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.
S2. EPISODE 7
Global Trade: The Race to the Top
Featuring Gregg Easterbrook
Are we in an unprecedented era of military peace on the seas? Gregg Easterbrook, a prolific author and a writer and editor at The Atlantic for over 40 years, shares how the Navy, innovation, space travel, and prosperity go hand in hand.
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 here as always with Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are having an ongoing series of conversations, mostly with members of The Progress Network, but in general, with people who are grappling with the idea, not just of what could go right, but of how we can make sure that things do in fact go right. Which means solving real problems in real time and also solving theoretical and future problems in real time. And our conversation today with Gregg Easterbrook is wide-ranging over where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going, and how you balance the problems of the present with the potential problems of the future, and how you solve for those problems in the present, as well as an awareness of how much we have already solved.
One thing we are trying to do over and over again is find the right way of looking at progress, meaning how to articulate what has changed, what has animated human beings, what has led to the world we’re in, for the better, relative to what things were in the past, in a way that can be heard, in a way that recognizes the problems in the present, recognizes the challenge, recognizes the unknown of the future, and grapples with those in a realistic way, while also honoring both progress and the ability of human beings to solve for those problems.
So we’re gonna have that conversation today and focus a bit more on the Navy and space and some of the statistical realities. But Emma, tell us a bit about Gregg Easterbrook. I feel sometimes when I throw this over to you—”tell us a bit about…”—that we’re like at the beginning of some sort of game show, you know. “And Tell us about our contestants today.” But nonetheless, tell us a bit about Gregg Easterbrook.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Our lovely contestant today is Gregg Easterbrook. And he’s the author of 12 books, count ’em 12, which means he’s written more books than you, unless you’re Zachary, I believe, who’s written 13.
ZK: That’s right. Neck and neck.
EV: Neck and neck. And today we’re gonna be talking about his most recent book, which is The Blue Age: How the US Navy Created Global Prosperity—And Why We’re in Danger of Losing It. In addition to being a very prolific book writer, he was a staff writer, national correspondent, or contributing editor at The Atlantic for nearly 40 years. And he’s written for a bevy of other publications—it’s more like which publication has he not written for?—including The New Yorker, Wired, Harvard Business Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times. He’s a fellow in economics and government studies at the Brookings Institution. And he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2017.
ZK: So let’s have a conversation with Gregg.
EV: Let’s do it.
ZK: So Gregg Easterbrook, it’s a pleasure to be having this conversation with you. It is also a rare, rare moment where there are two people for a conversation who have written a book with exactly the same title. We both wrote a book called The Leading Indicators, yours being fiction, mine being nonfiction, the absence of fiction. But you came first. So I shamelessly stole your title with the blessing of my publisher, who was indifferent to that fact. Yours I think did a bit better because it was probably a better book, certainly more entertaining. But I just wanna say, welcome to The Leading Indicators club of two. I think that that’s just something we should acknowledge on the get-go. And everyone out there can go on Amazon and buy both copies of the book and thereby have two copies of The Leading Indicators from two different people.
Gregg Easterbrook (GE): If we’re gonna be a club, Zach, we should have a mysterious initiation process that no one but you and I understand.
ZK: Yeah, well, we’ll get to the secret handshake and the hidden… There’ll be several… What do they call them in those books, that you’re supposed to follow the trail? Hidden little things? I can’t remember now.
GE: Some writers call them breadcrumbs.
ZK: Breadcrumbs. Well, throughout the conversation, there’s actually gonna be a secret sub-conversation.
EV: And if I can find them, can I join the club with you guys, without a book?
ZK: You can, Emma.
ZK: Absolutely. We’ll give you two free books. Anybody who follows the breadcrumbs?
GE: Well, Emma, one of us has to nominate you and the other one has to second your nomination. So you have two possible people who could do that.
EV: Okay. Fingers crossed [laugh].
ZK: You also were early on in writing something, I think in 2003, right? About the paradox of progress?
GE: Yes. The Progress Paradox is the title of that book.
ZK: This idea of, why are people feeling so bad when things are so good? Have you looked back over the past 18, 19 years and noticed how much more severe that trend has become?
GE: Well, actually, Zach and Emma, I’ve written four books specifically on the topic of the improvement of society. And my current book, The Blue Age is kind of half on that topic. So I guess I could say I’ve written 4.5 books on that topic. And a couple of months ago, an interviewer asked me, “what would you want your obituary to say?” And my response was, “do you know something that I don’t know?” But I said, I think my obituary should say that the aspect of my writing that made people angry is that I’m an optimist. In the current milieu, being optimistic about the condition of the world upsets people. Whereas if you tell them “we’re all doomed and it’s all going to hell in a handbasket,” people almost sigh with relief because that’s what they expect to hear.
My first big non-fiction book was called A Moment on the Earth. And that was about 1995. And that was about why most environmental trends were going to turn positive—this is 1995, remember. And the book proved completely right about that. Didn’t cause anybody to become optimistic though. Not in every nation, but in most of the world, environmental trends are positive with the exception of greenhouse gases. That’s a huge exception we can talk about. So then in 2003, I published a book called The Progress Paradox, which is about social science research and our subjective understanding of ourselves, and why it is that rising living standards emphatically do not be make people any [happier]. We’d we’d rather people be living at a high material standard and unhappy than living at a low material standard and unhappy. Obviously the former is a better outcome, but still it’s the outcome that we have. Material standards are high for most people, and social happiness has not improved at all in several generations.
The third book in this set was called Sonic Boom. It came out in 2009. You remember that year was the bottom of the Great Recession. And that book predicted that the Great Recession would not be fatal—as everyone was saying then—and that the global economy was going to be fine, which is exactly what happened, and that we would be better off because of rising international trade. And rising international trade turned out to be the subject of The Blue Age, which we’re gonna talk about today.
But I skipped in between. In 2018, I published a book called It’s Better Than It Looks, which makes an overall argument about the condition of the world. Not subjectively, like The Progress Paradox, but objectively—what can you show with numbers? And I think with numbers you show beyond a shadow of a doubt that almost everyone is better off than almost everyone used to be, and that we can be reasonably confident that future generations will also be better off. And that sort of completed my desire to argue out those topics. And now I’m on the oceans with The Blue Age. But that has a lot to do with improvement of society.
ZK: So it’s interesting, you talk about the hostility that optimism engenders. I’ve been fascinated by this for years. I would write columns 10 years ago—you may know that for a while I wrote this column called The Edgy Optimist. The idea being that optimism doesn’t have to be Pollyannish and rose-tinted. It can actually be somewhat hard-nosed about legitimate problems and issues that we’re facing with a bent toward our collective capacity to solve those. But it is absolutely true that when people are feeling highly negative, anxious, concerned about the present and by extension, the future, optimism as a “Hey, let’s look at where we are, where we’ve been in a greater scheme of things and appreciate that” can seem like a negation of those feelings, right? It can seem like you’re saying, “You’re wrong.” And not just “you’re wrong” like you’re factually wrong, which there’s a way to do respectfully, but it can feel like you’re saying to people, “you’re foolish,” right? That your feelings are misguided, which is never a good thing. Like people never respond well to that. It’s like the trope of, you know, the marital argument where someone says “calm down,” and that’s like the worst thing you could possibly say in the moment. So what do you make of that? Because I’ve struggled with this for years: how do you speak in a way that people can hear?
GE: There’s a talk I’ve given a few times, including at Colorado College a few years ago—that’s my alma mater, so I always think of a reason to throw it in. And the talk is titled Why the Good News Makes People Angry. And it’s about that very thing, that telling people good news seems to make them upset. Or if you tell them bad news, “Ah, what a relief. That’s what I expected to hear.” And there’s the logical component to it that you suggested. And that is, when you say “things are getting better,” no matter how carefully you phrase it, what people hear is “everything is completely fine.” And of course everything is not completely fine. The world is full of serious problems. There are more problems coming. But people hear that you’re saying that “everything is fine,” and that “oh, we should be complacent and stop trying.” And that’s not at all… I’ve tried in every way that I can think of to word this without engendering that reaction.
But I can tell you that the reaction that I’m trying to engender is, if you look at history—and my book from ’18, It’s Better Than It Looks, shows example after example of this—in the past, when there’s been some crisis, there’s been an optimistic forecast and a pessimistic forecast. In almost every case, the optimistic forecast has been the correct one. So when we look at history, certainly not every time, but optimists are almost always right. And that’s because they believe in the power of reform. If you’re an optimist, you’re not complacent, you’re not denying problems; you think the problems can be fixed. If you’re a pessimist, you know, why bother to try? If you really believe that global warming is gonna destroy the world… Perfectly intelligent and well-informed people will actually say that, just like I said it: “global warming is going to destroy the word.” If you actually believe that, then you know, why not give up. Open all the champagne you can find and forget about it. But of course, global warming is not gonna destroy the world. Optimists like me say, here are the five things we have to do to prevent this from happening. And if we enact reforms, they’re gonna work. That’s the optimistic view. And it’s like you have too, Zach, we’ve fumbled around with ways to say this. And people are programmed to respond in the opposite way, partly because the modern media programs people to be upset and anxious all the time. And it’s very effective programming. And I’m not sure if there’s a perfect way to express the idea, but I have on many occasions tried to kind of talk audiences through, “why do you get upset when you hear good news?” And it’s not complacency. It means we need reforms. We need reforms on global warming, inequality, et cetera. And we should be confident they’ll actually work. And that’s how I’ve tried to express it, with mixed success at absolute best.
EV: This reminds me of like a Facebook troll that we have at The Progress Network. You know, me and the staff who handle a lot of The Progress Network’s social media, sometimes we have articles where we say, you know, this is gonna be a slam dunk. There’s no way that somebody’s gonna be able to look at this and say, “Ugh,” you know, find something to pick apart. So recently we posted an article about how NASA is trying to knock asteroids off course so that we don’t go the way of the dinosaurs, and our troll was like, “so what,” you know [laugh]. Some of that is just human nature, but some of that, like you said, might be a symptom of the modern media. And I’m wondering if you can give people any advice about trying to balance out their media diet, or how to come to the media with that understanding that it’s making them anxious and nervous.
GE: Well, there are a couple of points, Emma, that I would wanna make on that. And one we can’t do anything about. Regardless of evolutionary psychology, regardless of who’s right or wrong in that academic debate—and as you probably know, it’s very heated—there isn’t any doubt that sociologically we’re descended from the anxious people of the past. The people who were constantly scanning the horizon for predators are the ones who survived. And we’re their descendants. The ones who were comfortable and tried to take it easy, something really big came along and ate them, and we’re not their descendants. So we have a natural inclination to view things in a negative way. And that’s not necessarily bad. Thinking negatively is a good way to protect yourself and your friends and your family.
But when you come to trying to think about what our policy choices should be, a lot of people feel very negative—”the world is ending, we gotta restrict that, we gotta denounce that, et cetera, et cetera.” Okay. Maybe that’s right. I can’t prove that that’s right. And I can’t… For example, many people fear the economy will totally collapse. Not that we’ll have a bad year, but the economy will collapse, and stores will be empty, and there’ll be no food, there’ll be no medicine, et cetera. I think that’s incredibly unlikely, but I can’t prove that that will never happen. Maybe it will happen. So I think when you decide to endorse that view, and that’s the view that the mass media is selling around the clock… Hannah Arendt—I always quote her, and I quote her in The Blue Age—warned about this in the 1950s. That was just when mass media was becoming practical. And she warned they’re going to sell fear, fear, fear, because this is how the elites maintain their power. If people thought, “Hey, society is pretty good. I can take care of my own community myself.” Then why would you need billionaires? Why would you need powerful government? Hannah Arendt warned about all this stuff.
So if you decide, “I think that global warming really is gonna destroy the world. I’m not gonna have any descendants. A hundred years from now the world will be lifeless.” That’s a choice. That’s a choice that you make to believe that stuff. Now, if you decide, “oh, I’m gonna listen to Gregg and Zach and say, ‘things are on the right track, and the world is improving, and Emma’s right, we ought to deflect asteroids because the world’s gonna be around for hundreds of thousands of years, people are gonna be living on Earth, we’ve gotta protect the…'” That’s a choice. And nobody can prove that we’re right either. All of us, we make choices in this. And if you make the choice to be upset and depressed all the time, all I can say is, you’ve given up the one experience of life that you will ever have.
ZK: So let’s shift gears toward the book, the recent book, The Blue Age, about the Navy and the way in which the US Navy helped create a global peace imperium, and why that is now, I guess, in question.
So, first of all, how did you pivot to that? Or maybe it’s not a pivot; it just looks like a pivot because most of us don’t live in your head. And like, where did that come from, as an outgrowth? Where’s the passion? Walk us through the highlights.
GE: My book from four years ago, It’s Better Than It Looks, had major chapters on all the things that we thought would happen that aren’t happening. And, always important to keep in mind, the things that didn’t happen are just as important as the things that did. And one of the chapters is about why war was declining rather than getting worse. And it’s been clear for 25 years now—you know, that’s only 25 years, maybe that’s not long enough to generalize—but frequency, intensity, and casualties of war are all in a long-term period of decline. And there was one page in that chapter that said, think about naval warfare. Anybody who’s been born since the early 1950s, there hasn’t been a major naval battle in your lifetime. There’s only been a couple of minor battles all over the world. Whereas in all previous centuries, there was constant bloodshed on the water. And the absence of naval war enables the increase in global trade that’s helping almost everybody. We can talk about what people believe about globalization versus what actually happens, but by far most important, that’s reduced poverty in Asia.
Bernie Sanders constantly tells us that globalized trade is a race to the bottom, and it destroys jobs.
If it’s a race to the bottom, it’s the most unsuccessful race in world history. When Bernie Sanders was born, 60% of the world lived in extreme poverty. Today, 10% of the world lives in extreme poverty. And that number continues to decline. The decline of poverty is the great unreported story of our lifetimes. And most of it was caused by globalized trade. So my editor reads this—this is just a page—and says, “okay, that’s your next book.”
So here, I’m holding it up, as authors are supposed to do. Here is my next book. It starts off talking about how the United States Navy achieved the end of war at sea, which is a great achievement that the Navy should get credit for. A lot of people don’t like military organizations. I’m skeptical of them. The Navy deserves credit for ending war at sea. And the next part of the book is about what that led to in terms of global economics. And the third part of the book is about how we really badly need governance of the oceans, which are ungoverned now, and the oceans are three quarters of the world surface. There’s no environmental control. There’s no labor protection. There’s a lot of things that need to happen on the blue water that are not happening. And the final third of that book is about how we would achieve a reasonable form of ocean governance. But that’s how this evolved. My editor looked at me, circled a page and said, “here’s your next book.” And it turned out he was right.
EV: So Gregg, I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about something that you just touched on, which is the actual effects of globalization and free trade versus the narrative of it, especially in the United States. I mean, right now it’s seems like both Democrats and Republicans are kind of like half–half on whether or not globalization and free trade are a good thing. And so I was wondering if you talk a little bit more about that, and especially a point that was in your book, that the bad feeling about it might have less to do with the availability or scarcity of jobs and more to do with the lack of social mobility and the lack of labor organization in the US.
GE: I think we should start, Emma, with the latter. People believe that the middle class is shrinking and losing power in the United States. And statistically, that’s not true. The buying power of the middle class is the highest it’s ever been and has improved at roughly the same rate every year since the end of World War II, including the years of globalization. But it is true that class mobility is in decline. Class mobility is a big concern. Class mobility is how we keep our society vibrant. And if we’re going to say America’s a place where anybody can become anything, and then we observe that class mobility is declining, that’s a big issue. And it’s gotta be related to the decline of organized labor.
If you look at Western Europe, organized labor is much stronger there. It doesn’t lead to higher prices—in Western Europe, I’m talking about—but organized labor being strong does not lead to bad inflation. It doesn’t lead to higher prices. It doesn’t lead to shortages of anything. It does lead to social mobility that we’re losing in the United States. And when I look at the American economy, people say, “oh, the middle class is being hollowed out.” That’s just not true. That’s something that politicians say because it sounds good. But when they say that the lack of power for the labor movement has caused social mobility to decline. Yeah, well, that is true. And that’s something to worry about.
So that’s the second half of what you were saying. The first half is the actual effect of globalization. Especially if you look at the last 20 years, which is the 20 years since China joined the World Trade Organization, which politicians constantly talk about as some kind of calamity—it’s a pretty funny looking calamity, because living standards have risen almost everywhere in the world. Employment has risen almost everywhere in the world. It is true that if you look in the Ohio Valley, you can find some communities—and if you look in the western part of Pennsylvania and parts of Wisconsin—you can find some communities that wish there wasn’t globalized trade because specific communities lost specific factories. But overall, employment in the Ohio Valley has risen during the period that China has been in the World Trade Organization. Overall, northern Wisconsin, western Pennsylvania, these communities are better off than they were before globalization began, by almost any metric: low unemployment, higher wages, higher household income, et cetera. But people believe it’s the reverse. We believe a lot of things that are reverse of the facts. And a key thing that people believe in both the United States and Western Europe, if you look at polling data, pollsters ask, “Is poverty in the developing world getting lower or getting worse?” By an overwhelming margin, people say poverty is getting worse, even though what’s actually happened is the reverse of that, that that more than a billion people have been lifted out of poverty in a single generation, which is a remarkable achievement. But people believe the opposite. And what you want to believe is a lot more powerful than what’s factually true. As we found out with the Trump election, for example.
ZK: I mean, it’s also true that many of those jobs that were lost in the Rust Belt, that term was coined way before China was either a proximate presence or a proximate threat. That Rust Belt was the seventies and the eighties, you know, 30 years before China, partly because of global trends and the rise of Japan and cheaper steel being available in other parts of the world, partly because the legacy even in the United States has been basically a constant move of factories and labor to areas where it’s cheaper. I mean, Massachusetts and the Northeast were decimated a hundred years ago when furniture making and textiles went to South Carolina and North Carolina. I mean, that was an internal migration of jobs, but it certainly wasn’t fun if you were in all those towns that dotted north of Boston or central Massachusetts.
GE: Zach, I grew up in Buffalo, New York. And if you know the history of Buffalo, New York, a great engine of employment in Buffalo was the Bethlehem Steel [Corporation] in Lackawanna, New York, just south of the city of Buffalo. It closed in 1982, long before the Chinese could possibly have had any effect on… Actually, before the Japanese could have had any effect on it. It closed because it was using steel-making equipment that was one century old and just totally out of date. There was no scenario where Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna was not going to close. And yet, in retrospect, people blamed it on the Chinese. And you still hear New York politicians say the Chinese caused that steel plant to close. Because people believe it.
ZK: So I grew up in New York City, and my only relationship to Bethlehem Steel and that whole trend was seeing the movie Flash Dance, where Jennifer Beals made an abandoned steel plant suddenly interesting and not a little bit sexy. So other than that, it was all, you know, distant headlines and distant news.
I do wanna push you on one thing. And I’m curious also from Emma, you know, if… I guess, first, Emma, do you have the same, like, when you engage people in conversation about what you’re doing, other than eye-rolling, do you occasionally get pushback of, “oh, gimme a break.” Like, things are getting better, or you trying to point that out—you must be diluted.
EV: Not diluted. I do get like… We’re, you know, trying to focus on substantive good news. And usually the response is, “there’s good news?” [Laugh.] And I’m like, “yeah, actually there is.” And when you give people examples, actually they tend to get excited. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m talking to people who know me, and they’re not trying to be rude. But for instance, I sent that NASA article to somebody recently, and she was like, “this is the coolest thing ever. I had no idea.” I mean, also it has to do with space, and people like space. But no, actually, there seems to be an uptake of like, there’s an appetite for this because people feel thirsty for good news. They don’t want to live in a world that’s constantly having them believe that it’s gonna end tomorrow. Because it’s exhausting, I think.
GE: It is exhausting, yeah.
ZK: I just wanna push back on one thing, Gregg, on your own work. Because I’m curious how you maybe reconcile what looks like a tension and may not be for you. You’ve also been very critical of the resource intensity for what end of the space race, or whatever we’re gonna call it today. The move into space, the “we’re gonna colonize Mars.” I don’t know what your current feelings are about Elon Musk and SpaceX as the outsourced arm of NASA, but then [there’s] the desire to terraform or land on Mars at some point in the next 10 years. And I think you’ve been generally critical for decades of the utilization of a lot of money for a little outcome.
I wanna tie that back to The Blue Age, right, because a lot of what happened in the 19th century was that people got on ships, they headed across oceans whose outcome was unknown and was dangerous and costly, and lives and goods and money was lost in the pursuit of “we’re gonna see what the boundaries are of the Earth, we’re gonna explore what’s possible,” much of which created the foundations of the progress that we’re talking about today. So why isn’t that same drive extended outward into the solar system with uncertain ends and uncertain outcomes and the waste of a lot of money in the meantime? Why isn’t that a similar potential pattern?
GE: It’s a good point, Zach, and I’ll begin answering it by quoting from my own book, The Blue Age. I describe the urge to explore. And there’s a sentence that says, “Society will benefit from this urge whenever crossing the oceans gives way to crossing the stars.” I think it’s gonna happen. It’s just not gonna happen in our lifetimes. On a technical basis, the engineering and the technology just isn’t there. And even just going to Mars to walk around for a couple days and come back, the technology just isn’t there. And it’s not gonna be there during our lifetime. It will come. It’s definitely gonna come. Human beings will live on Mars someday. Mars may be a highly populous planet some day in the future. And someday our descendants will leave this solar system and go somewhere else. But I think that’s just farther in the future than most people imagine. So that’s the source of my feelings on that.
EV: Gregg, going back to The Blue Age, we talked about the trade aspect a little bit, but another part of the premise that you mentioned is that the US Navy is responsible for this long era of peace that we’ve currently seen. And part of the introduction of the book is about how people don’t realize that we are in this sort of era of peace in terms of the seas. It’s funny, because it made me think of… A few years ago, I was dating somebody in the Navy. And I told my friend, “oh, I’m dating someone in the military.” And they said to me, “oh, wow. I mean, he must have had some really hard times in the military because we were in Afghanistan,” so on and so forth. And I was like, “oh no, no, no. He was in the Navy. Nothing happened.” [Laugh.] So it was funny, because implicitly, actually, we do know that there’s peace on the seas right now, but explicitly, like you say in the book, we don’t. But this is all kind of to get around to a shorter, easier question, which is, how did the US Navy accomplish this? Because it’s certainly not something that people would come to intuitively.
GE: If you think about the last 500 years of great-power history, it’s been a struggle for control of the seas. All of the great powers—United States, England, Germany, Japan, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands—they wanted to control the sea. And if you look at it statistically, with the exception of a couple of years, there was more fighting at sea than there was on land. It’s just that we’re not aware of the fighting at sea because, people who were killed, their bodies vanished, the ships sank. There are no memorials at sea. Even if there were floating memorials at sea, you couldn’t go to visit them. We can visit the memorials that are built on land and see the cenotaphs that seem to appeal to heaven because you can walk on that land that. But you can’t walk on the places where there were naval battles. So we’re just not so much aware of it.
And I constantly want to emphasize that naval arms races were central to the beginning of World War I and World War II. Both world wars were preceded by naval arms races. Now there were other bad things going on, too, of course. But if you look at the history of 1914, you’re taught in high school that the Assassination of the Archduke started World War I. Yeah, but there was a naval arms race five years before, and Germany and England were just itching to fire those big battleship cannons at each other. If you look at before World War II, what do you think the Japanese had been doing for five years before they attacked Pearl Harbor? They had been building a Navy that was designed to destroy our Navy. And they almost succeeded. Fortunately they didn’t.
So naval arms races have been a real bad indicator of recent history, the history of people who are alive today. And there’s another naval arms race now starting between the United States, China, and let’s not forget, India’s also a factor in the new naval arms race. But if you look at the post-war period, when World War II ended, the United States was the wealthiest nation, the most powerful nation, the only nation, on all ends of the Earth, the only great power that was totally secure from a political standpoint. But all the other great powers were vulnerable in at least some ways. And some of them in many ways. And we continued to build our Navy. The other great powers stopped building that Navy. And at some point—and we can argue about when it was; it was probably in the 1980s—we had such an—and I described some of the events that happened in the eighties to make this true—we had such an overwhelming level of sea power that the Soviets especially just said, “yep, we give up, we’re not gonna build chips anymore, we can’t possibly contest you.”
And if you looked at the history of that 500 years of great power in naval arms races, you would’ve expected that the United States would use its naval power for conquest, because that’s how all previous nations had used naval power. We didn’t. We didn’t use it to conquer anybody. We used it to make the seas safe for commerce, and suddenly poverty began to decline. Now, we benefit from that. I mean, I benefit, you benefit. Everybody who lives in the United States benefits from the decline of global poverty and the presence of a supply chain, which is wonky right now, but still is continuing to function. We all benefit from it. So it’s not like the United States Navy did this entirely for altruistic reasons, but it spent more time and more money and more person power protecting other nations than it spent protecting itself.
And it’s totally unprecedented in human history for a great power to have an invincible military force and not use it for conquest. Now, will it always be this way? I don’t know. The third part of The Blue Age is about how we can keep the equilibrium approximately the way it is now. Of course it’s not gonna be exactly the same, but I think it’s a realistic objective to keep the equilibrium approximately as it is and have the United States Navy certainly in complete charge of the Western Hemisphere. That’s a great outcome for the United States. It’s a great outcome for South America. For the Navy to run the Western Hemisphere, it’s basically a great outcome for everybody. But I think we can also find a peaceful solution to the South China Sea and other flashpoints.
ZK: We’re recording this conversation in February. By the time people are listening to this conversation, it is certainly in the realm of possibility that Russia will have invaded the Ukraine, that NATO will be reacting in some form or another, that that conflict will be potent, right, present, available, news, major, “Oh my God,” there will be headlines saying, you know, this throws us back to some 1930s moment. And it is possible, as you talk about in the South China Sea let alone between China and Taiwan, that there will be aggression there at some point. Maybe less likely, but certainly in the realm of possibility. What would that do to your general thesis? Would you still say much as what you’ve said, which is, you never said there would never be armed conflict, you just said its prevalence has been, you know, over a long arc decreasing, and it’s lethality and longevity as well? And how would you respond to people who would say, “oh yeah, right, war is decreasing, sure”?
GE: Well people do say that. You get the impression from the news that war is increasing, and war increasing is just what we all subconsciously assume will happen because it’s happened through most of history. But statistically, it’s not. And I give… I won’t read the statistics from the book, but the Stockholm [International Peace Research Institute] tracks these numbers. Statistically, prevalence of war, intensity of war, casualties from war—they’re all in a 25-year cycle of decline, including if you include secondary casualties that are caused by embargoes and blockades and so on. Will it stay that way? This is February of 2022. We are all worried about the Russians invading Ukraine, or equally, NATO could make some incredible show of force to stop them. And NATO’s show of force could trigger some kind of fighting. And that would be land war. My book The Blue Age is about the sea. So let’s talk about the thing that you just mentioned: Taiwan.
A short time ago, I was speaking to a group of US Naval Academy graduates, all of whom are current Navy officers or former Navy officers. And I said to them, “I wanna take a vote of people who are present. If China prepared to invade Taiwan, and they might, should we put the fleet between China and Taiwan?” And they were unanimous. They all said, “yes, we do it.” And if we did that, it would not only be a terrible fight, but it could also cause the global economy to go into a recession or even a depression. Because if we try to restrain Chinese behavior by striking at the Chinese homeland, imagine what the consequences would be for everyone. Not just the Chinese. It would be terrible for the Chinese, it’d be horrible for us, it’d be horrible for the Europeans. And I think the Chinese are well enough aware of these things. I mean, we always think about our own vulnerabilities, and America has many vulnerabilities. China has many vulnerabilities. I think the Chinese are basically aware of them. And I think their hope is that they will get Taiwan back at some point through some combination of political pressure and diplomatic pressure, and the Taiwanese people themselves maybe are gonna change their mind. I don’t think that’s gonna happen, but I think that’s what the Chinese Communist Party leaders are hoping for. I think they realize that if they actually tried to invade Taiwan, it would be a global-scale calamity. And I’m hoping they’re that they’re logical enough to accept that.
EV: Right, and it’s the point you make in the book as well, that any naval conflict, because the world is so intertwined now with trade, is going to be a no-winner, all-loser outcome.
GE: Yeah. It’s either we all win or we all lose in that situation.
EV: And do we find that countries, including China, are well enough aware of this?
GE: I would like to think so. China’s increase in military power has not been used yet. In fact, the Chinese, to the extent they use their military power, are using it against their own people, which is about as creepy as you can get. And so they’re certainly behaving in a creepy way. But I think the Chinese are aware of how interdependent their country is. If China lost the ability to… China’s built an amazing physical infrastructure in just the last 25 years of hospitals, apartment buildings, restaurants, schools. If China lost the ability to keep building and supplying its own physical infrastructure, the Chinese Communist Party might have a rebellion on their hands. And they don’t want that. I hope that they’re logical and rational about these things.
And people, many of your listeners, may be thinking “well, gee, before World War I, weren’t there people saying that trade was making war impossible?” Some people did say that a hundred years ago. But at that time, global trade was four or 5% of the world GDP. Now it’s 26% of the world GDP—26% of the global GDP is roughly the same amount as was lost during the Great Depression. So if something happens that stops global trade in 1914, it caused people… Their living standards declined, there was starvation in Western countries, including Germany. A 5% decline in trade caused starvation in Germany, an advanced country. Imagine if there’s a 26% decline in trade today. It’d be awful practically everywhere. And I’m just hoping that the Chinese government and other governments, including ours, are aware of these things.
ZK: And also, as you mentioned before, I mean, the reality of 1914 was, yes, a trade interdependence between various states of Western and Central and even the Russian Empire, Europe. But there was also a massive arms race. There was mobilization of millions of troops on land. There was a naval arms race in the North Sea in the Mediterranean into the Atlantic. And so you juxtaposed a trade interdependency with a militaristic tinderbox. And while I suppose you could create a minor analogy of that as to what’s going on in East Asia. The Japanese are certainly re-arming much more aggressively than most people realize. They spend a lot of money on their military. They do so rather quietly, and they do so under the guise of “its all defensive non-aggressive weaponry,” but it’s pretty sophisticated, incredible weaponry, nonetheless. The Koreans as well.
So you could probably create a mini-analogy to that, you know, massive trade interdependence in East Asia, between all those countries while simultaneously preparing for some sort of conflict between China and whomever. And I guess we’ll see, but there doesn’t seem to be the same sort of marshal militarism that accompanied 1914. The present never scans perfectly to the past anyway.
GE: No, it doesn’t.
ZK: So I wanna go back to something and end with this. And I’m curious about Emma’s thoughts about this as well, which is to kind of push on this space question, not as a space question, but as a… If the arc of human progress over the past 200 years has been partly an unreasonable belief in our collective capacity to solve intractable problems, why is the drive into space—which you’re totally right, is premature at a technological level and highly wasteful because of that at a present-tense level—still, why isn’t that part of the same animating spirit of sort of unreasonable, irrational… I think about the kind of cultural icon role that Elon Musk is currently playing.
Certainly in some part of our collective consciousness—I have two teenage boys who are kind of entranced by what Musk represents, right. It doesn’t mean they wanna be him or like him. It’s just that kind of unreasonable, “screw it, we’re literally gonna shoot for the stars, however unlikely that is,” that that spirit can be incredibly potent in moving progress. I mean, I can speak for myself. I would rather us waste a whole lot of money on an unreasonable venture that has a potential to move that arc of progress and human potential than, you know, spend it on insurance, right. And that’s a choice, and it’s a choice of resources. And I suppose you could say, “well, there’s lots of people starving, and there’s a lot of social chaos, and we should be utilizing those resources.” But I’m not sure resources are quite as finite as that equation would have us suggest. So why isn’t it an inherently good thing, even if it’s wasteful and unreasonable, given your own read of progress over time?
GE: I think it’s a matter of scale and how many decades you’re willing to devote to this. Our rockets are still at the rowboat stage. If you were Magellan, for example, and you wanted to circle the world—which was a crazy, risky thing to do, and it cost the lives of almost everyone on Magellan’s three-year voyage around the world—If you were willing to do that, and you said, “but you have to do it in a rowboat.” Why even try? We’re at the rowboat stage with moving in space right now. And we haven’t gotten to the wooden sailing ship stage. I think we will get to the wooden sailing ship stage at some point in this century. It’s not gonna happen in our lifetimes. It may happen in our children’s lifetimes. It is definitely gonna happen. I have no doubt that it’s gonna happen. We’re just not as close as many people think.
And I’ll give you an example. Elon Musk constantly talks about going to Mars, and so do a few others, Jeff Bezos, et cetera. So suppose you wanted… The Apollo missions had three astronauts. Suppose you wanted to send three astronauts to Mars, have them stay for a month and come back, and do it with the same weight ratios of fuel to supplies to people to number of days’ travel, do it with those same ratios that were used in the most efficient Apollo mission, which was Apollo 17; it was the most efficient of the missions. If you do it that way, you need 4,000 tons when your spaceship leaves low Earth orbit. That’s the weight of a modern Navy destroyer. Imagine trying to put a destroyer into orbit around the Earth so that you have enough weight to go to Mars, keep people alive, and bring them back. That’s the kind of really basic engineering barrier that needs to be overcome. And I think somebody will someday overcome it, but we can’t overcome it today or even get close to it.
Another example of this. The really big rocket that Elon Musk is still trying to launch—and NASA’s also trying to launch a really big rocket—Elon Musk’s engineers call it the BFR, which stands for big [expletive] rocket. And it’s really big. They haven’t launched it yet. Suppose they do. To get my 4,000 tons into low Earth orbit would require 120 of these rockets, even if all of them work perfectly. Besides what it would cost, it’s just crazy impractical with current technology. At some point, there will be technical breakthroughs, and then we can start talking about Mars and even going farther beyond that. But it’s really just not as close as Elon Musk would like you to think.
EV: Sorry, just to deepen the pushback that you anticipated in your question, the matter of why are we throwing all this money at space when there are other tractable problems that we could be spending money on? I understand your point of like resources aren’t finite. But also, I think this is tied into the general frustration and the narrative that people have right now about billionaires throwing their money at things that Gregg is pointing out are not feasible right now. So if they’re gonna be throwing their money at something, like why can’t you throw your money at something that really could lead to material uplift of people now. And they have a lot of power of directing our attention into certain things. So while someone else could also be throwing money somewhere else, that doesn’t seem to be happening, right?
ZK: I think there, though… First of all, there’s a difference between what Bezos is doing with Blue Origin, which is much more in the space tourism and vanity project [area] versus what Musk is doing, where a lot of SpaceX really is an outsourced contractor for the US government. Meaning, a lot of what SpaceX is doing is what NASA and the government internally would have done 40 years ago but for various reasons of cost and efficiency is incapable of doing or unable to do. And that doesn’t change your resource question, but it’s less about billionaires doing their play things—again, Branson and Bezos being more in that camp—than it is about should we collectively be using our resources? Because a lot of the money for SpaceX is our tax dollars. It’s not Elon’s billions.
GE: Zach, let me see this in defense of NASA. The money that’s spent on space science has been very productive. Telescopes and probes are tremendous returns of human knowledge compared to the money we spend. And you probably know that the new space telescope has arrived at its position well beyond the moon. When that thing turns on and starts producing data, we’re all gonna be completely fascinated. Because I think it will upend thousands of years of thinking about what’s out there. And that’s a cost-efficient use based on the technology we have today. Colonizing Mars is just…
ZK: Right. And I guess, you know, I don’t know that we’re gonna agree to disagree, but my point is more, it’s clear in retrospect, the difference between a rowboat and Magellan. But it’s also relatively clear that before Magellan, the Vikings got on what were, you know, the semi-equivalent of a rowboat and went to Greenland, that human beings probably tried to do what Magellan did with the rowboat and failed. And it was their failure with the rowboat that led to the next boat that led to the next boat that led to the Blue Age and the modern Navy and those destroyers that we’re not about to launch into space, as you so aptly point out. I think it’s much more difficult to toggle rationally or reasonably between that drive to create and innovate and the reasonableness behind it. And I think we don’t find the right formula, and I would be more concerned about squelching that formula. Because I think with it comes a lot of the solutions to all these other absolutely pressing—much more pressing—issues, that that animating spirit of we are capable of doing what we thought we were incapable of doing. And we are capable of creating what we thought we could never create to solve problems that we thought were unsolvable. And that’s my paean to that spirit.
GE: I hope to have answers for you soon, or at least suggestions, because my next book is about the question of why the pace of scientific and technological breakthroughs has slowed down in the last generation. The pace of breakthroughs used to be a lot faster than it was. Have we hit some kind of wall? That’s a possibility. Or are we doing research wrong? That’s another possibility. So I hope to have more on that soon.
ZK: Well, when you have answers for us, please let us know, and we will come back and continue the conversation with more answers about the same questions. Thanks so much, Emma and Gregg, for the conversation, and looking forward to those answers.
GE: Right. Thanks guys.
EV: Thanks, Gregg.
ZK: So Emma, you seemed unconvinced by my florid paean to progress in the form of why we should waste our money trying to get to Mars.
EV: You know, this is the second time in the conversation I’m gonna bring up a Facebook comment. They seem to be stuck in my mind. But for instance our listeners may or may not know that Mark Cuban launched an online pharmacy in January, 2022 that is aimed at, first, radical transparency around drug prices, and b, letting Americans buy drugs without the, the middleman markup. And somebody commented on our Facebook like, “man, this is so much better than billionaires sending like penis rockets to the moon.” And the genitalia comment aside, I see what she’s saying. You know, it is. Okay, that’s a for-profit business. It’s not like he was completely being, you know, doing something for the social good, but that’s really gonna have a difference to people now. And so I think that the argument that you’re making is persuasive in a romantic sense. It’s not in a “right now everyday people could use this solution” [sense]. So I think that’s where I remain unpersuaded.
ZK: But if we only spent money and resources at any given time solving for a clear immediate solution, we wouldn’t be doing research and development for the moonshots, for the things that we think we potentially could do, but we’re not clear about. There wouldn’t have been a decade—as we also pointed out, and as you pointed out in one of our newsletters—of research behind mRNA vaccines such that at the point in time when it became utterly crucial to quickly develop a vaccine in the face of the threat of COVID, that work wouldn’t have been done, right? Because when those billions were being spent initially, they were highly speculative. There was no product. There was nothing for which they were solving—there were things for which they wished to solve, but there was no way for them to do so.
EV: I guess then it’s like, if you’re gonna go with that tack, they put money into mRNA because they thought, “Hey, we think it could do X, Y, and Z.” But all of the space money… Some of it, like you pointed out during the episode, is because we think we can do X, Y, Z. And some of it just seems to be like, “let’s go to space.” And I think it’s the latter spending that is the frustrating bit.
ZK: Interesting. So I think this is a crucial debate when we think about the ratio of resources that we deploy to solve for problems in the present versus resources we deploy to solve for problems in the future. And you know, that’s a mismatch in how we have dealt with climate change. It’s a mismatch in how we have dealt with pandemic preparedness, you name it. And I think the issue is always that money and resources being spent in real time that do not have a real-time application can always be seen as either wasteful or secondary or something that you could put off. It’s like deferred maintenance on a bridge, right? “We’ve Got things we gotta do right now. We we’ll get to that later.” And I’m concerned that if we don’t do it now, we won’t get to it later. And that there has to be, just like companies have to spend money on their own R&D for the next generation after the next generation, governments have to do the same sponsoring theoretical research that has no commercial application, right? Otherwise we have none of the pipeline that has made us so dramatically potent over the past 200 years.
EV: That is true. The what-if is a big what-if. And you don’t wanna shut us off from that? I’m gonna keep thinking about it.
ZK: So we’ll leave it with the question mark. Maybe we’ll continue this with our next conversations with another set of people.
EV: Or we could do a spinoff called What Could Go Right … In Space?
ZK: What Could Go Right In Space. That will be our bonus episodes for our podcast. Anyway, Gregg Easterbrook’s new book: The Blue Age. The rest of his books: all available, all viable, all obtainable, everyone should. They’re absolutely worth reading. And please sign up for The Progress Network newsletter, as always, if you haven’t already.
EV: Thanks everyone for listening.
If you wanna find out more information about The Progress Network and What Could Go Right?, please visit our website at theprogressnetwork.org. And if you want something other than gloom and doom when you open your email in the morning, you can also sign up for our weekly newsletter. It’S a roundup of progress news from around the world, and that’s at theprogressnetwork.org/newsletter. And please, if you like the show, if you could tell a friend, share an episode, leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, that would help us out a ton. What Could Go Right? Is hosted by Zachary Karabell and Emma Varvaloucas. The show is produced by Andrew Steven and edited by Jordan Aaron. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and the Podglomerate. Thank you so much for listening.
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