Chicken little forecast

Still Chugging Along

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.

Progress Check: Season 5 Recap

Featuring Zachary Karabell & Emma Varvaloucas

Are our fears about the future grounded in facts on the ground today? Will conflict and war wax or wane this century? And what global progress can we look to as examples of unexpected good occurring? Today, for our season finale, Zachary Karabell and Emma Varvaloucas reflect on lessons gleaned from this season’s episodes.

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, joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And this is our last episode of our season, although there will be only a short break between this last episode and the next season. So wrapping up this five, six-month season that we have had by looking back a bit at some of the conversations we’ve had and some of the themes that we have touched upon.

As always, just for those of you who are potentially new to listening to this, this is our attempt on a weekly basis to look at the world through a lens of, yep, you guessed it, what could go right rather than the chronic contemporary lens of everything that’s going wrong. And we do this, as we have said, ad infinitum and we’ll say ad infinitum in the future, not in any way to negate or downplay all the crappy things that are happening in the world at any given moment, but as a way of saying that juxtaposed all those crappy things are a lot of wonderful, inspiring, compelling things and people and ideas that we hope, trust, and plan to shape our future more than all the crappy things. Maybe that should be the new title of our podcast, could be Things Don’t Suck As Much As You Think.

But this is an attempt to say how you look at your present and what you think and believe about your future does have an intimate relationship to what that future’s gonna be. That we are all, as it were, in the process of writing our future, and that how we write that matters. And that if you write your future through the lens of intense pessimism and negativity, there’s a collective ability to talk yourselves into the very things that you fear most.

I don’t think we’re the first things to say this. We’re not the first to believe it. It is hard to prove absolute causation between contemporary aptitudes and future outcomes. But this is predicated on, I think, a pretty strong foundation of how you frame your problems and your ability to solve them has a lot to do with whether or not you’re able to solve them. So hence why What Could Go Right? in a world where we are all focused and tend to be focused on everything that’s going wrong.

So, Emma, what do you think were some of the more compelling themes that we talked about over the past I think 18 episodes.

Emma Varvaloucas (EV): All right, so I’m gonna go forward on the things suck, but maybe they don’t suck as much as you think they do, or they don’t suck as much as they could part of the intro. So I was thinking today a lot about our episode with Steve Inskeep. He’s an NPR anchor, and he had written a book about Lincoln. And what he mentioned on the podcast that I found really striking, which is—it was an answer to a question that you had where we are a little bit obsessed, a little bit less now than we were during Trump’s presidency, but we are definitely still in this era of asking and making parallels between the 1850s and like, “Are we headed for a Civil War?” question.

Audio Clip: I don’t think at this moment that we’re heading for a civil war, I don’t see how that would happen. The reason being is that I don’t really understand what it would be about. In the 1850s, there was this dispute over slavery, which was not only human bondage for 4 million people, as if that wasn’t enough to argue about. It was really an entire economic and social system of a large part of the United States, an economic and social system that the rest of the United States benefited from in different ways, even if they didn’t participate in it.

And so there were enormous, enormous questions about who belonged in society and who didn’t, how the economy should be organized or not, who should call the shots or who not. There were enormous questions to wrestle with. And even though we have profound differences today, it’s hard to see them as that same kind of division just because so much of it is propaganda and performance and attitude and cultural touchstones and preferred media, all of which become real in a sense. I mean, they mean something to voters and they drive elections and they drive our divisions and how we feel. But would that many people really take up arms, millions of people take up arms to fight about them? I don’t see that yet. I mean, the possibility of political violence. Yes. I mean, that’s always with us. And in fact, some kind of political violence is—almost any given year you could find something that would fall into that category in America. There could be more, there could be less. I’m not worried about a civil war in that sense.

EV: It was so striking to me because I feel like when I think about fear and the atmospheres of fear that I think Trump in particular engenders in a lot of people, particularly on the left in the United States, we end up talking about that fear without also taking in, in a sober-minded way, the constraints of reality, right? Like, as you say a lot, our fears of the future might come true, but we sometimes don’t adequately take into account what would be the barriers to that along the way. And do these fears that are kind of occupying our mind and taking up so much of our energy, do they even really make sense?

ZK: Yeah, I mean, I was struck as well both in our conversation with Steve Inskeep and last season in our conversation with John Avlon, who also wrote a book about the prelude to the Civil War that—

Look, the 1850s in particular has gotten somewhat more prominent in our contemporary mindset. Just like as I joked about with Jared Cohen in my interview with him, Grover Cleveland is suddenly weirdly relevant to Donald Trump, given that he’s the only other person who ran for office, lost, came back, and won another non-consecutive term. But the 1850s is a kind of harbinger of the most violent, divisive, existential crisis the United States has actually ever faced. And you have an emotional climate today that clearly has echoes of that.

But whether you have a structural one or whether or not we’re kind of overdoing it, I mean, certainly from Inskeep’s book and I think from our conversation, and certainly from my own historical perspective, there’s nowhere near the kind of divisiveness today that marked that period of time. There isn’t active willingness to fight to the death literally, or kill for some of these things. I mean, I’m sure that’s true for some people, right? But that’s always true for some people at any given time in any society.

I don’t even think we’re as divisive as we were in 1968. That was a big question in the summer of 2020 with the riots and George Floyd and the kind of tumble of pandemic land, whether or not we were coming apart at the seams, the way people felt in 1968, in that sort of radical summer before the Democratic Convention and Johnson stepping down and Kennedy and Martin Luther King getting assassinated.

And this is where I do think history is helpful in that before one gets too hyperbolic about the present, it does bear to remember how things have been in the past and how we have muddled through or navigated, or not, as the case may be. And I agree. I think Inskeep’s book was a reminder of yes, things can spin out of control in a way that leads to war and death and fighting, but the conditions for that are pretty unusual and extreme, and we shouldn’t be quite so quick to go down that path of fear.

EV: Right? And his other point was there’s not an economic system like slavery that we’re trying to dismantle when it comes to Trump and the fears around that and the fear around violence.

The other thing that I wanna bring up in relation to this is actually happening in Greece right now. I think it’s an interesting story that goes along this idea of, and sometimes the unexpected happens, which is that when Mitsotakis—he’s the prime minister of Greece, he’s center right. When he was reelected, I had a very emotional conversation with a friend of mine who was saying she’s really concerned, in particular about the gay community in Greece, how they’re treated, particularly on the right, particularly because it is an Orthodox Christian country. And that she was really upset when Mitsotakis got reelected. And I was telling her like, “Look, I’m not saying you need to be pro-Mitsotakis, but he did indicate that he was going to pass legislation for gay marriage in his second term.”

There are signs that that wasn’t just lip service because first of all, he’s on the right, so there’s no really need for him to say that unless he means it. And second of all, Mitsotakis is no fool. And he sees where the EU is going as a whole. He sees, I’m sure, that there are legal cases being made in the European Court of Human Rights where the European Court of Human Rights is telling EU member countries that don’t have gay marriage or that don’t have at least civil partnerships, that they’re gonna have to make sure that all their sit-ins have equality to stay in the EU. And he kind of saw where the wind is going.

And much like this conversation that we had with Steve Inskeep about Lincoln being very shrewd and making tactical decisions, I think Mitsotakis saw an opportunity here where he can get his country in line with the greater EU policies. And it’s politically expedient for him because I think he thinks he can control the cause on the right. And it kind of sticks it to the left here because they’re having their own breakdown right now about having elected their first gay party leader. The left is different than the left in the US. They’re not sort of pro forma gay rights. So they elected their first gay leader, and that kind of led to all these divisions in the party. So it’s a good moment for Mitsotakis to be like, “I’m gonna furnish my credentials as a moderate voice of both the right and the left.”

Audio Clip: Greece legalized same-sex marriage on Thursday, making it one of the first Orthodox Christian countries to allow them. The country’s parliament approved the bill with more than two-thirds of its 254 lawmakers voting yes.

EV: And I say that whole story, people might not be that interested in what’s going on in Greece right now, but I say that whole story in that, again, it behooves us to think about not just the facts that are pro our fears, but the facts that are anti, and to analyze them in this kind of cool-headed way.

ZK: Right. The fact that things often surprise for the best and not for the worst. And when you’re in a good mood, you somewhat expect those surprises. You’re like, “Oh, things will be fine.” But when you’re in a bad mood individually or culturally, it seems inconceivable that things could actually get better or improve or that people could surprise you by following—and we’ll shout back at Inskeep and Avlon—as Lincoln said, the better angels of our natures, right? And that is there. We tend to lose sight of it.

I mean, look, Greece, at the time of 2011 when they were potentially gonna be crashed out of the European Union because of the debt crisis, and you had the rise of the far right, like kind of the neo-Nazi far right in Greece, there was a palpable fear that that would be the next government, a kind of government that would make Marine Le Pen and the French far right look totally moderate by comparison. What were they, the Golden Dawn? Was that the name of the party?

EV: Golden Dawn, the infamous Golden Dawn slap, yes. [laughs] Not the Will Smith slap.

ZK: But I mean, yeah, they were like getting double-digit figures of the vote in a fractured coalition. That was 11 years ago, or 12 years ago. So I try to remind people of it’s astonishing how quickly things can change both from good to bad and bad to good.

And in the summer of 1989, there were plenty of people at Moscow State University getting their degrees in Marxist Leninist thought, who thought that they had bright careers [laughs] ahead of them as apparatchiks of a solid, maybe crumbling, but still stable empire. And that evaporated pretty quickly, much more quickly than people would’ve thought. And I just think, you know, things change. It never feels like they’re gonna change when you’re in the middle of it, but they really do, sometimes for the worse, for sure, but often for the better.

EV: Yeah. And there are real comebacks. I wish people would talk a little bit more about Poland right now. They had that wild, unexpected outcome where they got rid of the party in power that was super far right, and in fact, changing the laws of the game. And also people might not know that Jair Bolsonaro, there were so many January 6th comparisons made at the time of the riot in Brazil when he lost his reelection. Well, guess what? They just confiscated his password. Password? [laughs] They just confiscated his password.

ZK: [laughs] He can’t get into any of his-

EV: His government passwords. [laughs]

ZK: -computer accounts.

EV: Gmail locked him out. It’s really serious. They confiscated his passport. He is facing probes into that kind of, whatever the word is, uprising, coup, riot that happens. And he’s politically ineligible till 2030. I’m sure people are listening to this thinking like, that’s the dream. But anyway, there are these things that are happening around the world that probably deserve a bit more applause, you know.

ZK: Or this week, the election in Pakistan. I mean, this week, meaning as we’re recording this, there was an election in Pakistan where to the surprise of I think almost everybody, including the opposition party that was nominally led by Imran Khan, who’s in prison on trumped-up charges and ineligible to run, but his party won the most seats in the parliamentary elections. Now, I mean, they didn’t end up forming a government and things are still incredibly messy, but nobody predicted that particular outcome. And whatever you feel about Imran Khan, that outcome in Pakistan was definitely an efflorescence of youth democracy, full stop. There’s no other way to read that.

And just this week as well—Again, we’re recording this the week of Valentine’s Day week in the US. Indonesia had the largest democratic election in the world. It was orderly, peaceable, spread out over 200 plus million people and thousands of candidates. And whether you think the outcome was or was not the best outcome, it was clearly the most functional Muslim democracy in the world. So the two largest independent Muslim countries in the world went to the polls.

EV: Do you know that they dress up?

ZK: Yeah. They wear lots of really funky election day costumes, almost Mardi Gras-esque, in Indonesia.

EV: Yeah. I didn’t know that until recently.

ZK: I think we should dress up to vote, don’t you think? What are your thoughts?

EV: I think it’s the cutest thing ever when I read that article. It was like they’re really happy that they have a democracy after the dictatorship in what, the ’70s. And so they’re dressing up like superheroes and stuff at the polls and the election workers do that. And I’m like, “That’s definitely what we need in the US,” which by the way, the Pew Research Center did just come out with a poll about how Americans feel about elections right now. And the most popular thing was to make election day a national holiday. And that could totally go with the superhero Mardi Gras costumes.

ZK: Absolutely, absolutely. Note to self, write to your congressperson.

EV: We’ll be right back after this break.

Welcome back to What Could Go Right?

ZK: So what’s another theme we touched upon that we should harken back to?

EV: I think we should talk, although it’s such a painful topic, go back to our episode with Ian Bremmer on the Israel-Palestine conflicts, because it’s definitely one that is ongoing and just so much disappointment around the US’s and the coalition of Middle Eastern states to really get anything done yet as far as the ceasefire and a peace deal. Sentiments are very, very low right now about the possibility of that happening.

Audio Clip: This is the worst violence against Jews that we’ve seen anywhere in the world since the Holocaust after a lot of us have ignored the Palestinian issue for a long time. That’s a really big deal. That’s a really big deal. We’re kind of asleep at the switch. I think people need to understand that there’s a bank shot on both of these narratives, right?

I mean, look, lots and lots of Palestinians are gonna die, Palestinian civilians, and they’re gonna die because Israel is engaged in a military campaign in Gaza. That is the reality. But then there’s the second order reality that we need to understand, which is that Hamas is taking assertive actions to put those civilians at risk through bombs that don’t work but they’ll set them off anyway, through misinformation on campaigns on they’re about to bomb, no, they’re not, you stay where you are, on putting your military equipment and your leadership right where the civilians are. You cannot say that the Israelis are bombing the Palestinians and they’re the ones that are wholly responsible. You have to hold Hamas complicit.

Then you have the other bank shot, which is Hamas engages in terrorist attacks against Israel, which is completely unacceptable, and they must be condemned. And that’s absolutely right. But the reality is that Israel has refused to deal with the situation of basic human rights for Palestinians, especially in Gaza, for decades now. They’ve been ignoring it. And that’s led to greater radicalization. And it’s not like the Palestinians have the weapons that would allow them to fight against the IDF. They don’t. So, yes, Hamas targets civilians, but the alternative to targeting civilians is surrender. And so there’s a bank shot there.

When you’re involved in both of these second order meta conversations about Israel, in fact, nobody wants to have those conversations. We want a hero and we want a villain. And it’s very easy for me to say Hamas is the villain because terrorists are villains and I think Hamas should be destroyed. I believe that. I want them gone the same way I wanted Al-Qaeda gone. But that’s not the whole story. It’s not even close to the whole story. It might not even be 10% of the whole story.

ZK: So we talked to him right before the full Israeli invasion of Gaza. They were bombing, but they hadn’t yet gone in. And we did talk in that episode about a couple of things. One was just how ill-fated Biden’s literal bear hug embrace of Netanyahu right after October 7th would prove to be, which was clear at the time.

And Ian concluded, and I think we all agreed, that given the optics of the moment, it’s not really that Biden had much of a choice. He’d gone to Jerusalem and he was gonna show full support for Netanyahu as Israel’s leader, not necessarily as Netanyahu. And was planning to go to Jordan and sort of bring the whole region into some sort of concord. And then the hospital got bombed and the Arab leaders called off their meeting with Biden. So it just ended up being a one-sided embrace that seemed to be American policy for the next months. And to many people seemed still to be American policy and that that would create just immense problems for the region, for the United States.

But the other thing we did talk about with Ian that’s proved to be true was that there wasn’t much evidence of the rest of the Arab world spinning out of control, per se. Yes, there’s been a lot of collateral military actions with the Houthis, with the United States striking back against various Iranian-funded groups in Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. But for the most part, the Arab world and other governments have certainly not sided with or this has not become another let’s gang up on Israel from the Arab world perspective. Maybe that’s cynical. Obviously, they are abandoning the Palestinians in most fashion.

But in many ways, the conflict got much worse than we had—it got about as bad as we feared when we talked to Ian, meaning the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and the damage that Israel would do in invading Gaza. But it has not gotten worse in its geopolitical regional sense. I mean, yes, it has gotten worse in the Houthis and the Red Sea and all of that, but relative to the spinning out of control one might’ve thought, it has not done any of that.

EV: Yeah. Qatar and UAE are in there trying to negotiate terms for the peace deal. So yeah, I think-

ZK: As is Egypt.

EV: -you are right about that. As is Egypt, yeah.

That goes along with something I had in mind, which was this article from Vox by Joshua Keating, and he was talking about the struggle right now to define the world order and this feeling that people have, particularly around Israel, Palestine and Ukraine, that there is no world order. And he sort of put forth this thesis called neomedievalism that we are in a time of declining state order. And that has its downfalls, right? As I talked about with the peace deal and as you’re saying with Biden’s hug of Netanyahu, the US is not really throwing its weight around, I think, in a way that they might have 30 years ago or possibly could right now if we really wanted to.

And that means that there is more disorder. There are definitely flashpoints of intense conflict in places, but there is a very low appetite of big state powers going to war. And I think he’s right about that. Even Russia. He made the point that yes, Russia invaded Ukraine, but when there was a national conscription that Putin put out, 700,000 people fled the country.

And we talked about this in the previous season with Jessica Weiss that we would be hard pressed to imagine a lot of people in the United States willing to go to war with China over Taiwan. I think on the same token, it’s difficult to imagine a lot of Chinese people really wanting to jump into that military boat, even if it’s forced. There’s just a strong lack of will for going to war in these big state power ways. What do you think?

ZK: Yeah, I mean, there are people who have been keeping statistics of conflicts and violence over the past 40 years, intrastate and interstate. And those numbers have gotten worse in the past three or four years than they were for the 15 years prior. But they’re a whole lot better than they were for most of the 20th century.

It’s a little like when we talked about, and we’ve talked about a few times on these episodes, about crime and crime rates. Undoubtedly, crime got worse, ’21, ’22 in the United States post-pandemic or in pandemic than it was 2017, ’18, ’19, ’20. And in a few places like Washington, D.C., they remain pretty bad, but they’ve also improved markedly over the past two years. They’re just not as good as they were. And this is part of the cup half full, cup, half empty, what lens do you look at the world through?

There’s certainly never been a time when humanity has been at peace with itself, with each other, with our neighbors, with tribes that we don’t agree with. The intensity of that conflict has waxed and waned. We are legitimately focused on what’s going on in Gaza, what’s going on in Eastern Ukraine, but we’re not as focused about what’s going on in Khartoum in Sudan, which is way worse than either of those things just in terms of lives and displacement. So we are still, as it were, globally selective about what we pay attention to when we think about conflict. In those years when we thought things were more peaceable, they were not peaceable in large swaths of Sub-Saharan Africa or Myanmar.

So, I mean, I do think there’s a degree to which we remain selective about what we care about. Some of that’s tribal affiliation, some of that’s proximity. Ukraine matters a whole lot more to Germany than Sudan does. And maybe that’s totally legit, right? What’s in your back door matters more than what’s really far away. But we shouldn’t allow that to obscure a bigger picture, right? Which is that a vast portion of the planet lives at a level of security and peace that would’ve been historically unusual.

We’re not really neo-feudal. We might be neo-feudal in that there’s no governing imperial power to prevent localized conflict, but most societies live with a lot more rule of law and not of man, human man, than was true in any feudal period. We don’t have total promiscuous use of power. Maybe you do in North Korea, right? But looking for exceptions does not invalidate the rule.

EV: Yeah. Well, I think if people are interested, they can go check out the article. And I agree with what you said that, and he says this in the article too, that there are limits to the comparison. But it’s one way to think about. It’s a weird silver lining to the fragmentation of society, that was kind of his take, where these big countries just lack the social cohesion for all-out war, something that we usually amend, like, oh, fragmenting US society. But it is true. I think he points out that less than 1% of people in the US were involved with the Iraq war. It’s just something that’s on the periphery of society. And as you’re saying, we do live in the rule of law now most of the time in most places and would love to see war get continually pushed to the periphery.

ZK: And even what’s going on in the Middle East now when people are talking about, “Is this gonna metastasize into a regional war?” That question always lacked the who’s gonna fight whom, like what’s going on right now with the Houthis occasionally lobbing missiles across the Red Sea and interrupting shipping and militia groups funded by Iran and/or Shia groups in Iraq, lobbing drones and/or various deadly projectiles at Americans and others in the Middle East and Hezbollah and Israeli forces exchanging missiles and/or helicopter fire. That’s what a regional war spreading looks like. It doesn’t look like massed armies à la the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the US invasion of Kuwait in 1990, 1991. Those were big wars involving hundreds and hundreds of thousands of troops on both sides or the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

As you just said, there’s no appetite, let alone really cause or reason for that kind of conflict at that kind of scale, which makes the Russian invasion of Ukraine such a contemporary anomaly, a large well-armed state actually invading another country and then not doing so well. But that’s highly unusual in the world today. And sure, you could say, “Well, it’s a harbinger of a world that’s falling apart and now we’re gonna see more and more of that.” Maybe. Future fears are just that. Until they happen, they haven’t.

So what’s another episode that bears recall?

EV: So I would like to talk about Jigar Shah’s episode. I really liked this episode a lot. I love hearing about people that are doing the stuff every day with climate change rather than kind of freaking out. They’re just actually like, “Oh, let’s just jump into this thing and solve the problem.”

ZK: For those who may not have listened to the episode, Jigar is—

EV: The Director is his title of the US Loan Office in the Department of Energy. So he’s the guy that’s going to these companies that are developing the climate technology, the green technology, that needs to be boosted and that we all want in our lives in the future, and helping them make that happen with some government cash.

ZK: And I think as we pointed out in that episode, on the face of it, that particular title in the government is not the most prominent obvious one. And yet because of the vagaries of legislation and funding, these guarantees back up hundreds of billions of dollars of project finance for innovative energy companies leading to both energy independence and a less carbon-intensive future.

So it’s one of these things that go on in government that you largely are unaware of whose impact is way disproportionate to the attention that they receive, right? So the impact of these programs is massive. The attention they receive is minor and the amount of capital that it requires is less significant. Meaning they’re responsible for projects that will lead to hundreds of billions of dollars, but they’re not necessarily spending hundreds of billions of dollars. They’re loaning billions that, if done well, will actually make money for the government, right?

Yes, there have been a few spectacular failures and those during the Obama administration, like the funding of Solyndra, the famous energy company, new green energy company that went belly up. So it’s not riskless use of money, but there’s almost nothing that is riskless use of money. But if most of these go well, will actually make money for the government. These are like loan guarantees for companies that’ll be profitable.

EV: That’s the idea.

ZK: That’s the idea.

EV: And that’s the idea.

ZK: We’ll see.

EV: We’ll see. He had a couple good examples during the episode of what you’re talking about too. On top of people don’t really know what the Loan Office in the Department of Energy is doing, he mentioned this one example of even further down the chain, this organization called ASTM, they set the standards for things like cement. And he was like, “Nobody knows that they just changed the standard to allow innovative cement solutions to be legal.” Things that happen in Washington that absolutely no one wrote a news article about. Maybe one person in the policy journals. But those things matter.

And that was the other big takeaway for me from the conversation of how much of this stuff, even if there’s an administrative turnover, are kind of like baked into the system, that they’re gonna happen no matter what because there are all these little changes occurring at different levels of government, money flowing, bipartisan support, both from a government perspective and from a private business perspective, of clean energy. So it’s happening. I feel like it’s happening, guys.

Audio Clip: You know, some of the largest investors in carbon sequestration and storage technologies are the oil and gas industry. They don’t want that to go away. Some of the largest investors in battery technologies are large Republican donors. And so most of the factories that are being announced today are being announced in districts that have elected Republicans. And those folks are at the ribbon cuttings and they want those jobs to be created.

So I get the rhetoric and I’m not turning that sound off. I understand it, I hear it. But when you look at what we really wanna do as Americans is we want to have our technology commercialized here. For decades, we sent it to China on purpose for them to commercialize it. I think there is bipartisan support not to have it commercialized there, but instead to commercialize it here by tying it to the American worker.

ZK: As I’m sure Jigar would say off record, there’s a lot—if you do stuff in 2024 and then there’s a change of administration for next year, some of the momentum of these programs could certainly be halted or the focus could be shifted in ways that may or may not be productive. And there’s ample room for corruption in these programs, although they are certainly bounded by laws and guardrails about due diligence, which no particular administration could easily just run roughshod over no matter how much they may want to.

But as you say, there’s a lot of this that’s baked in to just how the bureaucracy functions. And while both of us, and certainly, I have been increasingly uncomfortable with the bureaucratization of both the administrative state and regulations, this is an example of them doing things quite well, mostly ’cause it’s saying, “Hey, we’ll find really innovative, good companies and support them.”

The regulatory framework is a much more—not hostile, but is a much more contested one where you essentially assume the companies you’re regulating are doing wrong and you’re trying to stop them as opposed to a loan guarantee program where it kind of assumes that the companies that you’re looking at are doing right and you’re trying to help them. And I wonder if there’s some way of marrying those two equally legitimate instincts, which is you want government to be a collective use of our energies in a productive way and you want government to be a collective use of our guardrails in a making sure society functions in a balanced way. I wonder if those two things can be a little more brought together so that you’re not just in a regulatory framework that treats the industry that it’s regulating with hostility, and then you have other parts of the government that treats the industry that you’re supporting with favor.

EV: Well, that’s the big bugaboo with people that want housing being built. On the left, their whole thing is that there’s so many environmental regulations that put a stranglehold on construction and permitting and zoning and this, that, and the other thing that it’s almost impossible to get something built. There’s these massive—forget Mitt Romney’s binders full of women, there’s binders full of environmental regulations, which on the face of it sound like a good idea, but there are a lot of people I know that would love to have a cheaper home that they could buy [laughs] if we could just build more houses easier, so.

ZK: Build more houses.

EV: Build more houses.

ZK: So do we have a final conversation we wanna look at?

EV: So final conversation and coming around full circle here to the US presidential elections that we just can’t get enough of talking about, wanted to give a quick mention before we move on to some of our good news of our recent episode with Adrian, who is the Secretary of State of Arizona running elections there. And I wanted to come back in particular to the conversation that you had with him, a little bit of a mini debate, it was nice, about why he is so adamant about making sure that people know that Arizona uses paper ballots.

Audio Clip: What we are doing is really coming back to basics. At the end of the day, that’s what this is really all about. We have always voted on paper ballots here in Arizona. We’re gonna continue to do that. That piece of paper is the physical manifestation of the voter’s intent to vote. We can preserve and protect that system and we can preserve and protect those ballots.

ZK: So yeah, he was clear that paper ballots are the way to go. And I definitely know a number of people involved in election reforms who are total technophiles and digeratis who are highly suspicious of making voting more digital because they fear that the security of digital voting can be compromised in a way that the security of paper voting cannot, meaning you can create procedures where it’s extremely hard to mess around with paper ballot results. And there are definitely scenarios where you can mess around with digital ballot results.

Although, again, as I discussed with Adrian Fontes, this is an ongoing debate, right? We clearly are able to make our financial transactions digitally secure enough that almost all of our financial transactions are now digital, right? I can do this without fear that my money is gonna be hacked or my passwords. And I think his pushback was, your contract with a bank is your contract with a bank, but voting is a public good and unless one can say a hundred percent that you can’t mess around with this, you can’t hack it, you can’t corrupt it, that the paper ballot, even in a highly digital age, is the most secure and trust-creating way of running elections.

And on this one, I’m not at all dogmatic. I hope I’m not dogmatic about anything in particular, but I I think it’s a legitimate pushback. It’s an interesting one in a world where everything is digital to say there are certain things that not only should be analog, but must be. And I would say that’s certainly true of interpersonal relationships, right? There has to be a physical, like you meet someone physically, you don’t just live digitally.

So the idea that maybe there’s this thing called voting that is both a public demonstration—you mentioned Indonesia, where it becomes a public—not just a a paper thing, but a public demonstration of democracy that we’re physically in a space doing something that reaffirms that this is who we are. And I think Adrian talked somewhat about that as well, right? That it’s not performative, it’s an actual—like human beings physically engaged in this activity jointly means something. And the trust in it, and the demonstration of it means something much more than I pick up my phone or my computer and I push a button, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything. And it’s certainly not collective and it’s certainly not communal. I totally get that and totally respect that. I just think maybe it’s worth pursuing the idea that there’s another digital aspect that we could use and help more people vote.

Audio Clip: The act of voting is a collective act by its very nature. The reason that we have elections is because we have differing points of view and we have to come to a common decision. It is one of the only spaces that we have where everyone’s voice coming together actually produces a singular result that then has an impact on everybody else. I mean, unless it’s the church choir, right? Then your voice and everybody else’s work together too. But from a civic responsibility perspective, it’s like you owe this act to your community. You’re making a decision for everyone, not just for you. It’s different with taxes, it’s different with mortgages, it’s different with all of the rest of the things. You’re making the decision for yourself and only you have to suffer the consequences of a bad decision.

EV: Well, that’s what’s kind of interesting about this is that the US did—I looked into this for our newsletter. After we had that conversation, I was kind of intrigued about it. And somebody wrote in particularly to do a newsletter edition on how do we know that we can trust the voting machines that we use? And I thought to myself, how can we trust? How do we know that we could trust the voting machines that we use? Not coming from it from a conspiracy theory perspective or a the election was stolen perspective, but just a simple, like, I’ve never stopped and asked myself that.

So I did some research, and the US actually went into this more electronic route, not from your phones. By the way, Estonia is the only country that has kind of tried to do a digital election like that, and it went really poorly. So we’re just not in the space for the technology I think to work well enough to be resistant against cyber-attacks and foreign adversaries and so on and so forth. But anyway, after the hanging chad debacle, the US had a bunch of states get electronic voting machines that did not have any paper record at all. So most people in the states at that time were using hand-marked ballots. Some of them are using those punch cards that caused the hanging chad debacle. And New York at the time was even using mechanical lever machines, which I thought was such a fun fact that that was still being used as late as 2000.

So, anyway, there was this big move to use electronic voting machines because they were “clearer result” than some of these paper options that would leave these little pieces of paper hanging off the punch. What they found after that was that these electronic voting machines were vulnerable to hacking because there was no paper trail in particular. If there was a question that arose after the fact, or god forbid at that time, if there had been optics about elections being rigged and so on and so forth, there was no way to verify it other than just trusting that the computer itself did what it was supposed to do. And they do run checks. They run checks on these machines before and after the elections. There’s lots of processes in place around them, but still, there was no paper trail that you could verify.

The US started moving away from that pretty quickly. So the only state that uses those machines exclusively is Louisiana. And they are actually changing that. They’re probably not gonna be able to do it by the time 2024 rolls around for the election, but they’re gonna do it as soon as they can. And in the 2024 election, nearly every American voter is gonna be voting either hand-marked ballots or on a machine that has a paper trail. So there’s been a decidedly paper-forward move that has happened in the US in the last 20 years. So I think you might be a course of one, Zachary. I’m sorry.

ZK: Oh, well it won’t be the last time.

EV: I do think it’s protective. It works in a practical sense. You can’t hack a hand-marked ballot, yes. But also, in as far as the trust and the optics go, I think it’s a very good protective mechanism.

ZK: Yep. All right. I mean, this may be something where the physical and the analog is simply unequivocally preferable to and a better manifestation of democracy than digital. But I guess we will see what a subsequent generation feels about that as most of their lives are lived in some sense digitally, not most, but a large portion of their lives are lived digitally. So will this be an exception to that, or will we envelop all of this into that in some way that we can’t quite yet envision? Let’s just stay tuned.

EV: Stay tuned. And I think there is some pushback happening to that already. Gen Z apparently isn’t on the dating apps anymore. They’re like, “Ew, swiping.”

ZK: Wow.

EV: So there’s some return to the past going on here.

ZK: That may be good. Ew, swiping might be a good thing.

EV: So that’s our wrap-up, I think, of the season. Are you ready to talk about some good news items?

ZK: I’m ready to talk about some good news items.

EV: We’ll be right back after this break.

Welcome back to What Could Go Right?

ZK: Hit us with the good news.

EV: Hit us with the good news. So I’m gonna talk a little bit about our newsletter this week, this week of Valentine’s that we’re recording, so it’s last week by the time everyone’s gonna be listening to this ’cause it’s a really cool text story. It’s also oddly wholesome. It’s very heartwarming. And that is the story of—let me not butcher this name ’cause every time I say it out loud, I do—the Herculaneum papyrus scrolls.

ZK: The sister city to Pompeii.

EV: Essentially, there was this massive villa that was owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. It got hit by the Vesuvius eruption, but the temperature of the volcanic blooms of gas were just right to kill everyone immediately that was alive but carbonize the papyrus scrolls that were in this villa in this big library. It’s the only surviving library from antiquity. And because the temperature was just right, the scrolls got carbonized then buried by this mudflow, which sort of like sealed the scrolls so that what was written on them was preserved.

They discovered this villa in 1750. And since then, they’ve been trying to be able to read the scrolls because they think that there might be unknown works by Sophocles, Sappho, Aristotle, all the big names. Could be a massive discovery. There’s 800 full scrolls that they’ve excavated. And they think there might be thousands and even tens of thousands of scrolls remaining still in the villa and the parts that they haven’t excavated.

But because these things were like charred logs, carbonized, stuck together, you can’t unroll them. When you unroll them, they just sort of crumble and get broken and fragmented. And no one’s been able to figure out what’s actually on them until January. Basically, what happened is that the former chief executive officer of GitHub, Nat Friedman, was bored at home during the pandemic. The Bloomberg piece on this story mentions that his house had also just burned down. So I think he was in a weird psychological state of mind. He teamed up with an investing partner and somebody from the University of Kentucky, a professor who had been working on the scrolls for 20 years, to offer this big cash prize to anybody that could figure out what was written on the scrolls. And essentially, what they did was figure out this tech to 3D x-ray the scrolls, take the information from the x-rays, and there’s tiny little scans that flatten them out.

And then the winning team end up developing a machine learning algorithm that can detect what they call crackle patterns. So it’s like the dried out ink sticks up from the page and they start to detect patterns in that that were Greek letters and Greek words. And they trained the algorithm on it to learn that the P, this is a R. I should say it in Greek. This is a rho.

Anyway, after 275 years of failure, the tech tools that this internet army of nerds, as Bloomberg put it, which I loved, did in fact decode the first scroll. They decoded 12 columns from one of those scrolls. And it turns out that it is a text from the Greek philosopher, [inaudible].

ZK: [inaudible]

EV: Philodemus is probably how you would anglicize that. [laughs]

ZK: Thank you.

EV: So, yeah, and it’s a little treatise about pleasure, like what’s pleasurable, what’s not pleasurable. And it is really neat because now they have figured out the tech to figure out what’s in all of the 800 scrolls that they have excavated. And potentially now there might be more political appetite to go and get the rest of them at the villa. And there could be some really serious historical discoveries there.

ZK: It’s like the, you know, be careful spending all this money decoding something you think is gonna be the fount of all wisdom and it just turns out to be like a laundry list or a-

EV: Yeah. [laughs]

ZK: -shopping memo, you know, “Please remember to pick up oranges on your way home” kind of thing. So at least it was a text of some interesting import, even if it was—philosophical texts about pleasure I think counts as quite interesting.

EV: Well, they’re definitely—The other words and stuff that they found on these scrolls were like, capers and purple [laughs] So there’s definitely some of what you’re describing. These scrolls that they found were kind of like lying around the villa. They haven’t actually found the main library yet. So imagine your house gets buried by a volcano one day and it’s like we’re finding these books that were just hanging around in your living room. The ones I have are certainly not the ones that are gonna be interesting to history, but the ones in the library might. The owner of the villa was a patron of Philodemus. And they think the apostle Paul had passed through the area recently and they think that there might be records of that visit. So hopefully it’s not just like, “I asked the servants to wash my toga today.” [laughs]

ZK: Please don’t dry clean. Oh, dear. Anyway, it was a great story you unearthed. [laughs] Sorry, dad pun. And it was definitely one of these, yes, it’s quirky and I’m sure people be like, “Why was that a good use of money?” But excavating who we were, oh my God, another [inaudible], has its own worth to try to understand the arc of humanity, which we’ve been doing for a long time and probably should continue to do ’cause it gives us some insight into who we were, who we are, and maybe some insight into who we will be, which is our own humble goal with this podcast.

So thank you all for going along with the ride for us for this particular set of episodes. We’ll be back in a few weeks with another set of episodes throughout the remainder or most of the remainder of 2024 a year that promises to be sedate and calm and quiet in the United States. And that we hope we will be able to add a note of everyone, take a deep breath, take a step back from the brink, and try to focus on other things than you might otherwise be focusing on.

So I wanna thank Emma for joining me on this particular trip, and thank all of you for coming along. Please send us ideas for the next set of episodes, comments, critiques, maybe even a kudo or two if that occurs to you. Not that we need it, but it’s nice to add to the mix. And I hope this finds you all well.

EV: A hundred percent. Thank you, Zachary.

What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.

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Meet the Hosts

Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas

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