Why can't America build things anymore?
If you listen to some gloomy experts, you might think that pandemic paranoia will always be with us. Fear of the next outbreak will cause us to abandon our cities, give up the pleasure of dining out, and never again attend a concert or sporting event. Our circumstances will be permanently reduced.
But famed technologist and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen is saying something much different, which perhaps explains why his short essay, "It's time to build," is having a moment. Published last weekend, it's become a must-read among Washington wonks and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. In the piece, Andreessen blames the world-crippling coronavirus outbreak on a lack of action as much as a lack of foresight. We've all simply failed to create a 21st century society capable of building the future we want. Not only don't we have a pandemic monitoring system in place, we also haven't built affordable housing in our most productive cities or fleets of supersonic jets or thousands of zero-emission nuclear reactors. Hyperloops? Right now we're having trouble manufacturing cloth medical masks and cotton swabs.
Andreessen's call-to-arms conclusion: "Our nation and our civilization were built on production, on building. Our forefathers and foremothers built roads and trains, farms and factories, then the computer, the microchip, the smartphone, and uncounted thousands of other things that we now take for granted, that are all around us, that define our lives and provide for our well-being. There is only one way to honor their legacy and to create the future we want for our own children and grandchildren, and that's to build."
Maybe it's the pep talk, or maybe kick-in-the-pants, that America needs right now. Plenty of folks on the left and right have praised the essay, for both its can-do attitude and its impulses toward public policy. There's a little something in it for everybody. Among the villains Andreessen cites as possible culprits for our lack of building are too much regulation, too little public investment, corporate oligopolies, and corporate buybacks.
Now some of these obstacles seem more relevant than others. Even a cursory review of American infrastructure over the past half century would suggest that a spate of environmental regulations since the 1970s have raised costs and lengthened build times. Eli Douardo, a policy analyst at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University, points out that the infrastructure projects funded by the 2009 Obama stimulus were subject to nearly 200,000 environmental reviews during which time they were on hold.
More public science investment would also be helpful. Federal spending on R&D as a percentage of GDP has declined to 0.7 percent in 2018 from 1.2 percent in 1976. "This decline is notable as federally funded R&D is an important source of support, particularly for the higher education sector and for the basic research enterprise of the United States," notes a recent National Science Foundation report.
Less concerning are stock buybacks, which the bulk of the evidence suggests aren't hindering corporate investment. But Andreessen's deeper point is that those obstacles and others exist only because we let them exist. We demand too little of our politicians, of our CEOs, our entrepreneurs, and of ourselves. Far more of us need to desire the future he sketches more than the things getting in the way of that future. Far more of us need to see building as our national imperative. Andreessen: "Even private universities like Harvard are lavished with public funding; why can't 100,000 or 1 million students a year attend Harvard? Why shouldn't regulators and taxpayers demand that Harvard build?"
Political scientists might have a different perspective. They might say, for instance, that America's building ethos and problem-solving capability have fallen victim to Washington's "kludgey" approach to governance where no program ever dies and instead just gets a new one layered on top. More complexity, more incoherence, less effectiveness. Or they might point to a campaign finance system that allows powerful incumbent companies to influence new laws and regulations to their advantage over upstate competitors.
But expectations matter. Before progress happens, it sure helps if people believe it can happen. For most of human history, people thought progress was a fleeting thing. History moved in an endless cycle, at the will of gods. It wasn't until the Enlightenment that a small but significant sliver of us began to embrace the radical notion, as economic historian Joel Mokyr writes in The Culture of Growth, "that the human lot can be continuously improved by bettering our understanding of natural phenomena" and then applying that new knowledge to solving problems. Progress was possible. Mankind could build itself a better future.
And the virality of Andreessen's essay suggests we still believe in that builder ethos, although it's not so easy at the moment with a good chunk of humanity quarantined because of an eminently predictable pandemic. Still, we hunger for an optimistic story that tells how we can move forward and make our own destiny. And Andreessen has told just such a story.
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