The Abundance Agenda Promises Everything to Everyone All at Once
In summer 2023, American progressivism was spending big and riding high. Despite razor-thin majorities in Congress, Democrats had spent the last two years enacting hundreds of billions of dollars in new subsidiesfor green energy, public transportation, domestic manufacturing, scientific research, and more. This progressive pork was now in the hands of Democratic President Joe Biden to distribute as his administration saw fit.
Yet when California Gov. Gavin Newsom looked upon the piles of fresh federal cash, all he could do was despair.
“We’re going to lose billions and billions of dollars in the status quo,” he complainedtoNew York Timescolumnist Ezra Klein in June. “The beneficiaries of a lot of these dollars are red states that don’t give a damn about these issues, and they’re getting the projects.”
Newsom was right about the distribution of the funds: More than 80 percent of the new federal funding for clean energy and semiconductors was headed for GOP districts, accordingto theFinancial Times. His outburst spoke to the anxiety of much of liberal America.
Despite a string of progressive policy victories at the federal level, a Democratic Party under the grip of progressives, and ironclad Democratic control over some of the country’s largest and wealthiest cities and states, blue America just wasn’t delivering what its boosters said the country needed.
“We need to build more homes, trains, clean energy, research centers, disease surveillance. And we need to do it faster and cheaper,” Klein himself hadwrittena few weeks before his Newsom interview was published. Yet “in New York or California or Oregon…it is too slow and too costly to build even where Republicans are weakperhaps especially where they are weak.”
The blue strongholds’ failure to build had added countervailing losses to all their wins.
These states aren’t just losing federal grants. They’re losing residents to states where housing construction is easier. They’re losing companies to places where the regulatory burden is lighter. They’re losing voters, tax dollars, congressional seats, and more to places that build the things people want. If the trend keeps up, the progressive vision for America may be lost as well.
This threat has provoked some surprising self-reflection from liberal wonks, writers, and officials.
America, and particularly blue America, has consciously wrapped itself in red tape, regulations, and special-interest carve-outs, to the point that it has become nearly impossible to convert either government subsidies or private capital into needed physical things.
As Newsom said to Klein, “We’re not getting the money because our rules are getting in the way.”
A hodgepodge coalition of legacy publication columnists, traditional think-tankers, upstart Substack writers, and obsessive Twitter posters have rallied around the straightforward idea that what the country needs is more stuff, and it isn’t going to get it with that thicket of rules standing in the way. Their call to action is whatAtlanticwriter Derek Thompsoncallsthe “abundance agenda.”
According to Thompson, America has produced a lot of technology that allows people to complain about problems, but not much in the physical world to actually solve those problems.
Our “age of bits-enabled protest has coincided with a slowdown in atoms-related progress,” he wrote last year. “Altogether, America has too much venting and not enough inventing.” Thompson’s complaint echoes entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel’sfamous 2013 quipthat “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” What we need instead, argues Thompson, are policies that will kick-start material growth and technological development here in reality.
For libertarians and free marketers, this new abundance agenda has a lot to offer. Many of its intellectual forefathers and policy foot soldiers are themselves libertarian-leaning. Even when they’re not, the abundance agenda remains a directionally deregulatory affair. Once seemingly fringe libertarian hobbyhorses such as abolishing zoning, occupational licensing, and immigration restrictions are now being aired prominently in mainstream center-left and progressive spaces.
At the same time, most of those who favor the abundance agenda are either agnostic about big government or actively supportive of it. In its most statist iterations, the deregulatory elements of the abundance agenda are mostly about clearing away the bureaucratic and constitutional obstacles to government-provided services and government-sponsored megaprojects.
For some abundance-agenda adherents, it’s a partisan project as well: The goal is to make blue America more efficient, more effective, and more appealing in the service of making America more Democratic.
And yet: The fundamental policy goal of abundance agenda liberalism is to clear away bureaucratic and political obstacles to useful projects, especially in the housing market. Is this a devil’s bargain that libertarians should be willing to make? Getting the Public Out of Public Policy
Discussions about the abundance agenda quickly get bogged down in wonky specifics. But its pursuit of limitless individual potential powered by limitless growth and energy is nothing short of utopian.
In a 2022essayforWorks in Progress, Benjamin Reinhardt described this futuristic end point through the eyes of someone living in a world of abundant energy “too cheap to meter.”
You would wake up on your artificial island off the coast of South America, commute to work via a flying car and Singaporean space elevator, put in a few hours working on new longevity drugs in zero-gravity, and then jet off to Tokyo for a quick dinner with friends before commuting home.
As you return home, Reinhardtwrites, you hope that one day you have “the resources to pull yourself out of the bottom 25 percent, so that your kids can lead an even brighter life than you do. Things are good, you think, but they could be better.”
In order to achieve this sci-fi world of abundance, we have to unshackle ourselves from growth-phobic institutions riddled with “veto points” stopping new housing, energy, and more.
The American government of today is a highly participatory one. Individual people have substantial opportunity to have their say in public hearings and courtrooms on everything from new housing projects to new power plants.
It wasn’t always this way.
As recounted in Yale historian Paul Sabin’s bookPublic Citizens, this level of citizen input was the product of laws passed in the 1970s inspired by slow-growth activists such as Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, and Ralph Nader.
This group of writers, lawyers, and activists argued that the midcentury liberal era’s love of growth and bigness had left corporations free to pollute the environment and flood the market with dangerous products. Meanwhile, unchecked, opaque government bureaucracies built or approved harmful megaprojects that bulldozed private property, often without the owners’ consent, and devastated nature in the name of “progress.”
To hold fundamentally untrustworthy bureaucracies accountable, citizens were empowered to sue bureaucrats when they didn’t follow new environmental regulations or disclose enough information about the projects they approved.
The thinking at the time, writes Sabin, was that “aggressive litigation might make the government work better.”
These anti-growth, anti-bigness policies also drifted down to the state and local level. Throughout the 1970s, state legislatures passed their own, often much more expansive environmental reporting laws that allowed citizens to sue to stop private projects such as new housing and businesses, as well as major infrastructure projects.
Local governments, meanwhile, tightened existing zoning codes to drastically reduce the amount of housing that could be built. They also gave local residents (via public hearings, referendums, and discretionary approval processes) more say over the approval of housing that was still technically allowed.
Empowered to sue over projects they didn’t like, local “not in my backyad” (NIMBY) activists grew increasingly successful in stopping everything that smacked of progress in their neighborhoods.
Free marketers have been critical of these laws from day one.
The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which has enabled citizens to challenge the approval of both large infrastructure projects and single-family homes, was enacted in 1970.
By 1979,Reasonwas accusing the law ofhaving”done more damage to home building in that state than anything since the last ice age and the San Andreas Fault.” It took several decades for mainstream Democrats like Newsom to start making similar complaints.
Indeed, these laws initially sparked little pushback from liberals. But as their costs have continued to mount in terms of housing units not built and energy not generated, a growing chorus of progressive voices has started demanding reform.
One example is the rise of California’s rabidly pro-development “yes in my backyard” (YIMBY) coalition in the mid-2010s. Irritated by ever-rising housing costs, the new YIMBYs started to demand that restrictive zoning laws and procedures that gave neighbors the ability to say “no” to new housing be abolished.
These largely left-wing YIMBYs were fighting for property rights and freer markets in building. Yet their rhetoric is more likely to stress left-wing notions of equality and inclusion: The privileged few shouldn’t get to say “no” to housing for the hard-pressed many.
Zoning reform has since become a core of the abundance agenda. Its critique of citizen veto points over housing has quickly spread to other areas of the regulatory state.
When it comes to the approval of infrastructure projects, community input is “fundamentally flawed,” wroteJerusalem DemsasforThe Atlanticlast year. “It’s biased toward the status quo and privileges a small group of residents who for reasons that range from the sympathetic to the selfish don’t want to allow projects that are broadly useful.”
Riddling the system with these “veto points” has also given rise to a related criticism of modern American governance: what theTimes’ Klein calls “everything bagel liberalism.” (That’s a reference to the all-consuming “everything bagel” from the 2022 filmEverything Everywhere All at Oncethat sucks up so much of the universe that no individual thing ends up mattering.)
The policy implications of the metaphor are clear. If everyone can say “no” to your project, then everyone is going to demand something before they say “yes” to it. That in turn weighs down projects, public or private, with prohibitively costly carve-outs and payoffs.
The abundance agenda’s criticisms of excessive veto points and the special-interest carve-outs they breed has made its supporters more friendly to the libertarian view that market incumbents often convert regulation into a protection racket.
In addition to NIMBY housing regulations, abundance agenda supporters criticize occupational licensing laws for propping up the earnings of incumbent day care workers and hair stylists at the expense of consumers and excluded workers. They criticize immigration restrictions that keep out high-skilled foreigners to protect the wages of native-born Americans. They attack “Buy American” laws that force businesses to purchase domestically sourced materials.
“I think a lot of people don’t know how much the government does to restrict access to a lot of kinds of goods that we don’t have serious disagreements about whether people should have access to them,” says liberal pundit Matt Yglesias. “There’s a lot of pretty pure rent seeking in the system.”
On the flip side, the growing popularity of the abundance agenda has seen free marketers use that framing to pitch their longstanding deregulatory beliefs to a wider left-of-center audience that might otherwise tune them out.
Discourse, a publication of the pro-market Mercatus Center at George Mason University, has published a series of essays on the abundance agenda, most of which argue that a long list of free market policies are necessary for true abundance.
Both libertarian and progressive abundance-agenda supporters have reached back in history to find forgotten strands of liberalism that prioritized growth and progress. An Abundance of Takes
In Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi novelAnathem, there exists an order of rationalist monks whose whole purpose is to explain that every supposedly new idea was actually discussed to death centuries ago. If these monks existed in our universe, they’d likely say that,actually, there’s nothing all that novel about a progressivism that extols the virtues of growing the private sector and government.
As recently as the mid-2000s, there was a boom in this kind of thinking. Writers like Brink Lindsey (then a vice president of the Cato Institute) and Gene Sperling (one of President Bill Clinton’s economic advisers) made their respective cases for a “liberaltarian” or “pro-growth progressive” coalition.
The liberal-libertarian fusionists saw dynamic markets as necessary for the good jobs and tax revenue progressives wanted. They also recognized redistribution as a just and politically necessary means of shoring up popular support for the economic dynamism the libertarians prized.
As a bonus, a growing economy would convert everyday people to socially liberal values, or at least make them less willing to go in for reactionary politics. “It is easier to have a melting pot if it is a growing pot,” Sperling wrote in his 2005 bookThe Pro-Growth Progressive.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot that distinguishes today’s abundance agenda from the pro-growth progressives of old. The most obvious one is the contemporary group’s means of communication and organization. Notwithstanding Thompson’s admonition about too much venting and not enough inventing, the abundance agenda is definitely “too online.”
Today’s abundance-agenda liberals own a lot of real estate at legacy media outlets: Klein writes a column atThe New York Times, while Thompson and Demsas write forThe Atlantic. More often than not, the prestige publications’ version of the abundance agenda is a filtered, polished rendition of broad ideas and specific policies first circulated on social media and in digital newsletters.
Where else but #EconTwitter would thousands of professional wonks and interested laypeople gather to chew the fat about the latest National Bureau of Economic Research working paper explaining low growth rates, or dunk on clips of anti-housing activists saying a new apartment building will ruin their neighborhood?
Where else but in subscriber-supported Substack newsletters could writers find it possible (and profitable) to pen thousands of words on the particulars of energy-permitting regulations or international variation in public transportation project costs?
Out of this wonky internet churn, individual failures to build get synthesized into a coherent group identity around an abundance agenda and its larger call to action.
A representative episode was the uproar over La Sombrita.
La Sombrita was Los Angeles’ “radical” new design for shading its bus stops that, on closer inspection, turned out to be a mostly useless piece of metal that cast almost no shade.
Its primary virtue was that it was so small and ineffective that city workers could just go out and hang them from bus stop signs. More substantial shade structures would need multiple sign-offs and approvals from L.A.’s sprawling city bureaucracy.
A quarter-century ago, this small-scale boondoggle might have attracted little notice. Instead, it quickly went viral in the abundance-agenda corners of Twitter, which then produced thinkier Substack pieces about how La Sombrita explained America’s material stagnation, which were then followed by coverage in major traditional news outlets.
No “failure to build,” no matter how small, would escape the movement’s all-seeing eye.
Yglesias, who writes theSlow Boringnewsletter on Substack, argues that the online nature of abundance-agenda liberalism has helped rehabilitate market-friendly centrist “New Democratic” thinking from its low ebb in the lte 2000s and early 2010s.
That kind of protoabundance agenda “had a lot of purchase and a lot of institutional backing 20 years ago and then came to be discredited because the particular institutions associated with New Democrats came to be associated with the invasion of Iraq” and the Great Recession, he says.
Thanks to new voices and institutions online, he adds, “there’s been a rebuilding and rediscovery of what was correct in that political tendency.”
As a sign of its success, the online movement has started to spawn traditional brick-and-mortar institutions in the real world.
One can see this in the rise of an abundance-agenda-adjacent think tank, the Center for New Liberalism (CNL)previously known as the Neoliberal Project, and before that r/neoliberal. (In its earliest forms in the mid-2010s, CNL was just a humble subreddit, or online forum.)
“It was making really wonky memes about the federal funds rate,” says CNL co-founder Colin Mortimer. “It very quickly turned into a community and refuge for non-Bernie [as in socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders] Democrats who wanted a place to talk about still wonky but general politics.”
That subreddit community followed the upward ape-to-man trajectory of any successful internet-spawned political movement, growing into a successful Twitter account, a podcast, a website, local in-person meetups, and eventually acquisition by a decadesold center-left think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, in 2020.
The CNL has since spun off into its own independent organization, where a large part of its mission continues to be convincing center-left policy makers that “we just don’t have enough stuff” and “we should make it easier to replace that stuff or build new stuff.”
That’s not the only abundance-agenda institution to grow beyond the confines of simple posting.
For a time, billionaire Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison was content to write about the causes of and obstacles to economic growth on his personal blog. His company has since plowed significant resources into more traditional publishing endeavors to expand on those ideas.
It has launched Stripe Press, which publishes and reprints a number of books helping to lay an intellectual groundwork for growth-obsessed abundance agenda-ers. That includes J. Storrs Hall’sWhere Is My Flying Car?, which pins our stagnation on regulations that crushed energy production, andStubborn Attachments,by George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, which argues we have a moral duty to future human beings to increase economic growth by as much as possible.
(Illustration: Joanna Andreasson; Source images: BWFolsom/iStock, Creative Market) State Capacity Statism
The abundance agenda and libertarianism have a significant natural overlap. Nevertheless, the former’s goals are higher growth and “more stuff” generally, not a smaller state.
That goal has created an odd-bedfellows coalition of big-government liberals and small-government libertarians and conservatives, all interested in some pruning of the regulatory state. But the progressive members of this coalition want that pruning to unleash the best big government has to offer.
If free markets or small government institutions are seen as an impediment to higher growth and empowered, competent government, then they too have to go.
Klein’s “everything bagel liberalism” is a useful framing for discussing the problems of excessive process and special interest carve-outs. He first deployed it in the context of all the cost-increasing regulations attached to affordable housing development in San Francisco. The development he profiled managed to escape a lot of these regulations by relying exclusively on private money.
Nevertheless, Klein’s column made it clear he wanted the government to play a significant role in solving the state’s affordable housing problems, and indeed, its problems generally.
“Government needs to be able to solve big problems. But the inability or the unwillingness to choose among competing prioritiesto pile too much on the bagelis itself a choice, and it’s one that California keeps making,” he wrote. That’s a far cry from the libertarian view that government will inherently get bogged down with needless process and/or get captured by special interests.
Even where liberal adherents of the abundance agenda support getting rid of government regulation on market actors, it’s often part of a larger political project of making progressive policies work and progressive-dominated regions more powerful.
The abundance agenda in many ways started as an effort to liberalize zoning regulations on new housing construction in expensive coastal metro areas. A large part of that was early YIMBY activists and writers correctly understanding that restrictions on market supply are driving up market prices.
At the same time, this focus on zoning speaks to a progressive anxiety that blue America is losing people, power, and influence to places where housing costs are cheaper.
“The population center of gravity keeps shifting to places where they let houses get built is something everyone understands. The political economy consequences of that are dire,” says Yglesias. “Do you want to concede that the overall model in Texas is just better or do you want to zero in on how much of that excess growth is caused by housing elements and then do something about it?”
The libertarian political project is to shrink the state generally, not just reduce permitting times for federally approved infrastructure projects.
Many activists and policy wonks who support the abundance agenda argue it’s often undesirable and certainly a waste of time for anyone to pursue those larger changes to the nation’s political economy.
That’s the view taken by Alec Stapp, co-founder of the Institute for Progress. Stapp got his start working on the big questions of tech policy, such as antitrust and privacy regulations.
“It’s trench warfare,” he says. “Both sides are really well-funded. They’ve been having these arguments for decades. Has legislation been passed? Have rules and regulations changed? Not really.”
Stapp launched his institute with the goal of sidestepping those bigger policy fights in favor of focusing on the “inputs to innovations,” such as high-skilled immigration and federal science funding.
“Lots of people talking about should we give [the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation] more billions of dollars or take away their funding,” says Stapp. Instead, his group asks: “For any given budget, whether it’s a little smaller or a little bigger, how are they spending it?”
That could well be the best way to be an effective policy entrepreneur. But it requires one to make peace with a state far larger and more intrusive than any libertarian could be comfortable with.
Even some abundance-agenda adherents who share the goal of freer markets and a less intrusive state have nevertheless embraced the idea that the modern world requires us to have a better functioning government before we can have a smaller government.
“Our governments cannot address climate change, much [less] improve K-12 education, fix traffic congestion, or improve the quality of their discretionary spending. Much of our physical infrastructure is stagnant or declining in quality,”wroteCowen in a 2020 blog post advocating “state-capacity libertarianism.”
“Those problems require state capacityalbeit to boost marketsin a way that classical libertarianism is poorly suited to deal with,” he continued. “Even if you favor education privatization, in the shorter run we still need to make the current system much better. That would even make privatization easier, if that is your goal.”
Old-school libertarians have criticized this notion. David R. Henderson of the Hoover Institution perceptively replied to Cowenthat”the latent power that a large-capacity state would have could more easily be drawn on than the power that a small-capacity state would have.”
“Even if large-capacity libertarians wouldn’t want the state to throw people in prison for producing, distributing, or using drugs,” Hederson warns, “they might not get their wish.” The Liberaltarian Moment?
The liberaltarian movement never quite panned out. Will the abundance agenda be a similar flop? It’s always tough to read the tea leaves, but there’s reason to think a “liberalism that builds” might be a stickier concept.
The pandemic era’s trifecta of huge spending, high inflation, and empty shelves has reinforced the notion that you can’t just spend your way out of material deprivation. Center-left policy wonks and lay policy enthusiasts are increasingly hungry for ideas about how to grow the pie, not just subsidize and redistribute it.
Pandemic-era migration from blue to red America has made clear the role liberal states’ homebuilding regulations are playing in pricing people out. That has helped keep liberalizing zoning reforms on the top of the agenda at the state and local level.
Lastly, the success of congressional Democrats and the Biden administration at squeezing through big spending bills has, ironically, removed one source of friction between the big- and small-government sides of the abundance agenda. Like it or not, those billions in subsidies have already been approved. That’s one less point to argue about.
Provided it does stick around, where will an abundance agenda lead us?
One optimistic view is that an abundance agenda will succeed in smashing the veto pointriddled institutions of the 1970s. The inherent inefficiencies of government will mean that its schemes will still flounder, while private capital is at last unshackled to build our housing- and energy-rich future.
Or perhaps Henderson’s pessimism is on point. Abundance-agenda liberals (and a few useful-idiot libertarians) will succeed in making a more effective state only to see it slide its interfering tentacles into more and more areas of the economy and individuals’ lives.
Maybe the abundance agenda will be truly transcendent, as in Reinhardt’s energy-rich utopia. With the problems of material scarcity basically solved, questions about government control versus private initiative will become hopelessly archaic. Taxation will still be theft, of course. But when energy is too cheap to meter, who’ll even notice the state pirating a few electrons?
Most likely, we’ll end up somewhere in the middle, with the abundance agenda adding another pro-growth, deregulatory spice to the “everything bagel” of Democratic governance. Regulations will become less burdensome, but they won’t disappear. Progressive politicians will have to be more mindful of the costs of permitting procedures and “Buy American” rules, but they won’t get rid of them entirely.
That seems to be the direction where Newsom’s California is headed. After complaining bitterly about CEQA, the governor unveiled some incredibly mild tweaks to the law. They weren’t earth-shattering stuff by any means, and they won’t fix the state’s failures to build.
But directionally, they’re deregulatory. Perhaps real abundance starts on the margins.