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Are You An Up Wing Thinker? ✈️✈️
James Pethokoukis' guide to the divide shaping America's future
“The key divide that has always been most critical in shaping our everyday lives, our nation, and our world is Up Wing versus Down Wing.”
— James Pethokoukis
If you had to pick one word to define political life over the past few years, you’d be hard-pressed to find a term more appropriate than *polarization*.
But what if we told you that the traditional partisan divide is a red herring?
What if America’s destiny lies not in Left vs. Right but in something else entirely?
So argues tomorrow’s guest, James Pethokoukis, a policy analyst, official CNBC contributor, and the proprietor of Faster, Please!, a newsletter dedicated to “discovering, creating, and inventing a better world through technological innovation, economic growth, and pro-progress culture.”
James believes that the path to a brighter tomorrow lies not with a political party but in a worldview focused on economic growth, technological proficiency, energy abundance, population growth, and a willingness to embrace risk - a worldview that James calls “Up Wing” thinking.
Ahead of tomorrow’s episode, we’ve devoured dozens of James’ essays to prepare this short five-part guide to Up Wing thought.
Let’s fly… ✈️✈️
The below quotes and insights are all drawn from James’ newsletter, Faster, Please! For more from James, check out his new book, The Conservative Futurist: How to Create the Sci-Fi World We Were Promised.
I. The Future is There for the Taking
“Let’s get the cool sci-fi future we were promised! Flying cars? Sure. But also a world where every economy is an “advanced” economy, where lifespans and healthspans are longer, where abundant clean energy and a space economy mean humanity is limited only by our effort and imagination. A world of less suffering and more freedom, choice, and opportunity. Faster, please!”
The foundational assumption of Up Wing thinking is that a positive future is there for the taking:
“A vibrant and resilient society is one with a firm belief that tomorrow can be better than today — if we choose to make it so.”
Implicit in this worldview is a rejection of determinism and an embrace of what Jim often calls the “probabilistic mindset.”
We shouldn’t think of the future as a predestined outcome that we are inevitably hurtling towards; instead, it is a fluid nebula of possible outcomes continually shifting based on our actions today.
In practice, this means that, societally, we have agency. The choices we make will dictate our outcomes.
This logic works backward as well as forward.
The Up Wing worldview maintains that at some point over the preceding decades, America somehow lost its stomach for the fight. Whereas it used to be “the world’s dream factory,” capable of turning “imagination into reality, from curing polio to landing on the Moon to creating the internet,” at some point in the 1970s, “we grew cautious, even cynical, about what the future held and our ability to shape it. Too many of us saw only the threats from rapid change.” As a result, we have seen “decades of economic stagnation, downsized dreams, and a popular culture fixated on catastrophe.”
But here’s the rub: our reality wasn’t inevitable. It didn’t have to be this way. Different choices could have led to different outcomes:
“And whatever the ups and downs since then, I am convinced better public policy could have generated a better economic result. And a better result would have meant higher living standards and greater technological capabilities, broadly.”
An Up Wing worldview maintains that the road ahead is not preordained but paved by our choices—choices that could resurrect America as the world's dream factory.
II. Rethinking Risk
One of the operating assumptions of this newsletter is that the U.S. and other advanced economies have experienced too many public policy decisions driven by the Precautionary rather than Proactionary Principle.
Up Wing thinking embraces change—whether driven by technology, science, immigration, or population growth—as a largely necessary force, even when it comes with costs:
“An Up Wing society is a “no pain, no gain” society. It accepts the necessity of change, although sometimes really uncomfortable."
The bane of Up Wing thinking is the Precautionary Principle, defined by the European Commission as:
“Where there is uncertainty as to the existence or extent of risks to human health, the institutions may take protective measures without having to wait until the reality and seriousness of those risks become fully apparent.”
James argues that the Precautionary Principle inhibits innovation by presuming guilt before innocence and ignoring opportunity costs: the sacrificed benefits of foregone alternatives. Instead, he advocates for the Proactionary Principle, defined as:
“Encourage innovation that is bold and proactive; manage innovation for maximum human benefit; think about innovation comprehensively, objectively, and with balance.”
The Proactionary Principle, as James describes it, would enable the “thoughtful acceleration” of progress. It would help policymakers rethink risk as “an opportunity for learning and improvement, rather than a threat to be avoided or minimized” and serve as our best defense against letting vibrant alternative futures fade away like tears in rain.
III. Up Wing America
“My kind of Up Wing America would be digging superdeep holes for unlimited geothermal energy, pushing hard on nuclear fusion, vacuuming carbon from the sky, extending the maximum human healthspan, and fully embracing the potential of a thriving orbital economy. At century’s end, I want our kids and grandkids to look back at this current period as when we began the most creative and expansive period of human civilization, well on our way to mastering the Solar System.”
OK, so Up Wing thinking is defined by a belief that we have control over our future and a positive attitude to risk.
But what are the policy implications? What would an Up Wing America look like?
We’ve got you covered. Here are James’ thoughts on some key issues:
Nuclear Power: Nuclear fission/fusion would be a “progress multiplier.” The “future of clean and abundant energy” is there for the taking.
Population Growth: “Economic growth — a greater ability to turn our dreams into reality — is driven by people discovering new ideas. It’s my guess that the more smart humans we have — assisted by smarter and smarter tech and operating in a basic environment of economic freedom — the faster tech progress and economic growth will be, benefitting all of us.”
Climate Change: “But economic growth, driven by the wonders of modern technological progress, isn’t the problem here — it’s the solution. And that’s because, fundamentally, we really don’t have a climate ‘emergency’ or even a climate ‘challenge.’ What we have is a massive clean-energy problem.”
Technology: An Up Wing society “strives to generate fast economic growth through scientific discovery, technological invention, commercial innovation, and high-impact entrepreneurship. Up Wingers are all about acceleration for solving big problems, effectively tackling new ones, and creating maximum opportunity for all Americans.”
Regulation: “reform or eliminate anti-progress, anti-entrepreneur regulations (often dating back to the country’s 1970s eco-pessimist shift).”
Housing: “For decades, local regulations have made it hard to build new housing, especially in some of the nation's most productive and high-wage job markets. These artificial supply constraints have, consequently, made too many of these cities unaffordable to working-class Americans. And those who do move to these cities find that high housing costs significantly eat into their wage gains…fixing restrictive housing rules is a major move toward a more opportunity-rich society.”
Immigration: “As other nations grow richer, there is far less incentive for their strivers to move to America. You can open your borders all you want, but people have to want to come. Pro-immigration reform should be top of mind for American policymakers.”
Transport: “For nearly 50 years, there’s been no supersonic airline industry here. We’ve wasted decades when we could have been researching and improving that technology — making it faster, safer, more affordable — while also competing with the Concorde.”
Aliens: “I would like to think there would be renewed interest in science of all sorts, in discovery, in maximizing human potential — especially when we could see such vivid evidence that advanced civilizations won’t ultimately destroy themselves through war or planetary negligence. There might also be a greater sense of humanity’s shared destiny, as President Reagan noted in his 1987 UN speech where he speculated an alien attack would bring together the nations of the world. But maybe it doesn’t need to be an attack, even a friendly “hello” might do.”
IV. The Battle for Progress
“There you go: Abundant energy, no matter the source — coal and oil or solar, nuclear, and geothermal is the bug in the system, not a key feature. And that’s the ultimate battle that pro-growth, pro-progress types like myself will have to fight: this notion that we are running out of Earth and that anything like a rich-country lifestyle is unsustainable without far fewer humans.”
Liking the sound of Up Wing thinking?
Well, James contends that you may be at odds with a sizable portion of America.
He labels the opposing mindset… you guessed it, “Down Wing” thinking.
James argues that Down Wing thinking emanates from a "pessimistic and nostalgic worldview that resists change and fears the future."
Central to Down Wing thought is a scarcity mindset that portrays America as a zero-sum society. Here, “stagnation is an immutable fact of American life,” and “we are running out of Earth and that anything like a rich-country lifestyle is unsustainable without far fewer humans.”
In such a constrained landscape, policies aimed at abundance are not seen as solutions but as exacerbating the problem.
Herein lies the critical distinction between James’ model of Up and Down Wing thought. Down Wing thinking asserts that growth and abundance are not only unrealistic but also undesirable goals.
America's future, therefore, hinges on the ideological clash between Up and Down Wing thought:
“The other option for degrowthers: Somehow persuading the existing eight billion of us to downgrade our aspirations — especially in the West — while also fighting against public policy that would encourage more technological progress and economic growth. (Degrowth for OECD nations, at least.) This is a battle pro-progress forces lost a half century ago. This time we must win it.”
V. Redefining the Political Spectrum
“So where do you put all of the above on the traditional Left-Right political spectrum? If the answer isn’t immediately obvious, that’s OK. Kind of a trick question. The politics of progress really isn’t about Left or Right. It’s about Up.”
James is a self-acknowledged conservative (his book is called the Conservative Futurist, after all!)
Is Up vs. Down just Right vs. Left with a fresh lick of paint?
Not according to James. He argues that Up Wingers and Down Wingers exist across the political spectrum. From tomorrow’s episode:
“But I think what's really important is that if you think humans have the tools or should build the tools and have the agency and have enough wisdom to solve problems and create a better future that we would want to live in, then that makes you, to me, not just someone of the left of the right, but someone who transcends those labels, someone who is looking up at the sky and a possibility. And you could be an Up Winger.
And again, I think there are Up Wingers on the right, I think they're on the left just like I think there are Down Wingers on both sides.”
James argues that an Up Wing movement can stretch from Ezra Klein’s supply-side progressivism to Marc Andreessen’s Time to Build agenda to Elon Musk’s space-tinted futurism.
So, would an “Up Wing” party be possible?
Yes, with a but:
“It seems like an opportune time for a political party built around solutionism, around the notion of building — not around fighting culture wars.
Strengthening and expanding the Up Wing parts of the two existing major parties seems like it would be a more fruitful path than attempting to create a third-party competitor or running an independent Up Wing presidential candidate… Given the technological advances mentioned above, along with the various macroshocks of recent years — the pandemic, the worst inflation in 40 years, war in Europe — perhaps one party becomes a thoroughly Up Wing one.”
Whether you lean to the Left or to the Right, perhaps the only direction that truly matters is Up.
What’s your reaction to Up Wing thinking? Are you an Up or a Down Wing thinker? Is this a helpful way to think about policymaking? What’s missing? Let us know in the comments! And don’t forget to tune in tomorrow, 12 October, to hear Jim and James’ conversation.