Stavney: Progress, culture, and the trust gap — another angle |

Stavney: Progress, culture, and the trust gap — another angle

Jon Stavney
Jon Stavney lives in Eagle and works in Silverthorn as the executive director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.
Vail Daily

Do you consider Operation Warp Speed — the historic, rapid discovery and deployment of a COVID vaccine — as among the peak national achievements of the past half century? I bet not.

I wrestle with public policy, stimulating innovation, declining civility, and the declining trust in government — which is essentially a lack of trust in each other — all through the lens of local government. 

I also contemplate organizational and community cultures. The intersection of these fascinates me.  That backdrop explains my fascination reading and rereading “The Eureka Theory of History is Wrong: The Real Reason American Progress Has Stalled,” by Derek Thompson, in the January/February The Atlantic magazine. 

Honestly, I’ve gone stale pursuing these questions. The polarization and politicization of nearly every idea or effort that comes along deeply frustrates me. For some, it fuels the current populism; for most all of us, mistrust. The polling speaks to this.

Writ large as a culture, this stalemate is turning hostile. We confront each idea, question, or thought, first, with the binary question of which “side” it falls upon, and, second, judge whether we should be for or against it. Then shallower: Does it align with my identity or brand?

Slap a label on it, say whether it is politically correct, woke, socialist, or misinformation, a conspiracy (Choose your own label here). By then, the thing is defined by externals — no longer open. 

In that cycle, ideas lose their power with little chance to breathe first, be contemplated, mulled. So labeled, an idea dies for living on one “side or another, fitting in one box or another, beyond earnest consideration.” That stifles inquiry, creativity, innovation. 

As citizens, we guffaw at this kabuki theater when it is in D.C. or some neighboring statehouse. The news drones on, and social media grinds on, reinforcing our entrenchments. The stagnation becomes pernicious poisoning of what could be solved right in front of us. 

Where should we begin to repair, with trust? With deconstructing our positions? How about with a shared desire for progress? Which brings me back to Operation Warp Speed.

 “Outside (of) wealth, one of the most powerful variables (to our success) was trust in government among the public. Trust is a shared resource that enables networks of people to do collectively what individual actors cannot,” writes Thompson. Like solving major existential problems, like homelessness, poverty, the housing crisis, the climate crisis, or delivery of a vaccine to market.

I recommend you take the time to read the article. Thompson declares that Operation Warp Speed (the U.S. effort to get a COVID vaccine to market), “a wartime policy applied to a health crisis,” is on equal footing with “the Apollo program and the Manhattan Project as one of the most important technology programs in the history of modern federal policy.” 

What? Such a huge, recent success that no one claims? How can that be?

He poses this conundrum: Democrats have not boasted of Operation Warp Speed since it emerged during the Trump presidency, and Republicans don’t claim it because they’ve positioned themselves as “anti-expertise, anti-science, and anti-establishment.” 

President Trump also undercut the success of the historically rapid vaccine invention and rollout famously by undercutting demand by supporting conspiracy theories against the vaccine’s effectiveness. He did so even as his administration was going about one of the most significant public efforts of modern history — a success that he doesn’t even brag about. 

Thompson points to a parallel conundrum with progressives “denouncing the oil industry (while) Texas produces more renewable energy than deep-blue California … .” Progressives have substituted belief in progress for “negative prescriptions for improving the world,” such as regulation and red tape, Thompson says, and “progressives have in meaningful ways become ‘anti-progress’” culminating in this statement: When you add the anti-science bias of the Republican Party to the anti-build skepticism of liberal urbanites and the environmentalist left, the U.S. seems to have accidentally assembled a kind of bipartisan coalition against some of the most important drivers of human progress. To correct this, we need more than improvements in our laws and rules; we need a new culture of progress.”

He gets to this ingeniously by telling the shopworn story of the invention of the smallpox vaccine and the rollout. I’ve read about it repeatedly recently in pandemic literature. What do I tend to remember? The milkmaid with cowpox and the servant’s son whom the doctor injects with the serum and then smallpox virus to test it. What Thompson adds to the story reveals our over-reverence for the “inventor” and our subsequent devaluing of the less dramatic process by which things become implemented. 

Think of how we revere CEOs and Nobel Prize winners rather than the process, discipline, and organizations behind them. Today, that also translates to an interplay between public and private investment. The U.S. policy to invest heavily in R&D after World War II fueled decades of invention and progress — think of how many of today’s inventions came out of the space race — until it was eventually joined by the orthodoxy of U.S. government focusing on discovery rather than deployment, leaving that to the private sector. This has resulted in a valley of death for many inventions, not least of which are those which could solve our housing issues or climate crisis.  

As a metaphor for our conundrum, Operation Warp Speed was ingenious and admirable. “But it doesn’t matter what you discover or invent if people are unwilling to accept it,” Thompson says, ending on the hopeful note that “we might be moving from a eureka theory of progress to an abundance theory of progress, which focuses on making our best ideas affordable and available to everyone.” 

His article didn’t really make that case. But given the high stakes of figuring out how to refocus our culture, I’ll take it. It is a wonderful call for unity following a thought-provoking reflection on the many myths that hamstring us. We can do better.

Jon Stavney is the executive director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, which covers six mountain counties including Pitkin.