Confidence level: 85%
It has been said that all politics is local. I add that all progress is local.
I believe that there are some broadly applicable policies and structures that enable sustainable progress and growth. What economic progress works without property rights? Or what society obtains stable rule of law without decently high literacy rates? While property rights and literacy seem like no-brainers, the practice of progress requires more than identifying the directionally correct goals. It requires geographic reasoning.
All things take place in a time and space, within a social network, under particular circumstances, which make them possible. The race is not always to the swift, nor insight to the wise, nor innovation to the bold, but time and chance affects them all. Or, in other words, social contingency is powerful force.
If a handful of widely applicable rules for creating growth exist, I will not be surprised. Yet, I imagine that these rules, heuristics, or common structures will not be close to sufficient for securing the future of any people. Particular factors, unique to each situation are likely to swamp the causal force of whatever near-universal principles do exist. A leader’s ego, a heated political flareup, a bureaucrat’s charity or animus can be the difference between advancement or the indefinite tabling of an important initiative.
Usually, fortune is not so personal and capricious that a single quirk in human personality can create and destroy many lives. But it can be. And people alter their behaviors in response to the personalities around them.
Let’s take the public choice framework, my preferred method for thinking about the structures of institutions, the particulars of the immediate political settlement dominate the realm of the possible. Current incentive structures matter, and it is foolishness to think that biases, personalities, and soft networks (in addition to law, rules, and formal structures) do not create the incentive space. Hence the human geography of each environment matters very much. Triumphs and disasters are made within that geography.
Let me provide a case study of what I mean. Sri Lanka lost its sense and screwed itself royally. It began in May 2021, when the government announced it was going to shift to organic farming. On April 29 the ruling party passed a bill through parliament banning the import of chemical fertilizers. Since Sri Lanka has year round planting seasons, the effects set in quickly. The tea crop which makes up 11% of their exports plummeted by ~40%. By September the crop contractions made international news and were featured on Marginal Revolution. In May 2022, the prime minister was forced to step down amid protests and military deployment, the population has been cutting back on meals. Not a mere disruption. Sri Lanka has become a humanitarian crisis.
In none of its six public comments on Sri Lanka since the passing of the law has the State Department commented on the absolutely disastrous agricultural policy. Yet State does comment frequently about the ethnic tensions and violence that result at least partially from this mismanagement. Now down in the trenches, I am certain a State Department official or two were in contact with Sri Lankan counterparts throughout the legislative and post-legislative rollout of the law. Yet what good does that do?
In a more highly attuned world, some organizations would have identified the ill-fated law at its inception and marshaled resources to prevent the disaster well before the economic fortunes totally collapsed and politics devolved into violence and fear. Such an organization would be deeply involved in the country and have the reputation and weight and resources to act quickly and help the government backtrack faster, or even not pass such disastrous laws in the first place. Those marshaled resources would primarily be working relationships, phone calls, emails, personal meetings combined with scientific and economic expertise.
By human geography and geographic reasoning I mean something particular. Human geography traditionally is the study of people and populations. Add into that, the study of local institutions, political settlement, and incentives and you get what I mean. Employing analysis of this type along with the more traditional and objective scientific and economic analyses keeps the innovator attuned to what is possible socially, legally, economically, and scientifically. Each level requires its own analysis.
Knowing in the abstract that zoning reform will be good for a city is not the same as being able to convince various interested parties in moving to a new equilibrium on zoning regulation. A separate set of social exigencies have set the equilibrium where it is. Adjusting the variables which created the current equilibrium opens up new social possibilities. If there is fear that the police force can’t handle the current level of density and prevent current murders, then that may be the factor preventing zoning reform from being a live political option. Being able to identify which changes will allow the targeted ‘high leverage’ changes to occur requires rich knowledge of the local terrain.
I think we should beware the temptation to see progress as an impartial set of principled actions. It can be naïve, self-defeating, even disastrous.
The future is unequally distributed and so too are the tools of progress. Political ability might be clumped in an area where it is ineffective. Scientific ability might be wasted on the wrong problems. Economic understanding of the situation might be locked in the head of a few quiet bureaucrats. Identifying where and how a particular vista of progress can be opened is not merely a matter of skills, but finding the opportune places to deploy them, and thus finding leverage in the right human geographies.
I agree with this. I am just getting into the 'progress' literature, and I find a lot of ideas with great practical value to me. That said, most seem to come from a very macro perspective. I've been working in the area of funding for 10 years and have made a lot of my own observations, almost all on the personal/relationship level. Things like shared culture/values are important because that can be what empowers people to take a leap together, and it's especially magical when that culture (say of science) is shared among people who, in other aspects of their lives, do not share culture. Not sure there is a metric for that.
We need to talk more about pure, unadulterated human curiosity, generally summed up as the drive many (but not all) feel to ask and try to answer 'how does our world work?' There's evidence that great scientists are low in the personality trait Agreeableness. So for those who promote the progress movement because of 'advancing humanity' (certainly a noble cause), how does that motivation empower a great scientist who 'just' wants to understand a physical process? Is it wrong that a person is not motivated by a social cause? If not, is it required that whoever is holding the purse strings assign an intended social benefit to the work?
How many progress studies involve speaking to researchers in longform interviews to hear what they need to do more/better and if the models being put forward jibe with their experiences? I welcome anyone pointing me towards work in this area, and I don't mean this as a criticism of what's been done. I think we need to build up other approaches at the same time this econ-based approach is developing. I'm willing to be part of doing that. I'm only about a week into reading so it will take some time to catch up before I can make any significant contribution, though I am also remembering to back grad school where the people studying the philosophy of science were some of the most intellectually intimidating people I ever met.
"Things like shared culture/values are important because that can be what empowers people to take a leap together, and it's especially magical when that culture (say of science) is shared among people who, in other aspects of their lives, do not share culture."
I've been thinking a lot about this recently. See for example the recent discussion on creating demand for innovation. https://progressforum.org/posts/RhYhhfQ3KTvKhEKF3/to-increase-progress-increase-desire
One dichotomy that might be useful is the distinction between invention and innovation.
Invention, as in the invention of the periodic table, the flying shuttle, and Euclidean geometry requires a set of conditions that foster freedom, unbridled curiosity, debate and play. Here taking a leap together to learn something new.
Innovation, as in taking an idea or invention and investing in it to make something real, profitable, or socially beneficial. Taking a leap together to get something done.
Not all progress comes from innovation, much of progress, perhaps even the most important types, come from invention and discovery. These are two sides of the same system, both necessary, like upper and lower teeth.
In the progress studies community, you can see this divide too. Some people are more purely interested in investigating how progress happens, others in making it happen. Two rows of teeth!