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Why I'm Out of Step with My Generation

Why I'm Out of Step with My Generation

March 28, 2024

Will Rinehart’s article “Why I’m Out of Step with My Generation” is a powerful and moving statement of America's importance in today's world.

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Why I’m Out of Step with My Generation

By Will Rinehart

The Dispatch

March 19, 2024

Among my millennial friends, and even more so for Gen Z, it’s common to believe that the United States is in terminal decline. But I remain an outlier because I think the United States’ best days could still be ahead. The country faces challenges, to be sure, but we have an abundance of resources and minds to meet those challenges. In this inaugural issue of Techne, I want to explain why I’m optimistic. 

The stubbornness of American abundance.

We have so much in the United States. 

Depending on how you count it, the United States is either No.1 or No. 2 in total arable land. We are a top cereal and a top agricultural exporter. And the United States contains most of North America’s chernozem belt, a region of intensely productive soil.

The United States has the second largest mineral wealth in the world, estimated at $45 trillion. While most of that wealth is in coal and timber, we have substantial deposits of copper, lead, molybdenum, phosphates, rare earth elements, uranium, bauxite, iron, nickel, potash, and many other minerals that make the modern world. 

We are a large, wealthy country close to the equator. I think most are surprised to learn that Kansas City has more sun hours in a year (2,814) than Rome (2,470). All of that sun means solar power, which has been a boon for the renewable power source in places like Texas. 

The United States is also energy independent for the first time since the early 1950s. Investments have led to a boom in crude oil and natural gas production. Since 2019, exports have been higher than imports, and in 2023 the United States was the largest oil producer in history.

The United States also has massive reserves of freshwater: the Mississippi River Systemthe Inland Waterway, and some 95,471 miles of shoreline. We have a large landmass, aren’t in open conflict with our neighbors, and we have oceans to our east and our west.    

But more important than these natural resources, the United States is abundant in the ultimate resource: people. 

Compared to other rich, industrialized nations, the United States has a big, young, educated population. Millennials number 72.1 million in the United States, and they are being followed by Gen Z, which numbers 69.6 million. These two large cohorts have kept our median age below the averages of our peers, creating a population pyramid that is far less top-heavy. Sure, our falling birthrate poses challenges, but we won’t be facing the immediate problems gripping countries like Germany, Italy, Japan, and South Korea. They are all aging rapidly and have top-heavy population pyramids, which means social safety nets will have lots of older people and fewer young workers to pay for them. In Japan, just 758,631 babies were born in 2023, both a 5.1 percent decline from the previous year and the lowest number of births since Japan started compiling the statistics in 1899.

Instead, the U.S. will be among a rarified few countries that are developed and will continue to grow into the near future. As I’ve written before, “That cohort is small though, and only includes Canada, Australia, Sweden, New Zealand, Norway, and maybe the United Kingdom. But that’s about it. Every developed country in the world will lose significant populations in the coming decades.” As millennials and Gen Zers age into middle adulthood, the demographic structure of the United States will offer a distinct advantage, maintaining a large base of consumers, investors, and taxpayers that will continue to propel growth.  

Despite recent missteps at some high-profile universities, our education system still ranks at the top in the world. Eight of the 10 best schools globally are located in the U.S. Education, along with opportunity, make this country coveted among immigrants

The United States is also home to Silicon Valley, a region still dominant in tech and entrepreneurialism. Despite its flaws, the region is still a place where, as one commenter explained, we have “no nostalgia for the old days, because we are always looking to rip the old stuff up and throw it away for something better.” 

That constant demand to do better has bred success. Eight of the world’s 10 largest companies by market capitalization are based in the U.S. 

We have abundance. It is a stubborn fact.

The U.S. is exceptional.

I’m also increasingly out of step with my generation because I see 1789 as the founding year of this country.

I’m not here to praise the Founders—they were at best wise barbarians. Instead, I want to recognize the pragmatic brilliance of the Constitution and the culture it created. Ours remains the longest lasting written constitution for a good reason. It is an aspirational document that came from the crucible of argument between federalists and antifederalists.

The preamble lays out the challenge: to be better than before, to strive to uphold justice, to maintain internal peace, to provide for national defense, to promote the general welfare, and to secure the freedoms for ourselves and for future generations.

It is from that rootstock that our exceptionalism grew—and yes, I do think the United States is an exceptional country. It’s exceptional because it’s a country built on a set of ideological commitments, which are constantly being fought over in public. Unlike some who see this country as a “unique source of incompetence and malevolence,” I still fundamentally believe in the American Experiment. We air our dirty laundry for everyone to see. 

No, we haven’t always upheld freedom, liberty, and justice. But each generation’s political leaders are still fighting over these ideologies. This constant contestation of freedom, in the words of the historian Eric Foner, remains “America’s strongest cultural bond and its most perilous fault line.” 

No country is without its faults, but the United States still embodies those ideals that were set down so many years ago. Liberty and the equality of the individual matter. And more importantly, this is a country where excellence is celebrated. 

A better tech-optimism.

None of this is meant to convince you that “actually things are good!” Rather, this is a way to make a simple point: I’m fundamentally optimistic about the next 50 years for this country and Techne will reflect that optimism. 

Tech-optimism has gotten a bad rap—and for good reason. Especially in Silicon Valley, the mindset has come to express a “blind faith in the power of technology to cure all ills, and particularly, to create economic growth.” But Techne won’t be advancing unbridled, unconstrained optimism. I’m shooting for something more practical and useful.  

Psychologists know people love to read negative articles. Our brains are wired for pessimism. Not surprisingly, news articles have gotten more negative over time. There is something deep within us all that demands doomerism. 

But if you want to get something done, optimism is more productive. This is one place where researchers agree: “Optimists are not simply being Pollyannas; they’re problem solvers who try to improve the situation.”

So what can be done to improve our situation? My former colleague Eli Dourado has laid out some of the action items:

If we wanted to raise American productivity, for example, we could simplify geothermal permitting, deregulate advanced meltdown-proof nuclear reactors, make it easier to build transmission lines, figure out why high-speed rail is so expensive, fix permitting generally, abolish the Jones Actautomate our ports, allow drones to operate autonomously, legalize supersonic flight over land, reduce occupational-licensing requirements, train more medical workersbuild more hospitals, revamp our pandemic-response institutions, simplify drug approvalsderegulate land use to allow denser housing and mixed-use neighborhoods, allow more immigration, cancel inefficient programs, restrict cost-plus procurement contracts in favor of more effective methods, end appropriations based on job creation, avoid political direction of scientific research, and instill urgency in grantmaking.

But there’s more we can do, especially in areas that don’t normally fall into traditional tech policy. 

We also need to create opportunities for anti-aging research, enhance ecosystems through wildlife corridors, replant seagrass and oyster beds, channel research dollars to atomically precise manufacturing, develop commercialism in spacesimplify regulatory regimes, better understand how aerosols interact with the climatebring back the American chestnut, work toward budget-friendly ultraviolet lights to kill viruses, set up moonshots for carbon sequestration and for sea oxygenation, eradicate disease-bearing mosquitoes, eliminate rabies, allow for easy access to prescription glasses online and access telehealth services, plant trees in targeted areas, develop cheap metagenomic scanning, and build desalination plants, just to name a few.  

Contemporary tech criticism displays a kind of anti-nostalgia. Instead of being reverent for the past, anxiety for the future abounds. In these visions, the future is imagined as a strange, foreign land, beset with problems. 

Techne won’t be that. 

Instead, it will attempt to understand and record the better future that is being built. 

Next week, I’m going to dive into what’s happening with TikTok, which is sure to make me lots of friends …   

Until then,

🚀 Will