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The Pursuit of "Progress"

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

When former Clinton administration official John Podesta wanted to launch a liberal think tank in 2003, he named it the Center for American Progress.

As it turns out, there aren’t any particularly new ideas on the political left, so CAP has mostly served as a proxy for the Democratic National Committee. It sends out talking points supporting socialized health care, increased regulation and ever-greater “stimulus” spending, and attacks anyone with an “R” after his/her name. Yawn.

Still, the name is interesting. Even Podesta understood that it’s important in the United States to at least claim to support “progress,” a concept all Americans can agree is a good thing. At least we used to.

The Washington, D.C., building built in the 1800s to house the Patent Office is now home to a Smithsonian museum. But it’s interesting to stand in the building’s largest room, a massive space that was built to be large enough for inventers to display large models of their creations.

The four corners of the room feature statues of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Fulton and Eli Whitney. That’s an interesting pairing -- two political leaders who wrote the nation’s founding documents (and were also known to tinker) alongside two inventers whose creations unleashed steam power and “King Cotton.”

It’s almost as if those who built the building wanted to signal that American inventiveness mattered almost as much as American governance. It’d be difficult to make that argument in 2010.

In Washington, the government has passed a massive health care law that seems certain to take power away from doctors and patients and give it to federal bureaucrats. It also passed a financial regulation law that will limit innovation on Wall Street, but won’t do much to fix the problems that almost brought down the nation’s financial system. Again, bureaucrats and regulators will be asked to ride to our salvation. Good luck to all of us with that.

Meanwhile, “progress” seems to have gotten a bad name, at least in elite circles.

The July 11 Outlook section of The Washington Post featured a pair of stories slamming inventions earlier generations would have unabashedly cheered. “Washington didn’t grind to a sweaty halt last week under triple-digit temperatures,” wrote author Stan Cox. “Instead, the three-day, 100-plus-degree, record-shattering heat wave prompted Washingtonians to crank up their favorite humidity-reducing, electricity-bill-busting, fluorocarbon-filled appliance: the air conditioner.”

Cox went on to describe how wonderful life would be without A.C. “Families unplug as many heat-generating appliances as possible. Forget clothes dryers -- post-A.C. neighborhoods are crisscrossed with clotheslines. The hot stove is abandoned for the grill, and dinner is eaten on the porch.” So not only should we shut down air conditioners, but dishwashers, dryers and other appliances. All the comforts of home are, in Cox’s view, endangering the planet.

About the only real benefit is that Congress would be forced to get out of town. “Post-A.C., Congress again adjourns for the summer, giving ‘tea partiers’ the smaller government they seek,” Cox writes.

That may seem tempting, but keep in mind that lawmakers are famous for exempting themselves from the policies they foist on the rest of us. We could end up with a world where the Capital building is the only air conditioned place in town, with lawmakers passing onerous regulations in chilled comfort while the rest of us sweat it out in quiet desperation.

Elsewhere in the July 11 Outlook, Joshua Glenn writes that a new book titled The Evolution of Artificial Light “presents damning evidence that in our millennia-long quest for ever more and brighter light, we’ve despoiled the natural world, abandoned our self-sufficiency and trained ourselves to sleep and dream less while working more.”

How is electric light so bad? Well, for one thing, it’s supposedly led to inequality. “The wealthy and powerful have always acquired new kinds of light first and enjoyed a disproportionate share of their splendor,” Glenn writes. There’s an interesting argument.

First let’s note that if lawmakers hadn’t banned the traditional -- and cheap -- light bulb (starting in 2012) more people would be able to afford artificial light. Second, even if we’re all forced to use expensive CFL bulbs, they are still cheaper and better than the candles that even the richest households relied on a century or so ago.

Today’s poorest Americans live in lighted splendor that their great-grandparents couldn’t have dreamed of. Rather than increasing inequality, progress tends to make life better for everybody.

Tonight, leave the porch light on to show you support traditional American progress. Oh, and feel free to crank the A.C., while you’re still allowed to.

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