Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S4. EPISODE 19
A Look Back and A Look Forward
Featuring Zachary Karabell & Emma Varvaloucas
Is the US economy okay or even positive? Are we making any progress on climate change? What’s going on with global inequality? As we close out this season of “What Could Go Right?” hosts Zachary Karabell and Emma Varvaloucas look back at the predictions that started the year and check in with the current news of the day.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are in our last episode of the season of What Could Go Right? We are taking a summer hiatus, as I am sure some people are as well and some people wish they were and are not. And we will talk a bit more later in the episode about the hiati inequality gap and what that means for society. But be that as it may, we have been doing our seasons of What Could Go Right?, the podcast, in order to focus a bit more on yes, what could go right in the world given how much we focus collectively on all that is going wrong.
And there’s more than just a, oh, we should be paying more attention to good news ’cause it makes us feel better. There is, I think, a social imperative in that societies that are convinced collectively that everything is going to hell in a hand basket are much more likely to be short term and tribal and distrustful and unable or unwilling or seeing no point in galvanizing collective resources in order to address our problems because what would the point be if everything was going wrong? If the future was going to be so much worse, if we were headed into the sum of all of our fears and that dystopian despair augured worse times ahead, what would be the point of starting a business? What would be the point of legislation and serving in government and seeking international harmony if it’s all gonna go bad anyway? The best you can do is get yours while you can, get it while it’s good or get it while it’s available because it’s all gonna go away and it’s all gonna end badly. And I think societies that live that concern are much more likely to make those fears a reality.
One of the hallmarks of the United States in the 1950s, and I say this with absolutely zero rose-tinted glasses about the 1950s, a time before civil rights reform, a time when it was probably good to be white and male in certain circumstances but not so great for everything else. But one of the things that made the United States unique in that period of time was this overweening optimism about what we could collectively achieve. And while that led to a lot of blindness and blinkered views of who we actually were, it was, I think, a potent fuel. And it is a potent fuel for many societies. Think about the 1990s, which were suffused with overweening euphoric optimism, techno optimism about everything going well, and that the internet and the market were gonna make us happy and rich. So periods like that often lead to the greatest efflorescence of innovation and creativity. And in that spirit, the more that we focus on everything going wrong, I think the less likely we are going to be to be able to solve all the things that are indeed going wrong.
So we are gonna do a guestless episode today, and Emma and I are gonna talk a bit about what’s going on in the world and a bit about what we’ve seen over the course of these months, having these conversations, and a bit about what we think might lie ahead until we resume these conversations in the fall. So, Emma, how should we begin today’s final portentous conversation?
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So we’re gonna start today with a little blast from the past, just looking back on the first episode that we did for this season where we made some predictions and guesses about what 2023 might bring us. And we talked about a few different topics. Let’s just hit on them really quickly before we move into what might happen in 2023 and what’s happening now. So we said overall that we thought it was gonna be kind of a boring year, but in a positive way. And we talked about democracy in particular, that there might be some fluctuations, but it’s not gonna be like this big democratic crisis around the world. We did have Erdoğan “reelected” in Turkey, which is not exactly a democratic win. I would like to say that I feel validated with what I said about Giorgia Meloni in Italy, that in fact when she got into power, a lot of her really hardline stances against the EU have softened and she’s been quite cooperative, shall we say, pro-NATO, pro-EU. And of course, there was the Trump indictment, which I think you could— unclear if that’s a net positive or a net negative for democracy.
ZK: And we had the odd functionality of the US government in not going to the brink of defaulting on the US debt in spite of months of seeming certainty that we were headed for the abyss. If you had read most of the commentary and actually listened to people in Congress themselves, you know, representatives and senators in Congress, there was a pretty strong conviction that that would all end really badly and that we would be sitting around now in June picking up the fiscal and global pieces of the complete implosion of the dollar in the US economy. And it didn’t happen. And it didn’t even seem seemingly come close to happening. It’s sort of like everybody came together and somehow agreed in a bipartisan fashion that no, that would probably not be a good idea so let’s not go there. And when that actually happened, there was far less news.
I actually talked to a few editors. I was thinking of writing a piece about how the resolution of the debt ceiling debacle, or whatever the hell we should call it, that that resolution suggested that things were in better shape or that we were doing better than we thought. And I think I suggested writing one of those pieces on a Saturday or Sunday, that I think the debt agreement had been struck five days before. And the response was, you know, the news cycle has kind of moved on. But had I wanted to write a piece and was actually asked to write pieces in the six weeks before that resolution at any point during the, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, how bad will this be? How bad will it be? You could have written something ’cause that was part of the news cycle. I am not saying this critical of any one individual. I think that was entirely an accurate read of the news cycle. But it’s highly indicative of what defines the news cycle, which is impending crisis is a long tail story. The resolution of that crisis, something going well, is a short tail story and therein lies the very problem that we’re trying to address.
EV: Yeah, and that reminds me actually, we published at The Progress Network, we actually republished something from Jeremy Arnold’s Substack called The Debt Ceiling: An Explainer, which is basically why you shouldn’t freak out about the the debt ceiling “crisis”. And even though we’ve solved the debt crisis, the next time this comes up, I would go read that piece because it is quite comforting and it explains things in a very useful way. And I remember I approached him and said, can we republish this piece? And he was like, yes, but we gotta get it out fast ’cause who knows when this thing’s gonna be solved and then no one will care anymore, right? [Laughs] So we did get it out before the deal was struck, but there was that rush.
So I’m gonna give ourselves a pretty good grade on the democracy calls and the debt ceiling also ties into what you had said on the podcast that you expect a benign economic climate. I would like to posit that that may have turned into an almost positive economic climate. We’ve talked about this on the podcast in various different episodes, unemployment, lowest it’s been since 1969. We’ve got real wage growth for the bottom quintile. We covered workforce satisfaction a few episodes ago. It’s the highest that it’s been. Inflation has been tamed. Federal Reserve decided not to do an interest rate hike most recently.
Audio Clip: The Fed has hiked rates 10 times in a row going back to March of last year. Today’s decision comes on the heels of a positive report Tuesday that showed inflation rates have been cut in half from last year’s peak. Inflation rose 4% between last May and this May. That’s the smallest increase in more than two years.
EV: As far as I know, we are not in any recession. So that all seems pretty positive. What do you think?
ZK: Well, actually, it’s possible that we are in a recession and don’t know it, a very mild, very thin one because in the arcana of how these things get done, recessions are called by the National Bureau of Economic Research. And it’s not usually clear, unless it’s a really bad recession, that you’re in a recession until after you’re out of the recession. So it’s entirely possible that in a year or two, when all the numbers are clear, it will have been apparent that sometime around March, maybe February, we entered a really, really, really, really small recession. It’s also possible we didn’t. I’m just saying if you look at market behavior and you look at the way these things are usually calculated, like the 1991 recession wasn’t really apparent until early ’92.
So, A, it’s possible we’re sort of in one, B, everything we’re just saying right now could age really badly, right? So the Fed could raise interest rates again over the summer, markets could collapse, unemployment could shoot up, and then people will be feeling really bad. And then these sort of summer rosy comments will look foolish and misguided and premature. But that’s always the problem of the culture we’re in where there’s always a higher risk that saying that things look good will be proven by subsequent events to be false hope, whereas if we sat here and went, you know, I don’t know, things are pretty precarious and there’s already signs of consumer spending pulling back and people are grim about the economy and we’re entering an election and inflation is still high and it’s gonna get worse, that somehow doesn’t age badly. Everybody respects that as legitimate concern about a miasma of factors that aren’t that clear.
So I will definitely own that saying that things look good could prove to be untrue in four or five months. They could look bad in a few months. So what? We don’t know what the future’s gonna hold. And part of the point of What Could Go Right? is have a little humility about what the future could hold and own what the present seems to be without it being continually clouded by supposition about what the reality is going to be when we don’t really know what that reality’s gonna be. We do know that things are a lot better as of June 2023 than a lot of economic forecasters thought in January of 2023. That’s unequivocally true. Whether or not that remains true, we will of course find out in due time, but we should also give the present it’s due.
EV: Well, I guess [laughs] aside from not knowing what the reality is going to be, I guess if what you’re saying about the recession is true, that we actually don’t even know what reality is right now, then my question to you would be, we’ve talked a lot about economic stats being different than people’s lived experience when it comes to how they feel about the economy. If no one really even realizes that we’re in a recession, does it matter that much if we are one.
ZK: There’s a great piece. I wish I had the headline. It’s something like if— it might have been Jean Twenge in The Atlantic, like if the economy is good and no one knows it, is it good? This sort of, the tree falls in the forest question. How much is economic reality a function of economic reality and how much is it, as you just asked, a function of the perception of it? And clearly, the perception of it matters greatly. And it’s been a long time since people have felt good about what’s going on economically, probably 2019. I mean, one of the things that Trump would have run for reelection in 2020 on was how good the economy seemed to be. And then of course COVID happened. And before COVID, Democrats were certainly feeling like that was gonna be a hard argument to refute.
It was gonna be hard to run against Donald Trump pre-COVID erupting based on what seemed to be going on in the economy. And maybe we’re just kind of picking up where we seemed to have left off in 2019, but been in a much worse mood because of the years of COVID and partisan divisions in the United States. And look, nobody in the world was feeling great economically. I mean, there was a period of time throughout the 2010s where there was a lot of the world that was feeling confident about what the economic future held, China in particular. I suppose today the Indian economy in India and the Saudi economy, those are populations that feel really good about what’s going on economically. In most of the rest of the world, Europe with the Ukraine crisis and energy prices and inflation and stagnation, and Latin America kind of in its own usual muddle that there’s actually not a lot of people who feel great about the economy, except for those couple of places.
EV: Yeah. [Inaudible] for Saudi Arabia and India, I guess. And that’s gonna tie into the conversation we have later in the episode about global inequality. So everyone just put a mark on that for now.
Very quickly moving into LGBTQ stuff ’cause we mentioned it on the first episode. We said that 2023 might be a banner year. I would say some stuff has happened. None of the stuff that we said that might happen has happened, but some other stuff has happened. Romania was directed to recognize civil unions by the European Court of Human Rights. Namibia became the first African country aside from South Africa ’cause they recognize same-sex marriages within South Africa, Namibia now recognizes them if they’re contracted abroad. And Japan courts are going back and forth about whether a same-sex ban is constitutional or not. And then of course married with that is that Uganda enacted some really hardline legislation around criminalizing homosexuality and harshening prison terms. And there’s even the death penalty for what’s called aggravated homosexuality. So I would say that got a lot of attention for good reason. The other things, not so much. I’m not sure I would call it a banner year. It seems to be middling.
ZK: Yeah, I mean, and again, I’m gonna be the the devil’s advocate voice. I think, what was it, Uganda passed an extremely harsh sort of death penalty law. It remains a mixed bag in certain parts of the world. It’d be really interesting to see what happens in India. There’s a big case in front of the Indian high court, right, about same- sex marriage?
EV: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
ZK: I think that will be probably the most significant, given that India is the most populous country in the world or it’s like neck and neck with China, so what direction that goes in I think will be massively important. We’ve talked a lot on the show about two of the great surprising inflection points of the past 20 years is how quickly attitudes about LBGTQ, particularly gay marriage and the legalization of recreational drugs, how quickly that has shifted both in law and in public sentiment, both in the United States and throughout the world, in a way that if you’d had this conversation at the dawn of this millennium, it would’ve seemed like those changes were a long, long way off, that they weren’t generational changes, they were civilizational, that it would be a long time, that you’d be looking toward the end of the 21st century, not a decade or so later. And I think it’s really important to remember just how quickly things change. It always looks like the present is eternal or can feel like that.
EV: I’m gonna move us onto what’s going right, right now. Deeply embedded realities. I think we’re seeing that with climate change right now. Just for a overall picture of what’s going on, this is from an article by Zeke Hausfather who’s a climate scientist at Berkeley. He has a great Substack called the Climate Brink and he has this great article. It’s a reminder that as recently as 2014, we were in this sort of apocalyptic scenario of the world heading to the worst case outcome of 4 to 6 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100. Right now where we’re at is that current policies put us on a best estimate of around 2.6 degrees Celsius. [Inaudible] 2.6 degrees Celsius. It’s not exactly something to write home about, but it’s way better than 4 to 6 degrees. And I think that people might be unaware that global emissions have been relatively flat for the last decade. This is something else that he points out, which means that hopefully, hopefully soon they’ll start to go dead. It’s not all sunshine and roses. Obviously the planet is gonna continue to warm as long as we continue to warm it. But the overall picture is slowly starting to change, and there’s a lot going on underneath that.
ZK: Well one of the members of The Progress network, Andy McAfee has been researching for years the dynamics that underlie what you’ve just highlighted, which is that the more affluent and technologically deep a society becomes, the less energy intensive it becomes. And while it’s true, and everyone always points this out, that the United States remains kind of en masse the largest emitter because it’s got the most energy intensive economy, it’s the most developed, it’s got the most GDP, the amount of intensivity has been plateauing and declining with things like the technologies of Zoom. I mean, the fact that people don’t go to work as much and don’t commute as much. I mean, all these things are contributing to a lower level of output, of physical output, emissions output, than people expected per GDP output. And that that correlation, which used to be so tight, between GDP output and emissions output, is decreasing with robotics, with renewables, with less energy intensive ways of producing things. And Andrew’s been really— does a much better job and obviously much more in-depth job in charts and looking at these numbers. But it’s somewhat counterintuitive to what people think, that the world is essentially becoming less energy intensive even as it continues to expand economically.
EV: His book on this is called More with Less, right?
EV: People wanna check that out. Yeah. And just to pop the hood a little bit, things that are going on with climate that people might not be aware of, China is continuing to add insane amounts of solar. They were doing this the past two years as well, but they keep on bumping it up.
Audio Clip: President Xi Jinping outlined his plans to make China carbon neutral by 2060.
COVID-19 reminds us that humankind should launch a green revolution and move faster to create a green way of development.
China’s high-level goals are that within this decade, it’s going to peak its carbon emissions and then it’s going to go to net zero by 2060. So that gives it approximately 40 years to do something that no country has achieved, let alone something like the size of China.
EV: The Ukrainian war, for all the tragedy that it has brought, kickstarted a renewable energy frenzy in Europe. And actually, in May, for the first time in Europe, more electricity came from wind and solar than from fossil fuels. US is also seeing gains in that area. Georgia just became the 16th state to generate at least half of their electricity from zero carbon sources. So we are moving along. EV sales, electric vehicle sales, are exploding. People think that EVs are gonna dominate the car market pretty quickly pretty soon. And heat pumps as well are being bought and sold all over Europe. Huge 120% increase in heat pumps bought in Poland, for instance, and lots of countries are following that general direction. And even India, which has pledged to go net zero by 2070, they have actually decided to not consider any new coal plants for the next five years. They are going to bet on batteries and renewables. So even the climate giants are moving faster than we were expecting.
ZK: If we have this conversation in 10 years, I would bet good money on those trends will accelerate even more than we observe them to be accelerating right now. And that’s even with EV adoption is gonna be a lot slower than people think, or at least in these targets suggest not because people don’t wanna drive EVs and not because EV production won’t enable it, but because we don’t have the charging infrastructure for it. I suppose that could change quickly, but it’s actually harder to create that infrastructure than it is to build the vehicles. So that’s just gonna be an issue. It’s gonna be an issue in cities. I’ve always been more skeptical of climate apocalypticsm, not because it is impossible, but just it seems less likely given people’s ability collectively to adjust to crises that we create. Climate change is substantially a product of what human beings have done to house, clothe, and entertain themselves over the past hundred years. And our ability to fix a problem that we’ve created has been notable. We’re gonna talk about another one, which is feeding ourselves.
And the other thing that just remains potent in this question is so much of the assumptions of worst-case scenarios in terms of human-generated greenhouse gases was predicated on population growth that doesn’t seem to be happening. It has happened. The population went from a billion people to nearly 9 billion people from 1800 to the present. But the forecast even 20 years ago that we would go up to 15 billion people and then, and then, and then, and then all the things that that would create in terms of if you’re gonna house and feed and shelter all these people, that the physical material needs of that would just, that’s where you get your 4% Celsius, that the amount of output in order to do that would’ve been unsustainable, literally. But we’re not gonna get to 15 billion people. We probably won’t get to 12 billion people. We might not even get to 10. We’ll probably get to 10. But just that rate of change has so slowed. And I do think, one of my bugaboos is that, population plateauing and shrinkage is gonna be one of the most important stories of the 21st century that we’re just beginning to be aware of.
EV: If you had said what you just said in 2014, per Zeke, people probably would’ve looked at you like you were nuts. You know, everything’s gonna be all right, when it comes to the climate. Now people will probably give you a bit of a hairy eyeball, but it’s more in the realm of fact-based possibility. So that’s improvement. Obviously, we have long ways to go. I feel they need to caveat that whenever we talk about climate. Obviously, the problem is not solved. It’s just that we’re doing a lot more to solve it than we used to.
But yeah, let’s talk a little bit about what you brought up about the world population. I think the most popular anecdotal figure that comes up when we talk about this is Paul Ehrlich, who predicted in the ’70s that there was gonna be mass starvation along with booming population growth. Of course there was booming population growth and still is. You’re talking about when we get beyond that. And Ehrlich was saying that we’re all gonna starve ’cause there’s no way that we’re going to be able to feed them. But that hasn’t happened, and a lot of people don’t know how that didn’t happen. So do you wanna fill in the gaps there?
ZK: Yeah, I mean it’s fascinating. Ehrlich never actually thought he was wrong.
EV: He still doesn’t think he’s wrong.
EV: He still— yeah [laughs].
ZK: Which is kind of wild when you think about it. But the world never did collapse in the past 50 years. I mean, unless it collapsed and we didn’t notice. And it’s certainly true there has been mass starvation in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa at multiple times over the past 50 years. And there has been dislocation of populations and starvation to some degree in Southeast Asia. But one thing that no one fully expected and I think still don’t quite appreciate is something that our world and data did a great job in the past few weeks highlighting, which is just how much more food every part of the world has been able to produce in the past hundred years, but particularly in the past 50, per acre of land, so that if you look at the charts that they put together, there’s been almost no land added for cultivation. And in many parts of the world, either because of soil depletion and climate change and overtilling and overfertilization, there has been shrinkage in the amount of acreage or productive acreage. The amount of food that we are producing exceeds the amount of food that eight and a half billion people actually need.
I mean, we produce far more calories than we consume. And food wastage and what happens to those calories is a whole other, I think, kind of fascinating issue, which we all appreciate. I mean, for most of human history, the idea that there would be leftovers or that you would throw food away was, I mean, yes, meat went bad, there was always some spoilage, right? Human beings have never been a perfect production and consumption mechanism of food and meat. But if you look at these charts, it is astonishing, everywhere in the world, even China, which has crappy land relative to its population or relative to its needs, right? Rice cultivation per acreage has gone up.
And then the pushback in a lot of the world today, or a lot of the developed world, this is a particularly rich world issue, is yes, but we’re doing this at the cost of monoagriculture, you know, farms that produce one crop with high amounts of fertilizer. So we’re essentially depleting the soil, not regenerating it, and it’s a dwindling resource. The problem with that is there’s been no evidence of global food supply decreasing, and there’s been only evidence of it increasing. And it’s a little like the peak oil concern in the ’70s, right? There was a conviction that we were just gonna run out of oil. That was part of the Ehrlich population bomb underlying it as well. And there’s a similar view of kind of a peak cereals, that our soil is not gonna be able to produce enough wheat, rice, soybeans, corn.
And there’s no evidence that we’re producing less food. We’re producing more food. And with our ability to genetically modify, and I don’t mean the Monsanto crappy company with bad business practices, I mean labs, that we’re able to create genetic codes for corn, for instance, that you essentially could grow it like a cactus, it would need almost no water and no fertilizer ’cause its code makes it able to do so. There’s a huge discomfort with that. But that doesn’t mean we’re not capable of doing that. And it is likely we will in fact implement some of these modified plants in order to deal with some desertification and climate change so that we can continue to produce enough calories to feed the planet.
And there’s a lot of erraticness about the discomfort with GMOs, right? We accept eating tomatoes, most of which in the developed world are totally modified plants or fruits that are grown in greenhouses. So it’s just been astonishing how much calories we are able to produce relative to human consumption needs. The greatest challenge in today’s world is not what we thought, which is scarcity and then people fighting for scarce resources, food resources, it’s abundance, right? Think about all of us today, if you’re in the United States today.
EV: This GMO concern comes up a lot for exactly the reasons that you just outlined. But there are actually a bunch of things like golden rice that are designed to pack more nutrients than a normal product would in a good way to prevent vitamin A deficiencies, which leads to blindness, for instance. And the sad part about that is that there’s been so much concern about GMOs that they blocked the development of things like that. And people have estimated that’s led to a certain number of deaths because people were so concerned about GMO products. So I will say GMO kind of needs someone to do PR for it. It does do good things as well.
ZK: And again, I’m not claiming that the world is perfect in this. There are still a billion people with food scarcity. That’s probably on the high end of the estimates. It’s probably in the high hundreds of millions, but that’s a lot of human beings. But it’s not usually food scarcity based on our inability to produce calories. It’s food scarcity based on political— civil wars, governments that are corrupt. It’s inability to ship the food from where it’s being produced to get it to the people who need it. So it is not the kind of scarcity that has been true for most of human history, which is there was a drought and we starved because we couldn’t produce enough food. Food scarcity in the world today is almost entirely a product of political corruption, dysfunction, civil war, societal collapse, you name it, not a function of our inability to produce enough calories to feed ourselves.
And also, meat consumption going up around the world, right? Meat’s not the most effective use of cereals in terms of the amount of cereals you have to feed to animals in order to eat those animals. It’s a lot more calorie intensive. It takes more corn to feed a cow so that we can eat a steak than it would take to just have that corn feed a human being. But there’s a preference for meat proteins in the world today. And even that, if we’re talking about the 21st century, given the synthetic meat industry, which clearly seems to be progressing, you know, the whole food tech world where by 2050, it’s clear we’re gonna be able to produce meat-like artificial food that tastes the same, feels the same, smells the same, but has never ingested a kernel of corn, a blade of grass, or was in the industrial meat business. It was just a lab product.
EV: Which is pretty cool. I’m into it. I’m a big Beyond Meat fan. I’m not even a vegetarian. I just eat Beyond Meat for fun, so that’s my weird thing. The more people who eat it for fun, I think [laughs] the better off we’ll be.
This all relates to this really interesting foreign affairs article that just came out about how the world is becoming more and more equal, sort of like in the— they call it the age of convergence. Before around just before the millennium, we were in a circumstance that everybody is used to where the west was going up and up and up and up in their GDP, exploiting and taking advantage of a lot of poor countries. And of course that has repercussions down the line when it comes to just power culture, how the world work, where the vaccines go, right, during a global pandemic. And now, since a little bit before the millennium, the inequality which had been going up, up, up on the graph is actually going down, down, down, down, down in terms of GDP. That has a lot to do with China, just the sheer number of people that China has lifted out of poverty for the inequality to keep going down in terms of pure income. We really need Africa to see a lot of economic growth.
But in addition to GDP, Human Progress Index just did an inequality index based on other indicators as well, like basically living standards. And they showed too that living standards between rich and poor countries are moving closer and closer together. What that means in terms of just domestic outcomes, meaning in the US or in India, if you’re wealthy, probably you’re gonna be still having a great time as more and more people in the “rest of the world” become wealthy as well. But for the people that are stuck behind, it’s gonna have a particular punch ’cause probably their purchasing power is gonna change, right? An average American or someone slightly under the average in terms of the socioeconomic ladder may not be able to take a big vacation in Thailand, but you might see people from Thailand taking big vacations in the US, right? So we are seeing a slow shakeup of the macro sort of world order that we’re used to.
ZK: Before I started The Progress Network, one of the real inspirations was this man named Hans Rosling who had done a book, or even before he did his book called Factfulness. And one of the things that he came to prominence for was highlighting this, as much as inequality within particularly wealthy developed nations seemed to be increasing in the ’90s and onward, that inequality between nations was shrinking in ways that most people didn’t appreciate, that the world was not, as Tom Friedman said, becoming flat necessarily, but that there was a leveling that a lot of the world that was seen as developing and poor was becoming more affluent and more stable, and that the aggregate gains of the wealthier parts of the world were plateauing. And so that the world was essentially becoming more and more equal.
And what the foreign affairs piece that you pointed out highlights is that that’s become even more true sort of unnoticeably so because most people focus on their local realities, and if you’re in Europe and the United States, or if you’re in China, the inequalities within seem really pronounced, are really pronounced, whether it’s really wonky economic Gini coefficient or just the observable, you know, how rich the rich seem to be relative to the rest, how much the CEOs earning. We talked about this, 400 or 500 times the average worker today versus 40 or 50 times the average worker in 1950, things like that.
It’s probably one of the reasons why American foreign policy is so troubled because the United States is so used to having such overweening power economically, certainly military relative to the rest of the world. And that’s just no longer the case. It may be the case militarily, but unless you wanna invade everywhere, the military only gets your power so far. So it is probably why there’s such unease in the American foreign policy establishment because the gap between what the United States was relative to the rest of the world and what it is relative to the rest of the world has shrunk a lot. And that’s really good for the world, may not be so good if what you want is power or what you want is coercive power, but it’s very good for the 9 billion or so, or whatever the number is, 8.8, that are currently habiting the planet.
EV: Yeah, I mean this is one thing where, you know, should we give some kind of word of caution to our American readers like future might be bumpy inside the United States, but keep in mind that other people are having a great time. I mean, how do we make this feel a little bit better? As we said, sometimes the stats are good, the the feeling of it is not so good, and that might be one that is true for also just the everyday American, like I was saying.
ZK: And that’s part of the rub. That’s the challenge, right? What’s good for the world may not be good for you. What’s good for you may not be good for the world. But ultimately what’s good for the world is good for you, at least if you believe that some sort of stability is the right thing. And it’s, by the way, population’s in the 8 billions, it’s not 9 billion. I was forecasting ahead a bit. We will reach 9 billion.
EV: So one more thing about what is currently going right in terms of our— just going back to our debt ceiling conversation, a crisis is a crisis until it’s over, right? No one cares anymore. Let’s just do one hurrah for the WHO officially declaring the COVID global health emergency over, and also within the US, Biden declaring the state of emergency over.
Audio Clip: With the president taking a significant and symbolic step into a post-pandemic world. The White House is just now saying that the president has just signed a bill that will end the national emergency declared during the COVID pandemic. Remember, that’s the state of emergency that had been in place for more than three years after then President Trump declared it in March of 2020.
ZK: Hurrah, hurrah. That was two hurrahs. Should we do three hurrahs? Hurrah.
EV: That’s a flat hurrah. I got a hurrah, but it was very flat.
ZK: They were not. I don’t do excitement very well. That’s me being very excited. Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah. That’s like, I’m so happy.
EV: Okay. To be honest, that’s probably how everybody feels about the fact that I just said that because I think people just wanna put it in the rear-view mirror. And I’m just trying to do a little bit of like, let’s be grateful for the things that we’re not dealing with right now. Because obviously, COVID is still killing people. It’s still around, it’s still a thing, but we’re not nearly in the situation that we were even a year and a half ago. And there were certainly prognostications in 2019 that this would be going on well into 2024. So three cheers for us.
ZK: And that I think is also— I was talking to somebody about this the other day, how quickly that has faded in the rear-view mirror. Look, it’s a disease that kills people. We live in a world with diseases that kill people, but how quickly it’s faded as a dominant cultural, social, political, international reality does surprise me. If you’d said to me in the middle of 2021 that by that point in 2023, we would be done, right? Like it would no longer be a thing.
And we launched The Progress Network at the height of all this, partly as a way of telling people, hey, there would be a future, and that future would be not determined by that disease. I still thought it was gonna be longer, but that was one of the points of founding The Progress Network, right? When people thought things were at their [inaudible], to remind them that even if we didn’t get back to an apex, that we wouldn’t be there forever, that there would indeed be a future, and that that future would not be shaped and determined solely by that really bad weird thing. And we also talked a bit over that year of 2020 into 2021 that in many ways, there was the reality of COVID and then there was the global panic around COVID. And those were two separate realities. And that the panic around COVID didn’t do any of us collectively any favors in actually dealing with COVID.
EV: Yeah, the freak out, also the freak out of which countries’ policies in response to COVID were right, which were wrong, the death counts, the tallies. I mean, all that stuff, looking back on it, was a rather unhealthy way too.
ZK: Yes, it was an unhealthy way to deal with an unhealthy disease.
EV: Yes [laughs]. So that’s what we have going right, right now. And then we are looking forward to the rest of 2023. Of course we’re gonna be back before the end of 2023, but is there anything in our short term or medium term radar as far as things we’re looking forward to?
ZK: Well, I think back to what we thought that this might be a benign year. And by benign, just, again, to be really crystal clear, benign doesn’t mean that the war in Ukraine is benign or that continual issues in Congo are benign. It’s just that one accepts that human beings will at any given time kill, maim, and abuse each other. So the question is what’s the ratio of that to people actually coming together to either solve problems, work together, or just live their lives unmolested by those realities? And that’s what we mean by benign. We don’t mean like everything’s fine [laughs].
EV: I guess what we’re trying to say is that the proportion of bad stuff happening is relatively small to the proportion of good stuff happening when we look at 2023.
ZK: And that, to this moment in 2023, I think is true in any discernible fashion, certainly relative to what was going on in 2020, ’21. Taking a pause is a good thing, right? Human beings need breaks. Living at a high level of crisis is, and we know this, a high level of individual stress is unhealthy. It’s chemically unhealthy, it’s cortisol unhealthy, it does not lead to good outcomes physically or psychologically. And the same, I think, is true for societies, that you cannot live at a high level of crisis all the time. It doesn’t help you. It’s not a good thing. And that, again, is part of the point of these conversations you and I have been having, which is, hey, wait a minute, there are other things going on other than all the bad things that are going on.
EV: Yeah, I mean for me, just to talk about something specific that I’m actually looking forward to, is the AI conversation continuing. The more and more I look into the tech and use the tech with my job, the more and more I’m excited by it. And I might be kicking myself 10 years from now for saying that when there’s like an AI Emma on this podcast talking instead of me. But for now, [laughs], it just seems like a great way, like Baratunde Thurston said, it’s kind of like using steroids. [inaudible] amazing way to offload like the annoying parts of my job at least, right? And I would love for that to be more part of the conversation then, like the AI will replace us, which is often where the conversation goes. So that’s moving so fast right now. I’m really excited to see where it goes even within the next six months.
ZK: I think Emma AI would be just as interesting to have a conversation with as real Emma and would free up a lot of your time.
EV: Is that a compliment or an insult, Zachary? I’m not sure—
ZK: I don’t know. I mean, I guess—
ZK: I think it’s probably both. I think we could both— there was a great Doonesbury, for those who remember, there was a great Doonesbury cartoon, this just talks about technological change and how quickly the thing changes but the sentiment doesn’t. And it had a professor giving a lecture to a bunch of students in class. And then the next frame was he’s giving a lecture and there’s one desk that the student isn’t there, but a tape recorder is. And then the next frame, it’s like he’s there and half the class is students and half the class is tape recorders. And then the final frame is there’s no professors and there’s no students, there’s just a tape recorder at the lectern and all the desks have tape recorders. And that’s kind of what would this conversation be if we were both AI, right? We’re just not doing it. We’ve AI-ed ourselves into Zachary AI and Emma AI and we’re having a What Could Go Right? AI podcast. I’m sure there would be lots of insights in that, if the AI were good enough, that wouldn’t even occur to us. It might be pithier, probably would be shorter ’cause they wouldn’t waste words. So I don’t know, maybe our AIS would indeed be better versions of us, but I guess we’ll find out.
So it’s been a great year having these conversations with you. Not quite a year. We’re gonna use the year metaphorically. It’s been a great season having these conversations with you. And we wanna thank everyone who has been listening to us for that year. And we hope you all have a summer of taking a break from all the unbelievable negative stresses of the past two to three years and considering the fact that it’s possible for a society and for us to actually have periods where things go well and not just periods where things go badly.
EV: And for anyone out there who is listening, if there are particular topics that you would like us to cover or guests you would love to hear from, we are always open ears. You can write to us anytime at email@example.com. One of my favorite things at my job is hearing from people that actually read what we do and listen to what we do. So I would love to hear from you. Thank you so much.
ZK: We’ll talk to you soon.
EV: What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
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