A Model for Activism
The Abundance Agenda
People need stuff.
People need housing, food, medical care, transportation, and physical manufactured objects. People need energy and shipping and trucking.
And all stuff comes from somewhere. Food comes from farms and factories and eateries. Manufactured goods are made in factories and transported on ships, trains, and trucks. Energy comes from power plants and gas lines.
Damage to the means of production — the sources of stuff people need — means material deprivation for humans. Invariably, more vulnerable humans (poorer, sicker, less privileged) suffer the most from this.
By contrast, expanding supply is good for humans. More stuff (and stuff getting where it needs to go) means fewer shortages. More stuff means lower prices and expanded access. More stuff means better lives.
This is the basic thesis of what Derek Thompson calls the "abundance agenda”, Ezra Klein calls “supply-side progressivism”, Noah Smith calls “new industrialism”, Katherine Boyle of Andreessen Horowitz calls “American dynamism”, and the Institute for Progress simply calls “progress.”
The common theme is that the US (and other industrialized countries) need to change policy to encourage more supply, and particularly to fight the rising cost of sectors like education, childcare, medical care, energy, housing, and public transportation.
Abundance Requires Unblocking
There are regulatory barriers that block us from expanding production. Things like:
near-total bans on new nuclear power plants
intense restrictions on construction of all types of power generation, storage, transmission, and interconnection
restrictions on building new housing in cities
restrictions on new factory construction
restrictions on new hospital construction
restrictions on manufacturing and sale of drugs, diagnostic tests, and medical devices
restrictions on shipping and infrastructural improvement
and many more.
Breaking through regulatory barriers is an essential pillar of an “abundance agenda.” While many abundance advocates are also interested in expanding government funding (for R&D, infrastructure, or providing goods free to the public), most acknowledge that removing obstructionist regulations is necessary as well.
We can’t build unless we’re allowed to.
Projects can’t get off the ground if they’re stuck indefinitely waiting for bureaucracies to grant permits or approvals.
Unblocking vs. Deregulation
The goal of unblocking is to remove the governmental restrictions that restrict supply.
It’s not about removing regulations for its own sake. In fact, removing the wrong regulation in isolation can make the supply situation worse on the margin.
For example, Texas has a “deregulated” energy grid, meaning that power generation and distribution companies can compete on a market. But the Texan energy industry is still heavily distorted by regulation. The government-created “electricity market” only allows power companies to charge for immediate provision of power — not to sell longer-term contracts guaranteeing a reliable power supply. Naturally, this means power companies had little incentive to invest in reliability, resulting in the catastrophic power outages of winter 2021.
In the context of a highly artificial “mixed economy”, removing one regulation can allow a different market distortion to run rampant, making the supply situation worse rather than better. An “unblocking” approach to regulatory reform would focus on removing market distortions rather than just deleting regulations per se.
Moreover, when the advocates of deregulation are industry lobbying groups, they will prioritize loosening regulations in ways that enrich industry incumbents, rather than prioritizing public benefit. An activist agenda focused on changing the regulations that harm the public most would look substantially different from the “deregulation” agendas promoted by industry insiders.
The Unblocking Agenda Is Still Missing
People I’ve talked to at the Institute for Progress and the Schmidt-Futures-affiliated policy org, Plaintext Group, have indicated that it’s easier to find people with experience in how to get federal funding for new projects than experience with tactics for breaking down regulatory blockages.
There are, of course, libertarian advocacy organizations and think tanks that have been around for a long time, like the Cato Institute and the Institute for Justice , and they often address harmful restrictions on production, like occupational licensing and the Jones Act.
Libertarian think tanks, however, tend to focus on things you can do as a relative political outsider — researching and articulating the harms of bad laws and regulations, and pursuing litigation to overturn them. They don’t do much of the other aspects of pursuing political change: drafting and promoting legislation, seeking policy changes within regulatory agencies, or promoting value-aligned candidates into key elected or appointed positions.
Moreover, you don’t have to be a libertarian to believe in the abundance agenda, and it may be valuable to have an organization pursuing regulatory unblocking that isn’t committed to libertarian ideology.
The YIMBY movement in California has taken a very different approach to housing policy — they introduce lots of bills into the legislature, to end particular restrictions on building or to forbid local municipalities from restricting housing supply. They also work to get housing-friendly candidates elected. And, far from being free-market purists, they are mostly Democrats and leftists who support public housing and unions.
I could imagine more organizations taking a YIMBY-like approach to industries besides housing — things like energy, logistics, manufacturing, and healthcare. Laser-focused on getting rid of supply bottlenecks, shortages, and unaffordability; pragmatic and willing to seek alliances wherever they can be found.
Anatomy of a Successful Unblocking
Back in 2021, Flexport CEO Ryan Peterson wrote a popular Twitter thread about the backlog of ships clogging the Port of Long Beach in Southern California. He said ships were stuck waiting because of a port rule against stacking shipping containers more than two high. Within 8 hours, Robert Garcia, the mayor of Long Beach, had temporarily rescinded the rule.
Did it work?
It’s hard to say whether Peterson’s tweets were the decisive factor, but the shipping backlog in Long Beach is substantially reduced today, while ports in New York and New Jersey are more congested than ever. I’m tentatively comfortable calling it a success story.
Using the Long Beach shipping backlog as a model, we can think about heuristics for effective unblocking.
Identifying a policy to change.
First, we need to identify the specific policies that are bottlenecking supply. Here, that was container stacking rules (and other port policies like the queuing system).
Identifying decisionmakers who can change policy.
Second, we need to reach the people who have the authority to change a bad policy. Here, that was the mayor of Long Beach.
For many stagnant areas of the U.S. economy, these are open questions.
Which policies and which decisionmakers are responsible for preventing the construction of new ports, new nuclear power plants, new generic drug manufacturing plants, and so on? In a complex regulatory environment, it can be difficult just to identify the ideal incremental changes.
Generating the Unblocking Agenda
A think tank could have a research agenda entirely devoted to identifying a set of little-publicized policies that were causing disproportionate harm and would be high-impact to reverse.
New Science’s report on the NIH is a potential model here. Based on anonymized interviews with participants in the NIH science funding process, it presents a picture of what these scientists think is most dysfunctional (and what they think is working well).
You could do something similar for industry participants (executives and workers at established companies, startup founders, customers) in other sectors. What policies do they think are most damaging?
You could then consult with economists or other outside experts, to see if they’d predict that changing the most-complained-about policies would increase supply.
In some famous cases, like the Jones Act, all of that work has already been done; it’s uncontroversial that the Jones Act substantially restricts the supply of shipping. But in many other cases the critical bottlenecks are opaque and research is valuable.
Advancing the Unblocking Agenda
The US system of government is divided into three branches; the legislative, the executive, and the judicial.
Similarly, policy change can be broadly divided into three categories.
Legislative Policy Change
Introducing new bills and getting legislatures to pass them. Campaigning for the election of legislators who support your policy agenda.
Executive Policy Change
Persuading regulatory agencies to change their policies (or persuading mayors, governors, and presidents to order them to do so). Getting officials who support your policy agenda hired or appointed; getting officials who oppose your agenda fired.
Judicial Policy Change
Challenging policies in the courts. Advancing legal theories that bad policies are illegal or unconstitutional; finding and pursuing test cases; getting laws overturned or regulatory agencies ordered by courts to change their policies.
All three approaches are relevant to an activist agenda for unblocking abundance. Specific policy organizations might specialize in one, or focus on a combination.
The choice of approach determines organizational strategy. An activist organization that focuses on judicial policy change, for instance, is going to be hiring a lot of lawyers and writing a lot of legal briefs.
Ultimately, we need “all of the above” for the best results.
Is This Possible?
I have no idea. Policy and activism aren’t things I know much about.
My friend Zvi has recently started a policy organization, Balsa Research, and he thinks they have a shot.
Some reasons to be hopeful:
There’s money, momentum, and talent coalescing behind an “abundance agenda.”
There’s enormous instability in today’s political discourse. You can advocate for ambitious change without sounding like a weirdo, because everyone sounds like a weirdo these days. When mainstream Democrats and Republicans are pushing ugly culture-war extremism, the definition of “normal” is up for grabs.
The supply chain crisis is revealing a lot of weaknesses in the global production and supply system. Systemic slow-burning problems are becoming dramatic, highly visible emergencies. This can bring the urgency of policy change into the public eye.
Unblocking abundance could involve a lot of “pulling the rope sideways”. It’s hard to achieve policy change on controversial issues with loud constituencies both for and against. Little-known bureaucratic rules, however, might not have a strong constituency of supporters; they might just remain in place due to inertia and lack of awareness, which means that a small group of committed activists can hope to change them.
The main concern I have is that the “unblocking agenda” requires a lot of labor-intensive work. It’ll take time and manpower to do properly. I’d love to be wrong, but I haven’t seen any evidence that you can do this without a large headcount and a fairly long time horizon (beyond 2025 and perhaps beyond 2030).
Correction: an earlier version of this post contained an incorrect summary of a conversation with Caleb Watney.