Discover more from The Works in Progress Newsletter
Issue 12: Houston, we have a solution
Plus: How Mexico built its state, the causes of the Baby Boom, and the 141-year quest for a malaria vaccine.
It’s time for Works in Progress’s 12th issue.
Our lead piece tells the story of the malaria vaccine. Malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people every year. But developing a vaccine took decades. We chronicle how it was done, and how we could use Advance Market Commitments to get future vaccines a lot faster.
The issue also includes essays on:
How we can get cities to build more by fixing property taxes to give local governments incentives to promote growth;
The past and future of copper mining, and how we can get the copper we need for the green transition;
How Mexico built state capacity in the 19th century by carefully doing deals with bandits and local warlords;
Houston’s opt-out zoning system, which allowed it to massively densify America’s most sprawling city with minimal controversy;
The causes of the Baby Boom, and what they tell us about increasing fertility today; and
Why we should favor not traditional or modern architecture, but architecture that is easy for everyone to appreciate.
Malaria is caused not by a virus or bacteria, but by a microscopic parasite. This is one reason that it has been so difficult to develop an effective vaccine against it. A hundred and forty-one years after the discovery of the parasite, we finally have a vaccine that reduces the chances of disease by 30–40 percent in young children. But a major part of the challenge in developing the vaccine was not just scientific but economic and logistical. Even when we made breakthroughs, lack of funding slowed down clinical trials. Rachel Glennerster, Siddhartha Haria and Saloni Dattani write about how we developed this vaccine, and how a commitment to buy large quantities of it in advance – an Advance Market Commitment – could have sped it up, and can help us develop new vaccines faster in the future.
American cities have often been very good at permitting ‘urban sprawl’ – low density suburban and exurban housing around their cities. But they have usually been bad at densifying around the centers of cities. In fact, American cities have generally gotten substantially less dense over the last hundred years. Houston – a famously sprawling city, with no zoning code – used to be the paradigm example of this, says Anya Martin. But since the late 1990s it has allowed more densification than pretty much anywhere else in the country. It managed to do it through a system of local opt-outs to city-wide up-zoning reforms. Areas that didn’t want densification were able to choose to stay they way they were – leaving the rest of the city to upzone without a fight.
Every time it looks like we’re going to run out of copper, we come up with new ways of collecting it. Decarbonisation will demand a huge amount of copper as we shift from fossil fuels to electricity – twice as much as we use today. says Ed Conway. That means even more ingenious ways of harvesting it from the oceans and the earth’s crust.
Many local governments in the US and other developed countries, have begun to oppose economic growth in their areas, especially in the form of new housing. One reason for this, argues Judge Glock, is that many municipalities have lost the local tax-raising and -retaining powers that used to mean that more development meant more tax revenues, breaking the link between development meant more tax revenues. Getting local areas to put up with the inconvenience of growth will mean restoring that link.
Low fertility rates are a worrying problem. But we’re mostly clueless about how to encourage people to have children. We haven’t even had a good theory for what caused the most surprising fertility event in human history - until now, argue Phoebe Arslanagic-Wakefield and Anvar Sarygulov. The Baby Boom was not brought on by the end of World War II as is commonly supposed – it actually started in the 1930s. So what did cause it? Household technologies, medical interventions, and lower housing prices, all of which may lend us clues to boosting the fertility rate today.
International NGOs sometimes tell developing countries to adopt institutions that are copied wholesale from the richest countries, with little effort to adapt them to local circumstances. This approach is doomed to failure, argues Robin Grier, and ignores the special histories that countries actually went through to build their own states. Take Mexico, for example, which was in a parlous state after revolutions and wars during the nineteenth century. It did not develop state capacity by copying the leading nations of the time wholesale. Instead, its government cut deals with powerbrokers – including bandits and local warlords – in order to build the capacity it needed.
Which side should you pick in the battle between ‘traditionalist’ and ‘modernist’ architectural visions? Neither, says Samuel Hughes. What’s popular about traditionalism is not its oldness, but the fact that, like pop music and hamburgers, it is easy to appreciate, easy for non-geniuses to produce good examples of, and creates a pleasant backdrop for everyday life. ‘Easy’ architecture may not reach the heights that the best ‘challenging’ stuff does, but it is a much surer rule-of-thumb for building cities that people are happy to live in.
Books in Progress
Back in June, we launched Books in Progress, a platform for authors to collaborate with readers on their draft book chapters. Our first author is Stewart Brand, with his book Maintenance: Of Everything, of which the Works in Progress article The Maintenance Race was chapter one. You can subscribe to updates to the project here.
We’ve released 6 sections from Chapter 2: Vehicles (and weapons).
What Motorcycles Teach About Maintenance: Why do we have two famous works – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Shop Class as Soulcraft – on motorcycle maintenance?
Three Maintenance Philosophies Fought for Control of the Auto Industry: Henry Ford’s assembly line-made cars won out over other early automobiles. Maintenance was a critical part of the story.
How America Made Machines Make Machines: The origins of interchangeable parts.
What the Three Most Popular Cars in History Have in Common: Everyday people are able to fix them.
Great Manuals in History: What makes a good instruction manual?
Two Assault Rifles: The USSR had the AK-47. The Americans had the M16. One was easier to maintain.
Expect new releases every two weeks and follow Stewart Brand on Twitter for updates on the project. Helpful commenters will be thanked in the eventual printed release.
Podcasts we like
Stuart Ritchie and Tom Chivers, regular contributors to Works in Progress, have started a podcast about scientific controversies, from Ozempic to the LK-99 superconductor. It’s called “The Studies Show.”
Pradyumna Prasad, a student based in Singapore, hosts Bretton Goods, an interview podcast on economic growth. He recently interviewed Tyler Cowen and Dwarkesh Patel.
Do you use Apple News? If so, you can follow Works in Progress here.
A five-factor model picks up and can predict a lot of the personality differences between humans. A two-factor model seems to do the trick for tigers, wrote Rosalind Arden for Notes on Progress.
Stripe Press has held pop-ups in San Francisco and Dublin recently. The next one is in London, on September 23rd. After that, New York City – details to come. Some of the Works in Progress team will be at these too – come along and say hi.
What we’ve been up to
Saloni was holed up writing on the malaria vaccine for Works in Progress, but also wrote a round up of great new scientific discoveries you might have missed this year for her Substack, and published new dataviz and articles at Our World in Data on causes of death around the world.
Sam spoke at the Great Stagnation summit in Cambridge, alongside Professors Tyler Cowen, David Edgerton and Diane Coyle. He wrote on his Substack about why thinking of the UK as a developing country might be the best way to get it to grow, and for the Sunday Times about why Britain has gotten so poor (and how to change that). He also thought about how democratic decision-making can be a solution to the vetocracy that plagues many Western countries.
Ben has been looking after his very cute daughter Dora in between editing new WIP articles.
Stuff we liked from around the web
Aspartame may taste disgusting, but it’s harmless.
An interview with the man behind the Bush Administration’s anti-AIDS program, estimated to have saved over 20 million lives and counting.
A recent big breakthrough in brain cancer treatment.
A successor to semaglutide reduced body weight by 24% in trial participants.
The apparent rise in mental health problems in teens may be driven by changes to reporting guidelines.
— Saloni, Nick, Sam and Ben