The Roots of Progress

Links digest, 2023-11-07

Techno-optimism and more

Again I’ve been delayed in putting this out by travel etc., so it’s a longer one with links from the last month or so:

On the Progress Forum

Other work from the Roots of Progress fellows

Follow all the ROP fellow Twitter accounts via this list.





More discussion on the Progress Forum. I have not written a response yet, but see my previous writing on different forms of optimism and on “solutionism” as a third way between complacent optimism and defeatist pessimism.




Micro-essays from me


Social media


From Whole Earth Discipline by @stewartbrand:

Science is the only news.

When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable if you know the science.

Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.

“Peanut butter killed formal rulemaking”

The United States Department of Agriculture tried this when it was about to issue a rule regarding the minimum peanut content in peanut butter. Advocates wanted it to be at least 90 percent peanuts, manufacturers wanted to require only 87 percent peanuts, and adjudicating that 3 percent difference under the formal rulemaking process took the Food and Drug Administration twelve years of the 1960s and 1970s. The case went almost all the way to the Supreme Court, and the oral hearing alone took twenty weeks and produced a 7736-page transcript. (The advocates ultimately prevailed.) Since then, when Congress writes laws, it usually avoids the words “on the record” when it comes to rulemaking, leaving agencies the option to choose the informal “notice and comment” process. Unsurprisingly, it’s chosen every time. Peanut butter killed formal rulemaking.

(Although @JamesBroughel comments: “Actually, the real reason agencies don’t use formal rulemaking is a Supreme Court case called United States v. Florida East Coast Railway, where the court ruled agencies may use informal notice-and-comment rulemaking in all but a very limited set of circumstances.”)

Calvert Cliffs’ Coordinating Committee, Inc. v. U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, 1971:

These cases are only the beginning of what promises to become a flood of new litigation — litigation seeking judicial assistance in protecting our natural environment. Several recently enacted statutes attest to the commitment of the Government to control, at long last, the destructive engine of material “progress.”

(Brought back to mind via Jim Pethokoukis via Alex Tabarrok.)

“The leadership of Operation Warp Speed made a lot of personal sacrifices to deliver a safe and effective vaccine in record time. And they get almost no credit” (@AlecStapp):

When Slaoui had his job interview on May 11, he minced no words. “All I want to do is make a vaccine that helps our country and the world, he said. “I’m not going to be afraid to break things. I have no political ambition.” If he had to hold meetings just to placate people, he was out. And if there was any political interference, he would resign on the spot. The other five candidates all expressed doubt about having a vaccine by the end of 2020. Slaoui alone said he could do it. He got the job. He resigned from Moderna’s board and sold all his stock in the company, knowing that he was likely forfeiting a fortune. He also decided he wouldn’t take a paycheck for overseeing the project.

Policies as “organizational scar tissue” (from Jason Fried):

Many policies are organizational scar tissue-codified overreactions to situations that are unlikely to happen again.

The second something goes wrong, the natural tendency is to create a policy. “Someone’s wearing shorts!? We need a dress code!” No, you don’t. You just need to tell John not to wear shorts again.

Policies are organizational scar tissue. They are codified overreactions to situations that are unlikely to happen again. They are collective punishment for the misdeeds of an individual.

This is how bureaucracies are born. No one sets out to create a bureaucracy. They sneak up on companies slowly. They are created one policy -one scar -at a time.

So don’t scar on the first cut. Don’t create a policy because one person did something wrong once. Policies are only meant for situations that come up over and over again.

“I think about this list from @elidourado a lot. Progress is a policy choice.” (@AlecStapp, originally from City Journal):

If we can’t counterbalance the supply shock in every granular manifestation, we can at least take action to boost productivity and aggregate supply. Macroeconomic textbooks don’t focus on this policy lever because they assume that the supply side of the economy is already optimized. Yet it is manifestly evident that American society is not maximizing its productivity. If we wanted to raise American productivity, for example, we could simplify geothermal permitting, deregulate advanced meltdown-proof nuclear reactors, make it easier to build transmission lines, figure out why high-speed rail is so expensive, fix permitting generally, abolish the Jones Actautomate our ports, allow drones to operate autonomously, legalize supersonic flight over land, reduce occupational-licensing requirements, train more medical workersbuild more hospitals, revamp our pandemic-response institutions, simplify drug approvalsderegulate land use to allow denser housing and mixed-use neighborhoods, allow more immigration, cancel inefficient programs, restrict cost-plus procurement contracts in favor of more effective methods, end appropriations based on job creation, avoid political direction of scientific research, and instill urgency in grantmaking.


The original chart that inspired Steve Jobs to liken the computer to “a bicycle for the mind” (via Heike Larson):

“In late 17th century England the professional class was almost wholly literate, the latter spread of literacy was just a matter of all the other classes joining them” (@lefineder). Note in particular the growth of literacy among artisans ~1600–1700s. Part of what made the Industrial Revolution was the combination of abstract knowledge and craft skill. George Stephenson learned to read so that he could study steam engines, then invented the locomotive:

Agricultural land efficiency (via @HumanProgress):

“The classic urbanist story is that cars have become safer for passengers by becoming more deadly (bigger/heavier) for pedestrians. This data cuts strongly against that story. I presume the urbanist response is mostly that sprawl/car culture have decreased pedestrian exposure?” (@atrembath)


“Serving human progress through photography.” TIME Magazine, Aug. 20, 1945 (h/t Laura London) (Threads, Twitter):


“On one hand, AI is going to be incredibly disruptive for visual artists, but on the other hand: Jean-Jacquet Rousseau” (@kendrictonn)

Comment: Progress Forum, LessWrong, Reddit

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