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Interview: Ezra Klein, journalist and author
In which we talk about the Abundance Agenda, polarization, Musk's Twitter takeover, crypto, and more!
I still remember when I started reading Ezra Klein, way back in 2005, living in my little one-room apartment in Osaka and thinking about maybe going to grad school. It was Ezra who first opened my mind to ideas about urbanism, housing and transit — who made me realize that the functional city I saw around me was the result of deliberate policy choices. His intellectual but casual writing style was also an inspiration for me to start blogging.
Fast-forward a decade and a half, and I don’t think it’s a very controversial statement to say that Ezra Klein is one of the most important journalists in America. He founded Vox, one of the more important new digital content sites to come out in recent years, before moving on to the New York Times. His 2020 book, Why We’re Polarized, helped Americans understand the unrest of the 2010s. Most recently, his writing has focused on the need for America’s liberals to embrace an economic philosophy centered around material abundance — a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. Now he’s co-authoring a book on this idea with Derek Thompson, which I am very excited to read.
In the interview that follows, I talk to Ezra at length about this idea of abundance. We also touch on various important topics of the day — Twitter, the crypto crash, and the recent election. Enjoy!
N.S.: I think we should start out with the thing I'm most excited about: your idea of "supply-side progressivism" and the vision of abundance. Last September you wrote a widely read post where you called for progressives to focus more on providing material abundance, in areas like housing, energy, and health care. You've been following up on that idea since then, and now you're writing a book on the topic with Derek Thompson, who has been advocating similar ideas. In your own words, how would you sum up the core of this agenda? And why is now the time for it to take center stage?
E.K.: Glad you’re excited! And happy to be here, at (on? in?) one of my favorite newsletters.
Okay! The short version is simply this: A key driver of inequality and insufficiency and environmental destruction is scarcity. We don’t have enough of the things we need — including, but not limited to, housing, clean energy, and health care (though that last is a more complicated case).
But I’d add another level to this: There are the things we know how to make but haven’t made enough of, and then there are the things we don’t know how to make that could, if made, solve tremendous problems or open new vistas of human flourishing. So, to me, a progressive agenda for invention is an equal part of this project. I want progressivism to see more clearly the problems it could solve through production, and to think more expansively about the possibilities it could unlock through invention.
Then there’s the “why now?” question. There’s no single answer to that. For me, a few lines of thought and fright and hope converged into this.
One is that I’m a Californian. I moved back here in 2018. The state has terrible problems that neither its wealth nor its liberalism have come close to solving (and, in some cases, they’ve worsened them). A lot of those problems are rooted in scarcity and the difficulty of building anything — houses, high-speed rail, green energy projects — here. So an ongoing confrontation with the problems of the state I love is pretty core to my journey here (and, of course, recognizing that these problems are mirrored in many other blue states).
Another is that I’ve spent the last few years trying to understand what decarbonization really demands. I won’t lay out the whole case here (see this podcast, or this column, for more) but decarbonization requires building new infrastructure at a clip completely unlike anything we’ve seen in America in recent decades. An America that decarbonizes is an America that builds, and builds fast. We do not, now, have that competency. If you care about decarbonization, you have to care a lot about building. And so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand why so many things we do try and build come in so pricey, and so late. Investigate enough of those and you begin to worry about liberalism’s ability to deliver on clean energy supply.
A third is that I’ve watched the way politics plus technology can do what politics alone cannot. Since 2010, we’ve underperformed on passing climate policy, by a lot, compared to what I would’ve hoped. But the policies, in America and elsewhere, that subsidized wind and solar and battery research and deployment have way, way outperformed expectations — they’re the only reason we have any hope of non-catastrophic climate outcomes today. Similarly, the pandemic hit, and within a year, the politics supporting distancing and lockdowns and solidarity was clearly collapsing. It was vaccines and other therapeutics that really came through (though of course there’ve been problems with political polarization around vaccines, too). Those cases, and others, kept me thinking about where else government could pull forward the technological frontier to solve otherwise intractable problems or create new possibilities.
I could keep going, but I realize this has become, erm, overly abundant!
N.S.: Thanks for the kind words! So anyway, I'm obviously very much with you on all these points (especially since I'm now a Californian as well). How did we get to where we are today? Why did America stop caring about providing this kind of material abundance, and why haven't progressives championed it more strongly?
E.K.: Here, again, I'm not sure there's one answer. I think there are interlocking problems, and what I offer here is by no means a complete list. One problem on the progressive side, in my view, is that there are poorly understood forces in progressivism that are very skeptical of government action, often for good reasons. The environmental and conservation movements really are responding to a history where governments built heedlessly, let corporations dump toxins into water, and thought little of despoiling public lands. The public interest sector really does have a history of corporate capture of government to contend with. There really are profound problems of how governments ally with developers and run over the concerns or needs of weaker communities. All that is real. The systems and statutes and movements that arose in the 60s and 70s to push back against it were needed. But if you're lucky, your solutions work well enough to become the next generation's problems. I think that's where we are now.
Then there's the problem(s) on the right. It's not just that the right is (sometimes) skeptical of government action. It's that it weaponizes government failures and inefficiencies in ways that makes governments more cautious, process-oriented, and bureaucratic. And it has pushed to outsource a lot of expertise, and sliced through a lot of administrative capacity, governments need. It drives me absolutely nuts watching conservatives, in times of crisis, complain that government is too cautious, or that it doesn't move fast enough, or that it's not flexible enough. How do you think it got that way?
Talk to anyone in government, who actually works under the kind of supervision and political threat that these agencies work under, and you quickly realize how much effort goes into trying to make sure everything is defensible under scrutiny, which means making it legible to hostile oversight, which means tying it to processes that murder the kind of discretion we value elsewhere. What we need is a government that funds some of the riskiest pursuits we're attempting, and that means being open to failure and, yes, inefficiency, when the expected value of the bets are high enough. This is one reason, I think, that a lot of major innovations come through spillovers of military research: The military, due to its exemption from the right's suspicion of government, doesn't operate under these strictures.
Then there's the problem of institutional drift. Processes arise in one era and crust over in another. Governments are designed for one set of problems then have to deal with another. Oftentimes the outcomes we're getting, or the systems that are failing, aren't in anyone's ideological or even financial interest. They're just running in the background, and are too hard or obscure to change, and so no one does much about them. I've tried, as a journalist, to be particularly attentive to institutional design and dynamics, and one lesson of following those questions is that it is not in anyone's interest typically to make changing them their top priority. You get a lot of hosannas for passing a big bill that puts money in people's pockets. You don't get much love for fighting a brutal political war to reorganize a bunch of agencies or change procurement rules.
Finally, I think the people who understand themselves as pro-technology really underestimate the damage that inequality and hyper-financialization has done to their cause. I don't think most people today experience technological change as closely related to abundance. There's a lot of consumer surplus online, but consumer surplus is a poor substitute for actual changes in power and wealth, and both power and wealth are more tightly concentrated today than they were in, say, the 70s. I got at this a bit in a recent column, but I think there's a tighter relationship between the politics of abundance and the politics of innovation and the politics of egalitarianism than a lot of people who believe in the first two ideas want to accept.
Again, that's a very partial list, and this is a place where I have a lot of research and thinking left to do.
N.S.: The common theme I'm hearing throughout all of this is a country that has focused obsessively on redistribution -- and not "redistribution" how economists think of it, with taxes taking from the rich and giving to the poor, but basically just carving up the pie between special interest groups. And that focus seems to have made us forget about the need to keep growing the pie, so that we view any group's gain as another's loss, and in the end this just breeds stasis. Would that about sum it up?
And if so, what can knock us out of this zero-sum special-interest mindset?
E.K.: I don't really see it that way. I think this is a place where Mancur Olson and the public-interest types have gotten a lot of people confused. Some of this is about redistribution. Most of it isn't. He was too focused on people carving up the pie, and not nearly focused enough on post-material or even pre-material concerns. People who want to sustain the nature of their community or fear that developers care little for ecosystems or simply don't want to annoy all of their voters by focusing on institutional reform aren't focused on redistribution.
I will spare you a long rant about how much I loathe the metaphor of the "the pie." But I will say I think the most common way of misunderstanding politics, both on the left and the right, is to apply an overly narrow materialist analysis. I would in many ways prefer that political motivations were more materialist, because positive-sum settlements would be easier to construct, but my hopes keep being dashed (with the political failure of the expanded child tax credit being only the most recent, and painful, example).
N.S.: That's a good point about the child tax credit. There was this widespread idea -- which I bought into -- that universal or mostly-universal benefits would enjoy expanded support. And yet people didn't favor keeping those benefits around after the pandemic, for whatever reason. It really does seem like people's preferences about economic policy involve a lot of "vibes", status concerns, moral concerns, and so on.
So tell me this: How does the Abundance Agenda deal with this? We want everyone to have cheap nice places to live, cheap plentiful energy, cheap health care and child care, and so on. How do we know that's what Americans are actually interested in? Or what they would actually like? Why should we think it won't run into "post-material" concerns like the child tax credit did? What's the psychological/social angle to the Abundance Agenda?
E.K.: Ah, I wouldn't make that claim for it, at least not broadly. You should always be cautious if someone promises their ideas taste great, carry no calories and are more filling. Very little comes without downside. And I don't think abundance comes without downside. This is something I've been trying to track closely in my writing and podcasting about decarbonization. The amount of land we're looking to turn to solar and wind is astonishing. And behind that is mass amounts of resource extraction to create the raw material for solar panels and lithium-ion batteries. A lot of people will hate what it takes to get to decarbonization. That doesn't mean it won't be better than what we have now, much less where we're going. It's not as if the fossil-fuel economy runs without human or environmental or aesthetic cost, and it's not as if unchecked climate change wouldn't rain horrors upon us. But the status quo gets a political pass that new policies do not.
One way of putting this is that the benefits of abundance are general but the costs are specific. There's tremendous, broad gains from abundant housing, but the apartment buildings really do have to go up somewhere, and plenty of people do not like living next to apartment buildings. Living in a world with (relatively) stable temperatures benefits us all, but those wind farms and solar arrays have to go somewhere, and if that somewhere is your community, or the wildlands you love, you will be rightfully and reasonably pissed.
This is one reason why I think it's so critical to understand opposition to this kind of building sympathetically rather than contemptuously, which is what I often see. I love the YIMBY movement, and consider myself a YIMBY, but you shouldn't get yourself into such a bubble that you miss the naturalness of NIMBY sentiment. There's a reason building is hardest in richer communities where the residents have the most voice and power. A lot of the tech voices that find this agenda very appealing do not, in my experience, live in particularly dense census tracts, much less anywhere near a lithium mine.
This, to me, is the central challenge of supply-side progressivism: How do the costs of all this construction not just fall on those without the voice to oppose them? How do we do this in a way that carries some glint of fairness? And that's not just a moral question. If we don't figure that out, we probably cannot do this at all. Long-term. the politics of running over what communities want doesn't work. I do not pretend to have answers to that, but those are the questions I'm most interested in right now.
N.S.: You seem to have taken an attitude toward political persuasion that involves vocally sympathizing with your opponents' concerns -- saying "I hear you, but". Is there any indication that this works? Is there any sign that NIMBYs, or conservatives, are receptive to this sort of generous messaging? Or even that the message of sympathy and concern reaches their ears and penetrates their consciousness at all? I have to say, after years of watching NYT features trying to sympathize with Trump supporters, I became a bit disillusioned with this approach. But maybe I'm too cynical!
E.K.: I wouldn't really describe my view here as a view on political persuasion. I'm not really sure what works in that space, and as people who've read "Why We're Polarized" know, I tend to be more pessimistic than many on the possibilities for persuasion, particularly when people are dug into their positions. A lot of what can change, if it can change, will have to happen through institutional or procedural shifts. In California, for instance, there's a move towards granting certain kinds of affordable housing projects presumptive clearance or fast-track status if they meet a set of objective criteria. That effectively disempowers local opposition, and from what some developers tell me, it's done a lot to help them get units built. I think you'll need a lot of policies like that.
But you can't pretend any of these policies exist wholly outside of politics. If the voters of California hate the outcomes of these processes, they will neuter the procedural reforms through ballot initiatives or by electing different leaders. So you have to think seriously about how far you can go, and where you can have real space for community input, and how you can bring people along, and how you can understand what they will accept and what benefits or even compensation they can be offered.
I don't pretend to have answers on how best to do that, and as of now, I don't even have very strong views. This is a place I have a lot of work to do. But you're not going to get to any good answers if you don't have respect for why these are even questions. When I say that you have to spend real time trying to understand the opposition to these projects, and the kind of backlash that led to this set of outcomes and structures, I don't say that because I think there's any enchantment to finishing the sentence, "I understand you, but..." I say it because any serious effort to take stock of where we are has to include a serious effort to take stock of how we got here.
Dismissing people's motivations as simply self-interested or narrow-minded or "unserious," which I sometimes hear, is just a way to make yourself dumber. People are the heroes of their own stories. People respond rationally to real abuses and problems they see. A lot went wrong to create the counter-processes we now see. I've been critical of the ways the California Environmental Quality Act or the Clean Air Act can sometimes be weaponized, but that has to stand alongside an appreciation for why those bills were passed into law, and the disasters they stop even today.
And beyond that, I think it's just a mistake to not try and understand extremely widespread sentiments. I think it's telling that you see extremely strident rhetoric on building more and building faster out of the A16Z crowd, and you also have Marc Andreessen's name on a letter opposing multifamily housing in Atherton. Recognizing how natural and widespread some of these impulses are, how they vie for primacy even in the minds and households of people who hold a broadly pro-development politics, is just table stakes in this.
N.S.: Gotcha. Well anyway, let's put a pin in the Abundance issue for right now -- I'm sure we'll have plenty more to say about that in the coming years, and I'm very excited for the book. Anyway, let me get your takes on some current events. How are you feeling about Musk's takeover at Twitter?
E.K.: I’m going to take a bit of a lap here. I think what I wrote back in April, right when this acquisition was announced, is very much what’s happening. I’ll quote the relevant bit:
Twitter has survived, and thrived, because it has never been just what I have described here. Much of what can be found there is funny and smart and sweet. So many on the platform want it to be a better place than it is and try to make it so. For a long time, they were joined in that pursuit by Twitter’s executive class, who wanted the same. They liked Twitter, but not too much. They believed in it, but they were also a little appalled by it. That fundamental tension — between what Twitter was and what so many believed it could be — held it in balance. No longer.
[….]I think it will be more of a cultural change for Twitter than anyone realizes to have the master of the service acting on it as Musk does, to have the platform’s owner embracing and embodying its excesses in a way no previous leader has done.
What will Twitter feel like to liberals when Musk is mocking Senator Elizabeth Warren on the platform he owns and controls as “Senator Karen”? Will they want to enrich him by contributing free labor to his company? Conservatives are now celebrating Musk’s purchase of the platform, but what if, faced with a deepening crisis of election disinformation, he goes into goblin mode against right-wing politicians who are making his hands-off moderation hopes untenable or who are threatening his climate change agenda?
What will it be like to work at Twitter when the boss is using his account to go to war with the Securities and Exchange Commission or fight a tax bill he dislikes? Unless Musk changes his behavior radically, and implausibly, I suspect his ownership will heighten Twitter’s contradictions to an unbearable level. What would follow isn’t the collapse of the platform but the right-sizing of its influence…Musk is already Twitter’s ultimate player. Now he’s buying the arcade. Everything people love or hate about it will become his fault. Everything he does that people love or hate will be held against the platform. He will be Twitter. He will have won the game. And nothing loses its luster quite like a game that has been beaten.
And that’s where I think we are. I doubt Twitter will totally collapse. But I think its role in the media and political ecosystem is shrinking. Even before Musk, I thought its moment of peak influence had already come and gone. Sometime during or towards the end of the Trump administration, newsrooms began to stop using it as an assignment editor, and politicians began to wonder if it was doing them more harm than good, and tech billionaires began using it to reveal too much of how angry they’d become at their users and employees, and an overdue distance began to creep into the relationship that many in the industries I watch most closely have with the platform.
This was, in a way, what made the tech-conservative view of the “ Blue Checkmarks” so odd. The relationship a lot of Twitter’s power users had to the platform was always riven with self-loathing. Twitter was always barely above the line for so many people who contributed quite a lot of value to it. People were always quitting, then finding themselves unable to stay off, and slinking back. Making “Blue Checkmarks” pay for the privilege of hating themselves for spending so much time on Twitter got the psychology of the situation, and the actual possibilities and vulnerabilities of Twitter, backwards.
So now we’re caught between two opposing forces. On the one side, Musk may only be at the beginning of driving people off Twitter. I was perhaps unusual in being thrilled by his high-priced Blue Checkmarks plan: That would’ve triggered a mass exodus of power users. We’ll see what happens now, and what else Musk does to the staff, to moderation, to pricing, etc. But even if he just continues on his current course, it’s hard for me to see, say, Democratic politicians and staffers embracing Twitter as wholeheartedly in 2024 as they did in 2020. The fact that it is so thoroughly Musk’s robs it of the illusion of being, in any real way, a demos.
On the other hand, there’s really no alternative to Twitter. If there’d been something that was plausibly usable and fun, Twitter would be in much more trouble than it is. I’ve tried Mastodon, and while I honor what they’re trying to do there, it’s so contrary in terms of its values and speed and organization that it’ll never be a replacement for Twitter. The biggest question, to me, is whether someone builds something capable of harnessing the interest in an alternative. I’m halfway surprised Meta hasn’t opened up a barebones clone for people to cluster around. Musk is going to keep creating enough crises and headaches and contradictions that there’ll be an audience for it whenever someone does. Maybe that just becomes the liberal Truth Social, but maybe not — maybe it does to Twitter what Instagram did to Snapchat.
One question I’ve been asking myself lately is what I wish would happen, rather than what I think will happen. And what I think I wish would happen is an unbundling cycle.
You know the old idea that the media industry is just an endless cycle of bundling products, then unbundling them, then re-bundling them, then un-re-bundling, and so on? I think we could use a big unbundling cycle for social media. I really miss the basic functionality of RSS (and the functionality it still provides for podcasts): I’d like a place where I could simply sign up to see when people or institutions I choose to follow release new stuff.
I’d like to see more competition among news aggregators again, using different forms of recommendation algorithms and editorial judgment and general sensibility to offer different guides to what’s important that day. I’m happy about the explosion of newsletters, which at least revived the old form of the blog essay, but I’d like to see some kind of writerly ecosystem re-emerge, where there’s more room for conversations to play out — Twitter ate that side of the blogosphere, but did so in the worst, most toxic way.
Which is all to say: I’d like a bunch of smaller systems that do one thing, or a few things, well. Twitter was never a “global town square” but also there’s no such thing, and never could be such a thing, as a global town square. There’s a reason we have lots of different kinds of public spaces, most of them rooted in specific communities and contexts and functions. Right now we have too few behemoth platforms trying to do too much and doing it too poorly. I’d like a lot more platforms trying to do fewer things really well. Very little about Musk’s tenure has surprised me, but the bareness of the social media cupboard has been a surprise. Maybe it’s also an opportunity. I’m inspired by Robin Sloan’s call to make this a season of experimentation in how I use the internet, and what I use my energy to help bring into existence on the internet.
N.S.: Got any thoughts on the crypto crash?
E.K.: I think we're seeing that crypto continues to fail to solve two problems that seem pretty foundational to me.
The first revolves around the definition of "trust." Crypto culture is wrapped around the axle of a bad definition of trust. So much of the hype is about the way cryptographic verification and blockchain transparency will make trusting a counterparty or government or corporation unnecessary, and that will, in turn, make all kinds of middlemen and institutions and regulators unnecessary, because they were really there to make trust possible (whether or not you think they succeed).
But the crypto definition of trust is just weird. What most people want from a trusted service is something like, "This will work, and if someone tries to screw me over or steal my stuff, they will be stopped, or punished." Crypto doesn't only fail to provide that in most cases, it is literally built to make the provision of that service nearly impossible. Some of that is embedded in the technology itself — the more you work to fortify a decentralized technology from oversight and interference, the harder it becomes to reverse or police outrageous behavior. Some of that is embedded in the culture — FTX locating in the Bahamas to escape more stringent regulations and higher taxes was unremarkable within the crypto world, and a red flag to everyone else.
The bottom line, in all cases, is the same: The point of crypto is that it should solve problems of trust. Instead people keep seeing reason after reason that they can't trust crypto and the associated services that surround it. And the more you do to solve those problems the more you reinvent the very system you're trying to replace.
Which brings me to the second problem. There was, at least in the period of Web3 hype, this idea that crypto would solve the problems of Web2 — basically, two few corporations had amassed too much power over our digital lives. I think a simpler way of saying what's actually being said there is this: The internet was a culture and then it became a business, and as it became a business, a lot of what people loved about it was lost, and a lot that people hate about it was invented.
But this is a place where it seems to me that crypto is nearly self-contradictory: By starting with currencies and becoming the darling of VCs and incentivizing most every action through financialization, Web3 embeds hypercapitalism at its core, which makes it very difficult for Web3 to evade the pitfalls of hypercapitalism.
Sometimes this leads to absurdity, as in the same VCs who sit on the boards of the Web2 giants tweeting their hearts out about how Web3 will solve the problems that they created. Sometimes the problem is actually deeper, and the financial incentives just create too much pressure for scams and risky trades and opaque accounting and Ponzi-like designs. Then there's the obvious reality that the more crypto does to become central to things like finance or governance, the more tightly governed and regulated it will be, and the more we will need middlemen corporations able to protect and simplify the experience users have, and so the more Web3 will look like Web 2.
So here, again, you get a problem of the same structure: Crypto promises to solve a lot of problems of capitalism, or perhaps of financialization. But it's shot through, at every level, with those same (or worse!) problems of capitalism and hyper-financialization.
By the by, I think my podcast with Vitalik Buterin is useful as an exploration of these issues, and a place to hear some pushback to my concerns.
N.S.: I tend to agree about Twitter. So how are you feeling about the midterm results? My own take was an optimistic one -- election denial and insurrectionism seem to have lost big, and a closely divided House with Democratic Senate seems optimized for bipartisanship. But you're the guy who wrote the book on polarization. Am I right to be optimistic here? Could this be the start of a new trend of de-escalation in American politics?
E.K.: I think this is about whether you're baselining against expectations or ideals. Against expectations, the midterm went great. Against what you'd want to see in terms of the electoral backlash to, say, a Herschel Walker or a Kari Lake, I don't think it was encouraging at all. You don't want to see performance in the very high 40s for candidates who are manifestly unqualified, or who are running on a platform of election denial.
My basic take on the midterms is what I wrote in the Times: We're seeing not just polarization, but calcification, in the electorate. That was good for the Democrats this cycle: The other side is scary enough to their supporters that Democrats didn't see the kind of turnout collapse that governing parties often have in midterms, and they were able to win over enough wavering voters to overperform. But that's balanced by the country being caught at very near parity between the two parties, and that's true even for the very extreme, Trumpist-wing of the Republican party. So a slight shift in the winds could well blow a lot of very frightening people into power.
And calcification isn't a good thing. You don't want the parties to be so different that it's unimaginable for people to switch between them, as that makes it very hard for natural forms of accountability to take place. You may want to vote against your normal party, but the other side is so extreme that you can't, and so you accept malgovernance from your side that you'd otherwise have a way to check. So sure, the midterms could've gone worse. But I think this is the soft bigotry of what have become insanely, crazily low expectations for American democracy.