The Next Big Test

Are you ready?

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Welcome back.

Apologies for the delay. It’s been a week.

This week: Are you ready for the next big test?

— Quinn

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I’m Quinn Emmett, and this is science for people who give a shit.

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Are you ready?

Three years ago, five months before the first vaccines were trucked to pharmacies everywhere, I wrote a post called “How to Pass A Test” (I think it holds up).

This is the part I’m thinking about today:

This virus, by its sudden onset, its novelty, and its universality, has been a litmus test against a single moment in time, a measuring stick, a report card for not only our beliefs and values, but most vitally, the macro and micro practical choices we’ve made and that were current in early 2020.

It has been a once in a generation chance to ask and find out exactly and immediately the answer to: “What does X policy do?” It was the ultimate collective nose swab.

One feature/bug of my work is being aware of how politics and policy works - but also trying to change it over the long run (I am once again asking you to support Run for Something, the most important political organization in America).

Blind, blue-sky idealism is fun and necessary, but only the first, brief step towards imagining the change we can actually implement right now. The further out you look, the more idealism weighs in the equation, and the more Compound Action required to get there.

It’s been three, long years and a boatload of consequential elections since 2020.

On a historic timescale, that’s just not a ton of time (don’t even get me started on geological timescales) to get shit done. It doesn’t help that we continue to trivialize many important things (more to come there) we could be doing.

On the other hand, and this is what’s most compelling and frustrating: long-dreamed of programs like the expanded child tax credit, more streamlined and expansive Medicaid and SNAP eligibility, and funding for childcare centers were given emergency trials during COVID, and they mostly proved to change lives almost immediately. And then among all of those elections, whiplash, wars, and the bizarre need to just move on, the programs were left mostly left to wither and die.

The reasons are myriad and Willow told me I have to stop writing 5000 words about everything, so let’s quickly say it’s a top down problem — when your average Congressperson is a 65-ish white man trained as a lawyer, they are fundamentally disconnected from the systems that plague renters, the poor, women, birthing people, people of color, the hungry, the sick, etc.

But it’s not just our ancient elected officials who are leaving us so unprepared for whatever comes next.

Consider the C-Suite, which is having a delightfully tough run of it:

Every time these rich morons dare venture outside of Brentwood and/or SoHo, they discover the forces pulling our society apart are stronger than ever, exacerbating the CEO-worker pay gap to astronomical ratios and marginalizing union power and numbers to their lowest numbers ever.

All of which has made national support for unions stronger than ever.

“The IPS report, Executive Excess 2023, analyzes the 100 large public corporations with the lowest wages in 2022. The IPS report found that at these corporations, a group that includes many of the nation's largest employers, "CEO pay averaged $15.3 million and median worker pay averaged $31,672." That's a ratio of 603 to 1.“

These CEO’s and their boards have firmly entered the “find out” stage.

These same man-made forces — poor pay, no housing affordable housing, no heat protections, a dearth of healthy affordable food, guns in classrooms, drug overdoses, cardiovascular disease and pharmaceutical profits, etc etc — they have made life so miserable for so many, that they are also responsible for so very many organizing efforts and holy-shit-we’re-actually-doing-this-strikes, from Hollywood screenwriters and actors to UPS drivers, Starbucks baristas, Amazon warehouse workers, flight attendants, and more.

The people unionizing for the first time, the people striking for months on end so they simply don’t have to drive around and die in 130 degree trucks just to collect your Amazon returns — they don’t need to subscribe to this newsletter.

They don’t need someone like me to explain how unaffordable housing is, or how little housing there is at all; how expensive healthcare is, how short we are on medicines from Adderall to chemo, how their kids keep getting sick in the same hot, unventilated classrooms, how difficult it is to get overtime or any semblance of mental health support.

They’re not striking just because life is so untenable for them on a day-to-day basis. They’re not just striking because the rich, their bosses, are so profoundly wealthy. They’re not just striking because of endless stock buy-backs instead of relatively better wages (or air conditioning for their trucks, or to not only be paid when the airplane is in the actual air).

They’re striking because they remember what it was like when COVID hit and our way of life was threatened, and they’re terrified of it happening again, whatever the instigator.

They’re striking because it doesn’t have to be this way, and because a better way is just inches away.

They see the record-breaking fossil fuel subsidies — $7 trillion last year, at $13 million a minute — but they also see and hear about all the IRA money going to factories and homeowners.

They’ve got student loan payments starting again, and groceries are still expensive, but everyone’s telling them the unemployment rate is historically low, that wages are up, and to buy one of these amazing new EV’s.

They or their parents or (goddammit) their kids have cancer and read online about futuristic gene sequencing for their tumors, but can’t get an appointment at their primary doctor, much less their oncologist, until January, only to be told sorry, we’re running out of chemo drugs.

These people — most of us — live the equivalent lives of Miami or Boston or New York or Galveston or Charleston’s “sunny-day” flooding.

They know the rising tide is increasingly affecting more of us right now, every day, but that when the next local, regional, or society-wide disaster really strikes, that the systems won’t bear it.

They know multiple states, school districts, and companies (I see you, In and Out Burger) have passed bans on mask bans. They’ve read how FEMA’s disaster fund is running out of money, weeks before another potential government shutdown.

Having just been tested three years ago, we know, and they know that our systems — still the same systems — are too brittle, too understaffed, too trivialized, too politicized, and too interconnected, where otherwise disparate points of leverage will cause cascading failures across, well, everything.

As always — this is great news.

We can always, always use these same points of leverage to reinforce the weakest parts of the chain. But we’re not there yet.

Just three years on from COVID, these folks know it won’t take another global event to expose us, but for real this time.

A few more $100 billion weather disasters, or a $200 billion one; more flooding in California where virtually no one has flood insurance; another Florida hurricane where insurers are running away as fast as possible; a COVID variant that makes more kids sick; more food hoarding in more countries as Putin’s war threatens more breadbaskets; more effective cyberattacks on banks or water utilities; a dried up Rhine and/or Panama Canal that obliterates shipping; a longer, hotter heat dome across the southwest (or the US northeast or Europe, places considerably less prepared for hot weather).

I share all of these real-world examples not because we’re doing nothing, or because we’ve proven unable to do hard things.

In fact, COVID proved that we can do incredibly hard things, should we choose to focus on them. That we’d been doing hard things all along, like working for decades to make safe mRNA vaccines.

More recently, the IRA has dragged American manufacturing back into existence in only twelve months (pissing off allies aplenty). We are on the cusp of a geothermal power breakthrough, utilizing the last few decades of fracking knowledge. This is one of the coolest things imaginable.

Scientists have invented devices and discovered bacteria that scrub and eat microplastics, but on the other hand, we can’t seem to stop putting them into our water and washing machines and bloodstreams. Generative AI like GPT and Claude and Google Duet draw fantastical pictures for us, calculate for us, rewrite for us, code for us, reason for us, translate for us — if we have access to broadband.

Again, what is most frustrating and most compelling is that we know exactly, technically, how to fix most of our issues. That we know exactly what levers to pull, which bottlenecks to eliminate, which positive feedback loops drive exponential change, which infrastructure benefits the most people, which proven fixes help people now, and which unproven ones we should allocate funding to in case they can help even more people, later.

We know where on the chain delays are most harmful. We can see how old systems like gas pipelines flourished (unprofitably, mostly) from quick and efficient approvals, while electric transmission lines can’t (yet). We have overwhelming evidence for how purposefully neighborhoods were plowed through for highways, and how big trucks exploited a very big loophole, but bike lanes enjoy none of the same momentum, and bikers and walkers enjoy little of the safety.

We know our air travel is the safest in the world, but our car travel is among the least safe, because we’ve decided it should be that way.

We know how specific, measurable outcomes, reverse-engineered across stakeholders, teams, processes, and milestones can help reduce systemic risk across exposure points.

And methodically reducing systemic risk across exposure points is exactly how we prepare for the next test, from stockpiling medicines we need now, to replacing lead pipes and diesel buses, to training millions more electricians and nurses.

I start my day every day asking “How can I help?”

The first answer I usually get is “Make me a waffle.”

But after that, and when you really think about it, “science for people who give a shit” really means finding proven ways to improve the lives of working people who struggle for basic necessities (and before we get any further, I want to be crystal clear that that includes people who are explicitly coming to this country for a better, healthier, safer life for them and their families).

We can’t go back in time and build four million new affordable homes, but we can sure as shit start now, and electrify every single one of them, driving down the cost of housing everywhere — to buy and to rent — and the odds of some new virus ripping through millions of hourly workers who sleep and eat on top of one another, but also driving down the costs of electrified appliances and infrastructure and the distances school buses have to drive.

When the next heat dome hits, when the next virus hits, when the next flood hits — that’s more people protected in their own more resilient spaces, but also living in proximity with one another, already-engaged in daily rituals that encourage them to be manageably dependent on one another.

Open AI can write all the “Using GPT in the classroom” guides they want, but paying teachers and bus drivers more and providing them with childcare means we get more and better teachers and bus drivers. It’s that fucking simple.

Look at this tweet:

These are policy choices.

Blanketing Europe in solar and heat pumps has keep a historically A/C adverse continent as cool as it can be during devastating heatwaves. But Europe, Asia, California, Texas, and everywhere else won’t be safe until we build hundreds of thousands of miles of HV transmission infrastructure and bury all the old ones that keep exploding.

When I say every action matters, I fucking mean it:

Cool Roof France has turned 130,000 tonnes of oyster shells into white roof paint. In Montana, the youths finally won a lawsuit and set some serious precedent for future rulings.

Opening up, improving ventilation, and air cleaning in schools and offices means we get more kids in school and more people at work every day — and when a bad flu season hits. It’s that fucking simple.

France is taxing flights to pay for trains, wounded US army vets are tending to suffering coral reefs, the Church of England is divesting from fossil fuels, Iceland is taking a pause on whaling, Panama gave legal rights to sea turtles, and cities are building mini-forests all over the place, cleaning the air, providing shade, and an evidence-based mental health refuge.

These Compound Actions don’t just fight the long climate fight, they don’t just improve today, they make us better able to hold up when the shit inevitably hits the fan again.

Reducing the paperwork and work requirements to get Medicaid or SNAP or both, and then making more providers take Medicaid and more online groceries take SNAP means more people can get primary care and healthy food.

And I don’t have to tell you those two levers are like magic for anyone who’s never had them. Every day — and when a breadbasket or two gets absolutely fried.

By the way, this is exactly why this next point is crystal clear, and I really need you to internalize it: when a governor or legislature or both turns down Medicaid money, it is because that person or collection of shitty persons simply does not care if the people who would be covered live or die. It’s true. Just ask them.

Similarly, taking free IRA money, or, again, Obamacare Medicaid money, produces jobs, and makes your citizens healthy. We know this.

In just twelve months for one and over a decade for the other, we know these policies work, that they help people, full stop. They help us progress towads virtually every measurable outcome that makes a society tick and not teeter constantly on the edge of collapsing in on itself when it could otherwise just be chasing really cool Star Trek shit, knowing everyone else is taken care of.

You never want a society to need Star Trek shit, like right now. You don’t want to have to need fusion or whatever.

You want to have a baseline that supports the entire society on the day-to-day and when the storms blow the hardest, so you know we have the bandwidth to reach for wild shit without pissing off everyone who’s left behind.

When we acknowledge what is happening around us and implement something like a national disaster safety board, we not only get to review WTF happened with recent disasters, but also learn from them, so we react even better and more comprehensively next time, because there will be a next time.

Providing basic heat protections, water breaks, and — if we want to be super fancy, a path to citizenship — for millions of food workers doesn’t just guarantee those actual people you know, survive, but also builds a more robust food supply chain for everyone, however it evolves, however we decide to measure, standardize, and price carbon storage in soil.

Guaranteeing bodily autonomy and providing for comprehensive soup-to-nuts maternal care through at least the first year post-delivery (or post-miscarriage, or IVF), regulating mandatory paid parental leave, and fixing this goddamn baby formula shitshow makes for healthier, safer birthing people, their partners, and their kids.

It makes them able to feed their kids, read to their kids, and re-enter the workforce when they’re ready with sound body and mind, contributing to a more steadfast and reliable local and nationwide economy.

It means fewer parents in poverty every day and more kids starting off on the right foot.

It doesn’t take a McKinsey study to show that taking any one of those things away, on purpose, as a policy choice, puts the entire system at risk.

The system doesn’t have to be at risk, and Compound Action is how we reduce the risk for everyone — every day, and on our worst days.

Through strikes, yes, but also through funding basic science, and far-out science; through leveling the playing field against viruses and bacteria and lead by improving our infrastructure; through recruiting and campaigning for young Shit Givers in local, state, and federal elections (in that order); through lawsuits by the youths and Indigenous among us; through billboards and telling stories.

We can tell ourselves stories about what we’ve built and how far we come, but history will test us and judge just how much truth we’re willing to bear.

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