actually, the world hasn’t fully addressed the basic fundamental problems yet.
I think it’s just quite a natural reaction for countries. If you’ve solved it in your country, of course you’re going to move on, or politicians or policymakers will move on to the next problem that affects the people in their country. I think what we haven’t done a good enough job of is making the case for why global progress is possible or necessary. And I think there’s actually quite a selfish reason for trying to drive global progress. I think the point is we are now reaching 8 billion people and having 8 billion healthy, educated people working on problems, actually in the end benefits us all. So I think highlighting maybe even the potentially selfish reason to actually want to invest in solving problems in lower income countries is really important.
Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development
So beyond barriers to the opportunity to innovate and to create, I’d say one of the big ones is actually just fewer people seem to believe in the possibility of progress. There’s a growing movement that the only way we can deal with global problems is in some ways to go backwards. I mean, I look at the de-growth movement, for example, which suggests the only way we can deal with climate change is to consume less. And I think that pessimism is quite dangerous and is a force behind slower progress, and I think we really need to be careful around that.
But also I’d say there’s a fear, a fair fear, if you will, amongst those of us who are privileged, people like me, that greater equality of opportunity of the kind I’ve been talking about actually might be bad for their relative position. It might be less comfortable for them. And so they face a trade-off between global progress and relative standing and for many the answer is that I’ll keep my relative standing, thank you very much.
“I’d say one of the big ones is actually just fewer people seem to believe in the possibility of progress.”
Co-founder and co-CEO of the Institute for Progress
Yeah. So I think right now and going into a midterm election, it’s tough to get people to take a lot of bipartisan swings, but really it’s turning rhetoric into action. So from government, we do see talk about pursuing an abundance agenda, trying to figure out what are the barriers to growth, but then in actual practice, what we mostly see is subsidizing demand and restricting supply. And that’s just a recipe for inflation and for not actually reducing costs over time. And so I think going into the next cycle and the medium run term in policy and politics, it’s really about saying, “Okay, what are the concrete regulatory barriers that are holding back innovation and growth? And then what are ways that the government can proactively and affirmatively enable new markets and new innovations?” And that’s really in the government’s role as a buyer for markets that don’t exist yet.
CEO, New America
I mean, in some ways our barriers are a result of our successes in the sense that we are far more inclusive. When I say we, now I’m talking about structures of power in many countries. We’re more democratic democracies. So-called democracies that have… none of us are really completely full democracies in terms of real equal rights, actual rights enjoyed by all the people. But we are a far more inclusive polity. And we’re a far more inclusive world, which is to say, in the United States, many, many more voices and groups have a voice. And in the world we now have 190 countries, when the United Nations was created, we had under 60.
So that means there’s far more diversity and divergence. It is then far harder to agree on that goal. And so if you look at something like climate change, which to me, is the existential threat of our time. In the United States and in other countries, but particularly in the United States, you can’t even agree that it is a carbon-created phenomenon and that carbon comes from human emissions. So a large part of the obstacles really is the inability to agree on a common destination. That’s not new. We often make progress during wars. Progress on research, progress on social policy, but that’s because we have a common threat, and suddenly those differences get washed away.
I do also though think we do not have the kind of leadership that gives us the goal, and teaches us how to measure our progress toward it. I’m quite influenced by the thinking of Mariana Mazzucato, and her book on mission politics, and the kind of man in the… Put a man on the moon, mission of the 1960s and the Kennedy administration. And I often think human beings need indicators of progress. If you’ve ever trained for any kind of sport, you need to know you’re getting faster or you need to know that you’re getting stronger. And societies I think do better when we have those metrics. And those are now often also in very short supply.
Founder & Managing Partner of FutureMap
Well, I have a particular disdain for institutional inertia, which is to say that we do things the way we’ve been doing them because that’s the way we’ve done them. There’s a lot of misallocation of capital that happens because of inertia, resources and money flow to the wrong level of intervention.
I’m a believer in subsidiarity, which is the principle that legally and materially you empower decision-making at the most local possible level. I also fear that unless we devote more time to unraveling and forecasting complexity, we will fail at progress if we don’t decipher and forecast how population growth affects resource stress, which affects geopolitics, which affects climate change, which affects political stability, all of our best-laid plans of progress will probably falter.
Senior Research Fellow, Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University
I think it’s pretty clear what the barriers are. So one would be land use regulation. So much innovation is squandered by high housing rents, and that’s driven almost entirely by local rules about what and how you can build where. Two is the process-oriented way in which we do permitting with years of paperwork and opportunity for anybody to sue to challenge the decision and so on.
Related to both of those, you could say more on the cultural side would be NIMBYism, the idea that you were entitled to have the world around you not change. And then lastly, I would say it’s the regulatory attitude towards safety and risk. You can think about approaching safety in two ways. You can ban products until they’re proven safe, which is called premarket approval. Or you can have some safety standards and then pull products off the market when they’re shown not to meet those standards, right? So the latter requires some tolerance for risk, but it makes it a lot easier for new innovators to come along and at least try things and see if they work.
Founding Editor, Works in Progress
I would say not knowing where problems are occurring or which problems are occurring and what’s needed to solve them, having the right data, but also having connections to people with this knowledge is the most basic part of this. Like having the infrastructure needed for the Internet and having the ability to communicate and translate to people who are able to make a change. So being able to connect these people together is an important part of it. Another barrier to progress is not having a backup or a contingency plan that allows us to switch strategies if the situation changes, or if we discover big problems with the ways that we’re doing things.
Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
I really think the barrier that … again, I think it’s a macro idea here, is that we’re just far too pessimistic about what a future could be, how good it could be. There’s been so much, I think, negativity about as far as our images of the future, combined then with a reality where things have not turned out as well as people had hoped decades ago. So that negativity isn’t just sort of a cultural thing, but it’s also been reflected in reality. And I think you sort of get this doom loop of bad stories about the future and bad results in the present feeding into each other. And that’s why I think attacking that doom loop from both sides, creating better images about tomorrow as well as right now making progress is super important, again breaking that doom loop that we’ve been trapped in.
Co-founder, Living Room Conversations
Well, I’m seeing the polarization that we’re currently living with and seeing amplified by all sorts of dynamics in our media and in our political system as a huge barrier. And this win-lose approach to all sorts of challenges when there’s so much more nuance to almost every issue. And we find people are opposing things they might otherwise support just because of polarization, so that’s keeping in this theme with a first step.