“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Peter Thiel’s famous complaint hearkens back to the middle of the 20th century, when high economic growth seemed unstoppable and the future was filled with visions of moon bases, nuclear energy too cheap to meter, and yes flying cars. But in the 1970s, economic growth slowed down and the future suddenly darkened, now menaced by threats of overpopulation and runaway pollution. Except for a few brief years during the internet boom of the 1990s, the old dynamism and optimism have never returned.
In his new book The Conservative Futurist, American Enterprise Institute scholar James Pethokoukis investigates what he calls the “Great Downshift” of the past half-century — and surveys the hopeful evidence that a new burst of technological and economic innovation may be in the offing. Pethokoukis joins Brink Lindsey to discuss the book, review what’s gone wrong in both public policy and the broader culture, and explore (in the words of the book’s subtitle) “how to create the sci-fi world we were promised.”
Brink Lindsey: Welcome to The Permanent Problem Podcast. I’m your host, Brink Lindsey, a senior vice president at the Niskanen Center. Each episode, we take a deep dive into the messy and uncertain transition from mass affluence to mass flourish, exploring what I call capitalism’s triple crisis and the potential for rising above it.
On this episode of The Permanent Problem, I’m pleased to have as my guest, Jim Pethokoukis, a senior fellow and the DeWitt Wallace chair at the American Enterprise Institute, author of the must-read Substack, Faster, Please! Most recently, author of the superb new book, The Conservative Futurist: How to Create the Sci-Fi World We Were Promised. Jim, welcome to the show.
Jim Pethokoukis: Brink, thank you so much having me on. Delighted to do it.
Brink Lindsey: Absolutely. So I want to talk all about your book. But first, I want to focus a little bit on the author, a little bit of biographical detail.
Jim Pethokoukis: Oh, boy.
Brink Lindsey So when were you born and where did you grow up?
Jim Pethokoukis: I was born in one of the robust post-war decades, 1967. Grew up in the Chicago suburbs, a working-class neighborhood in the Chicago suburbs.
Brink Lindsey: And you have brothers and sisters?
Jim Pethokoukis: I have one brother who is still in the Chicago suburbs. And I’ve moved around a bit since there, Los Angeles to Virginia, back to Chicago, and now in the beautiful Washington, DC.
Brink Lindsey: And tell me about your parents. What did they do, and what was their politics? How did they produce a conservative futurist?
Jim Pethokoukis: Well, my father was from Massachusetts. Loves the Kennedys, loved them. He was certainly not a Republican by any means. I think he may have voted for Ross Perot. Was not a big fan of George Bush or the Bush family. He had a lot of political views. I don’t think he’d be easy to categorize at all because he loved the Kennedys. I think he also liked Ron Paul or something. Again, very hard to classify. And my mother certainly was not very political.
Brink Lindsey: Sounds like he had a soft spot for ornery outsiders, Ross Perot.
Jim Pethokoukis: Yeah, he was ornery. He was an ornery outsider, so he liked it.
Brink Lindsey: Just guys with the initial RP, maybe that’s it.
Jim Pethokoukis: Yeah. And my mother was a stay-at-home mom, and my father did many, many different things.
Brink Lindsey: So where did your conservatism come from? Were you interested in politics as a kid or did that come later?
Jim Pethokoukis: Yeah, I think it’s interesting because, so I’m Generation X, and sort of the stereotype of Generation X, I think, probably comes from the Breakfast Club, The Outsiders, and they don’t care about anything, and they’re whatever, and there certainly is like that Gen X stereotype. But then there’s also sort of the other one, which I think more of is like Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties, who saw the world around him in the ’80s and was thinking, “Wow, things are really getting better. America seems to solve its problems, the Soviet Union’s on the run, the economy’s booming. This is awesome.” And I was old enough to experience, to understand like how the country went off course in the ’70s Most people probably don’t know how embedded in popular culture was the idea that something had gone wrong. Like the idea of inflation in the 70s, they would joke about that like on sitcoms, and again, I was very aware of the early ’80s recession, and so when things turned around in the ’80s, to me it seemed like we had found the formula for peace and prosperity, which was sort of the Reaganomics, which was cutting regulations, and tax cuts, and having a strong defense, and having a very robust presence in the world. So that obviously made a huge impression. My family, which never did well, all I know is that we went from, during that recession, to like the local churches bringing us food to, by the late ’80s, my mother had enough money squirreled away to buy me a pair of Air Jordan sneakers. So that made a massive impression on me.
Brink Lindsey: Lived experience is a big deal. Okay. So I’m five years older than you, so my memories of the ’70s are a little bit more vivid, and I concur completely. The one thing everybody agreed on wherever they were on the ideological or whatever spectrum was that things had gone to hell.
Jim Pethokoukis: And they weren’t going to get better. I mean, that was a thing, like we have entered this period of decline and we needed to change our expectations, and that certainly made my natural personality. That notion never really appealed to me. Listen, despite my last name, I’m Dutch on my mother’s side, so I went to this very conservative Dutch reform school, and the notion that, and this actually wasn’t confined to there, you saw it elsewhere, among some people, Christians on the right, was like these were the end times. There were lots of books out about it. There’s a book called The Late Great Planet Earth that came out, which was always, you know, that dark times were ahead. But again, while that sort of was kind of fascinated the sci-fi aspect of my personality, I’ve always sort of been an optimist, and living that kind of life and that kind of experience, having those kind of expectations then informing your politics, I probably was never going to go that way.
Brink Lindsey: So you just mentioned your interest in sci-fi, which goes along with your conservatism, to bring us to the book you’ve written.
Jim Pethokoukis: That was an unintentional segue.
Brink Lindsey: So anybody who reads you knows you’re a sci-fi fan, and in particular a Star Trek fan. That comes up a lot. When did you discover Star Trek, in syndication in boyhood?
Jim Pethokoukis: Yeah. Now, people today, they take for granted the bounty, the vast bounty of science fiction they have at their disposal. It was certainly not like that. Starting in the ’70s, I caught Star Trek on syndication. It was probably in WGN in Chicago. And it was so much better, even though by the time I started watching it, it had been, it’s the case for some time, it still seemed light years ahead, no pun intended, of all other science fiction, the quality of the story, the seriousness which it took the genre. Yeah, so that’s what I would look forward to watching. And it also had an optimism, which by the 1970s you really stopped seeing in science fiction. It really was an artifact of the ’60s, both in sort of the New Frontier Kennedy-esque captain and James T. Kirk. But just overall, that whatever our problems were, we would solve them and we would go forward which again, by the ’70s, you just did not see in science fiction, which by that time had already taken a real sort of pessimistic dystopian turn, which, again, were neat, and I liked it, but that wasn’t going to inspire me.
Brink Lindsey: Yep, absolutely. So you went to college. You went to Northwestern, right?
Jim Pethokoukis: Yes.
Brink Lindsey: And you were in the journalism school?
Jim Pethokoukis: I was not. Later, I was a history political science major, and I eventually went back to the beautiful Medill School of Journalism and got a master’s degree in journalism afterwards, after working at an investment bank and this and that. So yes, I actually went back and got a very expensive journalism degree, not something I necessarily recommend to people today.
Brink Lindsey: And for your undergraduate studies, wasn’t Soviet politics one of your concentrations?
Jim Pethokoukis: Yeah. I was always very fascinated in sort of the Cold War and that rivalry. Obviously, that was a big part of the Reagan foreign policy agenda. And then of course, the fact that we thought we had a master stroke with this Strategic Defense Initiative, which was going to totally rearrange the balance of power, really attracted me because that’s like exactly the kind of thing. I’m like, “We’re going to solve this thing through, again, cutting the Gordian Knot with American ingenuity and Yankee know-how.” In fact, I think my final big thesis paper for the poli sci side was literally about the Strategic Defense Initiative, which I think I still have squirreled away somehow. But again, it all sort of really fit nicely to what I was interested in.
Brink Lindsey: Okay. So let’s just pause for a moment, though, and contemplate your early track record as a futurist. You major in Soviet studies.
Jim Pethokoukis: Yes.
Brink Lindsey: And you get a degree in journalism.
Jim Pethokoukis: It’s worse than that.
Brink Lindsey: The ball was just a bit cloudy.
Jim Pethokoukis: It’s worse than that because some people are like, “Oh, so you majored in Russian history?” I go, “No, no, no, no, no. It was Soviet politics right on the verge of the absolute collapse.”
Brink Lindsey: [inaudible 00:09:21] ’89?
Jim Pethokoukis: Yeah, I graduated in ’89. So really, it was amazing.
Brink Lindsey: [inaudible 00:09:27], right?
Jim Pethokoukis: Yeah, it’s a fun sort of self-deprecating joke I can make about myself.
Brink Lindsey: So walk us through your journalism career. I see as the high points, you started off in Investor’s Business Daily, off to US News & World Report, CNBC, Reuters. Tell us what was the most important or formative of those journalistic experiences.
Jim Pethokoukis: Yeah, I think what was really important is sort of when I got into it. So by the time I moved out to California and worked at Investor’s Business Daily, which was like the very much, much, much smaller rival to the Wall Street Journal, but it was at a time that we started to see the emergence of the internet revolution, and the stocks began to take off, and I focused a lot on technology stocks, stocks that were on the NASDAQ, and it really gave me sort of a ringside seat to all these companies going public, new technologies. Then when I went over to US News, again, I tend to focus a lot. I started off as covering the stock market, and I really saw the potential. I got caught up in like something has changed, something has fundamentally changed with the American economy, and I get to watch it and cover it. And you saw this also reflected, certainly saw it in Silicon Valley. I talk a bit in the book about Wired Magazine, which became sort of the preeminent, in a way, futurist publication at the time. And there was a broad notion that all those dreams of the ’60s, which seemed to have been delayed for a generation, all these colonization, and cures, and flying cars that, yeah, we had delayed, but by the late-1990s, we could see like that was the future which was obviously ahead of us. I mentioned I had kept this for years, which was the late-’99 decade-ahead forecast from Lehman Brothers, which was a very go-go, the digital economy is here, the late-’90s will continue forever, certainly for the next decade, and of course, even Lehman Brothers, they talk about bad futures, and they did not make it another decade. But certainly that was a massive disappointment that what seemed like finally we saw the blossoming of a new kind of economy and really a leap forward stalled out after that sort of internet boom, and certainly, that’s something I addressed in the book.
Brink Lindsey: So when did you make it to AEI?
Jim Pethokoukis: That was in 2011.
Brink Lindsey: Okay.
Jim Pethokoukis: They sort of reached out to me. I wasn’t necessarily looking for something, but the idea of working at a think tank and being able to focus exclusively on the kinds of things I was really interested in, because I was at Reuters at the time and I was doing commentary for their Breakingviews unit, which was kind of a mix of kind of economics, but really from like a Washington perspective, writing on policy, and just the idea of having a lot more control over what I did and also given my nonstop concerns about journalism and the viability of any journalist institution made going to work at a think tank pretty attractive for me.
Brink Lindsey: Okay, let me cover one more biographical detail.
Jim Pethokoukis: Sure.
Brink Lindsey: It’s worth noting you’re a Jeopardy champion. I’m deeply envious. So back in the late-’80s, when I started working, I became just a Jeopardy obsessive, and I watched every night, and I’ve got a head for trivia, and so most nights, I thought I would’ve won, and so I thought quite seriously that I should do this, I should apply and try to get on, but I’ll have to tell you, I was terrified of choking. I was terrified I wouldn’t figure out the controller, or I’d just have a brain fog at the wrong moment, or some question that I knew backwards and forwards, I would freeze on and I would make a fool of myself on national television. I couldn’t bear it. So my hat’s off to the man in the arena who had the guts to do it and who actually pulled it off. So that must’ve been a cool experience.
Jim Pethokoukis: I will say people think like you cannot prepare for it, like you know what you know. One, everybody who goes on that show absolutely prepares. They hunkered down with an almanac or what have you for weeks. And I’m sure a lot of people did what I did, which we created a mock-up of the controller and the clicker and just practiced doing that as we’d answer questions while watching it on TV, and that kind of muscle memory helps. I found that most people, certainly on that show, could have answered most of the questions, and it was really like answering first was a skill, and the people who went on to win like dozens and dozens of episodes in a row, they just got really good at that clicker. I mean, they knew the answers and maybe they were slightly better at knowing the answers, but they were just good sort of Jeopardy athletes.
Brink Lindsey: So when did you do that? What year?
Jim Pethokoukis: 2002, maybe? 2003? So it’s long enough behind that I shouldn’t even mention it anymore, but I’m glad when people do.
Brink Lindsey: Well, it’s interesting that you’re one of three Jeopardy champions I know from think tank journalism world. John Podhoretz.
Jim Pethokoukis: Yes, that’s who I was going to say.
Brink Lindsey: And Tom Nichols.
Jim Pethokoukis: Ah, excellent.
Brink Lindsey: A select group. All right, let’s turn to your book, The Conservative Futurist.
Jim Pethokoukis: Sure.
Brink Lindsey: Start with a process question. You churn out a whole bunch of content every week on your newsletter, and I assume you have other AEI duties. Where in the world did you find the time to do this?
Jim Pethokoukis: I did not take a like book break, a three-month sabbatical or something. I really started writing it, like probably a lot of people have books coming out this time, in the summer of 2020. I didn’t have to commute to work. That freed up a big chunk of time. And frankly, I was just so interested in the topic, and I just wanted to get my thoughts out there, and I also learned a lot while writing it. To me, it was really a labor of love that I didn’t mind spending time on Saturday mornings and Sunday mornings doing it, or even in the evenings. I just kind of wedged in when I could. I put it down for a little while, picked it back up. So I found the time.
Brink Lindsey: When did you start on the manuscript?
Jim Pethokoukis: Well, I started actually research and writing almost simultaneously, probably in the summer of 2020.
Brink Lindsey: Okay.
Jim Pethokoukis: I think I turned in a final manuscript in January of this year. Again, I put it aside for a while, then I went back. So actually, the whole publishing process was very condensed because I really wanted to get it out in 2023 because that was the anniversary of what I call in the book the Great Downshift in US technological progress and productivity growth, 1973. So I wanted to get it out this year, and when I finally found a publisher, I’m like, “Let’s just accelerate it,” and everything was probably done, again, in probably half the time as would normally take.
Brink Lindsey: Good. So let me offer my take on what the book is all about.
Jim Pethokoukis: Sure.
Brink Lindsey: I see it as an extended take on Peter Thiel’s famous complaint, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” So basically, start off in the middle of the 20th century, the American system of technological dynamism is pumping in all cylinders. The dreams of kids like me who were growing up in the 1960s were full of moon bases, and flights to Mars, and underwater cities, and nuclear-powered everything, and of course, flying cars. But then, sometime in the early-1970s, you put it in 1973 just now, things changed. They changed dramatically and for the worse. We put footprints on the moon, but then we stopped going there. We developed supersonic airplanes, but then we stopped building them. We tamed the power of the atom, and then we stopped building nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, more broadly, productivity growth slowed to a crawl, as did the ability to build anything new in the physical world. You call this abrupt negative change the Great Downshift, which I think is with a nod to Tyler Cowen’s similar concept of the Great Stagnation. So the point of the book, as I see it, is to describe how this Great Downshift came about, why we may now be coming out of it, and what we can do to increase our chances of doing so. Is that about right?
Jim Pethokoukis: I think it’s about right, but hearing you say it back to me really reminds me how as I started to write the book in 2020, it was far more of a lament than probably what it turned out to be, because over that time, over that time, things have started popping a little bit and I was able to really… I’m glad the book took a little while to, I think, eventually write and find a publisher, which when I did was fantastic because then I could begin to see what was happening with SpaceX, and that we actually saw these CRISPR cures begin to go through the approval process, and obviously AI, which the unleashing of ChatGPT in November 2022 really helped, I think, cement the book and really give it a purpose, showing that like this is possible. Whether or not this technology, I hope, turns out to be as important, like I think now we see the seeds of where this doesn’t just have to be about a slowdown and a future loss. It could be about a future that we can regain.
Brink Lindsey: That’s interesting and surprising to me. I would’ve thought that you would’ve started with the optimistic frame from the get-go, but the the original title was Lost Future. Oh, wow. Wow. So when did you realize that we had gone into a Great Downshift? I will say that I read Tyler Cowen’s Great Stagnation when it came out in 2011, and I was not persuaded at that time. At that time, I saw the productivity growth crash of the ’70s and ’80s as kind of a temporary aberration, and then we had come back in full glory in the ’90s, and now we were in the recession, and that was a lot of volatility, and who knew what was happening? So it took many years of very disappointing post-recession melees for me towrap my head around the fact that yes, the real continuity here is from ’73 to the present of slow productivity growth, and we had this little ten-year or less-than-ten-year mini boom in the ’90s. So it took me well into the teens to wrap my head around this kind of pessimistic story of the past 50 years. Were you on the same kind of timeframe or did you get there faster?
Jim Pethokoukis: Yeah, I was certainly hoping that, and I thought that the global financial crisis shows just so scrambled everything that it was going to take a while for the statistics to say something meaningful about what was going on. I mean, we’re seeing the same thing with the pandemic. And then when we saw certainly the smartphone giving so many people, humanity a supercomputer basically in their pockets, like surely there would be a massive impact from that that would go far beyond ride-sharing and Airbnb, though I certainly saw those as hints of things to come, ideas which people had had earlier certainly but weren’t able to do like in the ’90s because they lacked the bandwidth and the smartphones, but then we just didn’t see it. You really didn’t see it in the data. The argument that all we were getting out of this was really social media, which I certainly don’t think is unimportant and people find valuable, but that was not going to be a game-changer. That was not doubling the pace of the economy, and that was not… During the whole period, we kind of went backwards with less capability of going to the moon, for instance. We had to depend on the Soviets to get into orbit. Yeah, so I think the timeline was pretty similar. Pardon?
Brink Lindsey: They were the Russians by then.
Jim Pethokoukis: The Russians. I’m stuck. I’m stuck forever in the Cold War. So if I was going to point to a single thing, it’s like wow, during the pandemic, the ability to turn out these vaccines so quickly I thought was that we can still do things, and I certainly was hoping and continue to hope that people will eventually look at that as, and I mentioned this in the book, we’ll draw a lot of lessons from the pandemic, the power of technology, the ability to, like it’s really important to be a rich, technologically-advanced country when things happen. Preparation will get you only so far, and the ability to produce and innovate on the fly is really important. I’m not sure people have yet to draw that lesson from the pandemic as we’re still sort of hashing it all out, but I remain optimistic.
Brink Lindsey: So in the course of the book, you argue that the main axis of conflict during this period hasn’t been between the political left and the political right, but rather between two tendencies that you call Up Wing and Down Wing. So explain those and tell us about the man who coined those terms because he’s an interesting guy.
Jim Pethokoukis: Yeah, so the notion, again, it’s a play on left-wing and right-wing, and it was developed by a guy who eventually started calling himself FM-2030, who is a transhumanist, which I’m not a transhumanist, but he was a transhumanist, and he wrote a book called UpWinger back in the early ’70s, saying that there’s a different way to look at politics, which is people who sort of looked to the stars, looked to the sky, looked to the future and thought that using technology, we could solve all the great problems. And then there were those who didn’t look to the sky, who just sort of, I guess, looked into the dirt and thought like, “We should not take the risk.” It was not worth taking these kinds of risks. The downsides were too great, the potential for disaster was too great. We didn’t have the wisdom or the capability to usetechnologies to solve our problems. Those two themes are sort of reoccurred and really framed the debates in a much better way than left and right, Republican and Democrat, and I think you could see it… I mean, the example I harken back in the book is certainly the debate over nuclear power, but boy, you really see those themes and the way of looking the world. You really see it now with AI, in which you have folks like myself who are like, “Wow, finally.” Like my whole life has been during the Great Downshift, in this stagnation. Now, finally, we may have figured out a way to kind of innovate our way out of it, and other people are like, “Oh, the jobs, we’re going to lose the jobs. And after we lose the jobs, then the robots will decide they don’t need us, and then that’s when the great purge of humanity will begin.” And almost from the get-go with ChatGPT and generative AI, we’ve seen, you know, the media tends to focus more on one than the other, but we’ve seen those two themes sort of reawaken, and obviously, they have never gone away, and I imagine that’s going to be the great sort of conflict in my professional life for the rest of it.
Brink Lindsey: So this Up Wing versus Down Wing opposition is very similar to the dynamism versus statism dichotomy that Virginia Postrel drew in her late-’90s book, The Future and Its Enemies. So had you read that book?
Jim Pethokoukis: Indeed, I have. I know Virginia well. When the book came out, my book came out, we did a little bit of a road show, incidental, accidental road show where we did a lot of forums and panels with each other. A very influential book, which I would also recommend buying though if you already haven’t. It’s a fantastic book.
Brink Lindsey: So you don’t ignore the left-right distinction because, after all, you call the book The Conservative Futurist, but I have to say that your brand of conservatism differs fairly starkly from the main varieties currently on offer. I’ll list a few of your heterodoxies. You’re in favor of doubling government R&D, you think vaccines are good, you support urban density, you’re pro-immigration, you’re for investing more in public education to improve teacher quality, you talk about improving the safety net, maybe with a basic income, maybe with wage subsidies, and you favor big government projects like colonies on the moon, or observatories on the moon, or space elevators. So what kind of conservative are you, and do you feel that the distance between you and sort of the center of conservative opinion has grown over the past decade or so with the rise of populism, or do you feel like that the conservative futurists are legion on the right?
Jim Pethokoukis: I don’t think they’re legion on the right. I feel very comfortable making that statement. I mean, certainly, again, speaking of titles of books, I can certainly see a scenario where the book was just called like Up Wing, but I do still self-describe myself as a conservative. I work at American Enterprise Institute, certainly what’s called a conservative think tank. And so I guess it was truth in labeling and it makes kind of for a fun tension, the notion, because people think of conservatives, at least certainly the general public, as people want to keep things the same, they look backward, certainly the sort of populous variety, a lot of nostalgia for an imagined version, I think, of the 1950s and ’60s for the kind of like nuclear family and a kind of a pre-1965 racial makeup for the big immigration opening back in the ’60s. But my version of conservatism really is about preserving something, but it’s not about sort of preserving like the way America looked in 1955 or 1963. It’s about preserving, I think, the liberal inheritance of the past that said something about individual rights, personal freedom, economic freedom, markets. That inheritance, that sort of liberal inheritance is what I want to sort of not just preserve but hopefully build upon and then bequeath to the futures. That’s the future part. I think those are the pillars, I think, upon which a better world can be created, better than this one, a better country, and I would like to reinforce those foundations, which may be crumbling in spots. And again, I think Burke talked about this connection that we had, this connection being the past, present, and future, and that’s the connection. So that’s like, you know, you joke like I did a bad job of predicting the fall of the Soviet Union. Well, my future [inaudible 00:28:10] about predicting the future. It’s trying to use those tools and policies, which I think sync nicely with that philosophy to build a future that we would want to live in, an organically bottom-up based on all our decisions, not with the department of the future in Washington DC, where everybody on the 10th floor is in a big room with giant video screens and looking at like demographic trends and now we’re planning the future, but by our decisions and government doing the kinds of things that it can do well and hopefully do better in the future, that we can really create a great future if we just start making some better decisions.
Brink Lindsey: So you have some fellow travelers on the center left who these days are focused on trying to revive technological and economic dynamism and clear government obstacles that are standing in the way and revive government capabilities that are needed to make the push. So we call these folks the Supply Side Progressives. Is it a movement? I don’t know. For sure, it’s two guys. It’s Ezra Klein and Derek Thompson.
Jim Pethokoukis: Before you get three people, you need two people, so there you go.
Brink Lindsey: But they’re prominent and articulate spokesmen for their ideas, and I think that there is uptake and there is, I think, on the center-left, there has been a real shift on housing towards the [inaudible 00:29:43] and recognizing that government regulatory barriers are actually thwarting progressive goals of housing affordability, and on energy, the exigencies of making a clean energy transition are now making people on the center-left recognize that these days, environmentalism doesn’t mean stopping everything from getting built. It means building new stuff, new cleaner, better stuff, and building it in a hurry so that the whole mindset of Down Wing environmentalism is at odds with the needs of cleaning up the environment and dealing with climate change. So there is, I think, a real movement there on the center-left. So do you see real sort of kindred spirits there, or is there like something standing in the way that keeps you from really teaming up with folks like that?
Jim Pethokoukis: You know, you got to take your friends where you can find them, and I would love if these friends would admit some culpability in creating a world where it is very hard to do things in the real world. But such as it is, part of the book, I talk about the creation of like this Up Wing, pro-abundance party. I think that’s unlikely. I think we will remain, be a two-party system. I just hope the bits of both parties can be bigger, that look at immigration as an asset, immigrants as an asset, and look at trade as a good thing, that those parts of those parties could get bigger and work together frequently. So I hope that there will be more issues. Listen, boy, if folks on the right and left can work together on something like housing, that’s not an insignificant thing. That is a major thing to be of sort of more of one mind about housing, or energy, a pretty significant. Like I think you can disagree about the optimum capital gains tax rate or funding of the ACA. I tell you, you can hash that out, but boy, if you get like housing and energy pretty much correct, that is fundamentally, I think, going to matter more, whether the top tax rate is 42%, 49%, 52%. I think those things matter, but all that other stuff, how people live, the energy flowing into their homes, again, get those big things right, and those other debates, well, we can worry about them when we have them.
Brink Lindsey: So in your historical narrative, you describe sort of Up-Wing America 1.0, this period from the mid-’50s to the early-’70s, as it serves in your narrative as the kind of golden age from which we fell. Do you have personal memories of that? You were only six when the Great Downshift started. This is all from reading for you or just from childhood memories of the ’70s and recognizing that the ’70s had felt like a falling off?
Jim Pethokoukis: Well, yeah, you’re right. I don’t have a lot of personal memories. And I think it’s important that when we talk about like
Brink Lindsey: I’m like a few years older than you, so The Apollo 11 moon landing, I was seven years old, and it completely rocked my world. It was absolutely a transformative event for me. And my dad subscribed to Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, and every month, the new issue would come in, and they were always about flying cars, [inaudible 00:33:14], something like that. So I was absolutely in that world, and that’s what… Of course, I wanted to be an astronaut, I wanted to be the first man on Mars. So then the ’70s to me just felt like a total existential betrayal, right? The future that I had grown up, my little boy dreams got dashed quickly.
Jim Pethokoukis: Well, I think my first memory of any kind of major event was probably Watergate, because I think Nixon ended up resigning as we were on a trip to Wisconsin or something. Though I certainly have a very clear memory of the Mars landing. But I think it’s important that when we talk about the 1960s and nostalgia, to me, it is not nostalgia for like the world of the 1960s. To me, it’s nostalgia for the attitude, and the expectations, and the hope. That’s a difference, I think, between what I’m talking about and sort of the populace, particularly on the right, but you also have them on the far left, that that world is not a world I want to return to. For a lot of people, not a very good world at all, a world of a lot of discrimination and a lack of opportunity. But what I like is like the optimism people had, and it’s stunning that it wasn’t just sort of like your public intellectual futurist sci-fi writers, Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, who saw great things, but everybody did. There was a wonderful conference I write about where you had CEOs, government officials, think tankers, and they all pretty much agreed that like the buoyant economic of the ’60s, like that was locked in, so we could worry about other things. As long as we didn’t end up killing ourselves with nuclear weapons, that growth and all the things that would stem from that growth and that progress, that was just going to happen. And there’s a very famous book, Future Shock by Alvin Toffler in 1970, that growth was going to be so phenomenal, it was going to drive us all nuts, that that was going to be the problem. But the real future shock was like we didn’t get it.
Brink Lindsey: My favorite parts of your book where you went and dug up these old RAND Corporation and Hudson Institute projections of life in the 21st century, and they really are, they are hopped up on Jetsonsmania, right? They have drunk the Kool-Aid completely. It’s just astonishing to read, not just hypesters, but buttoned-down, serious, sober analysts who just saw that we were on a completely different trajectory than the one we ended up on, but
Jim Pethokoukis: Atomic age plus space age working together. There was nothing that we couldn’t do. So yeah, I always like to be clear that while I talk about those decades, I don’t want to go back to them.
Brink Lindsey: Sure. There’s a TV series you talk about you’re a big fan of, I am too, For All Mankind, where one little quirk of history basically stops the Great Downshift from happening, not completely, but significantly, right? And that is that the Soviets beat us to the moon, and therefore, we don’t stop the space program and we don’t basically surrender our technological dynamism, we keep competing, and that process just changes history in a whole bunch of different ways to keep the whole ball rolling. I don’t think that one thing would’ve been enough to forestall things, but it is a wonderful bit of counterfactual history and a very fun series.
Jim Pethokoukis: Yeah. Yeah, I tell you. I mean, I think there were sort of external macro reasons that caused that downshift, and to some extent we’re still contending with, which is these sort of great inventions of the past. We had sort of extracted the big gains out of the internal combustion engine. Everywhere we can put a internal combustion engine, we have one. Or electrification, every factory has electricity and uses it. So we need to come up with new stuff, new things that would further push forward our economy and our civilization, and I think we underestimated the difficulty of doing that, especially the difficulty of doing that when you don’t want to spend as much money on basic science, when you make it very difficult to innovate in the real world, which are two really bad decisions. So I think you have these other factors which have always happened. What we had control over, again, were our responses to this sort of changing macro situation. It took us a while to figure out that something had gone wrong, and once we did, I think we just underestimated the task ahead of us. Because listen, we’ve had presidents talk about we need to grow faster, and we need to have this revolution, and we need to have hydrogen cars. But what we really needed was sort of a whole of society recognition and effort to create a much more prosperous future. Like there were a lot of things that needed to be done, and our efforts just, I think, weren’t up to the task, as much as I love lower tax rates.
Brink Lindsey: So that’s one part of the picture, right? Which is that growth got harder, and it got a lot harder than we thought it was going to be, and part of that is, I think, I buy the story that Robert Gordon tells in The Rise and Fall of American Growth, if that’s the correct title. Anyway, basically in the late-1800s, early-1900s, we developed a whole series of general purpose technologies, electricity and general combustion engine, plastics and modern material science, and you’ve got film and TV, just a whole host of innovations that then spread out into developing multiple industries, right? That they opened up terrain for entrepreneurial exploration and commercialization, whole continents for entrepreneurs to explore and settle. Whereas in our era, we’ve had one big one, right? The information technology revolution. So growth has been harder because we’ve exhausted the low-hanging fruit of the industrial era and we haven’t quite gotten to grounds quite as lush and full of opportunity as the ones we previously exploited. So that’s part of it. But then there was a real intellectual turn, turbocharged by the environmental movement, but with much deeper roots than that, and that is, so you and I both think of ourselves as technological optimists, but neither of us believes that means that there’s no downsides to technology and that technology can never come back and bite us, right? But in that sort of height of technological optimism in the 19th century where the ideal of progress was at its most widespread and most naive, just the idea, it’s all upside, just all upside. That got crushed in the trenches of World War I, to see industrialized slaughter did a number on the Western mind that we’ve never really recovered from and that called into question progress with a capital P in a big, big way. Then our follow-up acts were the Holocaust and the development of the nuclear weapons that could destroy all of humanity. So this idea that technology has a dark side only got emphasized over the course of the 20th century. Then in the ’60s, you had this dawning recognition that we had really befouled the natural world in the process of getting rich, and you allude to the Santa Barbara oil spill as a big sort of zeitgeist-shifting moment, and I remember all those, the TV footage of the birds covered in oil and everything. So there was just a real turn, an anti-technology turn. In my Substack, The Permanent Problem, I refer to this as the anti-Promethean backlash, that a real intellectual opposition to technology, technology is hubris, it’s Dr. Frankenstein creating the monster, we’re dabbling in powers we’re not mature enough to handle, we need to calm down, and slow down, and live smaller and humbler. So that was a huge intellectual development in the ’60s and ’70s and one that you and I both decry completely, but I’m not sure it was avoidable. It seems like it was almost inevitable.
Jim Pethokoukis: I think probably a correction was unavoidable. I certainly think an environmental movement where people begin to focus more on the downsides of progress and new technologies. I mean, that’s almost a universal finding that as countries get richer, they begin to think about not just we have to build factories, but what that factory is spewing out into the local rivers. But did we have to have not just this version of an environmental movement, but this level of an overcorrection for this long? I mean, I certainly think like that intellectual backlash, I think, added like an unholy merging with our popular culture such that today, when we have a new technology which could solve a lot of problems, the cultural touchstone is the Terminator movies. In every story you’ll see about AI, they’ll make maybe just a glancing reference or maybe just an image to illustrate the story of a killer robot. So I think it was really the merging of these two things in a unique way and a sustained way is such that even with these new advances, Hollywood’s ignoring the upside. On Apple TV+, there was a miniseries called Extrapolations, which they extrapolated the environmental, the climate change, but there was nothing in there about nuclear power at all. It just didn’t make it into their worldview. So it’s going to take, I think, a while, if ever, the change. But yeah, I think the deep question is not like why the downshift happened, it’s just like why it was so sustained. And I do think these cultural things matter. It’s not just like what our officials did in Washington, but what we believe as a society.
Brink Lindsey: Oh, I agree. I agree profoundly. You know, you can picture. It’s theoretically possible to imagine an environmental movement that arose and said, “Hey, man, we’re messing up the planet,” but that’s a technological problem, and there’s technological fixes, and so we just need to buckle down, and the solution to technological problems is more technology and let’s keep going. So one can imagine an Up Wing environmental movement led by Hudson Institute visionaries and so forth. But for that to have happened, the other side of the environmental debate, the big business lobby would’ve had to be on board with that, which it wasn’t, right? It was really, “We don’t really have environmental problems. All this cleanup is going to bankrupt us.” So you had this thesis and antithesis and the synthesis, which is that there really are environmental problems, they really are serious, and we really have to deal with them, but not by wearing a hair shirt and giving up on capitalism, but rather by turning capitalism up to the next level. That synthesis, there’s no way it could have emerged immediately. So I agree, it’s taken infernally long, but it had to shake out over time.
Jim Pethokoukis: Well, I certainly think… Right. So you had simultaneously sort of this loss of trust due to the Vietnam War and then Watergate, as I mentioned earlier, in the idea that these elites had our best interests at heart, that we could trust them, and certainly the argument against the Vietnam War became arguments against big everything, the universities, government, the businesses who are building the weapons, with some technological thinkers back then called like the Mega Machine, that all these parts are all sort of conspiring together to create an America, an artificial America we really wouldn’t want to live in. At the same point, boy, if we would’ve just got the nuclear part of it right. If we would’ve got that part right, and other countries, they got it more right, France, for instance, I think that alone, if we could have taken climate change sort of off the table as part of the debate, I think things would’ve been better. I think if we would’ve followed up Project Apollo with project something else big and amazing, and there were some ideas, I think that would’ve helped. And I also have to admit that how little the kinds of regulatory issues I talk about just were not major items on the people you would trust to deregulate folks on the right. I mean, there have not been presidential candidates saying, “We need to change the National Environmental Policy Act,” you know, NEPA, like they have not been calling for that. So I think there was a failure there as well. But I hope now that, and you mentioned some of the supply side progresses, that there is a recognition that whatever you want to do in this country, you can’t do it, if it involves the real world, you can’t do it, and part of that is removing barriers, and part of that is also doing the things that I hope most people on the left and right can agree on, like government doing more science, like that’s something it should do. Let’s do more of that.
Brink Lindsey: So you’ve got growth getting harder, then you’ve got this ideological reaction, then I think really diffusely, you have this cultural turn under conditions of mass affluence. I call it loss aversion.
Jim Pethokoukis: Yeah.
Brink Lindsey: That we’ve got a lot of stuff, we don’t want to lose it. It’s really unusual now for somebody to die young, it’s a tragedy and awful, and so we really, really want to take care of our health and don’t want to die prematurely because our expectations are so high. So there has been a dramatic turn, and again, I can chart it over the course of my boyhood. I told my kids when I was bringing them up that I grew up back before we invented safety, no seat belts, and riding in the bed of a pickup truck, and monkey bars, and jungle gyms, and candy cigarettes, and all the rest.
Jim Pethokoukis: Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Similar experience.
Brink Lindsey: To me, that feels like so deeply ingrained in just as a consequence of our success, that you and I want American society and American technological establishment to continue to be lean and hungry, but for it to be as lean and hungry as you and I want it to be, it needs the support of a broader lean and hungry culture that I’m not sure exists or can ever be revived to your and my satisfaction.
Jim Pethokoukis: Right. I mean, I think the wisest prediction will be that nothing will much change. Maybe a little bit, but nothing will much change. That’s always a very good prediction, a very safe prediction. But I think there are factors at play here which give me more hope. I mean, to me, there is no more effective argument to make in Washington DC right now as, “We need to do this because we are now involved in a life and death global struggle with a geopolitical rival far more capable than the old Soviet Union, which is China.” Do you want this to be the Chinese century? What is that going to look like? So fine, we won’t spend any more money on R&D. We’ll make it hard to build nuclear reactors. Fine. Guess where it’s not hard to do that stuff? China. You’re handing it to them. I think it’s an easy argument. Some people would call it a cheap argument. I think it’s an effective argument, and I think people will continue to make it. I think that is a tailwind. I think the realization that if we want to do something about climate change, if you think there needs to be some sort of energy transition, that what we have is an inability to build clean energy problem. I think that is a tailwind. The people who don’t care about China, may they care about the climate, and for them, they come up with a new path forward, which to me seems far more likely than telling people to live less well and telling poor people in the world, “You’ll never live like we do.” That to me, that’s a dead end. So I think if you’re concerned about climate change or these geopolitics, I think those are two very, I think, compelling arguments and compelling tailwinds. Then of course, for the people like me, I don’t need much convincing, but the ability to deal better, whether for a big existential risk, whether it’s a pandemic or a giant comet headed toward Earth. Listen, if I ran for president, Brink, if I ran for president, on that top-five list would be planetary defense. I know not everybody would think that, but I think that’s extremely important. So I think there are these tailwinds, and maybe the greatest is, listen, we just saw what it’s like. We’ve seen a sense of what it’s like, what this country looks like after a decade of very slow economic growth. It’s not a pretty picture. And I talk a lot about the ’60s. In the ’90s, we had rising inequality, but there was not the sort of obsession about it because the economy was booming. It really was a rising tide and lifts all boats, and to me, that shows that if you think your life is getting better, you’re not going to care quite so much that some people’s lives are getting better faster.
Brink Lindsey: So I agree with you that geopolitics and climate change can both be forcing agents, that they can sharpen the incentives to get serious about technological dynamism. Of course, that could be also a setup for failure, but I see them as absolutely capable of galvanizing at least narrow business and technological elites to focus on these pressing problems. Whether they’re powerful enough to produce the kind of deeper cultural changes that I think would produce a genuinely pro-progress culture, that I’m more doubtful of. And so what I see is I’m persuaded that there are a bunch of dazzling new technologies on the horizon, and at least some of them are going to pan out, but I worry that on the cultural side, the dysfunctions that we have developed will mean that even though we have a very hightech society, it will be a much less progressive and well-accomplished and flourishing society than it should be with all that great tech. So on my Substack, The Permanent Problem, my thesis that I have explored in essay after essay is that capitalism has succeeded in producing mass material prosperity, but translating that into mass flourishing, what we might call mass spiritual prosperity, hasn’t gone nearly as well, and a big reason for that in my telling of the story is that mass material prosperity induces various cultural responses that end up leading away from flourishing. They lead away from the dynamism, we need to keep technological progress rolling, and they lead away from the inclusiveness, that it meshes our lives and those strong personal connections that give us purpose and meaning. So I see this right now, this kind of contest between our technological wizardry and our cultural dysfunctions. The wizardry brings wonderful new possibilities into reach, and then the dysfunctions grab them away. And I’ll give you just a couple of recent examples. So we’ve talked about both of them. In 2020, we invent a miracle mRNA vaccine in a weekend, right? So all the experts were saying it’s going to take years, but they did it in a weekend, right? It took months to test it, but they had it in a couple of days. But then hundreds of thousands of people died anyway because they swallowed some insane conspiracy theory and refused to take the vaccine. So their technological wizardry gives us the miracle, and yet our culture is so dysfunctional that we can’t take advantage of it. Now, this past year, we’ve been confronted with astonishing leaps in artificial intelligence. Just trying to keep up with the new developments every week, every day is like drinking from a fire hose, and yet public opinion polls show that the people who are more concerned than excited about AI outnumber those who are more excited than concerned by five to one. So you talk in your book about the problems of Down Wing culture and you broach the possibilities of so-called social limits to growth, that affluence can just lead to so much complacency and risk aversion that progress grinds to a halt. So on a scale of one to ten, how worried are you that the culture can undo even these tailwinds or at least severely undermine the benefits that we’re going to get from these dazzling new technologies?
Jim Pethokoukis: You know, past performance does not guarantee future results, but I think it can be instructive. So I would be highly worried. It would be eight, nine. I’m not going to say 10, but I’m extremely concerned, and I view sort of like the purpose of the rest of my professional life is probably fighting this battle. I was too young to fight nuclear, in favor of nuclear, but now, I think these impulses, I think, reinforced just by human nature and the risk aversion of human nature, it could be a very near thing about the number of good decisions that we make. Yeah. I hope, though. I think people, again, they need to be able to imagine realistically what this will do for them. If it’s just job loss and these other kind of scary sci-fi risks, from killer robots, then it’s going to be really a losing battle. But I think if people can see in their lives, “Oh, the economy seems to have sped up, and I’m getting a bigger raise,” I think that actually matters. I think hearing from someone on 60 Minutes who’s going to be cured of sickle cell disease because of this, or you’re going to know someone who is cured of macular degeneration, who can see now, I think if there can be tangible rewards other than just social media and other than maybe just economic statistics, I think that will matter. So right now, I think people can’t imagine, and again, the culture plays a role since we don’t even try to show them, even in sci-fi, like how it all could work out that isn’t a disaster. That’s kind of why I like For All Mankind, because it doesn’t show a utopia, but it shows a world where, guess what, we’re solving problems, where we have nuclear fusion and climate change is no longer an issue. So the book isn’t utopian, but it’s about solving problems and better. If people think like, “Yeah, this stuff is adding up to something that will make the world a better place at least for my kids,” and more opportunity and less concerned that they’re going to live on a cinder, hopefully that will be enough.
Brink Lindsey: So let me flag for readers, future readers of The Conservative Futurist, some of the best parts of the book, I think, are where you’re talking through how do we get out of this Down Wing culture, what can we do. Because usually when you have a cultural explanation for a social problem, that’s sort of a conversation stopper. “Well, can’t do anything. There’s no policies that are going to work because the problem’s upstream from policy, it’s in the culture, and what do you do?” But you’ve got some ideas for sort of turning the cultural air traffic carrier, you know, slightly bending in a better direction over time. You talk a lot about the need for more optimistic sci-fi, and I think that ability to imagine a brighter future really is important. You talk about reviving world’s fairs. That, again, is a stimulant to the imagination, walking around and seeing, “Hey, the future can be cooler than the present,” in a tangible way. Those apparently haven’t gone out of style everywhere in the world. They just, it’s been a long time since they’ve mattered in the United States. And then you have this really interesting idea of the counterpart to the Doomsday Clock from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. They’re always telling us how many minutes it is until midnight and the world ends. But you’ve got an idea for a Genesis Clock, so tell us a little bit about that.
Jim Pethokoukis: Yeah, this is something I think I’m actually going to try to do. Hey, I don’t work at a think tank. I work at a do tank. So this is something we’re going to try to do, which is, rather than sort of as the Doomsday Clock is kind of look at all the bad things that started out worried about nuclear war, now they focus on nuclear war, the environment, AI, everything, I want a clock that rather than showing us minutes to midnight, minutes to like a new dawn of like human prosperity and human achievement, and try to look at some really substantial markers, like how many people are leaving deep poverty, how are we doing on curing various diseases, certainly economic growth and income growth, are we lessening the amount of carbon or even pulling out carbon from the atmosphere, a whole list of things that we can look at these sort of metrics and say, “Yeah, you know what? Maybe now we can move it toward that clock, that Genesis clock, maybe 90 seconds closer to a dawn where we will have solved like being able to divert an asteroid headed toward Earth or come up with a universal vaccine for this or that,” and showing people. I mean, so many people don’t know about the progress that has been made, whether it’s, obviously, like the reduction in global poverty. So many people are still unaware of that and think people are getting poorer and poorer, something which is, in a way, maybe the great secular miracle of our time has happened. So I think a way to get that message across to people, I think, would be really effective.
Brink Lindsey: That’s great. Let me let me close with one more sort of dark cultural cloud on the horizon, the one I think is really the gravest challenge to an Up Wing future the more I think about it, and that is the global fertility collapse. So when I was a kid, we were worried about the population bomb and an overpopulation, and somebody wished on a monkey’s paw, and now we’ve got the opposite problem, which is birth rates actually peaked in the early-’60s and have been falling ever since, fertility peaked in the early-’60s and have been falling ever since. It peaked at something like five births per woman and five-plus. It’s now down to 2.3 globally. 2.1 is replacement in rich countries. More than half of the world now lives in countries with sub-replacement fertility population, is actually now declining in Japan, Italy, and China. Evidence is mounting that just slowing population growth and slowing labor force growth are very bad for productivity growth, very bad for innovation. So what happens when we’re not just having slow growth, but we’re actually shrinking? Now, the United States, with immigration, can avoid this for quite some time, but still, in a broader global picture of stagnant or shrinking population, which has just not been part of the human experience, certainly through all of modernity and really only with tiny little hiccups for the past 10,000 years, this strikes me as an unbelievably huge change that’s coming our way that people aren’t talking about nearly as much as they ought to, given the impact it’s going to have on everything. I don’t think you talk about that in the book, but this is a big shadow that’s looming over the future in my book, and I want your thoughts about it.
Jim Pethokoukis: Maybe one reason I don’t talk about it, I don’t have any great policy prescriptions certainly, and certainly some work some of the folks at AI have done, whatever the worst case scenarios, they’ll seem likely to happen as far as declining… I mean, I would take the low numbers as far as that goes. I think policies to encourage people to have more kids, I don’t think those will be decisive in any way. I think one thing I can say, that it’s very important for places which have shown an ability to harness human talent, and reward it, and get great things out of people, that it’s really important that those places have more people and we make it easy to come to those places. I was listening to a talk one time by Elon Musk, the SpaceX, the Tesla Elon Musk. Love that Elon Musk lot. I’m less interested in the social media Elon Musk. But he said, “If you want to do something great with your life, there’s no better place to come to than the United States of America.” So not only have we shown an ability to help people achieve great things, which could be start a company, or it could just be raise their living standards and give more opportunity to their kids. So not only have we shown an ability to do that. We shown an ability we’re a place people want to come to. And as these population stresses become more obvious, everybody’s going to have the same idea. But I don’t think that people are going to want to come to Brazil with the same enthusiasm as they want to come to the United States. So if you want to come here, we should help you come here. So at least the place where we’re likely to turn that, and this sounds like the various economists’ way of talking, where we’re likely to get the most out of that human capital and out of that town. The world is going to need that. The world is going to need a high-functioning, high-capacity United States, and I would hope we’re not alone, but we at least need that. So that’s my minor contribution to that.
Brink Lindsey: Okay. Well, you’ve also made another minor contribution because, let’s close on a personal note, the global fertility collapse is occurring with absolutely no help from the Pethokoukis family. So you’ve got a lot of kids, don’t you? How many?
Jim Pethokoukis: We have seven kids, six girls, a boy and we did not feel it was our duty to the nation, our duty to the state to do. It may have some positive effects, but we just love kids.
Brink Lindsey: That’s great. That’s wonderful. How old are they? What are their age ranges?
Jim Pethokoukis: Well, they’re getting little older, so they range from 17 to the late-30s. So yeah, so I already have grand twins.
Brink Lindsey: You’re on the verge of getting them all out of the house.
Jim Pethokoukis: Hopefully no backsies. No backsies. Stay away.
Brink Lindsey: That’s a magnificent accomplishment. And on that score, let me salute you and let me, once again, heap praise upon your new book, The Conservative Futurist, and urge everyone to go out, buy it, and read it, but especially
Jim Pethokoukis: Thanks so much.
Brink Lindsey:… especially buy it.
Jim Pethokoukis: Especially buy an extra copy. Thanks so much for having me on.
Brink Lindsey: All right, thank you much. Thanks for listening to The Permanent Problem Podcast. Check out my essays on The Permanent Problem over on Substack as well as at the Niskanen Center website. And be sure to catch all our episodes on Substack, Spotify, Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you love tuning in. Until next time, I’m Brink Lindsey signing off.