Opinion
[Noah Smith] Time for some American optimism
Published : Oct 22, 2020 - 05:30
Updated : Oct 22, 2020 - 05:30
Octavia Butler’s classic futurist novel “Parable of the Sower” recently made the New York Times bestseller list for the first time. It depicts an America falling apart at the seams due to violence, economic decline, and governmental dysfunction. But despite the chaos, the protagonist, Lauren Olamina, spends much of her time thinking about space exploration. Faced with a dystopian Earth, she motivates herself and her followers to survive by dreaming of the stars.

Today, the US isn’t quite falling apart yet, but a pandemic, social unrest, political chaos, wildfires and economic recession are hastening what was an already worrying national decline. As people desperately try to shore up the nation’s institutions, a few are taking a page from “Parable of the Sower” and dreaming big dreams about what the future could hold.

One example is the socialists who came up with the idea of a Green New Deal. Though the particulars of such a policy haven’t exactly been hammered out yet, the basic idea is to combine a bold attack on carbon emissions with an equally audacious expansion of economic security. Aggressive targets for green energy, construction of transit and retrofitting of buildings would be combined with large-scale government job provision, free education and income security.

The idea’s promoters wax positively utopian about what a Green New Deal could accomplish. The vision is not one of diminished horizons or painful cutbacks in economic growth -- which a few environmentalists demand -- but rather one of clean, tranquil abundance. In the words of writer Aaron Bastani, it would be “fully automated luxury communism” -- a Star Trek future where technology does all the work and humans share the benefits equally. Futurists such as Ramez Naam, meanwhile, are imagining the technologies that would be required to create an economy that’s both prosperous and environmentally friendly.

Others are reimagining the American city. The YIMBY movement -- which stands for “yes, in my back yard” -- is pushing to change America’s sprawling, suburban, car-centric development pattern into one based around density and public transit. An ad-hoc alliance between socialists and left-libertarians, the YIMBYs would remove zoning laws while using the government to build trains and public housing. Thanks to the visions of such thinkers as transit analyst Juliet Eldred, young people are sharing urbanist memes and passing around maps of an envisioned countrywide high-speed rail system. In an early victory, the YIMBYs managed to get Oregon to effectively ban single-family zoning statewide.

And for many of these same idealists, reimagining the American city also means reimagining the police. Police brutality has been a major cause not only of recent unrest, but of long-simmering racial tensions that have made even the most liberal American cities feel less than fully integrated. While some want to abolish the police entirely, more pragmatic visionaries are thinking of ways to reduce the number of dangerous interactions between law enforcement and the community. Darrell Owens, a co-executive of the YIMBY advocacy group East Bay for Everyone, successfully pitched the city of Berkeley on the idea of replacing traffic cops with an unarmed traffic enforcement department.

If American cities are to become more efficient in their use of land and resources, it stands to reason that more people could live in them. In his new book “One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger,” writer Matthew Yglesias proposes a dramatic expansion of immigration, along with industrial and urbanist policies to give all the new Americans jobs and places to live. This idea falls short of more radical proposals for open borders, but manages to still be breathtaking in scope while not sacrificing the specific details of how to accommodate new arrivals.

Any future utopian America will need to be not just wealthier and more efficient, but far less unequal. While advocates of the Green New Deal would remake the economy with a huge array of industrial policies and programs, a small but growing group of social democrats is envisioning something simpler and cleaner.

Writers such as Annie Lowrey and the pseudonymous writer “James Medlock” envision a nation where equality is not left to the vagaries of the employment system, but instead is assured via taxes and spending. Medlock favors broad-based taxation such as the VATs used in Europe, and universal social programs such as basic income. The idea is that creating an economically equal society is actually quite easy -- just use a few simple but powerful redistribution tools to make sure everyone has enough cash.

These are only a few of the Americans dreaming of utopian futures at a time when chaos and decline threaten to overwhelm the present. Others envision bold programs to close racial wealth gaps, colonize Mars, or use technology to change the nature of what it means to be human.

Most of these big ideas are unlikely to materialize in the near future -- at least not in their idealized forms. The vicissitudes of a chaotic world and a divided society, the limitations of technology and the need for compromise always stand in the way of utopia. But the simple fact that Americans are dreaming these dreams means there is still something vital and unbeaten in the country’s spirit. The ability to imagine not just fixes for today’s problems, but a radically better tomorrow, is an essential motivator to keep fighting when everything feels like it’s falling apart.


Noah Smith
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.

(Bloomberg)
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