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Giving Thanks

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful that America exists. America was created in quite a bloody way, like all countries (except Belgium) and like all the great American states that predated it, but today we’re a rich happy country that’s nice to live in. People have been down on America recently, and are even feeling bad about Thanksgiving. But America is great, mostly because it’s such a nice place to live, since America’s effects on the world are really much smaller than our effects on America.

Even if you don’t count America’s own happiness and prosperity as a reason it’s good, all things considered, it’s a blessing that we exist.

And I am going to tell you why.

First, America is history’s most benevolent and restrained hegemon.

It’s not surprising that America’s dominance has coincided with the only worldwide increase in peace and living standards that has ever happened, because we’re just way better than the world powers of the past. Yes, there have been lots of atrocities. But we do fewer of these than most powers, and they are more or less on accident. Even when we cause disasters (like Iraq) we don’t even steal the resources. We just try to do something that’s good (like kill Saddam) and then accidentally destroy a country. 

Yes, we were much more willing to invade Latin America for selfish reasons before the Franklyn Roosevelt administration. But even then we placed strict limitations on how much invading other great powers could do, and they were were only really able to get away with it during the civil war. Even our Latin American fiascos generally followed the pattern of trying to improve a bad situation and finding it impossible.

This is very different from what other great powers try to do. Other great powers really want to conquer places and steal things from them, and the world really does see America as the best alternative. Countries that we have had huge recent wars against, like Viet Nam, tend to take our side on foreign policy. Yes, every country (even our allies) likes to complain about us, but, when push comes to shove, they’re on our team, and they get very upset when America recuses itself from a conflict.

The world of the 21st century can intelligibly be seen as a community of peaceable nations who all get along, excepting a few “rogue states”. This is new. “Rogue state” made no sense before 1991; the world was nothing but “rogue states” because there was no law against which roguishness could be defined.

So America really is improving the world today.

Second, it’s good to have rich neighbors, because trade works like gravity. Many people think of wealth as a zero-sum war of resources, but that’s really not how it works. Instead, having rich neighbors is good and helps you be rich. This is a corollary of the gravity theory of trade. The richer and more productive a country is, the richer its trade partners can be, because it makes what they provide more valuable. That’s why Mexico has gotten so much richer since NAFTA. The world economy really is not zero sum. The richer you are, the better for everyone else.

Granted, there are problems with having other countries be rich because it contributes to global warming, since rich countries use more oil. But even in the worst case scenarios, world GDP is still going to increase over the next decades, and people will still undoubtedly be richer in a world that gets to trade with America than one that does not.

Third, America has a wonderful culture of innovation and this has made every person in the world much better off.

It’s hard to convince people just how awful the past was, but it really was awful, and the reason the modern world isn’t nearly as bad is largely America’s culture and institutions of innovation.

If you wanted to list the technological improvements that have most improved the world since 1900, they would probably be:

  1. The electrification of Industry
  2. Gasoline powered travel (the automobile and diesel trains)
  3. Mass long-distance communication
  4. The Green Revolution
  5. Penicillin

And these are, more or less, American innovations. Yes, Penicillin was discovered by a Scotsman: Alexander Fleming, and its medical applications were established by a team at Oxford, but then the British government was unwilling to invest in its mass production and they went to the Americans instead.  The others are more straightforwardly American.

mRNA vaccines were the most effective against COVID-19 and are shaping up to be possibly the most important discovery of our young century. They are not the creation of any single scientist, but instead an accretion of research from hundreds of scientists in dozens of teams, from countries across the world. But while many of the most important scientists in the development of mRNA haven’t been Americans, they’ve done their best work here. 

More than having individual great scientists, America has a culture, an institutional framework, and an educational system that fosters innovation, especially among immigrants.

Is it possible those immigrants would have made the same inventions if they never had the chance to come to America? Yes, but it’s unlikely. The Soviet Bloc forcibly kept all its brightest minds within its borders and delivered much less innovation during the Cold War than Eastern Europeans have been able to deliver since, so it’s very likely that destroying one big center of innovation would reduce innovation worldwide. Are there other countries these immigrants could have done their research in? Well, the only other well funded universities in immigrant-friendly societies are in the UK, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Singapore, and the Netherlands. Those are just not as big as America. America is just so much bigger. This bad boy can fit so many fucking immigrants in it.

Most of the exciting upcoming technology is at least in part American:

  1. Semaglutide! Semaglutide is about to lengthen the human life expectancy by multiple years. It’s a weight loss drug, but unlike other weight loss drugs, it actually works, and it doesn’t kill you. This is so important that I can’t believe how little people talk about it. My guess is that people who closely follow science news tend not to be fat, and so are afraid to lose the smugness of superiority. But they’re being bad. Obesity is an extremely common deadly disease. And, it is a disease that may disappear. Semaglutide is just one of a generation of weight loss drugs that are in development right now, including tirzepatide, which is coming out of Eli Lily and may be even more effective.  These are all piggybacking off the discovery of Liraglutide, a similar but slightly less effective molecule discovered at, you guessed it, Johns Hopkins.
  2. Electric cars are really good and really important. And, for whatever reason, Tesla’s technology simply blows everyone out of the water. Tesla’s huge improvements in battery technology over its competitors are going to be essential for not just cars but also using renewables, which can generate electricity very cheaply but are unreliable, necessitating much more electricity storage than humanity has needed in the past.
  1. Fusion. Sci-fi fans have thought fusion was 20 years away for almost a century now, but maybe we’re actually going to have it in like three years. The key innovation is this tape covered in tiny electromagnets. This would make the world almost immeasurably better, and has the potential to basically solve the climate change problem.

Now, it’s an open question whether this is actually going to work. I was just at a party with two grad students from the Princeton Plasma Lab, perhaps the world capital of fusion research. One of them told me the startup has already solved all the hardest technological problems and that this tape gives them a massive advantage over the older technology Tokamak. The other told me absolutely not.

We’ll see what happens.

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