101: Caleb Watney – Progress, Immigration and Policy

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Hosted by
Will Jarvis

In this episode, we’re joined by Caleb Watney to talk about how he thinks about policy change, the current rate of progress, and how to make science go faster. Caleb is the co-founder of the Institute for Progress. 


William Jarvis 0:05
Hey folks, welcome to narratives. narratives is a podcast exploring the ways in which the world is better than in the past, the ways it is worse in the past, where it’s a better, more definite vision of the future. I’m your host, William Jarvis. And I want to thank you for taking the time out of your day to listen to this episode. I hope you enjoy it. You can find show notes, transcripts and videos at narratives podcast.com. Well, Caleb, how are you doing this afternoon?

Caleb Watney 0:40
I’m doing well. Well, how are you doing? Thanks for having me on.

I’m doing great. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I really appreciate it. Do you mind giving us a brief bio and some of the big ideas you’re interested in?

Sure. So my name is Caleb Watney. I am the co founder of the newly launched Institute for progress. We are a Washington DC based think tank, we cover sort of a range of tech science and innovation policy issues. But kind of high level three issues that we’re spending a lot of time on, especially during this initial launch period, our

meta science sort of the science of science, how do you change the way that especially the federal government funds, structures and incentivizes science? And how can we get more breaks break through research through that process to immigration with a special focus on high skilled immigration? How can we make it easier for scientists, engineers, mathematicians from all over the world, the best and brightest, you know, to come and live in the United States? And then three biosecurity which we think of as kind of both? How do we prevent future pandemics? Obviously, that’s very relevant coming out of COVID. But also kind of how do we pick some of the low hanging fruit in biology seems quite plausible to us that say, you know, mRNA vaccines, we could have had them 10 years ago, if we’d had a similar bursted sort of funding and urgency. And so what other kinds of you know, low hanging fruit are still around and available for us in the field of biology. So those are kind of our three initial areas. But we’re growing quickly, I’m sure will expand to other areas, but sort of motivated by this concern of accelerating the pace of progress in science, technology and innovation.

Unknown Speaker 2:17
I love that. And I have many political economy questions about think tanks and how they work. But But first, I want to dig in and say, I asked this question, it seems like you’re you’re you’re forming this institute based on progress, which you would only do that if you thought progress, perhaps had slowed down or something like that. Can you talk about that? Is there your sense, there’s something like great stagnation that things have slowed down since the 70s? And we do need to do something about this?

Caleb Watney 2:44
Potentially? Yeah, I think it’s, at least, you know, not off the table that progress has led, I think it’s probably slowed down. Now. There’s sort of a number of competing theories about why progress has slowed down. Maybe it’s within our control, and maybe our institutions have kind of gotten worse, maybe it’s the inevitable byproduct of ideas getting harder to find. So it’s not entirely clear, I think probably progress is slowing down for a number of combination of issues. One, I do think that probably our institutions are more sclerotic, they’ve kind of just grown stodgy, or you kind of see the say, in science funding, where we’re funding a increasingly older an older, sort of more homogeneous group of scholars that the same set of institutions, and then setting up a system of incentives that really incent that pushes them to do maybe incremental research rather than breakthrough research. And then in the built environment, we’ve kind of set up a variety of adversarial legal claims that make it very hard to actually build things in the in the physical world, both, you know, new housing development projects, new subways, new mass wind farms, you know, basically anything, we need to kind of prepare for the future, it’s pretty difficult to actually build. So that’s one factor. I think, demographics have also probably made the issue harder. It seems like generally we’re becoming a bit of an aging society, we’re having fewer children. We’re accepting fewer immigrants than we did decades ago, and kind of that that missing youth that missing vitality leads us to be taking fewer risks, you know, starting new or starting fewer businesses leading to fewer new inventions. And then three, I do think that there is some version of ideas getting harder to find, it also seems to be true that as you progress, especially within existing fields, it seems like finding that next breakthrough tends to get harder and harder over time, but so short for a mix of both inevitable and not inevitable reasons progress is slowing down. But I think there’s a lot we could be doing to increase its space.

Unknown Speaker 4:36
So what do you think are the biggest levers there? Is it fixing funding? Is it you know, better incentives to get, you know, younger scientists money? What do you think some of the best approaches are?

Caleb Watney 4:47
Yeah, I think it probably depends a lot on the specific area that you’re talking about. I think on the whole we think of US federal public policy as being a particularly high leverage set have tools to sort of impact the rate of progress that yeah, the US federal government is the single largest funder of especially basic science funding in the world. And yet, we know surprisingly little about what are the sort of the incentives and the kinds of institutions that best lead to its development. So that’s certainly a factor. I think there’s a lot of sort of idiosyncratic problems and each particular area, oftentimes, they sort of result from many overlapping systems or kludge accuracies, as they kind of, you know, layer together, and maybe each particular change or each particular barrier, each particular environmental review you have to do is, you know, totally well meaning and maybe even good in isolation, but then sort of as they all kind of combined together, it becomes harder and harder to actually get things done. So, yeah, I think there’s a lot of different factors. But in general, I think uniting our focus on on US federal policy is the fact that there’s a lot you can do through through federal public policy. And maybe also take a step back, I think you’d say the United States in particular is an interesting place to be working on these changes that US federal public policy is not only a lever to affect the US, but also the worlds that we are sort of, in some sense a provider of global public goods, especially through innovation, we kind of have a lot of different tiers of science and technology here in the United States. And so when we push those out, that creates spillover benefits that the rest of the world can benefit from. Internationally, you see that a lot of world governments sort of explicitly base some of their decisions based on sort of how the United States frames that their drug regulation or an environmental regulations or labor markets or whatnot. And so I think, yeah, implicit in the idea of why we choose to focus on the US is that it’s not just about the US, but that actually is an extremely high leverage point for affecting the global world.

Unknown Speaker 6:47
I love that I love it, I think, what’s her name? Shruti. at George Mason, she always talks about how she complains about how Indian bureaucrats politicians always copy the problems that are, yeah, because that’s what’s fashionable, and they should be focused on specific problems to, you know, perhaps what’s going on in it. Yeah, so it does seem like there’s a highly mimetic nature to how people think about these kinds of problems. How do you think about changing kind of federal government policy? Mechanically, this seems super opaque to me, how does this work? Is it something like, you know, the staffers end up writing the stuff, they have no time? My friend, just she just went through a Senate hearing. And you know, she’s getting grilled about all these senators that show up, and they just read these questions off of the, you know, this document that Claire was prepared by some, you know, young staffer who’s been getting paid like, you know, $30,000 a year struggling to get by? And, you know, I guess my question is, is like, yeah, like, how do you actually think about changing them? Is it educating, you know, staffers educating lawmakers is, you know, you can’t like bribe them. Right. So, you know, like, how do you get them to implement the right policy?

Caleb Watney 7:49
Right? It’s a tricky question. And I will say that policy is not just opaque for people outside of DC, it’s oftentimes opaque for people in DC. But policy works pretty differently, depending on the kind of thing that you’re trying to change. I think that the biggest difference is whether you’re trying to get something done through legislation through Congress, or whether you’re trying to influence something through the executive agencies. It in general, sort of the trade off there is that Congress can do a lot more than any particular federal agency can do. But it’s also a much higher bar to clear, it’s so much harder to get things passed through Congress these days. But Congress has created a lot of latitude for executive agencies to kind of pursue their congressionally mandated missions, they kind of just, you know, leave the agencies alone, oftentimes, to kind of, you know, make small tweaks here or there or spend their budgets in different ways. And, again, because these federal agencies are either overseeing, you know, billions of dollars, or are regulating or governing huge swaths of the economy, even very small changes to the way in which they make decisions can end up having a really big downstream effect. But yeah, it’s sort of weird. If you’re trying to affect legislation, I think we’re we’re quite persuaded by the theory that sometimes called Secret Congress, medical ACSM, Simon basil and wrote a great piece about this, I think last year, sort of pointing out that oftentimes, it’s the issues that are the least polarized, the ones that actually make progress. If you look at the news, you’ll see a lot of headlines about issues that are, you know, moving very slowly or else are failing fast. And you know, these are these big monumentous bills, oftentimes highly polarized around issues that the electorate really cares about. They get a lot of coverage, both in the news and on late night cable television shows, and precisely because it almost get so much attention that makes it harder to actually have people compromise or move things forward. And so there are a lot of things that are actually happening in DC underneath the radar, that are sort of, you know, passes. It’s a small part of this, you know, big omnibus bill, and yet by itself, it’s extremely important or covers an issue that a lot of Americans don’t necessarily think about, but matters quite a lot. So I think in general You could say that our theory of legislative changes, you know, some combination of secret Congress, but it may also combined with the fact that a lot of the most important issues are very important and indeed tractable, but very low on salience. But it’s much easier to get things up the the ladder of political prioritization than it is to persuade someone that in fact, this opinion you have that is deeply held that you’ve had for 30 years is wrong, and you should drop the other position, that’s much harder than to, you know, take some highly technical or a use and kradic issue that no one really has as a key part of their partisan identity. But say, actually, this is really important. And you should make changes, you know, X, Y, or Z to it. So oftentimes, that is through working with staffers DC is a very, you know, sort of relational city, a lot of things happen based on who you know, or sort of, who do you trust is acting in good faith? Or can you provide information with and so that is a big part of why we’re in DC is to take advantage of this kind of relationship building networks. And then through executive, it’s similar sometimes, I mean, it is very relational. You have to, you know, have relationships or do education for agency staff. But again, it’s much easier to work on issues that are low on the polarization scale, that oftentimes makes them much more tractable. But these agencies are oftentimes filled with, you know, career civil servants, who are very good natured, cared deeply about their issue. And they oftentimes are dealing with a lot of different sort of restrictions or guardrails themselves. But if you can persuade them that you know, your issue on the merits is very important, or in keeping with the sort of culture of the agency or what they’ve been tasked to do. It’s oftentimes possible to Yeah, make small incremental tweaks here or there.

Unknown Speaker 11:41
That’s awesome. That’s awesome. Well, some of your issues seemed like they would be more straightforward than others. So you know, working on science funding, things like that seems fairly apolitical people don’t worry about that too much. Or there may be some things around, you know, climate stuff, which might really trigger people on certain sides of the political aisle. But immigration seems one, which sounds like a huge hot potato, how do you think about affecting immigration policy in a robust way without, you know, it seems like secret gardeners would be a difficult, difficult way to get something through past. If it was around immigration.

Caleb Watney 12:14
Immigration is definitely a much more polarized issue than say the other two main ones that we work on both sides policy and sort of pandemic prevention. You’ll notice that we’ve kind of chosen to work on maybe the small corner of immigration that we think is the least polarized and that sort of high skilled or standard immigration. And I think our theories is a couple of points. One is that if you just like look, and you talk to legislators on both sides of the aisle, there has been kind of this like, at least in in Word consensus that like, oh, well, we can all agree that we should, at least, you know, fix high skilled immigration, and that it seems obviously good for both natives. And for foreigners, if we let in more, you know, PhD, doctoral students, you know, from Malaysia, or from Bangladesh, that that seems to benefit everyone across the board. It’s been hard politically, because things sort of getting caught up in in sort of comprehensive immigration reform or nothing. And now, to be clear, you know, we’d be very in support of the comprehensive immigration reform. And there’s a lot of the part of the system that we would like to fix. But unfortunately, given sort of the intractable nature of that, we think we can get a lot more progress by really focusing in on these, these particular components of immigration that do have broad consensus in which two native born Americans seem the most obviously intuitive that they benefit everyone across the board. And you know, there’s a lot of scientific or academic literature that shows this that high skilled immigrants end up turning businesses at much higher rates than native born workers that they patent at higher rates than native born workers, they were Nobel prizes at higher rates than native born workers, they tend to be more risk taking generally. And so it definitely is a big boon to society by taking in these workers. Now, that isn’t necessarily you can make those cases, but it’s still hard to sort of, you know, make progress sometimes in Congress. But I will say that I think recently, we’re starting to see an increasing recognition of the fact that sort of this all or nothing approach to immigration has been less successful. And we basically 30 years without meaningful immigration reform, at least on the legislative level. And so yeah, we’ve been quite interested or excited to see that there are sort of more piecemeal individualized parts of immigration, they’re starting to be discussed. As just one example. We’ve been hard at work on the United States innovation and competition Act, which is sort of this big, anti China or sort of how do we strengthen us leadership and critical technologies bill that has been going through both the house in the Senate, and the House bill has a couple of provisions that we’ve been quite excited about that would create a Green Card cap exemption for STEM PhDs and stem masters who are working in critical industries. So we’re, you know, we’re taking lots of meetings on the hill and trying to, you know, put out research and build coalitions and, you know, all part of this process, both to sort of increase the odds that maybe this could stick in the final piece of legislation this time, or if not that, at least we can kind of, you know, create momentum to include this in future pieces of legislation and socializing ideas is a big part of a real policy change. But that’s one component of it. And maybe the other part is that there is actually quite a lot you can do through the executive to make it easier for high skilled immigrants to say in the United States, there’s a whole range of programs like the oh, one visa for immigrants of extraordinary ability, which are much more flexible than I think people already realized, but have had recent changes to make them more flexible. And it’s an uncapped, unlimited number of you know, oh one immigrants that can come in on this this temporary visa program. And so we’re, you know, working with folks inside the agency to improve its administration make sure that, you know, things are getting processed on time that there’s clear lines of communications to individuals who might consider this program in the first place. I think that’s just one example. But there’s other programs. We’re also excited about.

Unknown Speaker 15:52
Love that love that. I’ve got another question here. It’s a bit of a bit of a left here, but is related. I think most Americans have kind of a poor view of of Congress of the federal government of how effective it is, you know, I definitely do I think like, like, Man, this is just does not seem to work very well. Working kind of on the inside in Washington, do you think it works better than the average American thinks it does? Or is it worse?

Caleb Watney 16:15
I guess, in a relative sense, it works better than maybe most Americans think, insofar as there are things that happen under the radar, it is possible to do things, yes, it is possible to things. But yeah, it’s still nowhere near you know how it should be. And there’s there’s lots of legislative bodies all around the world that seem to be much more functional than than the US Congress. And, you know, there’s a lot of idiosyncratic reasons for why we’ve kind of ended up in this scenario, I do think, you know, things like the filibuster make it much harder to actually pass legislation and govern in a country that is much more polarized. And so kind of dislike system of veto points that might have worked quite well in the past. But now in the system of increasing polarization. And some sense, you could say the US is like, as a system was really made for, say, 6040 majorities, as they kind of flip flop across administrations, and that’s much closer to what we used to get. But when you’re sort of deadlocked in sort of 5149, or 5248, as it flips flops, then it becomes this system of sort of well, meaning veto points, or, you know, checks and balances has maybe become a little bit too stringent. And I think on the margin, it would be better if we made it slightly easier for majorities to pass legislation.

Unknown Speaker 17:27
Gotcha, gotcha. I’m curious, you know, if you had to frame like, the Institute for progress, like you’re kind of ideological beliefs, are they just, they feel much more pragmatic than ideological? I would say, what kind of do you have, like a core set of beliefs at the institute that you all kind of share? Or is it more just pragmatic, kind of, we want to make the world better and things like that? Right.

Caleb Watney 17:52
So a lot of the the, I think the trickier is in definitions. And so I think you could say, under under some definitions of ideological, we are quite ideological, in the sense that, you know, there are set of ideas that animate kind of what we believe and why we prioritize them, that certainly are shared across the organization. But we do try to be quite careful to make sure that that it doesn’t necessarily get polarized along a particular say party line. And we try to, in some sense, restrict to the issues that we work on to sort of a more narrow set where we think we can build broad consensus so that we can be more effective in the long run, because I think pretty key to our vision is the idea that to really create lasting change in DC, you kind of have to have champions on both sides of the aisle. But if you just naively think that both sides are going to be roughly in power about 50% of the time, it would be quite bad for our issue areas, if we only, you know, kind of got the investments that we thought were necessary. 50% of the time, if we only were investing in pandemic preparedness, when either Republicans or Democrats were in office, that would be very counterproductive. And so I really, for the long term, sort of stickiness of these reforms to make sure that there’s a durable coalition that can protect these investments going forward, it’s quite key and important to make sure that you’re able to communicate to both sides of the aisles in ways that they understand. So I’d like to say there are a set of ideas around I think, progress around human agency around the fact that, in general, you know, through careful human consideration, we can make the world better that, especially through technology and science, there’s a whole array of tools we have available. That I think also, the federal government has quite an important role to play both in sort of incentivizing and financing these technologies, but also in governing and shaping them. I think the idea that technology is very path dependent, also kind of is quite central to our work, the idea that the order or the direction and the pace of technology matters a lot for shaping the long term future of humanity, that simultaneously we should be very excited about the ability of new technologies to create new wealth and new progress for humanity, but also that there are particular areas where we want to be quite careful and make sure that, you know, we’re investing in defensive technologies that can increase the odds of getting a good outcome. So that’s sort of maybe a brief set of some of the ideas that animate our work.

Unknown Speaker 20:13
That’s great. That’s great. I really appreciate that. It reminds me of a previous guest who we had on Vitalik butor. And he talked a lot about that, in the sense is like, is much more pragmatic, and, and kind of ideological is much more kind of a secondary thing. How do we make the world better? Is that the most important thing? I’m curious, you mentioned technology, and path dependence. And there’s an issue that’s been widely talked about in the media in the last couple of days, as we record this podcast? How concerned you are you all at the institute about AI existential risk? And I know, it’s not currently one of your focus areas, but I’d love to get your take on it.

Caleb Watney 20:48
Yeah, it’s it’s a tricky issue. But certainly one I, you know, thought about a fair bit and in some of my previous jobs, I’ve done a bit more work on on AI policy in particular. I think in general, AI X central risk is certainly something to consider, it’s something to be concerned about, I think, anytime you’re dealing with sort of risks that even if they might be small, in absolute terms, would be you know, existentially bad would, you know, potentially risk threatening large portions of humanity or all of it? It’s worth, you know, taking that concern quite seriously. And I think you don’t need to necessarily get into the issues of what happens if it’s point oh, 1% Likely, I think, you know, anything, I think we’re safely within the realms, especially if you’re trying to really embody, you know, epistemic humility and take seriously the fact that there’s lots of smart people who studied this issue very carefully, and seemed to be quite concerned about it, you could pretty easily justify a, say, a five or 10%, you know, concern about it. Now, I think what’s what’s particularly tricky about existential risk for AI is the fact that it’s quite unclear to us at least, what are obviously good policies, you could push from the federal level, to make this risk, more or less likely. And I would contrast it with say, risks from bio biological attacks, or, you know, if we have a new engineered pandemic that were to, you know, wipe out large swaths of humanity, it seems like there’s there’s emerging kind of a consensus that here are, you know, a reliable set of things, five things you should do, and five things you shouldn’t do to decrease the risk because of an engineered pandemic. And we have reasonable certainty that they would all push in the right direction, that they would be quite likely to lead to good outcomes. And unfortunately, in AI, that kind of consensus not does not exist, you’ll get as many different takes on on AI super intelligence or AGI as there are AI experts that you gather in a room. And so it’s something that we follow quite carefully and quite closely. But partially, we’ve been hesitant to Sir, I think weighed out too, too deep into the water, because it seems less less clear, less obvious what the obviously good federal policies are. Now, I will say one reason that we work on say high skilled immigration is because we do think that for both AI but also other technologies, you can increase the odds of good outcomes by changing the geography of where technological development is happening, that we think for a range of technologies, including AI, you’d be more likely to get good outcomes if they were being developed in liberal democracies, like the United States, than in countries that have a less good track record of given rights, say, like China. And so by strengthening the US as you know, relative position in critical technologies like AI, I think you’re more likely to get outcomes that are compatible with liberal democracy. And so that is, I think, one of the core motivating reasons to work on that issue, in addition to all the great benefits of immigration by itself,

Unknown Speaker 23:33
kind of an Operation Paperclip for all the best ml engineers kind of getting back over here.

Caleb Watney 23:38
Yeah, you have to be careful with, you know, Operation Paperclip links or getting into that paperclip. Maximizer thought experiment. Yeah.

Unknown Speaker 23:45
There you go. There you go. Exactly. Can you talk a little bit about biosecurity? Yeah, I remember that this this kind of is great intersections, I think we talked about earlier. I remember there’s a great 60 minutes episode early in the pandemic, where they had this plane full of, you know, cruise ship passengers that had COVID, it was very early on, they flew into Atlanta, the Atlanta airport when the busiest airports, the United States and CDC just kind of waved them through into the, you know, they’re all like falling over. They’re dying of COVID You know, various levels of illness and these elderly people just kind of walk straight into the, the airport, you know, it’s like clearly like something that should not have happened. So how do we strengthen our biosecurity here in the US because it seems to not be working very well at all?

Caleb Watney 24:29
Yeah, has that been great? It’s sort of funny, I think COVID both sort of showed our great weakness at sort of containment of especially airborne transmissible conditions, diseases, that you know, we really did not have the investments and say, the built environment, through ventilation systems or any UV systems, we didn’t have very reliable uptake in terms of sure group behaviors like all wearing masks or all locking down or various things that you I’d be able to affect transmission of the virus that way. And so on a lot of these sort of like individual or society level responses, we were quite bad. But on the other hand, we were also sort of one of the key destinations where mRNA vaccines were developed. And of course, that’s made it much easier to get back to normal. And it’s worth highlighting the fact that we invented a whole almost new genre of vaccines in the form of mRNA vaccines in record time. I mean, you compare this to how we how fast or how long did it take to develop other kinds of vaccines for novel diseases? And it’s honestly a miracle. There’s a great New York Times article, I go back to you sometimes that was asking the question, I think in like, mid 2020, you know, how long will it actually take to develop a new vaccine, and they were sort of pouring cold water on the idea that it was going to be, you know, pretty soon and saying, Oh, if you look at the average timeline of vaccines, and even if you try to shorten those, you know, you’re looking at like, late 2021, at the earliest. And, of course, we got it at the end of 2020. And so, you know, a whole new vaccine and sort of record time within a year was was quite remarkable. Partially our success, and that was actually based on previous scientific research that we’ve done, in terms of understanding sort of the bases of coronaviruses, in general. And, you know, sort of the fact that we’ve been investing in things like mRNA, even though we haven’t been using them, we’ve sort of been investing in new systems like that for quite a while. And so one very simple thing that we could do to prepare for future vaccines is, there’s 26 distinct viral families. And some of them we have a much better understanding of than others, I mean, so coronaviruses are one that we actually thankfully have a relatively good understanding of, and it’s why we were so able to quickly target this sort of Spike protein and develop a vaccine that that could could target that effectively. But there’s lots of others we have a much worse understanding of and so one thing that we’ve been calling for, and that I think, though the White House OSTP team has always been calling for is sort of a big undertaking, almost like a quasi Manhattan Project style undertaking to to really map out all 26 of these different viral vaccine families to sort of create proto vaccines for each one of them, that can be quickly sort of updated once we know this specific strain. And then, you know, we can have very quick virus responses or vaccine responses to any new viruses. So that’s one particular example. But there’s lots of other things that we should be doing, we need better investment in what’s called a meta genomic sequencing. It’s basically it’s the technique or the technology that allows you to identify, do we know it? Is this viruses? Or is it some new novel virus, typically, you can do screening and comparison of one virus against a sample of a better genomic sequencing, which allow you to sort of compare a particular sample against the whole corpus of known pathogens. And so that would allow you to very quickly know, hey, we’re dealing with something that’s new here that we don’t have sort of existing protections against. And then you could, you know, sort of put more resources on there. As I mentioned, more stuff with sort of ventilation, we could use advanced PPE, there’s a whole range of new technologies. But I think, in general, you’ll find we’re much more optimistic about our ability to say, make future responses better with new technology and with new science than with say, you know, persuading all of Americans that they should, you know, consistently mask for a long time, that seems much harder to reliably do but new technologies can kind of change the cost benefit in various ways.

Unknown Speaker 28:15
I love that. I love that. I’m curious, you know, I mentioned, you know, advanced PPE. This brings up a question to me about, you know, during the middle of pandemic, we really did not have the strategic capacity to produce enough PPE. You know, it’s like 3am in the Midwest, and that was pretty much it. You know, do we need to make strategic investments? Like should we be as a country to be making more strategic investments and things like PPE, strategic food production, you know, CNC machines, you know, the machines that build the machines, machine tooling, do we need to make more strategic investments in that so that when we have crises, we can, you know, produce it here, when you know, China is not going to ship it out? Or it’s, you know, in college, it was always a libertarian argument is like, that, it didn’t really matter. You can always trade with people, it’s not gonna be a problem, but that it seems like the pandemic did turn some of these thoughts on on on their head.

Caleb Watney 29:07
Right. I think there’s definitely a stronger argument post pandemic, for sort of resiliency and redundancy in critical supply chains. And I think I would, I would sort of distinguish redundancy, resiliency, with sort of domestic manufacturing, I think there’s sometimes a call to say, I’ll let’s just bring everything on home. If we can’t manufacture it here domestically, then, you know, it’s not good enough. But really, it’s the goal is to make sure that we have the ability to get what we want when we want it. But sometimes there might be ecological crises, or there’s an earthquake that affects the one factor we have here in the United States. And if that’s the only factor, we have to produce the things we need, then, you know, you end up basically just is worse off and so the probably some portion of this is having redundant manufacturing capacity on the US but it also means that we need to be you know, thinking through supply chains in a more general level to make sure that we have multiple manufacturers kind of all over the world, especially for key critical things, I think for mass manufacturing, it’s interesting. Alec, my co founder, and I wrote a paper pretty early on in the pandemic, basically calling for advanced market commitments for mass production. The idea was, you know, this was sort of right, the the heat of the mass crisis and a lot of people saying, you know, we can’t get enough, even just like n95s for medical workers, let alone for the general public. And people were either tying scarves around their head, and it was better than nothing. But you know, we could have been doing much better. And the argument we were making is that, in the same way, that operational warp speed kind of provided a lot of demand certainty for manufacturers and said, hey, you know, if you guys really go all in and invest in the the fixed cost to really increase your manufacturing base, we recognize that you’re taking on risk. And we want to, you know, basically take that risk off your plate, because you’re providing this public good have, you know, dramatically larger manufacturing capacity for these key critical goods. And so I’m glad that we ended up doing it for vaccines, I think we probably should have done it for masks as well. Because in previous crises, you’ve seen that mass manufacturers, after states, swine flu, sort of saw this, this news about, you know, a new possible vaccine, or a new possible virus that was gonna be spreading. And so they started dramatically increasing their capacity. And then it turned out to be basically a false alarm, and all those investments and people had to lay off, and it was really costly for them. And so especially when you’re dealing with uncertainty, at a time when there’s a public crisis, and it’s not really fully priced in the the large public benefits you would create, if you were to, you know, expand in a way that is a positive, Evie, even if it’s maybe unlikely. And so I think having a better appreciation for tools like advanced market, and it’s in this whole kind of range of innovative public procurement can be really important, both for sort of, you know, in the moment, crisis management, but also for more general forward looking stuff.

Unknown Speaker 32:00
Gotcha. And advanced market commitments are just like a command of the governments that goes out and says, We will buy X amount of mass from you, if you if you go ahead and produce these digits, it’s going to ensure that there will be demand if you spin up all these crazy fixed costs, to you know, create things like n95 Gotcha, gotcha. kilo, I’m curious, how has it been founding your own Think Tank? And what has been the biggest challenge? Is it fundraising? Is it making connections? Is it is it something else entirely,

Caleb Watney 32:31
that anything jank has been honestly, really fun. It’s been great, it’s gone better, honestly, I think than either of us expected. I think when we were first kind of starting off, we were envisioning it as just like a small two person thing that would maybe eventually scale up. But we were kind of consistently challenged, both by mentors and advisors, people to turn it their own thing, and also some of our fundraisers, our donors to sort of think more ambitiously. And that, you know, there were sort of key niche that we were trying to fill that was important, and that we should, you know, expand more quickly. And I’ve been very glad that we did that. And I’ve been super excited about the team that we’ve been able to assemble, I think we’re doing great work, I think it’s it’s also been really rewarding to see that I think some of our ideas about underrated models of political engagement have so far turned out to have something to them. And that’s been rewarding. I also personally am like a bit of a generalist. And so I kind of liked the idea that, you know, one week I’m really digging in with our lawyers on, you know, the various legal structures we need to set up and then the next we’re, you know, talking to our accountants about the different ways to set up our books. And then we’re, you know, in full recruiting mode, and we’re going to conferences, but still trying to have some time to write and management and thinking through offices, and then you know, our website design and all those sorts of things. And so it’s definitely the kind of job that I think benefits from from having to have wide ranging interests and maybe getting bored if you’re on one task for too long. So I’m certainly never bored.

Unknown Speaker 34:00
That’s great. That’s great. Can you talk about those underrated kind of policy levers? You might have mentioned that before, kind of like secret Congress and things like that, but But are there any others?

Caleb Watney 34:10
Yeah, I think one thing is just trying to maintain as much flexibility as possible. I think, one sort of maybe bottleneck or barrier that think tanks run into is that they basically kind of over commit on a specific agenda ahead of time. And oftentimes, this happens for kind of legibility reasons for, you know, trying to promise something to various foundations that might be supporting your work, you know, and you’ll say, Okay, we’re gonna, you know, this is our three year plan, we’re going to publish papers on X, Y, and Z, we’re going to make sure we have, you know, so many op eds published, we’re going to be hosting, you know, 20 different webinars, we’re going to do whatever and sort of, once you’ve kind of committed yourself to that model, you’re then really optimizing for say, specific outputs, rather than what is actually like the positive expected value swing we’re taking on a particular policy opportunity and policy windows open and close so quickly, you know, there’s a Got a small window a month, here’s really engaged and really dive in. And so having the sort of flexibility to sort of take resources or interview spin up or down projects very quickly, as these opportunities arise, I think has allowed us to be hopefully, you know, a bit more effective. I think also focusing on issues that get a lot less coverage. I mean, this really, like not many other think tanks, if at all, that are kind of focused on meta science issues and sort of how do we reform not just the amount that the government is spending on federal r&d, but the methods and the ways and the the funding mechanisms that they use? And so there’s like, a lot less competition in some sense, you know, versus an issue like federal privacy legislation, or, you know, texts, tax policy or, or welfare reform or any number of issues that have, you know, a lot more coverage from think tanks all across the board, sure of your marginal contribution, working in a very crowded area is much harder to have an impact. But if you can find, you know, sort of neglected significant intractable issues, then I think it’s much easier to punch above your weight.

Unknown Speaker 36:01
Well, have you guys been so successful in finding the collected trackball raises? Because you’re younger, you’re just like, more willing, like more truth seeking, you’re optimizing for truth seeking instead of something else like, like, What’s your theory behind that?

Caleb Watney 36:13
I think most people are, you know, on Netroots seeking in DC. Yes, maybe surprising as that is, I think most people are acting in good faith, certainly not everyone. But in general, I think you’ll you’ll have better predictions about people’s motivations. If you kind of come in with that. I think part of it comes from the fact that we’re drawing from maybe intellectual communities or networks that are much more underrated in DC or haven’t made as much of a splash. We sometimes think of ourselves as pulling from both this kind of progress studies community that is very focused on sort of how do you tangibly increase the rate of progress, especially through sort of technology and scientific mechanisms? And then also from the Effective Altruism community? And sort of, you know, how can you do the most good with your your time and money, and they’re kind of you know, they’ve helped popularize this network, this, this significant collectiveness and tractability framework I was talking about a little bit earlier, I was borrowed from that community. But there’s a lot of really interesting ideas and thoughts on privatization that come from those communities that because they’re just like, not that well known in DC, we just kind of naturally focusing, I think, on a different set of issues. So I think, yeah, I don’t know if there’s anything about us personally, you know, that makes us more moral or more truth seeking, I think we’ve just kind of been shaped by maybe a different set of intellectual influences. And I think hopefully, with some of the flexibility built into our model, we can have a bit more impact on this issues.

Unknown Speaker 37:41
That’s great. That’s great. You mentioned Effective Altruism, that one of the big EA nonprofits just released $100,000 essay prize to critique Effective Altruism. Well, of course, I asked, you know, like, Do you have any critiques of Effective Altruism yourself, like, and I want to preface this by saying, like, I really love EA. And I think it’s actually probably the most reflective kind of group I’ve ever been a part of. So like, I think I’m not here to get cheap shots. But I’m curious if you have any thoughts there. Yeah,

Caleb Watney 38:09
it’s funny. I mean, the hard thing about critiquing music, EA is that, of course, probably somebody has already made the critique already. And some portion of the community is like trying to push it in a different direction. So one of the things I like about the community is that it is quite heterogeneous, there’s people, you know, with very strong intellectual disagreements with each other, pushing it in very different directions. But I don’t know if this counts is a bit of like a half critique, it’s maybe a critique of where EA was a few years ago, they’ve started to make some changes in this direction, or, and I’m excited to see those. But I think we could still go much further. And that would be sort of thinking about impact in areas that are much harder to quantify, are fuzzier. And I think EA very naturally, sort of, you know, grew up in this environment where we’re trying to sort of really maximize on a per dollar basis, how can you do the most good in the world. And so things that are very legible, are things that are very rigorous in terms of we we know, reliably, sort of how impactful say, sending anti malarial bed nets to Sub Saharan Africa is or we know the impact of deworming pills on average. And we can measure that we can like go and directly investigate and see the impacts. And we can sort of know how impactful the marginal dollar spent is. But for something, say, like a campaign, through public policy to increase the odds of a pandemic preparedness funding bill happening, like how much money do you have to spend to increase the odds of that by 20%? Like, is almost like no way. It’s so sort of path dependent. It’s so fuzzy, it happens, you know, sort of in fits and starts, and maybe over a longer time horizon, you can start to draw trends about sort of what what are the odds and certainly we think we have methods that worked better than average, hopefully. But I think EA has in the past been quite hesitant to engage in public policy because it is the value calculation or sort of the Trying to figure out how much good you’re doing is so much harder. Now, as I mentioned, I think in recent years, this has become much less the case you started to see EAS caring a lot more about policy investing more, you know, we have a donor. So certainly, you know, that’s, we’re very thankful for that. And I think a sign that this sort of community is starting to move on. But that that is one thing. I think we still have more to go on.

Unknown Speaker 40:21
Definitely. Well, and and I just say a lot of people’s work is connecting this, you know, a lot of ideas to that, like you mentioned, like, to the policy space, it’s kind of a $20 bill on the sidewalk, you guys are picking up is the fact that you know, aren’t a lot of EAs that are working directly in policy. Is your sense? Do you have a sense at all, whether Washington has changed much since you got started? I mean, you’ve worked in think tanks before and then founded one, has it gotten easier to do things harder to do things? And what’s your sense of how political polarization has moved?

Caleb Watney 40:52
That’s a good question. And a tough question. I would say I mean, so I’ve been in the DC area for, you know, about seven years now, which is on the one hand, like kind of a long time, but also not at all a long time on on the you know, sort of the timescale of policies, not even, you know, a single to term presidency by by that metric. B, I think there have been some changes, I mean, certainly is this sort of, like, secret Congress thing, I think has become more pronounced that the last eight years have been a time of very intense polarization. And as kind of things get more and more polarized, the idea of moving slightly behind the scenes, that trying to deliberately not get too much public attention for an issue. And that that might actually make it harder to work, I think, is somewhat of a more recent phenomenon. Maybe even more recent, though, is that I actually wonder if we’re getting slightly less polarized than maybe we were just a couple of years ago. And as an example, you could say, I mean, I would not have bet in 2020, that the US would have passed a big infrastructure bill. And yet we did, we passed a big bipartisan infrastructure bill, fingers crossed, but I think we will probably pass the bipartisan Innovation Act at some point this year, maybe in the lame duck, but I think it’ll probably happen. And that’s, again, like a bipartisan investment in science and technology, sort of with the goal of maintaining American technological leadership. I thought that there was some significant chance that Republicans would just refuse to confirm a lot of Biden’s nominees for various, you know, cabinet level positions. And yet that probably happened, you know, there there were nominations that happened. And so I think it’s slightly unclear maybe this is sort of a maybe a bit of a speculative, spicy take. But maybe the increasing focus on more cultural issues in the last couple of years has actually opened up room for a bit more ideological diversity within parties on economic issues. And that’s led to a bit, you know, have an easier time to actually horse trade on on some of these key issues. So I don’t know if that’s true. But it might be one theory about what’s happening.

Unknown Speaker 42:53
That’s great. That’s great. Well, Caleb, I’m curious, you know, if I have you back on the show here in 50 years, and I am planning on doing it for another few years, this realistic, what’s the biggest impact you can imagine the infant Institute for progress having?

Caleb Watney 43:11
Well, I hope that in some sense, we are not working on the same issues we are that we made so much progress on, on on immigration, on meta science and on biosecurity, that, you know, we’ve sort of called it today. And we don’t have to work on those those policy issues. And we can be working on, you know, much more niche issues, maybe we’re working on sort of, you know, governance of Martian space law or something. So, I certainly, we really hope to make tangible impact on those three issues on others, I think we hope to bring increased short of technological capacity to DC that sort of the ability to understand foresee and directly proactively both speed up and shape the direction of technology will be increased in DC. I hope we will have not died in say, you know, a massive comment or bioengineered pandemic or we won’t have had a solar storm or any number of various, you know, mega cataclysmic events. So if we’re all alive, and if, you know, we’ve made good progress in some of these core issues, and, you know, total factor, productivity growth is up. We’re all had, you know, 200k GDP per capita, you know, I’ll call it today. It seems like we’ve done some good.

Unknown Speaker 44:23
Excellent, excellent. I love that. I love that. And do you feel Do you feel bullish right now about the 20, the 2020s and escape in the great stagnation? Do you think we will have significant TFP growth over the next kind of decade?

Caleb Watney 44:36
Um, I think it really depends on what we do in the next couple of years. That sort of I think a lot of the preconditions are there that, you know, there’s a lot of technologies that we’ve sort of been laying the foundations for a long time, both artificial intelligence, some of these, you know, really interesting bio technologies like CRISPR. I think Someday Someday we’ll get driverless cars and you know, autonomous drones and anytime Have you know things that can change the way cities are designed and increased productivity? But it’s really going to be I think about policy, it’s going to depend on what we do about clean energy, it’s going to depend on whether or not we can build things in the physical world, it’s going to depend on whether we can set up new institutions that are capable of say reforming themselves or can you know, get rid of old laws and establish new ones that we need? So I hope we can and I think there’s some amount of sort of a can do optimism that actually makes it more likely to happen. And so I will manifest into the to the world that yes, we will get over the great stagnation, if only because we think we can.

Unknown Speaker 45:34
I love that. I love that. I’ve got kind of one last question here that is related that you mentioned building things in the physical world and the problems we have with that we had Eli the radio on, I might have mispronounced his last name. Sorry, Eli, if I did, but I am curious how big of a problem do you think NEPA is? And do you think, is there any promise that we’ll be able to do something about it here in the next decade,

Caleb Watney 45:57
I think it’s quite a big problem. I’ve been quite persuaded by Eli and other folks that have been sort of, you know, drawing more attention to this NEPA issue. I think it is maybe an understandable reaction to some of the excesses of the 1970s in terms of, you know, Robert Moses, you know, bulldozing large sections of, you know, minority neighborhoods in New York, and we kind of said to ourselves, we’re never gonna let this happen again, and perhaps the pendulum, you know, went too far, or some of these, you know, mechanisms meant to provide democratic accountability and facts don’t and especially if you’re in such small, isolated groups, and the you know, who really has the time to show up at community engagement meetings is not actually representative of the local community there. So I think NEPA and this larger set of issues that are also included, you know, zoning issues, and it’s sort of the promiscuous distribution of veto points, as I think I’ve heard someone say, sort of become too large. And at some level, we need to either move the decision level up somewhat so that we at the you know, state or national level can sort of decide, okay, yes, we actually do want to build housing. And we’re not going to let you know, local individual actors say, not my backyard. Alternatively, at least on the housing issue, in particular, I’m interested in this idea that John Myers and some of our friends in the UK have been talking about and piloting their around street votes and sort of moving the decision level down to a point where actually the individual actors who would be benefiting from increased density are allowed to, you know, individually episode their stream, I think that’s an interesting approach, as well.

Unknown Speaker 47:25
Oh, that’s really that’s really cool. Is there? Is there another approach here in the United States, where we go up? Is there a policy lever, you see where we can move zoning decisions up? I mean, I don’t know enough about the kind of federal government apparatus to, to know where that yeah, there’s,

Caleb Watney 47:38
it’s easier, much easier to do on the state level than on on the national level, there’s, you know, some efforts to maybe say tie, you know, transportation funding or other kinds of, you know, financial incentives to actually tangibly building up. But most of this is happening on the state level, you’re seeing a number of active bills and California and Oregon and, you know, a bunch of other states to sort of tie the hands of localities are actually used go sort of, you know, carrots and sticks to actually make sure that local areas are building the housing that we need.

Unknown Speaker 48:09
That’s great. That’s great. Well, Caleb, thank you so much for coming on the show. Where can we send people? Where can people find you?

Caleb Watney 48:15
Sure. Probably the easiest place is Twitter, where you know, we’re quite active there as it’s we’re actually a lot of Hill staffers are so we try to be accessible there. So I’m at Caleb Watney on Twitter. You can also follow our work at the institute for progress website, which is progress dot Institute. not.com not org dot Institute. So yeah, that’s probably the two best places.

Unknown Speaker 48:38
Awesome. Thank you, kalo.

Caleb Watney 48:39
Of course yeah, thanks for having me. It was a fun conversation.

Unknown Speaker 48:45
Special thanks to our sponsor, Bismarck analysis for the support. Bismarck analysis creates the Bismarck brief, a newsletter about intelligence grade analysis of key industries, organizations and live players. You can subscribe to Bismarck free at brief dot Bismarck analysis.com. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week with a new episode of narratives. Special thanks to Donovan Dorrance, our audio editor. You can check out documents work in music at Donovan dorrance.com

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