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.
S5. EPISODE 13
Progress Check: 2024’s Election Frenzy
Featuring Zachary Karabell & Emma Varvaloucas
The most people in history will vote in 2024, with 78 countries going to the polls. Is democracy really on the ballot, as some say? What new state laws are coming into effect, and is a new space race heating up? Zachary Karabell and Emma Varvaloucas are back to discuss the latest news stories we might have missed.
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 am joined by my co-host, as always, Emma Varvaloucas, the Executive Director of The Progress Network. And this is our weekly, or at least usually our weekly podcast looking at, you guessed it, what could go right in the world, not through a starry-eyed, Pollyannaish, rose-tinted lens that everything, in fact, is going well. Many things are not, and everyone is aware of it. And that’s all we talk about—all the things that are always going wrong and all the things that might go wrong. And at any given time, on any given day and in any given week, there is plenty out there that is going wrong that animate to our collective consciousness and our conversation. So we have attempted, in our podcast and in The Progress Network, to shed some light on what is going right or what might go right or what could go right, given all the assiduous efforts of so many people to try to make sure that things go right and not wrong.
In that spirit, welcome to 2024. I think this is our second episode of 2024, but our first conversation that is really about the year ahead. We’ve come out of a pretty trying few months in our world. Of course, one could say that every few months in our world at any point in the past decades has been trying for somebody somewhere in some way. So we’re gonna try to look ahead in this conversation about what 2024 holds. No one has a crystal ball. Everyone pretends they do, and it doesn’t stop lots of people from prognosticating with great oracular authority as if they know what’s gonna happen. I personally have no idea what’s gonna happen, although I do think we have some thoughts about what might.
So, Emma, why don’t you kick us off and tell us what we should be looking at and what we should be talking about and what we should be thinking about? For those of you who do not already subscribe to The Progress Network newsletter, which conveniently shares the same title as the podcast, What Could Go Right?, Emma writes that every week with great clarity and delightful style, and I think we’ll use our most recent installment of the newsletter to kick off our conversation.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Yes. So if you didn’t read the newsletter, you don’t know that 2024 is the mother of all election years. Some people are calling it the Super Bowl of election years.
Audio Clip: And 2024 is expected to be the largest expression of democracy in human history with more than half of the world’s population living in countries that will host nationwide elections next year. But in many of the largest and most important elections, including in the United States, it is democracy itself that will be on the ballot.
EV: There are, depending on who you ask, there are different counts. But the highest count that I found is from the Atlanta Council, and that’s 83 elections happening in 2024. Over 50 of those are national elections—so presidential, prime minister, that kind of thing—occurring in 78 different countries. That includes a lot of heavy hitters. Altogether, this means that more people are gonna be voting this year than any other year in history. So billions of people are going to be flocking to the polls, hopefully, I mean, maybe they’ll all be sitting at home not going to the polls, but we’re gonna assume that they’re gonna be going to the polls.
So that includes 7 of the world’s 10 most populous countries—India, the US, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia, Mexico. A keen observer might think to yourself, well, some of those “elections” that are happening are not exactly happening in free and fair and functioning democracies, and you would be correct about that. According to foreign policy, we’ve got 55% of the national elections occurring in full or flawed democracies, 30% in authoritarian. So I’m gonna start with that.
ZK: I don’t think the Russian election’s gonna be a nailbiter. Putin’s not gonna be holed up with his staff on election night with a bowl of popcorn and some [inaudible] whichever Russian standard, glued to the TV, wondering, wondering, am I gonna pull it off? I think it’s more gonna be the, do I get 99.8% of the vote or 99.7%? And that’s gonna be the real drama in that evening. But many of those elections will be interesting to watch, even India, which I think we’re gonna try to have a soon episode on India and its emergence as a China of the 2020s, for lack of a better parallel. I don’t think anyone doubts that Modi is almost certain to win, but in what way the BJP will win and what composition and how much they’ll win state by state, all that is an open question and will be an open question until election night.
Look, my cursory read of how people are looking at the year shaping up of those 83 elections or 78 countries, is more already the panoply of trepidation that surrounds these, that there’s a degree of, oh my god, this is gonna lead to the year of geopolitical instability. That seems to be a theme right now, late December into January, for those who like articulating a theme. Every year needs a theme, apparently. It’s sort of like the Fashion Institute annual MET Gala. We need a theme this year. This year, the theme is-
EV: Or the color of the year.
ZK: -everyone’s dressing in geopolitical instability.
EV: Yes. It’s not teal or turquoise or lavender, but it’s geopolitical volatility.
ZK: Yes. What are you wearing? What’s the latest fashion? And, you know, it’s true—elections in contested places with lots of divisions and partisan divides are question marks that raise the possibility of bad things happening. And clearly, the United States is gonna be ground zero for those questions no matter what side of the political aisle you are on. And it is true demographically that most people listening to this podcast probably do not fall into the I want Trump to be president camp. It’s gonna be a challenging election in the United States. It’s not gonna bring out our better selves. It’s not gonna be, as Steven Pinker said, it’s not gonna remind us of the better angels of our nature. And that is true in multiple countries.
But I think you pointed out in your writings, Emma, and I think we share a view that more people participating in whatever this messy thing we call democracy is a good thing net-net for the world ’cause it represents more people trying to have a say and trying to have a voice and believing that they should have a voice. The whole principle of voting is you believe that you have a say. I did a piece for the Wall Street Journal at the end of the year last year for literally the last issue, December 30th, and mused that there are two ways you can look at massive collective global discontent. One of which is everybody is really dissatisfied with things as they are, and the mood is darkening and people are sour and we live in a kind of dyspeptic dystopian time. I know I’ve said dyspeptic dystopian multiple times on the podcast. So for those of you who feel like you’ve heard that before and are getting tired of me saying it, I apologize. But it has a certain kind of nice alliterative ring to it.
And the flip side is people being really discontent and going to the polls where they can and casting a vote for a person or party that they feel is going to change things. And you vote for someone ’cause you think they’re gonna change things for the better, right? Every Trump voter is not voting because they think Trump is gonna make the country worse. They’re voting ’cause they think he’s gonna make the country better. We, you, anyone may disagree with that, just like they disagree with whoever’s being voted for on the other side. But the very act of doing so can be construed as a, I have a voice. I think that voice should be heard. And I think the system as it is, isn’t working, and it should and it can.
And so there’s a degree to which democracy provides an outlet for individual self-respect and collective self-determination, which is sort of the point of democracy. Whether it’s messy, whether it’s effective, whether it’s corrupt, all of the things that happen when human beings function as flawed human beings, that’s one way of looking at the year ahead, that more people than ever before, as you just said, billions or millions of people on an 8-billion-person planet will believe that they have the self-determination and the right to have their voices heard and the belief that their voices should be heard and the belief that the system should be answerable to people’s needs. I think that’s an incredible thing and is a potential source of really positive change. I don’t know, what do you think? Is that hopelessly optimistic?
EV: I think, even for me, it veers on, I don’t wanna say Pollyannaish, but it definitely veers on we’re ignoring some of these countries where, even if they’re not a full authoritarian country like Russia or North Korea—North Korea is also holding elections, by the way, another nailbiter, as you said—even somewhere like Bangladesh or Pakistan or India, where the system’s just not working exactly as it should—there’s allegations of people fixing seats or not letting other parties run and things like that—we should be kind of presenting people with that reality as well. I think the optimistic view on that is that despite all these systems that are flawed, like you’re saying, that people are still coming out, that they’re not giving into the cynicism.
I’ve seen a lot of framing not only as geopolitical instability and volatility, but that democracy is on the ballot in 2024, which I think is an enormous overstatement. I don’t think that there are elections going on where people are like, yes, I would fully like to vote for an authoritarian figure because I would like a dictatorship. People who are listening to this who are [inaudible] anti-Trump might greatly disagree with me, but I actually think that even Trump voters in the United States are not voting for Trump because they think that he’s a dictator [laughs].To your point before, I think they just don’t see the threats that other people see to be as great of threats or they see threats from the other side to be as great or even greater.
So I am really curious. I feel like in 2023, the big story that everybody got wrong was the United States economy and where the US is gonna be as far as inflation, jobs, wages and all of that. I’m seeing a lot of stories come out now in early 2024 about how everybody was wrong about that. I’m really curious how we’re going to look at this, in January 2025, and see, did democracy survive because that’s how it’s being framed right now. And even if there are a lot of elections that don’t “go the way we want”, even if we do have individual countries that might fall into hard times, I really don’t think that this is gonna be the deciding year where democracy just disappears.
ZK: Yeah. We had this conversation in the wake of the US midterm elections in 2022, which, as we reflected at the time and as many people reflected at the time, were remarkably smooth. The outcome didn’t please a lot of people and no outcome of an election is likely to please a lot of people ’cause somebody who you want to win is gonna lose. That’s just the reality of a democratic election. But there was such agita leading up to November of 2022 in the United States and such conviction that this was gonna be some really divisive replay of 2020 leading into January 6th, 2021. And none of that happened, right? Everybody accepted, there wasn’t a lot of contestation of votes, there wasn’t claims of vote fraud. It was a normal election that went normally in the United States.
And then the Brazil election between Lula and Bolsonaro just, again, went well. None of the worst fears of what was gonna happen in Brazil happened. Except for the storming riot thing, everything went just fine in Brazil. No, but the fact is the fear was more civil war, right? That the losing side wouldn’t accept it and it would actually lead to political collapse as opposed to a really bad afternoon in Brasília. And I think the recent Argentine election where the kind of firebrand came into power saying that he was do away with half of the government bureaucracy, and I think tried to actually do some of it, it still went smoothly as an election. Nobody contested its validity.
So you’re right, this year may prove to be the year of geopolitical instability triggered by billions of people going into the polls, or we may turn around in a year and recognize that lots of things happened that many people objected to in terms of outcomes. But then in many places, those outcomes went democratically and smooth. And I suppose we could get into the whole question about illiberal democracies that Fareed Zakaria has been talking about for 15 years. And those outcomes as we see in Hungary and elsewhere, maybe we’re gonna have more outcomes like that in Europe over the next years.
You’re in Amsterdam now, we just saw a Dutch election that saw the ascendancy of a far-right party to probably the leadership of the next government, although in a coalition that will constrain some of that action. So there could be lots of illiberal, or things that we deem illiberal, results of a lot of these elections. But that, as you just said, is very different than democracy being on the ballot. Hungary clearly is a negative scenario, but we thought Poland was a more negative scenario. And then the coalition led by Donald Tusk, they haven’t fully formed the government they want yet, but that was a surprising outcome. People basically said, we don’t want that. We don’t want a permanent structural illiberal democracy à la Hungary, so.
EV: Yeah. And there are countries with potentials for positive outcomes. Taiwan is one. Mexico is another—they’re having their first election between two women, which is interesting. South Africa, which has been kind of wallowing and stagnating for a while. A shakeup could be good for them over there. And then there’s also Mali and Chad, which I mentioned in the newsletter. Both had coup around three years ago, currently being ruled by military juntas. They have promised presidential elections this year. Obviously, we don’t know if those are gonna happen. Obviously, if those happen, we don’t know how exactly those are going to be executed or what the outcomes are gonna be. But there are also potentials for positive outcomes here, not just negative ones.
ZK: So we’ll see whether or not it ends up being the year of geopolitical instability or the year of democratic efflorescence or some combination variant.
Audio Clip: 2024 is gonna be the biggest year ever for elections. Most people in the world will be living in a country that has national elections. So on the face of it, this is a great triumph for democracy, but there’s a difference between quantity and quality. One of the early ones in the year is the election in Taiwan. There will be a choice between a more China-friendly candidate and a more sort of independence-leaning candidate, and that will influence relations across the Taiwan Strait, but also US-China tensions.
EV: We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
ZK: So what do we have next?
ZK: Moving on from democracy.
EV: Now we’re gonna talk about some things going on in the United States right now and give people a break from the boxing match that is just going to be revving up in the next 11 months or so. I thought that it would be really nice to highlight some new state laws that people might be feeling enthusiastic about that are coming into play in January across the United States. A lot of different outlets had great roundups of this. The New York Times had, I think, the best one. NBC also had a nice one, and Associated Press. So this is the amalgamation of a few of those roundups. Number one, Georgia, Indiana, Minnesota, and West Virginia are going to require financial literacy courses in high school. There’s actually quite a few states now that have pending legislation on this or already require it, something like 40, I think, which I am all for because man, man, I could have saved myself from some mistakes [laughs] I had.
ZK: Yeah, that’s one of these things where people have always been saying things like, great, I know when the Battle of Antietam was, but I don’t know how to balance my checkbook.
ZK: Not that you shouldn’t know civil war history in the United States, but it is definitely true that one should know how to balance a checkbook. And many of us have been saying for years, we would kind of make fun of the ’50s where girls had to do home ec—like how to cook and do a household—and boys had to do shop or whatever the sex segregation of roles were, but everybody had to do civics. Civics was just how you teach someone about the structure of government. And now we do none of it, right? There’s no civics, there’s no home ec, there’s no shop.
EV: There’s no civics?
ZK: And maybe we can say good riddance to home ec, but even the civics courses are no longer a thing the way they were.
Audio Clip: It’s possibly one of the most important practical skills to have, yet a lot of Americans, when it comes to managing their personal finances, it continues to be a challenge. According to a recent financial literacy survey, 56% of Americans did not have a budget in 2021. And nearly 50% of households reported having credit card debt. A new Wisconsin law hopes to change all of that.
EV: I would say put back in home ec and just make everyone take it because I would’ve also loved to learn how to cook and put back in the toolbox you should have at home with the basic hammer, nail, how do you spackle a wall? But anyway, three, cheers to the United States being a little bit more practical in high school. California is also adding media literacy to its K–12 curriculum. I think there are maybe one or two states that already have that. New Jersey is one I know. I would love to see more of that.
Moving on to Illinois, they are going to allow lawsuits from victims of deep fake pornography. So when someone’s image is plastered onto someone else’s body, let’s say, and then put it in porno that they definitely don’t wanna be in. And they have also decided that they are going to—this is an interesting one—cut off state funding for libraries that have banned books for partisan or doctrinal reasons. So they have banned book bans.
And 22 states are gonna raise their minimum wages. Many of those are tied to inflation. We have new gun laws coming to effect in California, Minnesota, Michigan, Washington, Illinois, and Colorado. A lot of these are ones that are broadly backed by the public. So red flag laws, banning ghost guns, things like that.
Another California one, they’re increasing access to drugs like naloxone that reverse opioid overdoses and also clearing good samaritans that are helping out in a situation like that. So someone who might administer naloxone to somebody overdosing, they are clearing them of any criminal or civil liability. So if somebody then dies and then someone turns around and says, oh, they were completely negligent. I didn’t even know, I didn’t even think about that situation, but I’m glad that they are clearing people to help.
And last but not least, I don’t know how people are gonna like this one from the perspective of government should have money to put out programs, but from a perspective of you get more conservative about your money as you get older, people in Alabama will not have to pay any income tax anymore on work that’s done over 40 hours per week. So any overtime work, they’re not gonna get taxed on it.
Audio Clip: While it can be hard to head back to work after the holidays, there is some good news for Alabama hourly employees.
Starting this new year, the state is no longer taxing overtime pay.
Alabama taxes hourly and overtime wages at 5%. But with this new law, any hours you work over 40 will be excluded from gross income. That’s 5% more money in your wallet.
ZK: Good for Alabama. Interesting.
EV: [laughs] Yeah.
ZK: That’s one that I had not actually heard of being discussed, tax break for overtime work
EV: Well, I mean, I’m sitting here in the Netherlands, they have a 46% tax rate on overtime work.
ZK: Which you would think would kind of disincentivize overtime work, like it has the reverse effect, right? It makes it like, what’s the point of doing the work if I’m gonna get taxed at that rate? As opposed to give me more of that work.
ZK: I suppose the pushback would be it incentivizes people to work too much.
EV: It’s a very Dutch mentality versus an American mentality, right? The American mentality is very pro-work. The Dutch mentality is very go enjoy your life, and work is part of that. On the same token, if you’re really trying to improve your lot financially, that doesn’t make things easy.
ZK: Work to live versus live to work.
EV: Yeah. So those are some things that are going on in the states other than the federal elections. One little cute thing about states, just to give people some feel-good stuff heading into 2024, the Department of State announced, this was late 2023, they are back to pre-pandemic processing times for passports. And in defiance of the stereotype that Americans don’t travel, this is wild, in 1990, and this is from the Department of State, only 5% of Americans had a passport. Shame on us. Today, that number is 48%.
ZK: Wait, in 1990, only 5% of Americans had passports?
ZK: I would’ve guessed closer to 30 plus percent. Wow.
EV: Yeah. It’s a shockingly small number.
ZK: It’s changed that much in 33 years.
ZK: And now it’s 48%, you said?
EV: 48%. And even that accelerated ’cause they say that there are now over 160 million valid US passports in circulation, nearly double the amount from 2007. So that was a change also that accelerated in the late aughts.
ZK: Yeah. That is a massive change. And it does completely go against the narrative of provincialism, or at least the narrative that Americans are navel-gazing and focused on themselves, which we are, and which every culture is, right? I think that stereotype is a ubiquitous human stereotype. It’s not really an American one. May not be true of the Netherlands and other places where they learned 16 languages perfectly and speak better than any native ever does. But those are global anomalies. They’re not indicative of global trends.
EV: Yeah, I’m kinda hoping that the stereotype updates itself because I certainly get a lot of that from Europeans. Like if I don’t know the capital of something, oh, you’re American. Ah, come on. 48% of us are traveling now. I suppose if you’re a climate change type, that’s not good news. But I don’t wanna go there. I think it’s great that people are taking the privileges that they have to go abroad and learn from that and see other places, see other cultures, or maybe, I don’t know, by having a bunch of margaritas on a cruise somewhere. We’re gonna take that too.
ZK: Yeah. There is that, which does not do anything to offset the provincialism. But still, those are powerful trends. Yeah. Even discounting for the margarita cruises, they’re powerful trends.
EV: Yeah. And I wanna see those rates actually compared to other countries. I’ll probably do some research on that at some point ’cause I’m curious what that would compare to somewhere like Denmark or Portugal or wherever.
EV: So hopefully we have made people feel a bit better about the US. I am going to move on to vaccines.
ZK: Shifting gears yet again.
EV: Yes. To COVID vaccines. You thought we were done with COVID vaccines. The news is not really about the COVID vaccine, it’s really about the type of COVID vaccine. So Japanese regulators for the first time have approved what’s called, and I’ve never heard this pronounced, I don’t know if it’s an S-A RNA vaccine or a saRNA vaccine, probably the former, that is a self-amplifying RNA vaccine. So we’re all familiar with the mRNA vaccines. The messenger takes genetic instructions to produce an antigen aka the stuff that triggers the body’s immune response. And that’s how the mRNA vaccines work. We all know that the COVID vaccines for the first time that we are able to use that technology. The difference between the mRNA and the saRNA is that the saRNA triggers the body to produce an enzyme that makes copies of the antigen mRNA.
EV: So I think this quote helps explain how that works. This is something from Reuters. This is Robin Shattock who’s a vaccinologist at the Imperial College London. She says, “It’s a bit like having a manufacturing facility, and instead of having one copy of the recipe, you have multiple copies that you can hand round to multiple production lines within the cell to produce more protein.” What’s good about this, from a less sciencey abstract perspective if you’re not into the science of it, is that you get the same efficacy with a smaller dose of vaccine. So the shots themselves can be cheaper. There are fewer side effects. This is why I said maybe this will change your mind because I don’t know about you, I know a lot of people that have stopped taking COVID vaccines in part because the side effects are almost as bad as having COVID itself. So they’re just like, screw it.
ZK: Yes. That is exactly why.
ZK: And also, I’ve had three and I’ve had COVID and I’m more in the unless demonstrated otherwise there’s a degree of antibody reality in me and most people at this point. That is not in any way an anti-vaccine comment. It is a when is enough enough in terms of some degree of not immunity, but internal defense mechanism. But yeah, if you could say to me there is now a shot that provides an internal matrix of immunity across a broad spectrum with no three days of illness, sure. Shoot me away. Sign me up. Send me the needles.
EV: Yeah. And the point being is that, so the first one happens to be for a COVID vaccine, but this can be applied to anything just like the mRNA vaccine. So Pfizer already has an saRNA vaccine for the flu in clinical trials. And there’s also ones for Zika, RSV that are showing promising—
ZK: When did RSV become a thing? I don’t believe any of us were talking about RSV 5 years ago or 10 years ago, even though we were all subject to some sort of retrovirus and now suddenly it’s become part of a triad of COVID, flu, and RSV vaccines. And we’re using the word RSV as if we’ve been using it forever, like, oh, yeah, yeah, RSV.
EV: I can tell you why. I know why. Because 2023, we had the first viable RSV vaccine ever. We’ve never had a vaccine for it before 2023. And number two, I think it even before then came into the public conversation with COVID because of all the conversations suddenly about like the double whammy COVID-flu season, and they packed RSV in there. That was the first time that I had heard of RSV. And not having kids, I feel like that’s usually when people start to deal with RSV stuff or if they have elderly parents. But it’s really because we have a first viable vaccine for the first time. So it’s out and about now.
ZK: That’s a good answer because it sort of entered the public consciousness and conversation as if it had always been there like the flu, like, oh, yeah, yeah, RSV. Like, wait, when did this become a thing? Shingles too. Suddenly it’s a thing.
EV: Shingles? That’s been a thing.
ZK: Yes, but there hasn’t been go get the shingles vaccine as a thing.
EV: Oh, yeah, you know what, that’s because it’s a different age group. I haven’t been hearing about the shingles vaccine, but—
ZK: Yeah, you get to my age group and everyone’s like get the shingles vaccine, go and get the shingles vaccine, gotta get the shingles vaccine. Oh my god, shingles is so painful. Oh my god, it’ll kill you. And it’s probably all true. Okay. I’m not doubting that. I’m saying it’s suddenly an acceptable part of every conversation. Did you get the shingles vaccine? Did you? Did you? Did you?
EV: Did you, Zachary? Did you get it?
ZK: I have to get it.
EV: Get the shingles vaccine.
ZK: This is a conversational podcast note to self.
EV: I know anyone out there listening I guess who’s, what, 50 plus, go get the—
ZK: Barrage me with emails saying get the shingles vaccine, Zachary, get it. I know you’re right.
EV: I don’t have any judgment if you don’t get the shingles vaccine or the COVID vaccine.
ZK: Thank you. But then I can’t complain about shingles if I get it.
EV: No, no, you can’t. That is correct.
EV: Last little piece of info about the saRNA vaccines, EU approval for the specific COVID one is expected in 2024, so it’s probably gonna make its way [inaudible].
EV: Yeah. Yeah. So they’re coming.
We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
Let’s go on to space.
ZK: Space. The final frontier.
EV: Yes. Supposed to be a big year for space exploration. This little packet of information I’m about to read to you is from Semafor. SpaceX is planning to launch 124 rockets this year. So I guess Elon Musk is doing something other than burning Twitter to the ground. They sent 98 the previous year, so that’s pretty impressive. And Semafor says that no other organization has managed more than 63 in a single year. So that is pretty good. Aurora Clipper spacecraft is launching in 2024 looking for life on Jupiter’s icy moon. The Artemis mission will fly humans through the moon’s orbit for the first time in half a century. And there is an Asian space race heating up, it says, as Japan, China’s, and India’s space programs all aim for milestones. Japan is hoping to land a spacecraft on the moon this month.
Audio Clip: Let’s talk about the new race for space. Countries and companies are competing to develop brand-new space technology. Right now, engineers are designing space colonies.
It’s time to go back to the moon. This time, to stay.
France and the US have even launched their own space force.
A space force as the sixth branch of the Armed Forces, that’s a big statement.
What followed that first space race were in fact many decades of science-driven space exploration. Countries even collaborated with each other’s space programs to send space stations, telescopes, probes, and satellites across our solar system. NASA stayed in the lead, partly because of its space shuttle. But over time, governments around the world started pouring less money into their space programs, including the US. Eventually, NASA retired the shuttle for good in 2011. And in the meantime, new space powers emerged, countries like China and India who have been pouring millions of dollars into their space programs.
ZK: And we also have a member of The Progress Network, Ché Bolden, who is building out a whole space information and consulting group. It’s fascinating listening to Ché and talking to him. He’s a career military. His father was administrator of NASA for years. And there’s this multi-billion-dollar space ecosystem. I mean, yes, we’re aware of it peripherally when we talk about billionaire boys and their toys and SpaceX and Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, which is Bezos’s space.
But there’s a lot more to it than just the billionaire space race. There’s this entire ecosystem that unless you’re in it, most of us don’t think about. I mean, obviously, my joke about to go where no man go before, there’s a huge pop culture aspect of space, and then there’s a huge military component of space, and then there’s a huge commercial component that has kind of existed beneath the radar. Even funny to say beneath the radar, given that a lot of tracking now is in space by satellites and not by radar. And I don’t know that there’s anything quite that substantial in terms of money, effort, and national interest that gets less attention publicly than space and satellites and exploration. There’s now talk of a new moon landing. So it’s a fascinating dynamic part of the world that we don’t pay attention to, or not even part of the world, part of the ecosystem, not even part of the ecosystem, part of the galactic-
ZK: -[inaudible] in which we all swim. Yes.
EV: I do think Elon Musk is an exception to that.
ZK: Yes, we pay attention to SpaceX and Musk, it’s true, but we end up paying more attention to the rocket launch than what they’re actually doing once they go up.
EV: Right. I think it’s just because most of us are just not fully aware of the impact that a lot of the NASA missions have because it’s on such a long timeline. When they sent out last year, they got samples from the first deep space objects asteroid that was around when the galaxy was formed billions of years ago, the universe was formed. See? I’m using the wrong words. But anyway, when we were formed. And it took, what, five or seven years for it to return. So the attention span is just not gonna last for that long, you know.
ZK: It’s a long lead time. But even the orbital stuff, research things blasting into synchronous and asynchronous orbit above the earth, even that doesn’t get very much attention unless something actually falls out of the sky. We pay less attention to it going up than we do to it going down, kind of a Progress Network metaphor. We pay attention to it when it’s falling. We don’t pay attention to it when it’s ascending.
EV: Well, related, I hadn’t planned on talking about this, but this is vaguely related. One sort of progress piece that I have seen going around in this early part of 2024, we don’t usually talk about how safe the aviation industry is and we normally focus so much on fatalities and crashes. They’re such a major part of the news cycle. But one thing that has happened with the plane that was engulfed in flames in Japan in the early bit of 2024 is that I have seen a lot of coverage talking about how this is a success of modern aviation, that they got 379 passengers out of the plane unharmed.
I learned from coverage of that, that apparently, in the US, at least, manufacturing of planes has a regulation that everyone should be able to get out of the plane in 90 seconds. So in Japan, it wasn’t 90 seconds, it was more like 20 minutes for the full evacuation. But they say that they were able to do that in part because, and this is I guess sort of a stereotype about the Japanese, but they stayed calm, followed instructions, and, most importantly, followed the instruction not to bring your bags with you. They actually say that that was a big factor in saving everyone, that nobody was taking time trying to get their stuff and tripping over. And you can imagine how that might be. But it was interesting because it was one of the first, maybe the only time I’ve seen news coverage that was like, hey, this went really well and you should probably know that there are reasons why this went really well.
ZK: No, it’s definitely true. I mean, other than helicopters which do have a higher rate of fatality, and even that’s skewed, by the way, by rescue helicopters, meaning helicopter fatality statistics look a lot worse because it includes highly dangerous flying situations where someone tries to rescue someone on a mountain or some incredibly difficult place where there is a higher likelihood of an accident as opposed to just going from lower Manhattan to JFK.
I was talking to my younger son the other day. One of the weirdest aspects of many weird aspects of being in New York after 9/11 was that in October of 2001, the worst airplane crash happened since over the past 23 years in the United States. There was a flight, I think, going to the Dominican Republic, had just taken off from JFK and crashed 20 miles after takeoff, and killed everyone on board. And the immediate assumption on October of 2001 was that this was another act of terrorism. We’d just gone through 9/11. And it turned out it was—I don’t know if it was a mechanical or a pilot error, but nothing like that has happened since. That was 22 years ago. And the weird Malaysia flight, which no one knows what happened to. I mean, I think everyone knows it went down, just how and where and when. But yeah, it’s incredible how safe flying is.
EV: Considering the number of flights. Considering all the Americans now with their passports that are flying around [laughs].
ZK: That’s right. Yeah, that’s incredible. Get a passport and fly.
EV: So that’s all I have for today.
ZK: That’s all we got. We will be back next week with another episode and with an interview. We want to thank you all for listening and tuning in again. Comments, questions, critiques are all welcome. Go to theprogressnetwork.org and send us whatever you wanna send us, and we will respond accordingly. And thank you again. Sign up for our newsletter, What Could Go Right?, comes out every week. It’s free, shows up in your mailbox, and gives a nice digest of what’s going on in the world that we think should get more attention than it is getting. And of course, we wanna thank the Doris Duke Foundation for their continued support, which is helping us make this whole thing possible week to week. So thank you, Emma. Thank you all.
EV: Thank you. And we are looking forward to spending 2024 with you all.
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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