I spent a lot of 2020 being very frustrated with the United States. At the start of the year, the fact that we had Trump as president, that so many people remained quite happy with that, and that the Democratic party and electorate was coalescing around a candidate that seemed remarkably milquetoast. Then COVID arrived, and, as the year progressed, it turned out that the United States had perhaps the single worst response to the disease of any country in the world; certainly far far worse than many countries in Asia and Africa. (Though some European and North and South American countries gave us a run for the money at times.) And police brutality showed up yet again, making it clear that large swathes of our police think it’s fine for it to be open season on Black people.

At the end of the year, though, we came up with multiple remarkably effective COVID vaccines in an incredibly short period of time. Also, while I don’t want to minimize the huge amount of social and economic harm caused by the disease, it’s also the case that, if it had happened 10 or 20 years ago, the social and economic disruption would have been far worse; yay for Zoom and other internet companies. And I’ve actually been convinced that the United States’s welfare response to the pandemic wasn’t as bad as I thought: the $600 or $1400 or $2000 checks for everyone get the publicity, but our unemployment benefit changes have been substantial and have made a real difference.


Still, I ended up feeling pretty jaundiced overall. To be sure, that’s a pretty universal reaction to 2020, but I also feel like I’m fitting into a political stereotype of leftists being negative, saying that everything sucks, while the right talks about the US being greatest country ever.

But (in part due to Noah Smith, see for example posts linked to from this roundup), I’m coming around to thinking that being open to greatness, openly wanting and celebrating it, is kind of cool, even for leftists? Not that I necessarily particularly disagree with the leftist diagnosis of all the ways in which the US is screwed up: in fact, one of the side effects of 2020 is that I’m appreciating how deeply rooted that is, and how much of US screwed-up-ness comes out of a heritage of White supremacy. So I don’t want to pretend that we’re automatically great; but I want us to fix that, and I like the idea of fixing that in ways that move us towards a positive vision of greatness.

I also think that part of the political divide here relates to a difference between wanting to be the great and wanting to be better than everybody else. Sure, I live in the US, I want the US to be great; but if the whole world is great, that sounds even better?


Though, to be honest, while part of me wants the United States to be great, part of me wants the United States to not be, in certain ways, horrible. I mean, we’re not going to be great at everything, that’s not the way greatness works, but we should still maintain a certain baseline quality.

Concretely: as I said above, our COVID response last year was awful, at least in terms of preventing deaths. Our health insurance system is uniquely bad among industrialized countries, possibly even uniquely bad among all countries. Our levels of gun violence are similarly awful. In all of these situations, we as a nation have decided that we’re simply going to ignore solutions to problems that many or all other countries have solved. And I find that infuriating.


So, maybe I don’t actually care about national greatness, maybe what I want is to avoid national anti-greatness? But I’m also kind of coming around to an opinion that that’s a trap, and maybe even a trap that leftists are particularly vulnerable to.

As one example of this, take the vaccine rollout. Of course I want the vaccine rollout to be effective; but I also want it to be fair. And that means that we have to make sure that rich people or white people don’t get all the vaccines, that vulnerable people potentially get it at even higher proportions than richer people, given their lower access to health care.

But what this sometimes means in practice is that, instead of rolling out the vaccine at high speed in a fair way, we’d let fairness paralyze us, failing to distribute vaccine doses because we weren’t sure they were going to the right people. And, once you’re doing that, you’ve made a mistake somewhere, and a pretty serious one: yes, fairness is important, but vulnerable segments of the population aren’t going to be helped by letting the pandemic continue for months longer than it as to because we’re self-sabotaging vaccine distribution. So we need simultaneous pressure on speed and fairness.

Or, for another example, take housing policy. Historical preservation laws sound good to me, as do rent control laws: architectural heritage has real value, and we want to make sure people can actually affort to pay rent, especially people who have been living in a community and who aren’t making as much money as richer people moving into that community. And, similarly, people’s neighborhoods matter, so it’s a very human reaction to be nervous about change to neighborhoods, to want to make sure that new housing doesn’t change the neighborhood to something different.

But I’ve been living in the Bay Area for over two decades, and the housing policy here has been an abject failure: there’s nowhere near enough housing for people who already work here, let along for the volume of people who would want to work here if housing prices weren’t so high! So when I see people arguing for, say, solving this problem by requiring percentages of low-income units in new housing development, what I see is people who are perfectly happy for most people to have long commutes, but for the lucky few who have shorter commutes to be slightly less demographically biased towards rich people than the free market would allow. And that’s a lousy solution: what we should be lobbying for is copious housing as our first priority, so lots of people can have decent commutes without huge rents, and with forced support for low-income units as a tweak around the edges of a policy like that.


I’m rambling, I realize. But basically, the position that I’m coming around to is: let’s both try to make things great and to avoid horrible situations; and a country that really tried to be great would manage both of those at once, instead of working semi-effectively towards one of those while giving up on the other.

And, for me personally, I think I don’t spend enough time worrying about the greatness side of things; and I suspect that this is a bit of an ideological trap that I’m not the only person I know who is falling into.

Take, for example, the case of Elon Musk. I have a lot of reasons why I don’t like the guy: I think he says stupid things, I think he does actively harmful things, I think Tesla’s stock price is a product of mass delusion. But, also: SpaceX has started singlehandedly revitalizing the space program; that’s really cool! I doubt I’ll ever buy a Tesla, but they were at the forefront of making electric cars real, that’s both really cool and was an important step towards something very important! Hyperloop and The Boring Company still both sound ridiculous to me, but nonetheless: I think I need to spend a little less time reflexively reacting negatively towards Musk, and a little more time going “rockets, yay”.


Not saying any of you should say “rockets, yay” (though I do think you should think about embracing the side effect of “high speed rural internet access, yay”); but still, let’s not let the right’s embrace of the term “great” blind us to the facts that 1) strong positive visions of the future are valuable in multiple ways, and 2) the ways in which the United States either has or should work on greatness should be natural issues for us, not for them.

We should be great by doubling down on science and technology; we should be great by helping everybody in the country flourish. The Republican party is actively hostile to both sides of that; screw those guys, this should be our issue, and it should be a winning one.

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