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.
S3. EPISODE 10
The Fix for Crypto, Healthcare, and Equal Opportunity
Featuring Avik Roy
What does crypto mean for the future of banking? Why isn’t there an “Uber” for healthcare? Is negative economic growth necessarily bad? Today we’re joined by Avik Roy, President of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, to explore these questions. Plus, Sierra Leone pushes for change, Congress passes a “Bombshell” bill, and the 8 billionth person is born.
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 on season three of What Could Go Right?, our podcast and discussion with sometimes members of The Progress Network, sometimes not, who are in their own ways trying to work through contemporary problems and create the future that we wanna live in and not the future that we are all legitimately anxious that we might enter into. So we are having this conversation on the heels of Thanksgiving and on the heels of Black Friday, lots of people went out and did their thing and bought stuff for holidays and Christmas and gifts and did what American consumers do. And I know that if one is critical of a consumerist system, that’s not necessarily something to celebrate or laud, but it is a reflection of the fact that no matter what people feel, a lot of us are in fact going about our lives unencumbered by the relentless negativity of the news or the negative partisanship of politics or the feeling of global despair that seems to be infecting almost every country in the world, that is that people are behaving and living their lives in ways that reflect a greater degree of just stability and life and celebration of life than the collective discussion that we are immersed in, which tends to focus on everything that is wrong, hence why we have a podcast called What Could Go Right?. It is not in any way to speak with indifference about things like the war in Ukraine or the Civil War in Yemen, or conflict in Somalia, or continued chronic civil war throughout the Congo, or challenges of the ecosystem in the Amazonian Rainforest or why COP didn’t do what it’s doing. We know there are lots of issues going on in the world at any given time that are intractable and problematic and are creating huge amounts of despair and death and tragedy everywhere. And that too is part of the human condition. But we do feel like we are paying sufficient attention to those problematic parts of the human condition and paying insufficient attention to the other parts of the human condition, which are both celebratory and optimistic and forward looking and engendering a greater degree of optimism, of belief of the possibility of human beings to live in a better world and not in a worse world. So in that note, we’re gonna talk to somebody who’s led an organization that is, I think, somewhat definitely much more policy-oriented than we are, given that we are not policy-oriented at all, although we celebrate those who are policy-oriented and try to amplify them when those policies lead in a constructive direction.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Today we’re gonna talk to Avik Roy. He’s the president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. That’s FREOPP, and you can find that at freeop.org, which is a nonpartisan, non-profit think tank that conducts original research on expanding opportunity to those who least have it. Before Roy was doing that, he had advised three presidential candidates on policy, including Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney. He was also the senior advisor to Perry’s campaign in 2015. You can see some of his writing at Forbes where he’s the policy editor. And we’re very excited to talk to him today.
ZK: Cool. So let’s talk to Avik. Avik, it’s such a pleasure to have you with us today. We’re gonna have a pretty wide-ranging discussion, but I wanted to start with first just explain the initials of FREOPP.
Avik Roy (AR): Yeah, it’s the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunities. We’re a think tank that’s focused on how to use economic freedom and individual freedom and technological innovation to improve the lives of Americans on the bottom half of the ladder. So how do we show that that these classical American ideas actually can create the most inclusive economy that we’ve ever known?
ZK: Let’s talk about the technological part of it for a moment ’cause you’ve written a lot and done some work about Bitcoin and digital technologies and crypto as a potentially empowering set of technologies for those who are unbanked or those who are outside the financial system. And as we are having this discussion, it’s also in the midst of a really intense shakeup in crypto land. If you’re in that world, you know exactly what’s going on. If you’re not in that world, you probably have some only distant sense of the implosion of one of the major platforms that was also run by someone named Sam Bankman-Fried, who was nominally worth $30 billion, was on the cover of Fortune and Forbes. But there’s also been a lot of I told you so’s and people who have been doubting the digital ecosystem as basically being just a Ponzi scheme for wealthy finance bros to spend a lot of money in Miami and The Bahamas. But you’ve written about crypto as an ecosystem that offers some potential to reduce inequality or to reach people. What do you feel about all of that in the wake of this current moment?
Audio Clip: Cryptocurrency lender BlockFi has filed for bankruptcy only weeks after more than a hundred FTX companies also failed. BlockFi and eight of its affiliates filed for bankruptcy earlier today. It is the latest major digital assets company to go bankrupt since the collapse of FTX in mid-November. FTX had once been one of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchanges.
AR: Yeah. For people who aren’t familiar with crypto, don’t have a passing understanding of it, know it exists but haven’t really delved into it, what’s really important to understand here is that this whole FTX blow-up is about financial and banking principles that are actually very old. They don’t have anything to do with the innovative side of Bitcoin or digital assets or cryptographic money. But a lot of the things that FTX were doing were the things that bank big banks were doing during the financial crisis that a lot of the banking failures of the early 1900s and late 1800s were about, which is you have a bunch of people who’ve deposited money at a bank and are trusting that the bank is doing things to keep that money safe, and instead the banks are taking that money and investing it in an incredibly risky way, and when those investments go wrong, as they did with FTX, you don’t get your money back. And then there’s a lot of collateral damage from all the people at other financial institutions that were depending on those deposits to be safe. So the story of FTX’s collapse is, in that sense, as old as banking and has nothing to do with crypto. It’s just that because of the nature of digital assets not being part of the traditional financial system from a regulatory standpoint, a lot of the things that Sam Bankman-Fried was able to do, being based in The Bahamas and using a novel form of financial assets that weren’t really covered as strictly by the traditional American legal system, he was able to do these things that if you did them at Fidelity or you did them at J.P. Morgan, would be completely illegal. And a lot of the things he did may have been illegal too. We’re still trying to figure that out. But basically the things that that Sam Bankman-Fried did wrong have much more to do with the regulatory architecture of digital assets in the United States and not– they don’t have a lot to do with actual digital assets and how they work.
EV: There’s this general understanding of crypto that one of the big benefits of it is that it’s completely trackable. You can’t forge anything that may have happened or not happened, but isn’t part of the problem here is that a lot of money disappeared and no one knows where it went despite being on this crypto platform?
AR: So Bitcoin is the original cryptocurrency or digital asset and the first implementation of the blockchain in a financial asset. And Bitcoin works that way where there’s this blockchain, which is basically a kind of decentralized public database that records every transaction. So there are all these wallets, they have a bunch of letters and numbers attached to them and you can follow, even though you might not know exactly who owns that wallet or who owns that particular amount of Bitcoin, you can follow literally every 100,000,000th of a Bitcoin and how it moves around on the internet to these various wallet in a public database. And that is how, in general, cryptocurrencies work. There are some that are that don’t work that way exactly, and let’s just table that for a minute. But in general, that’s how they work. What FTX was doing, so FTX is a cryptocurrency exchange, a little bit like Coinbase and Binance, maybe some of the names that people are familiar with that are out there that allow people to buy and sell cryptocurrencies. And alongside FTX, Sam Bankman-Fried had a number of other ventures that he was working on. One was called Alameda Ventures or Alameda Capital, which was basically a venture arm where they were taking the money that was being housed at FTX and effectively funneling it to Alameda to invest in various things. Now, the way they were doing that was they were issuing their own cryptocurrency called FTX Token or FTT, which they were then using as a kind of quasicurrency that Alameda would then invest. And so what was happening was they were using the assets on their balance sheet as a kind of collateral and then moving them to Alameda. Now, they were also moving some of their actual direct assets to Alameda. And these are some of the things that were noted by observers at the time at times, but people just didn’t know because you don’t exactly necessarily have clarity from FTX as to which accounts belonged to whom. So there was just a lot of manipulation and deception from FTX as to exactly what was going on. Now the bottom line is, just to step back a minute, like what is the point of Bitcoin? Bitcoin has several genuine innovations and several problems that it solves that really have very little to do with what FTX is about. So what’s Bitcoin trying to solve? Bitcoin is trying to solve several problems. One, if you look around the world and you look at countries like– a great example today is Turkey. Turkey today has an official inflation rate of 75%. If you actually talk to people who are in the real economy in Turkey, they say the inflation rate there is like 150%. So this like a second world country, at prettiest a NATO ally, right, that has massive inflation where the value of your purchasing power is being cut by a half to more than a half every year. That’s pretty devastating to the economy there, so what do you do? You can buy US dollars, but that’s actually really hard because the government imposes capital controls on your ability to exchange Turkish lira into US dollars. But Bitcoin, in certain ways, allows you to get around that and own an asset where the supply is fixed. So because the number of Bitcoin ever issued will be no more than 21 million that’s defined by the software, it’s not something that can be inflated away the way a traditional currency can. So the way traditional currencies get inflated away is you print more of them, you print more Turkish lira, and so all things being equal, if the economy stays the same size, if you double the number of lira in circulation, each lira is worth half of what it used to be because there’s twice as many lira in the same size of the economy. You can’t do that with Bitcoin. And so Bitcoin is an insurance policy against governments inflating their currencies away for various reasons, like having a massive budget deficit and debt like we have in the US. That was one of the big concerns of Satoshi Nakamoto who created Bitcoin. Another big aspect of Bitcoin is that you control it. It isn’t at a bank. So one of the things that actually drove Satoshi Nakamoto to build and design Bitcoin was the financial crisis of 2008. And his big concern was your money is not safe at a bank. If that bank collapses, you lose everything that you have. And so the whole point of Bitcoin is that you custody it yourself. Instead of trusting a bank to hold your money for you, you’re able to hold it yourself in a way that’s completely secure. So in the old days, in the Great Depression or prior to the Great Depression where there are all these bank runs and bank collapses FTX style, people hid their money under mattresses because they didn’t trust banks to safely store their money. And Bitcoin solves that problem saying you don’t have to actually hide your money under mattresses anymore. You can hide it in a graphically secure code that nobody else can break. And so it’s a lot safer than storing it under your mattress and you don’t have to trust a financial institution like J.P. Morgan or like FTX to hold your money for you. The third thing that Bitcoin allows you to do is it’s completely censorship-resistant. So let’s say you’re trying to support Alexei Navalny in Russia, you wanna support the dissidents, the leader of the opposition in Russia who’s now in prison and probably will die there and you wanna support his movement, how do you send the money? You can’t send him money through the mail because Russia’s gonna open his mail and take it from you. But you can send his organization Bitcoin because there’s no way for the government to prevent Bitcoin from getting to Alexei Navalny’s organization. If there’s an internet, the internet exists, which it does, so long as we still have it as part of our civilization, you can send money to wallets owned by Navalny’s organization. This happened with Ukraine. So when Ukraine was invaded by Russia, the first amount cash of money that got to Ukraine was not from the US government or Europe. It was from people sending Bitcoin and Ethereum or Ether to wallets controlled by the Ukraine government ’cause that money got there instantly, didn’t have to go through any bureaucratic process, and was essential in allowing Ukraine to buy some of the supplies they used to defend Kiev and the other key cities in Ukraine. So that censorship-resistant element of Bitcoin is really important. So, again, none of those things have anything to do with what happened at FTX where they built their own cryptocurrency. They were minting new tokens of FTT to create artificial money that they then used to create these investments. That’s not how Bitcoin works. So all this to say that’s really important for people to understand that Bitcoin is not the same as everything in crypto, just as in the dot-com bubble of the ’90s, there were real companies that came out of the 1990s like Amazon, like Google, and there were a lot of frauds that basically put .com at the end of their name and were worth billions of dollars at one time and today are broke.
ZK: So basically, FTX is pets.com or cosmo.com or one of those– like all these things are incredible in retrospect and there is a degree of why it wasn’t that obvious at the time. I mean, it was obvious in certain ways. I remember going to some of these crypto conferences and listening to the banking system is gonna be overtaken by crypto by 2030 and J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs will be dinosaurs of the past, just like the horse and buggy was the minute Ford came along. And while that, I guess, in theory, could be true over the next 50 to 100 years, there was a degree of we’re on the verge of a brave new world and this is gonna transform everything. And we’ll see if that’s true of digital crypto or whether that’s done through banks. It’s a whole big soup and a mix. Another small topic which you focused on for the past 10 to 15 years is healthcare and healthcare costs. I wanna look at one really specific aspect of this that I find fascinating. You had this efflorescence of creativity during COVID about how we deliver healthcare and a lot of it was digital, a whole growth of telemedicine as a need given that people weren’t going into the office. And whether that was psychiatric, psychology counseling, whether it was diagnostic where you send a doctor your images and they do it, but all that exists in an insurance way only under this emergency provision from the spring of 2020 that’s supposed to expire at some point in 2023. So what happens to this innovation, some of which was fueled by an emergency which kind of exists in this netherworld of regulatory miasma?
AR: I wrote a paper, boy, about 10 years ago maybe now, that we’ve updated and refined at FREOPP and it starts with the line, “Why don’t we have Uber in healthcare?” You know, why don’t we have that kind of disruption using digital technology to revolutionize or certainly meaningfully improve the quality and the delivery of healthcare? And there are a lot of people who ask this question. And there’s a bunch of different reasons, but the core reason goes to the way we pay for healthcare. So when you pay for an Uber, there’s a reason why you’re attracted to Uber versus getting a taxi. In a lot of places, not New York City maybe, but in a lot of places, you don’t have the availability of taxis the way you do with Uber. And also, the prices are more attractive. The fact that you can track everything on your GPS and it’s so convenient. It’s not like you call the dispatcher and you have to wait and maybe the car is coming, maybe it’s not. In the old days, that’s what we used to do if you had to call a taxi from somewhere. It’s a much better user experience. And so obviously, the old taxi medallion systems in all these cities, they fought it or they’d spent all this money to say, hey, I’ve saved up to buy this taxi medallion and now I’m gonna erect a motor on this business. But Uber eventually overwhelmed those barriers. Now, the difference there is Uber was competing against local governments, city councils and the like. When it comes to healthcare, it’s the federal government. And it’s very hard to disrupt the federal government because if you do something that the federal government thinks is illegal, you can go to prison, right? And the federal government does not mess around. One of the most important being the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA, which was passed in 1996 at the dawn of the internet. Bill Clinton, who was president at the time, built it as the patient’s bill of rights and it was his effort to resuscitate some form of healthcare reform after his big effort at healthcare reform failed. But basically, what that bill did was it ossified a lot of these rules around the way healthcare works that was basically pre-internet. And there were a bunch of other statutes on the books as well, such as the Stark Law and the anti-kickback laws that basically make it impossible to deliver an economically viable product when you’re optimizing delivery of care. Just to give an example, let’s say, you know, you’re a patient and you have a primary care physician, but you also have a cardiologist ’cause you have some heart problems and you have an endocrinologist ’cause you have diabetes and maybe you had your knee replaced so you have an orthopedic surgeon and none of these doctors are talking to each other because all these privacy laws make it impossible for the primary care physician and the orthopod and the endocrinologist to talk to each other without you filling out an enormous amount of paperwork. Now, you might be a software company that says, hey, I’m a brilliant Silicon Valley engineer and I’m gonna figure this all out and we’re gonna put all this together and we’re gonna create these electronic medical records that can interact with each other. It’s gonna be beautiful. And then you realize that along the way, you’ve committed seven federal crimes because if you even charge a dollar for that service, under the law, you’re guilty of a kickback because it’s considered a kickback if one provider pays another provider for a service. And so it just has become impossible and there’s this massive thicket of laws and regulations that predate the internet that have made it very hard for healthcare to have a lot of the tools that we take for granted in the rest of the economy. So COVID was an exceptional case where we were able to use that emergency of COVID to suspend some of these rules temporarily. But the COVID emergency, despite Biden’s best efforts, is not gonna last forever. And at a certain point, you’re gonna have to, as Congress, revisit some of these rules and it’s very hard because the people who make all the money being the gatekeepers under this highly regulated and kludgy system are gonna lobby the government to keep it the way its
EV: So, Avik, we talked a little bit about healthcare just now, a little bit about Bitcoin. What are the other like big policy areas that FREOPP is focusing on? And I’m curious like in what directions the research is leading you?
AR: We do a lot of work in housing policy from NIMBY zoning laws at the local level to how the Federal Reserve artificially inflates the price of housing through its policies. We look at energy. So energy is something that– it’s not just about climate. It is, that’s an important element of energy, but you also have to make energy affordable and reliable and low cost because when you don’t, when energy is expensive, it makes everything else more expensive as well. Whether it’s the cost of food because the trucks that deliver food from the farm to your grocery store consume fuel, to your electricity bills, to the ability of manufacturers to locate their businesses in the United States. There are all sorts of ways in which energy drives up the cost of living. Technological innovation can reduce your cost of living if done the right way. Regulatory reforms and subsidy reforms that are more targeted and better designed can reduce the artificial price inflation that comes from badly designed rules. So those are a lot of the things that we end up working on that allow competition and innovation to drive down your cost of living.
ZK: One of the challenges of that, Avik, is we live in systems now that are GDP and growth-maximizing and cost savings, while it absolutely achieves an identical benefit to individuals, meaning if your income were flat but your cost of living was halved, it would be the same life beneficial equation as if your income doubled and your cost did the same. But from a GDP and an economic policy perspective, it would look bad optically ’cause you’d have lower growth. You might even have negative growth. Like we’re completely unset-up societally, not just the United States, but everywhere in the world since the mid-20th century, for a scenario of like negative growth but positive outcomes. But we wouldn’t be able to see it that way.
AR: Well what you’re highlighting, Zach, is that the way we measure the success and prosperity of the economy is massively antiquated, if not obsolete. These metrics that we built during World War II for a non-globalized economy, in which the primary market for American products and services was the American market, doesn’t work in a globalized economy and it doesn’t take into account the cost decreases and optimization that comes from free trade for example, or from technological innovation. So many things that we value about our world today are massively cheaper than they were 80 years ago. And that is to say there is a form of negative inflation or deflation that is bad, which is if you have economic stagnation where people are buying and producing fewer things because the economy is shrinking, that can lead to a form of deflation. But there’s another form of deflation that’s actually positive, which is the fact that every 10 years, every 5 years, every year, you know, the phone in our pocket is more powerful than it was before. And through the massive growth and free trade over the last 20 or 30 years, a lot of the goods and services, particularly food and consumer staples like clothing, are a lot cheaper than they used to be, at a much higher level of quality. That’s good for the economy. That’s good for living standards. The way we actually understand economic growth and particularly prices is massively distorted by a doctrine that kind of ossified around World War II and hasn’t really been modernized. We could have a whole podcast about that.
EV: So, Avik, I have a question about equal opportunity. You know, it’s there in the name of the think tank and that’s part of the foundation’s goals, for everyone in the US to have equal opportunity, which sounds great. I think that no one would really argue with that as a principle. Oh, maybe some do. Yeah. Okay. On this podcast, we’re not gonna argue with that as a principle. We’re gonna let that one be. But when you get into the particulars of what that means, you know, like higher ed is a really easy example because of all the affirmative action debate that’s in the news right now, what that actually looks like seems to be very unclear. So I was wondering what does that mean for you? When you say something where everyone has equal opportunity, what does that look like?
AR: So just to fold the previous question about the issues that we work on with your question, Emma, so as I mentioned, 70 to 80% of the things we work on have to do with cost of living because a lot of social mobility economically has to do with the rising cost of living and not merely income and wage growth. But the other side of it is there are some things that are not directly– they may be indirectly about income and wage growth and cost of living, but it’s more about a broader sense of economic opportunity and those are things like K-12 education, things like criminal justice reforms. So we don’t just purely work on issues related to cost of living. There are a couple of other issues we work on that are about equal opportunity, not just in the sense of, again, prices and wages and income, but do you have the tools you need as you’re growing up in America and as you’re becoming an adult in America and living through your life, do you have the opportunities you need to succeed? And so the sense of equal opportunity, I think one thing that’s really important about it and one of the reasons why we focus on it, if not a major reason, is that it’s something that, as you said, Emma, that the vast majority of us agree on. I can’t say it’s everyone, but if you look at– polls are pretty consistent in showing over the years that about 80% of Americans believe in the concept of equal opportunity. And it’s not 100%. And the reason it’s not 100% is because there are both people on the far left and the far right or the ultra-libertarian crowd in particular who don’t believe in equal opportunity. So on the far left, there are people who say equal opportunity is not enough. I want equal outcomes [inaudible] equal opportunity is a mirage in this fundamentally racist country, and you know, people who are very pessimistic about America being a place of equal opportunity tend to not like that rhetoric. And then there are people on the right who say if you’re gonna establish equal opportunity, that means you have to have a public school system. And if you’re an arch-libertarian, you don’t believe in government schools or maybe equal opportunity means everyone has to have access to affordable healthcare. And that’s not something that as an ultra-libertarian or an ultra-conservative you might not believe in. So there are people, you know, who are skeptical of the concept of equal opportunity for one reason or another, whether on the left or the right. But the vast majority of Americans not only believe in the concept of equal opportunity, but they believe that’s what America should stand for. And people can debate how to define equal opportunity, they can debate how to accomplish equal opportunity, but if they are united around the value of equal opportunity, that’s really significant because what’s the narrative about America today? The narrative about America is that we’re fundamentally divided as a country. There’s the blue team and there’s the red team and we all hate each other and you’re either on the side of the angels or the side of the devil and you have to destroy your opposition. And if you watch cable news or you spend too much time online, that’s what you’re getting out of those conversations. But in the real world, when you walk down the street and talk to your neighbors, that is not the conversation. The conversation is we actually are a fair-minded country that want people to succeed. We celebrate those who overcome adversity in their lives. We try to help our neighbors when they encounter adversity or bad luck or bad fortune or lives. We’re actually a very generous and compassionate country. Over and over again, whether it’s 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy, we see these moments where people rally together and help out complete strangers. And that’s the kind of country we have. And so that’s what we’re trying to unite people around. So we’re actually swimming against this tide of the country’s hopelessly polarized. You have to be on team red or team blue and pick your side and then fight to demolish your opposition. We look at it the other way around, which is that actually, people in America are united, broadly speaking, around this value of equal opportunity, which means we aren’t guaranteeing the outcome for you, but we’re gonna do everything possible to give you a fair shot at success and get you to the starting line in reasonable shape. And, again, there’s work to be done to achieve it, but that’s something that Americans believe and that’s why we believe in universal public education, why we believe in Americans having access to affordable healthcare, because we think that’s fundamentally fair.
ZK: You said at one point in talking about healthcare that the emergency regulations or lifting thereof will eventually expire in spite of the Biden administration’s desire to maintain them, which was a subtle, although not that subtle dig, against the Biden administration, which is fine except for the fact that many of the lifting of those regulations are things that you aren’t quite in favor of. So wouldn’t it be a good thing for them to continue to try to keep those? The problem is you don’t wanna use emergency powers endlessly ’cause then it totally violates the idea that they’re emergency powers. Unless you’re saying we’re living in a permanent emergency, which tends to be a hallmark of states that we don’t wanna live in. But there’s some good that’s coming from that and it’s hard to see Congress acting quickly enough to change those things. So why wouldn’t you want to continue that at least in this limited way?
AR: Well, I think all of those things are true, right? So one can celebrate that we got some regulatory reprieve from the COVID emergency that allowed some of these innovations to flower. And it’s amazing to think that little tiny window of an opening led to a massive amount of innovation. Just goes to show– reminds me of the liberalization in India. If you look at economic liberalization in India, it’s still a country that’s beset by all sorts of what they call the License Raj, the bureaucracy, the inability to actually get things done. But that little bit of liberalization in the early ’90s led to a massive explosion of the Indian economy. And something similar happened during COVID. These tiny reprieves created a massive amount of innovation. Just goes to show what’s possible if you actually make those, those, reprieves permanent. But it is a concern to abuse the rule of law to say, hey, I’m just gonna declare an emergency forever so that I can do whatever I want as president of the United States. And that’s, again, what we expect from banana republics, not from the United States. And so what the president should be doing is trying to work with Congress to make some of these rules permanent and say, hey, we’ve learned from the COVID emergency that here are some policies that we ought to try to achieve together. And I actually am pretty confident that he would get bipartisan support for a lot of that. So that’s where there is opportunity. And I think the Biden administration has done some pretty constructive things on healthcare in particular, but I am very concerned with whether it’s a Republican or a Democratic president. And the Trump administration did a lot of sketchy things in the COVID side using emergency regulations as well. So I think it’s important to say, look, the emergency is over. Let’s take the things that we learned from this experience and make them permanent, use the constitutionally authorized body, which is Congress, to enact those laws and try to bring the Republicans and Democrats together.
EV: So to close, Avik, I’d like to ask a question that’s definitely close to our hearts here at The Progress Network. You recently did a conference and you had this fireside chat called the Case for Optimism About America. And obviously, we don’t have as much time as a fireside chat, but I would love to hear the SparkNotes version of your case for optimism.
AR: As we’ve talked about a little bit already, it’s very easy when you’re very active in public policy or very active in politics or you’re an avid consumer of the newspaper, the media, cable news, social media, Twitter, to really feel like the world is going to pot. And look, there are serious problems in our world, many of which we’re trying to tackle at FREOPP. But I think what’s most important to understand and what’s I think underappreciated by people who are heavily online is that reservoir of generosity and compassion that Americans have for each other and for people who are not American, people around the world, what we’re doing right now to help Ukraine is a great example of American generosity. So we’re doing a lot of things to make our neighbors and our communities better every day that don’t get covered in the same way that the conflict gets covered. So that’s the first thing to know is if you feel sour or you feel worried about the state of the country, take a walk outside, get to know some of your neighbors and you’ll feel a lot more optimistic about our ability to work together. That’s number one. Number two is what it is that we’re actually united about. Those values of making sure that every American, regardless of their background, their race, their economic circumstances, that everyone has a fair shot at success in this country is something that Americans believe in and why still today so many people want to move to America from other countries. And I think it’s really important, particularly for those who are so pessimistic about America’s future and America’s character, to understand that if America’s such a bad place, why is it that so many people wanna move here and think that it’s better than the place that they live today? And I can tell you myself as a second generation immigrant, that’s a very personal thing for me. My parents came here and gave me opportunities that I would’ve not had if I were still living in the suburbs of Calcutta like my parents were in the early days. So these are things that we should be optimistic about. And another thing I would mention, there are actually solutions to a lot of the challenges that we face. So the fact that healthcare is too expensive, the fact that housing is getting more expensive, the fact that higher ed is getting unaffordable and that people feel like a lot of opportunities are getting closed off to them, that’s true and these are real problems, but there are solutions to those problems. Our scholars are working on that every day. We have relationships with Congress, with the White House that we invest in and transmit these ideas through and work through, organizations like yours, Zach, to learn from the best ideas of others and incorporate them into our own work and vice versa. So there are ways to solve a lot of these problems. It’s not hopeless to actually change the laws and rules that make our economy work better than it does today.
ZK: Well, that’s good to hear, good sentiments, totally in sync with The Progress Network, totally in sync with the idea that relentlessly focusing on all that’s broken doesn’t fix anything and at least trying to fix something is a better chance of actually fixing it than throwing up your hands, saying that everything is broken, and walking away in sort of despair and disgust. So trying to stay engaged even in a thicket of problems is really the only way forward. And you’ve done admirable work, remaining upbeat, vaguely nonpartisan, eclectic, individualistic, trying to see your way towards solutions that can be embraced by multiple sides of the proverbial aisle. And so thank you for the work you’re doing and I’m glad you got to share some of it today to this particular audience and thanks for being part of whatever we’re trying to do at The Progress Network. So I love talking to somebody whose interests are wide-ranging but united by kind of a common theme, as he talked about at the end, of greater opportunity, focus on ways that we can increase access and opportunity, whether it’s in housing or healthcare or crypto, you name it. But it’s fun also that he is leading an organization that is not monomaniacally focused on single issues or single ways of getting those issues met.
EV: Yeah, and what’s interesting is that Avik does say that policy is not a zero-sum game, which is interesting ’cause it feels like policy is at one place that’s definitely a zero-sum game. And we’ve made this sort of joke and discussion before on the podcast, like what are these areas where red and blue can work together? And it often feels like the sort of fringe areas, but if you’re going from Avik’s policy research, housing, healthcare, higher ed, like they’re trying to establish something that sort of everybody can get behind. I’m wondering if that’s a pipe dream or not, like when it really comes down to the granularities.
ZK: The great thing is he doesn’t believe it’s a pipe dream and you kind of need people like Avik who are willing to be in the weeds with that and also believe that constructive outcomes are possible. So let’s pivot to stories of the week that most of us probably missed.
EV: Yeah. So we’re gonna start out today with a focus on Sierra Leone, west coast of Africa, not a country that is in the news very often. It’s one of those countries, high poverty, high teenage pregnancy rates, low literacy, all this stuff. So they’ve done a few very interesting things in the last few years and also in the last couple of months. One of them is that they have dedicated 25% of the entire federal budget towards education. So this is an educational reform program that is free education for all the kids in the country. They are now letting pregnant girls continue with their schooling. Before, they would get kicked out of school. This went into practice in 2018. So far, it’s led to an additional 1 million more children having gone to school. And it’s nice to see that they’re continuing this with massive funding. One quarter of a budget is certainly quite a commitment. So that’s number one.
ZK: So do we know how that’s played out? I mean, obviously, COVID land was not the most propitious time to launch anything, so it will be interesting in whether or not the money spent– Sierra Leone has a population of about 8 million people, will translate into positive outcomes. I think we’ve gotten jaded in the western world, certainly the United States and Europe, in that it’s clear you can spend a lot of money and solve nothing. United States spends a lot of money per student without discernibly better educational outcomes for every extra dollar spent. But that may be ’cause we’re already spending so much money and we have a somewhat broken decentralized system. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not part of the example Sierra Leone is that a more centralized system starting from a much lower base where money spent has a massive effect as opposed to what we’ve experienced here.
EV: Yeah, one thing I can– this is a sort of a fun fact about Sierra Leone that comes from someone that used to work there, that someone happens to be my sister, because Sierra Leone is so low in the metrics when it comes to prosperity, when it comes to things like schooling, when it comes to poverty, all this stuff, there’s an enormous amount of nonprofit resources that go into studying where the money’s gonna be spent wisely. So it’s actually like one place where if they’re dedicating the money, they’re pretty sure that it’s gonna work well because there’s been so much, there’s been a raft of academic study on that there from NGOs. So yeah, it’ll be interesting to see what happens. They’re also doing some other interesting things over the summer. Over the summer, a bill was drafted to decriminalize abortion, no follow-ups on that yet, but they’re expecting that to be drafted and passed. And they did also just pass, this is interesting, a one-third gender rule for parliamentary seats. Right now, there’s 18 women in the current parliament that’s made up of 146 members, and going forward, it needs to be at least one-third. But they certainly seem to be doing a lot right now to liberalize the country and to get it going in this modern world.
ZK: And, again, a perfect example of things going on all around us that we pay less attention to that we should pay attention to, or at least we should note are happening as a way of being aware of the fact that there are actually societies and groups that are doing things constructively and celebrate those rather than going, oh yeah, that’s only 7 million people in a small African country, so why does it matter? It matters ’cause it matters.
Audio Clip: A piece of legislation limiting the enforcement of nondisclosure agreements in sexual harassment disputes is headed to President Biden’s desk for his signature after the House of Representatives passed it in a bipartisan vote.
EV: Congress passed a bill last week called the Speak Out Act. And if our listeners have seen Bombshell or they’re familiar with the Gretchen Carlson versus Roger Ailes drama, I don’t mean that in a flipped way, it’s just the word that came to mind, it was certainly dramatic. This has finally gotten past the house, past the Senate, now going to Biden’s desk for signing and this will prohibit the use of NDAs and non-disparagement agreements in the case of sexual harassment and assault disputes in the workplace. So basically taking the gag off of women if they get sexually harassed in a company.
ZK: Also quite relevant to how Harvey Weinstein and Miramax behaved for years and years. And an example– I mean we talked about this a little bit in an earlier episode with Eric Swalwell and Jeff Colyer, that there’s actually things that are getting done in government and weirdly enough, we don’t actually pay much attention to that, right? So this bill passes bipartisan support, will almost certainly get signed, and yet the narrative that we’re told every day is Congress is doing nothing. But on the whole, it’s kind of odd that we don’t actually pay as much attention to things getting done as we do to things not getting done.
EV: It’s really easy on this one to see the trajectory too because obviously, there was a movie about it. Gretchen Carlson is a media personality and a very big name and there was a lot of discussion around this before the movie, when the movie came out. And then now finally that it’s gotten over the final hurdle, actually been passed, I would bet if you went up to people on the street and asked them, have you heard of the Speak Out Act and do you know what it fixes? They’d be like, no. But if you’re like, hey, did you see Bombshell? You know what that’s about? They’d be like, yeah, probably. But now that we’ve like potentially, you know, put forward a solution, nada.
ZK: And that unfortunately leads to an ingrained feeling of nothing ever changes, things get exposed and then nothing happens. And yeah, that’s true about some things, but it is also true that things have a way of moving sometimes slowly, sometimes in a zigzag rather than a straight line. And this is clearly an example of things having moved, but most of us being much more aware of the problem and much less aware of the resulting solution.
EV: And alongside with that, and just so people know if they don’t know, that earlier this year, forced arbitration was also ended through a bill, meaning that if you have a sexual harassment or assault claim in a company, that company then forces you to go through the arbitration process within the company and that you can’t, you know, settle it in a court of law like you might want to.
ZK: And last and certainly not least, the world population celebrated the unofficial birth of the 8 billionth person on the planet. That’s a lot of candles on the cake.
Audio Clip: Now, the global population is projected to hit an all-time high on Tuesday reaching the landmark figure of 8 billion people. That’s according to United Nations. The world’s population has doubled in less than 50 years and is set to keep rising.
ZK: And this was greeted with a series of at best ambivalent and mixed emotions in that there are those who feel like the burgeoning population is a chronic threat to human stability and others who are noticing the fact that the population is actually not growing at the rate that was expected even 10 years ago, i.e., there was a concern and an expectation that the population of the planet would reach 10 to 12 billion by 2050 and maybe even exceed 12 billion at some point in the 21st century. Given that population growth has slowed measurably in almost every country in the world. Even in countries like Nigeria and Bangladesh and Pakistan and Indonesia that have been growing more quickly, birth rates have been falling and the only thing that’s really keeping population growth going is that life extension, people are living longer in parts of the world where they hadn’t been living long. And in the developed or the richer parts of the world, including the United States, other than immigration, certainly all of western Europe, Japan, China, South Korea, huge swaths of the world are seeing negative population growth. There’s now concern that the slowing of population growth will be problematic for capitalism, problematic for countries in ways that are gonna be economically hard. And it’s a little like damned if you do, damned if you don’t. On the one hand, people were getting very agitated, as they have been since the time of Malthus, about too much population and not enough resources. And now people are getting worried that we’re not gonna have enough population to meet jobs that need to be done in economies. And it’s kind of Rorschach test for are you feeling good about the future? Are you feeling bad about the future? And I found that really intriguing, right? That the news of this was greeted with kind of every reaction you could conceive, huh, pun intended, I guess.
EV: I mean it’s this weird question of what’s the ideal number of humans. And like I think that the common narrative is we already have too many and then that gets linked to we already have too many and they’re causing emissions and that’s going to hasten the end of the world. That’s the narrative that I most [inaudible]
ZK: People, very inconvenient. They cause all these emissions.
EV: [Laughs] exactly, which is like, okay, well, what’s your suggestion then? I’m a little bit partial to Parag Khanna’s message on this. And he’s been on the podcast so folks can look at that episode. And I should also say we spoke to Tyler Cowen about this, and, Zachary, you also had an episode with–
ZK: John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker.
EV: Yes. So if people are interested in this conversation, it’s one that has occurred in various forms over different episodes, but progcon is sort of of the opinion, given what you said, Zachary, about where populations are going down and where they’re going up. They are mostly going up in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia and we should let those people move. That’s his big thing, and I’m partial to that because, you know, these rich countries that can take in more people, can use more people, have more brains to be put to good use, why not let them flourish where they will most likely flourish instead of keeping them within borders where they might not, especially if we do end up having declining population numbers and actually we really do need more people. So what do you think of that?
ZK: I think that the population dynamic is gonna be one of the most important factors shaping how we live over the next 60 years, which means the shrinking populations are gonna lead to all sorts of changes that we don’t expect. And if we wanna really look at what that might look like, we should look at Japan in terms of the harbinger of where we are all headed at one point or another. And that you’re not gonna have the population pressures even in, again, the Nigerias and Pakistans and Bangladeshs of the world because in every country in the world where women become more educated and people become more urbanized and birth control becomes more available, you just have fewer babies, you have less desire for them, less need. You don’t need like 10 kids to work the farm. With shrinking infant mortality, you don’t need 10 kids ’cause 3 of them are gonna die. And that the world that we’re gonna be heading into and certainly that our children are gonna be living in is gonna be a very different dynamic than all of experienced modernity. You know, sort of from the mid-18th century to the mid-20th, it was a period of like unbelievable human population explosion and most of our understanding of both climate and resources and history and economics is predicated on that population growth. And no matter exactly where we end up in terms of the numbers, that’s a chapter that’s ending in human history and we haven’t even begun to grasp what that means and what that will look like, but I think it’s one of the most important unexamined and in many ways could be quite positive, positive in terms of fewer people use less resources, older people use less resources, and that some of the environmental questions that we’re most concerned about right now have a kind of a self-ameliorating factor in so far as fewer people will perforce demand fewer resources. Now, whether or not that happens quickly enough is a whole other question that we can talk about. So that’s my completely non-conclusive thoughts about an absolutely crucial question.
EV: So I think it’s gonna be the longest wait and see that we’re gonna give, might ever give on the podcast. ‘Cause sometimes we say wait and see, we mean like in a five-year timeframe seems long. This is like we’ll check back with you in 2060 [laughs].
ZK: And hopefully, we’ll still have a podcast then.
EV: [Laughs]. All right, well, that’s it for today.
ZK: Thank you all for listening.
EV: Thanks, Zachary. What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Our editor is Jordan Aaron. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to sign up for the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org.
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