It’s Time to Build for Good

Linh Nguyen/Running in a field

Americans have gotten quite bad at building things in physical reality. Although the United States remains on the frontier of information technology, we have neglected the mundane and the essential to the point of crisis. We now find ourselves unable to stick ear straps onto face-sized pieces of non-woven medical fabric at industrial scale. Decades of stagnation, offshoring, and complacency have caught up with us, and all of our institutions have failed to prevent the coronavirus from crippling the nation. Our physical decay can no longer be ignored. Marc Andreessen, in his recent essay “IT’S TIME TO BUILD,” has attempted a call to action. Like many in our time of stasis and drift, he yearns for an escape to a better future.

Reminding us that stagnation is a choice, Andreessen asserts that our crisis of construction is chiefly a problem of will. Though American manufacturing output is larger than ever, he notes, we have chosen not to build. “Is the problem technical competence?” Andreessen asks. “Clearly not,” he claims, “or we wouldn’t have the homes and skyscrapers, schools and hospitals, cars and trains, computers and smartphones, that we already have.” All of these things, Andreessen states, we are fully able to continue to build. We could even have the future if we wanted—flying cars and all—we just don’t want it hard enough.

If we are to take Andreessen at his word that America’s productive capacity lies latent, waiting to be unleashed, it follows that removing barriers to action will solve the problem. Institutional sclerosis is deep indeed, and the state inept. Barriers such as regulatory capture and “crony capitalism,” in Andreessen’s words, protect sluggish incumbents from the potential challenges of creative-but-disruptive new upstarts. The market forces needed to kickstart our great reconstruction are, in this telling, simply constrained. Remove these barriers, and we will build again. But Andreessen takes this principle of negation and makes it a general law: “we need to separate the imperative to build these things from ideology and politics. Both sides need to contribute to building.” Here lies the crux of Andreessen’s essay: our ability to build is not gone, merely dormant, and it is constrained not simply by political failure but by politics itself.

The broad thrust of Andreessen’s critique rings true. When we look around us, we see a world littered with the physical and institutional detritus of past failures—with depressingly little to show for any recent action, whatsoever. Political and legal sclerosis grip our governing bodies from the national legislature to city governments, and they smother our ability to build anything at all. The only choice we seem able to make anymore is the choice not to make anything. The American built environment has ossified, preserving our stagnation in amber; those looking to the future now look elsewhere—to science fiction and fantasy, perhaps. It is undeniable that we are undergoing a crisis of will—and that nearly everything around us in America cuts against the impulse to build a future. But is there really capability to do so, strangled by our current system, waiting to be unshackled? And must we somehow transcend politics to unleash it?

If we want to succeed in rebuilding the nation, we will need not just the destruction of existing barriers but the construction of positive political goals. In this light, Andreessen’s answer to the question of politics is quite strange. What does it mean to “separate the imperative to build these things from ideology and politics”? One can imagine Bay Area tech entrepreneurs nodding along to this essay, wishing that politics and the pesky state would just leave them alone to BUILD. This would be a fatal mistake.

To be sure, we must circumvent our current political paradigm. Yet this is not a separation from politics qua politics—it is politics. Building a new world is the most political question imaginable. Attempting to ignore the state in order to circumvent it only worsened its dysfunctionality; counterintuitively, it also led to administrative bloat, as a government replete with nonfunctional institutions is compelled to expand as new problems emerge over time. Attempting to transcend the political with flashy Harvard Business School applied-management techniques and productivity enhancer apps is a surefire way to repeat the stagnation of the 1970s and the substance-free marketing of the 1990s. Silicon Valley must recognize that it is optimized for a dysfunctional national ecosystem, and it is in everyone’s interest to realize this and push for broader societal reinvigoration. Short of this, we are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

To regain the will to build for real, we must first recognize where we chose to give it up in the first place. At the end of the Cold War, still armed to the teeth with ideological weapons to fight the Soviets, we looked out blinkingly over our sprawling empire (also known as “the liberal international order” or “the global economy”) and fell on our sword. The doctrines of free trade and market fundamentalism were useful ideological bludgeons against communism, but they also proved just as devastating to our own system when we unwittingly turned them against ourselves.

As a result, we chose not only to ignore the maintenance of vital production but also to intentionally disintegrate much of our advanced industrial capacity. The heady techno-optimist 1990s saw legions of McKinsey consultants setting about touting flashy “unbundling” schemes to dismember the supposedly archaic core of American industry. We attempted a total separation of production from the political, in the name of increased consumption and gains from trade. Questions of community well-being or geopolitical interest were waved away or even crushed. Under this ideology, no distinction can be made between a billion dollars in GDP generated from Netflix consumption and a billion dollars in GDP generated by domestic machine tool production. Nor does it permit us to discern which sectors are vital to retain and which can be safely offshored.

Once we finally set about trying to rebuild American industrial capacity, we may be in for a nasty surprise. We might not have the capability anymore to simply turn industry back on. Functional industry requires a great deal of implicit knowledge that is not easily regained once traditions of manufacturing die out—like a master dying before they can find an apprentice to teach. With the material death of advanced heavy industry comes the death of once-functional institutional ecosystems, taking with them to the grave the tacit intellectual code that they run on.

Offshoring is a choice that can be made quite quickly; it’s not clear that the same is true for onshoring. This is a devilish epistemic obstacle to confront. If we were discussing a country in, say, West Africa, we might call it a problem of economic development. In fact, it might not even make much sense to make a distinction between pre-industrial and post-industrial societies—such as ours—in this respect. Both often must start from epistemic and institutional scratch. This is the uglier, more uncomfortable side of our present condition: our crisis extends beyond will. We also have a crisis of capability.

There has yet to be a post-industrial society that has re-industrialized. America should be the first. But this is a much taller order than applying will to current capacity: we also must rebuild capabilities. Building functional industry takes massive up-front investment in processes with uncertain payoffs and long time horizons. Silicon Valley VCs may continue to seed new product startups, but when it comes time to produce their products “at scale,” these firms are invariably forced to move overseas. Most of these startups are far downstream of industrial fundamentals anyway. Capital’s time preference has been far too short to combat this dynamic, and there is no reason to believe that it can or should play the primary role. In fact, every single country to industrialize has done so with the guidance of the state, marshaling huge quantities of R&D funding and enforcing strict export discipline to wean the infant industries in which it invests.

It is undeniable that there are barriers to dynamism in the current system—the “crony capitalism” to which Andreessen refers—but the broader question we must address is how to cultivate good dynamism in the first place. This is the central problem of our economic development. The ability of vigorous American companies to upend incumbents is perhaps the least threatened of our current capabilities. This competitive drive has survived the hollowing-out of the American industrial core, staggering oligopolistic consolidation, and the conversion of our successful technology conglomerates into disembodied California-based office parks built for the management of offshore supply chains. It is under threat, to be sure, but it is deep in our cultural code—the archetype of the galactically ambitious American founder is not going anywhere anytime soon. It needs to be put to work.

The politics that circumvents our present stagnation and sclerosis will appear strange at first. But what is even stranger is our addiction to outmoded relics of 20th-century ideology. This extends beyond our gains-from-trade offshoring frenzy—it is endemic to our entire political paradigm. The effort to rebuild the parts of American society that drove our 20th-century progress must not be constrained by shallow ideologies bereft even of their own historical context. Whichever side of the “public-private” debate one reflexively falls on, this zero-sum framing itself does nothing to rebuild institutional functionality.

Building means founding new companies and forging new industry, but it also means building state capacity and creating functional mediating institutions for labor. Reconstructing the better part of an industrial society will take decades; and with our present white-collar workforce left utterly directionless, inflated by elite overproduction, and medicated at world-historic levels, sending a million students to Harvard will not, as Andreessen suggests, help spur technological progress. Rather, it is the regeneration of practically grounded trade schools and state-backed coordination that is needed to retrain a productive workforce.

Exhortations to build are crucial, but on their own, they fall flat. Large-scale building that is divorced from politics ends up being divorced from reality; it is for nothing in particular. It is absolutely the case, as Andreessen writes, that we must ask people what they are building, and better match talent with actual construction. But this is not enough. We must further ask: what are you building for? Who are you building for? What kind of building will best serve the common good? Everything worth building in American history has been fueled with the meaning bursting forth from these questions. We lack the means to build, yes—but above all, we lack the ends. If technology is to serve humanity, it needs an end.

What exactly is Andreessen’s end? The thumbnail for Andreessen’s essay (an Adobe stock image entitled “Fantasy city with metallic structures for futuristic backgrounds”) shows a futuristic cityscape that, to put it diplomatically, looks like a forest of Gillette razors. It does not appear to be a place where life happens. It is not what living in a society looks like. It looks like what would happen if a willing city government were to surrender the entirety of New York City or Seattle to Zaha Hadid Architects.

That such a Riyadh with Western Characteristics is entirely plausible under our current technological regime—were it not that such a bold vision for the future was so absent from our popular imagination—is not a coincidence. A masked UberEats courier would only have to glance upward on his way into a towering luxury scythe in Hudson Yards to get a glimpse of this future. What if we lack the will to bring this future fully into existence for a reason?

Even our pop culture has given up trying to portray the future here. As Andreessen points out, the producers of HBO’s Westworld had to shoot on location in Singapore in order to portray an American city of the future: “We should have gleaming skyscrapers and spectacular living environments in all our best cities at levels way beyond what we have now; where are they?” It’s true; we don’t have the gleaming white arcologies, stratospheric jungles of steel, or floating neon habitation units of mid-century science fiction. We don’t even have enough apartments in San Francisco—not by a mile. But it is worth taking a look at what we are building today in America, and what it is for.

The “gleaming skyscrapers and spectacular living environments” that we do have materialize as the needle-thin luxury apartment spires increasingly dominating the New York City skyline. These are not homes so much as infrequent accommodations that really serve as stores of value for globally mobile financial oligarchs who see few other investments that could put their money to better use. The stabs at the future attempted by this class are just as absent and depoliticized as their creators, showing a placeless airport aesthetic that claims to be for all of humanity but is in fact for no people at all. It collapses into hollow self-referentiality. Hudson Yards shows us that the future cannot be built for its own sake.

What if the only way to build the future is to lead with a positive vision of the good? Of course, we need a monumental vision of the future that overawes us and reaches for the heavens, in order to shake us from the sloth and apathy that has consumed us today. But all monuments worth building are monuments to something. We must be drawn out of ourselves for the sake of being drawn into something beyond ourselves. Beauty is not simply some pleasant thing to be considered once we smash the zoning codes. It is the aesthetic force necessary to reach deep into our subconscious and activate our will to live in a new world (which, yes, includes new zoning codes).

What we did build in America was, in fact, animated by a radical aesthetic conception of the good—reaching back from Jefferson’s enlightened dream of a new continent gridded into identical squares, to the high modernist drive that birthed our post-war experiment in Euclidean zoning and covered the nation in suburban sprawl. The latter was a deeply flawed vision, and if we want to have a future at all we must avoid the horrors of the 20th-century experiment. But we must recognize it where it did succeed, first and foremost as a vision of the future.

Anyone can sketch up a space-age skyline, the matte painters of Westworld notwithstanding. But it is another matter entirely to imagine the future—especially one that appeals to people. And what we are presented with today is a vision of the future, which, in Silicon Valley terminology, does not scale. People do want to build, but for the vast majority of people building is fractal; it starts from the local outwards. Not everyone wants to build a glass tower, but most people if given the chance like to build with their hands. Can our vision of the future involve gardens? Can it involve children playing in the street? Can it involve new cities which bring you to your knees in awe, but where you can also go for a walk with your grandparents, or follow your friends up a hill at dusk?

We will once again look to the stars, but only if we can first reckon with feeling our way toward a vision of flourishing together. Planting the seeds of the future is an immense and humbling task. But we shall also rest easy with joy in the knowledge that our harvest may be garnered by ages yet unknown. It’s time to build for good.

Isaac Wilks is an undergraduate at Yale University, studying political science and the Chinese language. He is interested in institution building, geopolitics, and urbanism. He can be found on Twitter at @wilks_isaac.