THR Web Features   /   April 6, 2023

The Leaning Tower of Progress

Why we must rethink the meaning of prosperity.

Travers Nisbet

( THR illustration.)

The Millennium Tower in downtown San Francisco is leaning. Ever since the luxury apartment tower was built in 2009, the bedrock on which it rests has been slowly sinking, nearly an inch each year. At its highest point, 58 stories above ground, one corner of the building is already 27 inches lower than the other. Drop a marble on the floor of its $13 million penthouse, and within seconds it will roll toward the northwest wall. Costly attempts have been made to reinforce the foundation with metal pilings, and a web of lawsuits has been filed to recoup investment losses.

In the shadow of the tower, people pitch tents of tarp and cardboard, makeshift dwellings that add to the bleakness that overcame the city’s Financial District during the pandemic. In a neighborhood transformed by the Bay Area’s tech boom, where Salesforce built its tallest-in-the-city tower, there are now vacant offices, empty restaurants, and shuttered storefronts. Trash blows through the desolate streets like tumbleweed. It all feels like something out of a dystopian movie.

Because of its structural problems, the Millennium Tower has attracted media attention around the world, but it has also become an all-too-apt metaphor for the state of contemporary American society and economy: an imposing edifice, still the envy of the world, but resting on sinking ground. San Francisco and the Bay Area have themselves become emblematic of this paradoxical condition. The latter has been the most economically productive region in the United States, if not the globe, during the past two decades. Yet in that same span, San Francisco has seen rising wealth inequality, lower economic mobility, and an increasing number of people experiencing homelessness. The city’s high cost of housing contributed to a 6.3 percent drop in population between July 2020 and July 2021—the greatest decline experienced by any major US city during the first months of the pandemic.

As someone who has lived in and largely benefited from the Bay Area economy for the past six years, I have seen this reality unfold firsthand. Yet what I know from my years of economic research is that San Francisco is not the outlier that many claim it to be. The city is but one of many economic hubs across the United States and the globe that are being shaped by a disturbing trend: economic growth without shared prosperity. Austin, Denver, Seattle, and even Shenzhen, China, among others, are also threatened by the dual-edged sword of what many think of as progress. This is nothing new. Look back at Renaissance Italy and you will find a similar dynamic: rapid economic, scientific, and cultural growth accompanied by rising inequality and assorted social maladies.

For centuries, the idea of progress has been central to human pursuits. But in the modern West, that idea became too narrowly focused on the concept and metrics of economic progress. Embedded in the fabric of the American story, the dream of prosperity now enthralls societies around the world. But for many, prosperity is measured simply by an increase in the standard of living, in GDP per capita. Such indicators can, of course, be useful for understanding broad historical trends and correlations and for allocating capital, but they tend to oversimplify. We miss the critical nuances when we see the world in averages. Moreover, we restrict human potential when we view progress narrowly and deterministically. It leads us to overvalue one piece of a much richer tapestry of human flourishing. Progress and prosperity require a more nuanced and unifying narrative.

A number of modern public intellectuals, including Peter Singer, Steven Pinker, and William MacAskill, have championed the idea of utilitarian progress rooted in morality. One recent movement, effective altruism, suggests that the most moral way to live is to optimize for the greatest benefit to society, a goal that can be calculated and maximized by determining the most cost-effective interventions. While this approach can be inspirational, it can also produce unintended consequences and narrow our focus, again, to just one aspect of human flourishing. Sam Bankman-Fried, an ardent supporter of effective altruism, is the prime example of what can happen when the theory is pushed to its extremes. Following the notorious collapse of his crypto brokerage FTX, Bankman-Fried outlined the flaws and risks of morally pragmatic absolutism as he recounted what led to his company’s spectacular demise: “It’s complicated…each step was in isolation rational and reasonable, and then when I finally added it all up it wasn’t.” The parts made sense, yet the whole didn’t quite add up. Radical pragmatism can be useful in certain applications but disastrous in others, particularly when it is viewed as the only tool for addressing every societal challenge.

Our healthcare system is a notable example of how our pursuit of progress can have stark unintended consequences, of how we miss the forest for the trees. The United States spends more on health care than any other high-income country, including Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The United States, though, has lower health outcomes, the lowest life expectancy of those nations, and the highest suicide rate, according to a 2020 research report from the Commonwealth Fund. We pay more for less. Healthcare spending in the US is rising two times more than in the average OECD nation; in 2019, it accounted for roughly one-fifth of total US GDP, up from just 7 percent in 1970. Outcomes, however, are lower across the board: the lowest life expectancy of all OECD countries, twice the obesity rate, and the highest rate of avoidable deaths, among other indicators. And, of course, many of these issues extend beyond the health-care system itself, including food and agricultural practices, interstate commerce laws, and socioeconomic barriers.

In our economy, the overreliance on certain cause-and-effect economic theories can also lead to unintended consequences. For instance, the huge size of stimulus payments made during the pandemicintended to bolster individuals and businesses most in needactually contributed to inflation and rising wealth inequality that affect the most vulnerable individuals and businesses the most. A sudden inflow of money into the economy pushed up the prices of assets like real estate and stocks, as evidenced by the 2021 boom in the S&P 500 and rising housing prices. Yet given that the majority of capital investments are held by the top 10 percent of households, the payments meant to help those most vulnerable contributed to widening wealth gaps. And as a recession looms, the risk of further reversion for those most vulnerable is likely. Historically, recessionary periods disproportionately affect lower-income households. The cause-and-effect logic breaks down in complex, entangled systems like our economy.

Similar examples exist everywhere you look. The United States has seen a decline in nuclear power in the past 20 years, with more plants shut down than opened, in part because regulations put in place to protect the environment ended up restricting investment in renewable energy. In one notable example, the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant was shut down in 2014 due to costly regulations and low wholesale energy prices that made the plant unsustainable, despite being one of the state’s largest sources of carbon-free energy. The narrow, short-term pursuit of progress often leads to greater loss over time.

We live, therefore, in a paradox of progress: Our pursuit of progress has put us further away from achieving widespread prosperity, much less a widely shared sense of individual and social well-being.

In his 2016 essay “The Enlightenment Is Dead, Long Live the Entanglement,” technologist and tinkerer Danny Hillis observes that society’s relationship with our social, political, and technological systems has dramatically changed. “We have become so intertwined with what we have created that we are no longer separate from it,” he writes. The era of Enlightenment, Hillis reasons, was characterized by a belief that nature followed laws, that with rationality and logic we could understand, control, and manipulate the system itself—and that by doing so, of course, we could be confident in the forward march of civilization.

But this view of the world, Hillis argues, is inadequate: Our systems are complex, entangled, and interdependent; they control us as much as we control them, and the distinction between natural and artificial increasingly blurs. One need not look far to see examples of this today. The artificial intelligence researcher Kate Crawford has mapped in scrupulous detail the vast network of human, technical, legal, and planetary resources required to power an Amazon Echo. She uses the device to expose how the entanglements of modern technology can often obfuscate the intricate network of economic, environmental, and societal systems that support it. Our systems, as with AI, are often a mirror of society itself and what it means to be human.

Recent advances such as OpenAI’s artificial intelligence model GPT-3 are profound evidence of the way we are entangled with the systems we create, challenging our assumptions about the boundaries, sources, and production of knowledge and information. These “transformer” models are trained on a broad corpus of data enabled by decades of “living” on the Internet and digitizing human information and knowledge that goes as far back as the invention of the printing press. The models are able to generate human-like text, perform language translation, and even complete coding tasks, often through augmenting input from a human in an evolving conversation. The output can be influenced by the biases and perspectives present in the data the model is trained on and in the types of prompts it is given; the models are deeply entangled within the context in which they operate.

More interestingly, the emergent properties of these models represent a departure from the paradigm of modern computing, which was largely deterministic: input X, output Y in a cause-and-effect, rules-based manner. The same answer each time, predictable and rational. These new models are predominantly probabilistic: The same input can generate many different outputsemergent, uncertain, non-linear. GPT-3 can write beautiful prose in the style of Proust on broad-ranging topics but can fail miserably at basic arithmetic.

Over time, we may learn that deterministic frameworks are better suited for certain problems where there are clearly defined outcomes and we need to optimize for efficiency while recognizing the new possibilities and challenges that may open up with probabilistic forms of computing, such as in creative fields, knowledge work, or R&D, which are inherently more open-ended. Eventually, we may come to realize that we are best suited to tackle complex challenges when we can effectively integrate these two frameworks, not just in computing paradigms but in broader challenges facing society. This evolution in computing might even be seen as analogous to the contrast between classical, Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics in the early twentieth century: Classical mechanics was based on the idea that objects follow predictable and unchanging paths, while quantum mechanics suggests that the behavior of particles is inherently probabilistic and cannot be fully predicted.

It is hard not to overlook the wonder, magic, and uncertainty that a new technology paradigm elicits. With each advent of new tools and technology, we are drawn to the promise of solving problems even as we fear the unknown; we are enchanted by their mysterious qualities, and we are fascinated by the mirror that they hold up to ourselves, pushing us to reconsider what it means to be human—often challenging us to examine and more clearly articulate our shared values. This unfolding story of scientific and technological progress may well highlight the more fundamental point that the story of progress is often the story of evolving paradigms: The Enlightenment (rational and deterministic) may be dead; long live the Entanglement! Or perhaps they coexist.

What might the world look like if we refined our understanding of progress as something more than the desire to move forward according to the metrics of growth? What if we focused more on prosperity, the opportunity to thrive, treating economic growth and progress as means rather than ends? What might the world look like if we treated it less like a machine that can be optimized and controlled and more as a complex, entangled system? We could start by rethinking how we measure conventional proxies for progress, as well as by exploring new concepts to create broader ownership and prosperity in economic gains, such as a citizen-owned sovereign wealth funds or national endowments. Currently, the top 10 percent of households by income own 76 percent of all wealth; so predictably economic gains tend to accrue at the top, where ownership in assets, such as real estate and equities, are concentrated. Future wealth inequality is driven by asset inequality today. Are there ways to maintain the incentive structures of capitalism while enabling broader access to pre-distributive capital ownership so economic gains can accrue widely, though not necessarily evenly?

It is worth investigating new vehicles and institutions that foster broader asset ownership, enabling more individuals to share in the upside of future economic gains without resorting to punitive redistributive methods. One such model could be national wealth funds or endowments that could provide incentives for investing in future growth while facilitating broader asset ownership. Precedents for the wealth fund model exist in resource-rich areas such as Alaska, Norway, and Singapore, where profits from natural resources or other income-producing assets are reallocated to broader investments like private equity, public equity, or fixed income investments. Public investments in basic R&D and early-stage technology could act more like public venture capital equity investments with high return potential instead of typical grant structures—the limited partners being the citizens of the United States. With pensions in decline over the past few decades, a national sovereign wealth fund could offer a source of asset ownership and dividend income for a wider portion of society, assuming the right asset allocation and management.

Of course, care needs to be taken in addressing the details, including identifying funding sources that don’t necessitate excessive taxes (such as revenues from publicly owned assets or re-allocating a portion of the existing tax base), establishing the proper independent governance structure and management of the fund, and determining distribution structures for end-citizens that put appropriate guardrails in place to encourage healthy, long-term financial behavior while providing some liquidity. While these ideas are exploratory and require further refinement, they merit experimentation. We can create the conditions and incentives that enable everyone to participate in building our future and sharing in some portion of technological and economic gains while preserving the structures for private risk-taking and investment in our future.

In the current moment, at what feels like the brink of an economic crisis, the United States finds itself in a perilous, liminal state. Emerging from the hangover of the pandemic and historic stimulus packages, signals from the markets, consumer spending habits, inflation, social dynamics, and the Federal Reserve tell an incoherent narrative about where we are as a society and what may lie ahead. Yet the dissolution produced by this prolonged liminal state, in which past paradigms and “laws” fall apart, could provide the opportunity and impetus to construct the future we want to see. Perhaps now is the time to reassess our priorities as a society—and rebuild from the bedrock on which true progress rests.