The What, How, and Why of Abundance
Abundance can be the next great political program; Democrats should adopt it as their own.
We believe the root cause of American political dysfunction is that our public institutions have stopped helping most people make meaningful progress in their lives.
To get back on track, we need one of our two parties to incubate a new set of ideas aimed at renovating our institutions, such that they work again. If the political program is sufficiently compelling and effective, eventually the other party will co-opt it to compete, thus advancing us to a new consensus governing paradigm.
This happened several times in the 20th century:
In the early 1900s, Republicans, led by Teddy Roosevelt, were animated by Progressivism. The core idea was that experts and social science could eliminate the ills of industrialization. In 1912 both major parties, as well as Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party, ran on a Progressive platform.
A few decades later, Democrats, led by FDR, were animated by New Deal liberalism. The core idea was that national planning could help working people and the least well off navigate a more complex modern world. Successive Republican administrations under Eisenhower and Nixon continued to build out New Deal liberalism via policies like the Interstate Highway System and the Family Assistance Plan.
A few decades after that, Republicans, led by Reagan, were animated by free market conservatism. The core idea was that markets were the most efficient way to tackle problems in society. Clinton continued with these ideas in the 1990s.
So the question becomes, which political party will be the first to adopt a new set of problem-solving ideas?
While there is valuable thinking going on at the edges of the Republican Party (e.g. Marco Rubio and Oren Cass on industrial policy, Yuval Levin on institution-building, Niskanen on state capacity), the center of gravity in today’s GOP is Trump and Trumpism, which looks more like a rejection of elite culture vs. a coherent political program.
Mainstream Democrats, on the other hand, have largely come to define themselves as anti-Republicans.
But this response mistakes the symptom for the cause. While Trump is the proximate cause for the GOP’s current trajectory, the context in which Trump thrives is a society where captured institutions help the top ~20% of society — “elites” — continue to get ahead while everyone else is left behind. A successful political program must be premised on genuinely fixing these institutions if it hopes to shift us to a new governing consensus.
At this point a diehard Democrat reading this piece may feel frustrated: “Institutional reform is exactly what we’re pushing: Filibuster reform! Supreme Court reform! Gerrymander reform!”
But we’re talking about a deeper level of institutional reform, across a broader range of institutions. Why don’t our blue cities build more housing? Why don’t our blue states build more clean energy transmission lines? Why is childcare so expensive? These issues fundamentally affect the lives of everyday Americans and aren’t contingent on the aforementioned traditional slate of Democratic reforms.
You can see the insufficiency of a Democratic Party defined as anti-Republicans in a big blue state like California. The framing is effective to win elections — Democrats utterly dominate every branch of government here. But it’s not effective in delivering progress in most people’s lives — we have the highest supplemental poverty rate in the country; we are “home” to a quarter of the national homeless population; our school outcomes rank in the bottom 20% nationally; etc. None of these problems will be materially helped by filibuster, Supreme Court, or gerrymander reform. More generally, an anti-Republican platform won’t sustain broad popular support if it is unable to deliver meaningful progress against the issues that profoundly affect Californians' daily lives.
In California our problems are not a function of lack of resources, per se. This year California had a $100bn budget surplus. Our problems are a function of narrow interest capture, weak state capacity, and cynicism towards government from citizens generally and elites specifically. (8 min)
Our goal at Modern Power is to incubate a new political program to solve today’s biggest challenges in California, help these ideas spread to other states and capture the hearts, minds and agendas of national Democratic politicians, and eventually form the basis of a new bipartisan governing coalition.
We call this program “Abundance,” but Abundance is really the What. The How and Why are equally, if not more, critical. We’ll dive into all three below.
What — Abundance
Abundance is the What. What do we want to be Abundant in society?
We want abundant housing, such that fewer people are rent-burdened and more people can afford to move to areas with economic opportunity.
We want abundant clean energy, so we can avert climate change while increasing quality of life — everything from reduced electricity bills to enabling desalination, which could get us to abundant water.
We want abundant good education, such that opportunity exists for every kid, regardless of birth zip code.
We want abundant good jobs, such that people are able to provide for their families and feel dignity and security.
Fundamentally we want to make it easier for regular people to build good lives for themselves and their children, and we think we can do it by making the things above, and many other things in society, Abundant.
But *how* can we do this?
How — Supply-side Progressivism + Effective Government
Derek Thompson's "Abundance Agenda" has been resonating not just because it names a bunch of aspirational things we want in society — many political programs promise nice things — but because Abundance contains an implicit How.
The How is Supply-side Progressivism: reduce supply-side constraints, powered by narrow interest capture.
We believe the supply-side How of Abundance is only half the story, for two reasons. First, there are many important policy areas that don’t have an obvious supply-side constraint, including public safety, education, and jobs. We need a different How to achieve Abundance in these areas. Second, even in the areas where supply-side logic can lead the way, we need policy work to be paired by strong implementation.
So we propose “Effective Government” as the complement to Supply-Side Progressivism. What is Effective Government? It focuses on outcomes and improving the delivery of government service via experimentation and iterative learning.
We can better understand Effective Government in contrast to how we as citizens currently allow the government to operate.
Recently, Governor Newsom announced California is allocating $4.7 billion to children’s mental health programs. This is clearly an important and just cause. But our politics are increasingly geared around announcements and headlines, not outcomes. We collectively appear to pretend this money will be losslessly transmuted into $4.7 billion worth of positive outcomes for kids.
We’ve lulled ourselves with phrases like, “Budgets are moral documents.” Sure, budgets signal our intentions. But dollars are inputs to a process. What we care about are outcomes!And there are many steps between dollars going in one end of our outcomes machine and children with improved mental health coming out the other.
Newsom’s announcement sets activity in motion — leaders across various CA departments and agencies will be convened, goals will be set, work will be divvied up. Talented bureaucrats will do their best to make good on the Governor’s intention, all swimming against a thicket of rules, regulations, norms, and practices that make such projects hard to pull off. Money will flow from the state to 58 different counties, counties with vastly different capabilities and populations ranging from 10,000 to 10,000,000. Roadblocks will be hit. Lawsuits will be filed. Years will pass. We will get periodic updates on progress from a hollowed-out California press core, mainly covering high visibility failures from the effort. Citizens will take these reports as yet another example of dysfunctional government, and further discount future headline budget announcements.
In the private sector, companies make forecasts about earnings, and then shareholders review what actually happened, what went differently than expected, and how to adjust course going forward. Why don’t we insist on this form of impact / outcomes reporting in government?
To be clear, this isn’t about an antagonistic relationship with government. It’s not about “holding malfeasant bureaucrats accountable.”
We live in a complex society. Our problems are complicated and interrelated. We need more transparency and legibility into what happens in government, but paired with tolerance for experimentation, iteration, and failure. That’s the management and operational culture we’ve adopted in the private sector, and one we’d do well to port to the public sector, while simultaneously recognizing “justice and fairness” aren’t as clear cut as “profit,” and that the public sector has many more stakeholders and can’t choose to ignore certain customer segments like the private sector can.
In the free marketeer paradigm, the notion of state capacity or government effectiveness is not a problem that needs to be solved: government is statically incapable of solving problems, and problem-solving should be the purview of markets.
In an Abundance framework where government has a role to play, Effective Government is fundamental.
Why — Mutuality
Building political power to overcome narrow supply-side interests will be really hard. NIMBY homeowners like their neighborhoods the way they are. Oil companies like their fossil fuel profits. Doctors like their high salaries.
Changing the culture of government such that it is a place where great people are able to do great work, and where legitimacy flows from outcomes, not inputs or process, will be even harder.
Who is going to help power all that work, and why will they be motivated to do it?
We believe the core failure in our politics over the past few decades is a failure of elite responsibility. The phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility” has been shrugged off in our times, perhaps because free marketeerism / neoliberalism is not just an economic doctrine but a moral one. Stripped of its Friedman economics, it tells people that everything boils down to individual responsibility — responsible people get and deserve nice stuff, and irresponsible people deserve to suffer their fate.
This has historical echoes. Back in the Gilded Age, the dominant social idea was Social Darwinism, which said human society, like the animal kingdom, was rightly defined by social hierarchy and a Darwinian struggle for resources. Then the Social Gospel came to replace Social Darwinism, preaching our responsibility to one another. This paved the way for the civic and political activities that led to the Progressive Movement.
Today we elites wrap ourselves in the blanket of Meritocracy and assume we deserve what we get. We signal that we stand for virtues like justice and compassion with words and symbols that don't cost us much. We feel we’re being good and generous Democrats by supporting taxes to help the less fortunate.But we opt out of public institutions — transit, schools, etc. — when they aren’t up to our standards, and spend most of our time and energy furthering our individual pursuits, free riding on institutions that past generations built while those institutions visibly rot at their foundations.
What if instead we embraced the ideas in MLK’s Letter from Birmingham?
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
We can embrace Mutuality on moral grounds. Or we can just believe it practically:
A homeless encampment is not only shitty for the folks living within it, but also for nearby residents and businesses.
Supercommutes, a consequence of insufficient housing construction, not only cost commuters money and multiple hours per day, but all of us carbon emissions.
Wildfires threaten not only the lives of residents who have been pushed out to the wildland-urban interface by rising home prices, but also kids and even unborn babies hundreds of miles away.
These are all California examples. But zoom out to our democratic wobbles, and you can see the January 6th attackers led unstable, troubled lives: lots of addiction, drift, and loneliness, all flowing from a broken social contract.
Going back to the mental health example in the previous section, what if I truly internalized that your kid’s mental health is my kid’s safety at school? If I embraced the Mutuality mindset, I might be less likely to free ride and more likely to invest some of my time and money into this generational project of civic and political renewal.
Want to join our generational project of civic and political renewal? Start by subscribing to Modern Power.
Where Do We Go From Here?
We believe elites are starting to embrace a Mutuality mindset, where we see our own self-interest (“enlightened self-interest”) wrapped up in the self interest of others.Mutuality is one of the engines of the YIMBY movement, and part of what makes it morally persuasive.
We need to keep building on that YIMBY seed (4 min), which mixes elite responsibility with supply-side progressivism. We also need to build out a broader platform of issues that Abundance candidates can run on.
We propose the generic Abundance Agenda in California to be some combo of:
Lowering cost of living, starting with housing affordability
Transitioning to a clean energy economy
Increasing state capacity to enable all of the above
This will have to be tailored further to address the needs of the specific community a candidate is running in.
We think North Star metrics help clarify where a ship is headed — we’ll aim to publish such metrics over the coming weeks to show what a California Abundance Agenda would look like in practice.
Thanks to all the folks who shaped this piece, from inspiration to copy line editing: Derek Thompson, Ezra Klein, Frank DiStefano, Jen Pahlka, Jesse Wolfson, Joe Ensminger, Mike Greenfield, Monica Chellam, Rhys Lindmark, and Steve Teles.
Movement Progressives, to their credit, have put forward an affirmative vision for where they’d like the Democratic Party to head. It seems like there’s a fight within Dem politics as to whether it's best to talk about Dem policy or talk about how crazy Republicans are — progressives are generally in the first bucket, moderates in the second.
There are actually two How’s baked in: Supply-side Progressivism and Industrial Policy. We concentrate on Supply-side Progressivism because we think it’s the more compelling and sellable of the two, but will return to ideas around Industrial Policy in future posts.
E.g. Supply-side policies enable accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and duplexes to be built on single-family home plots. Effective government reforms give us visibility on how we’re doing against projections for new units built, help bolster enforcement actions on local city scofflaws, etc.
The civic tech movement typified by organizations like US Digital Service and Code For America are the tip of the spear of bringing these ~lean startup ideas into government, but we think it needs to become a broader and deeper movement with political power behind it.
We can analogize this to a New Year’s resolution to lose weight or get healthier. You can make the resolution. You can even buy the exercise bike or gym membership… great! But ultimately progress should be defined not by inputs but by outcomes (e.g., weight loss, increased muscle mass, improved lab results)
We are one of only 8 states who administers their health programs via counties.
Effective Altruists pair their moral commitment to giving away wealth with rigorous evaluations of which specific programs, run by which specific organizations, deliver maximum value. Would similar focus on effectiveness in government lead to less tax skepticism by citizens?
Today’s Democratic Party is often described as a coalition of interests vs. being knit together by an ideology or animating idea. Looking at California, many of the interests that power Democratic politics are also the recipients of government money. Will they be obstacles to an Effective Government reform movement that aims to shine a light on how effective our current government programs are?
Though we happily take our Mortgage Interest Deduction while Section 8 housing vouchers are only funded for one out of four qualified applicants, and put tax free money into 529 accounts when most people’s kids don’t go to college.
We suspect this is a mix of moral impulses and practical ones, fueled by external factors like homelessness, climate change and Trump.