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Amanda Northrop/Vox; Getty Images

The 15 most read Future Perfect stories of 2022

SBF and EA, animal welfare and economic growth, and why we’re running short of people.

Roughly a year ago, I joined Future Perfect as its lead editor. The decision was a no-brainer for me. Where else could I be deeply involved in directing, editing, and occasionally writing stories about the most important yet undercovered topics in the world?

Looking back on my first year through our most read stories in 2022, I can say that our coverage definitely hit important subjects, but not always ones that were undercovered. That’s because this was the year that effective altruism — the philosophical and philanthropic movement that helped inspire this section — went from background to foreground.

First, earlier this year, new waves of money and a new focus on longtermism made EA as close to a household name as anything with roots in esoteric reaches of utilitarian philosophy can be. And then the source of much of that money — FTX co-founder Sam Bankman-Fried — saw his company collapse amid allegations of fraud that culminated in his arrest in the Bahamas earlier this month. (Disclosure: This August, Bankman-Fried’s philanthropic family foundation, Building a Stronger Future, awarded Vox’s Future Perfect a grant for a 2023 reporting project. That project is now on pause.)

But if EA itself was the single biggest story Future Perfect covered this year, it was far from the only one. From the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic to the mysteries of economic growth to the fate of billions of farm animals, our most read stories in 2022 hit every corner of Future Perfect’s interests.

1) “Sam Bankman-Fried tries to explain himself” by Kelsey Piper

This story from mid-November — a late-night interview conducted by Twitter DMs with perhaps the most newsworthy person of 2022 — wasn’t just the most read story on Future Perfect. It was the most read story of the year on Vox, period.

Though Bankman-Fried would go on to conduct a wide-ranging and legally baffling media tour in the weeks that followed his company’s shocking implosion, he would never be as candid as he was to Kelsey, answering questions on what went wrong and what he was thinking. It’s hard to pick the most eyebrow-raising answer, but I’ll go with this one, in response to a question about the real motivations behind his pre-collapse campaign to beef up cryptocurrency regulations: “Fuck regulators. They make everything worse.”

2) “The incredible shrinking future of college” by Kevin Carey

Supply and demand are the twin forces that rule our world. And for decades, the American higher education system benefited from both — a generally rising supply of college-age young people, and growing demand for the benefits of a college degree.

But as Kevin Carey of New America wrote in this November piece from Future Perfect’s edition of The Highlight, colleges are grappling with an existential turnaround in both supply and demand. Demographic shifts mean that the number of college-age Americans will continually dwindle, while the declining economic value of the average college degree is denting demand, especially among men. That means we’ll likely see college after college vanish in the years ahead, with grim implications for the small towns that depend on them.

3) “Omicron is exploding. Here’s what to do if you’ve been exposed.” by Sigal Samuel

It says something about how long the Covid-19 pandemic has been with us that I was almost surprised to see this story from early January in our number three spot. But omicron, which only began spreading in the US a little more than a year ago, took the pandemic to an entirely new level. While vaccines still provided robust protection against hospitalization and death, especially for younger people, they were far less effective against infection — which made the tips Sigal highlighted in this story incredibly valuable.

4) “AI experts are increasingly afraid of what they’re creating” by Kelsey Piper

When we look back on 2022 in 10 or 15 or 20 years’ time, we may decide that the most important topic of the year wasn’t inflation or the Ukraine war or, god forbid, Elon Musk buying Twitter, but rather the astounding developments that occurred this year in the field of artificial intelligence, as ChatGPT became the first AI language product to really hit the masses. That, of course, assumes we’ll still be around in 10 or 15 or 20 years’ time. In this piece from Future Perfect’s November Highlight edition, Kelsey explained why some of the people who best understand the bleeding edge of AI are also the people who are more worried about what their creation may do.

5) “22 things we think will happen in 2022” by Dylan Matthews, Kelsey Piper, and Sigal Samuel

When the name of your section is Future Perfect, predictions about the future are hard to avoid. But we’ve made it an annual habit at the start of the year not just to put our divination in writing, but to append probabilities to those forecasts — and to check back in a year’s time to see how we’ve done. We think this epistemic honesty should be less unusual in our line of work. You can look later this week for our piece reviewing how those predictions turned out, but let me just say that I hope that Dylan — who was relatively sure Kenneth Branagh’s quickly forgotten film Belfast would win Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year — didn’t wager his salary at the office Oscar pool.

6) “How the Fed ended the last great American inflation — and how much it hurt” by Dylan Matthews

2022 will be remembered as the year that the long-vanquished demon of inflation came roaring back with a vengeance. In fact, it had been so long since rising prices were a major drag on the US economy that Dylan had to go back decades to find the last time the Federal Reserve had to take extreme measures to curb inflation. (How long ago? Then-Fed Chair Paul Volcker is depicted in the story’s main photo smoking a cigar while testifying to Congress.) There’s a lot to learn from this piece, but here’s my main takeaway: The policy cure to runaway inflation is only slightly better than the disease.

7) “About 200 years ago, the world started getting rich. Why?” by Dylan Matthews

At Future Perfect, we like our stories to take a wide scope, but it’s not every piece that begins 300,000 years ago, as Homo sapiens began our long, slow crawl to the top of the planetary food chain. How we got here is, at root, the story of economic growth, and like a ponderous movie with a fantastic climax, it really only takes off in the last few pages. In an interview in June with the economists Jared Rubin and Mark Koyama, the authors of the excellent economic history How the World Became Rich, Dylan explored the story of what changed around 200 years ago, when, after millennia of little more than flat lines, economic growth skyrocketed. And in doing so, it did more than anything else to make the world we live in today.

8) “Costco’s inflation-proof $4.99 rotisserie chicken, explained” by Kenny Torrella

Call me an out-of-touch East Coast elite, but I’ve never actually had Costco’s famous $4.99 rotisserie chicken (though I did get a steady supply of Costco diapers and baby wipes delivered during my son’s infancy). Turns out it’s a whole thing — it even has its own Facebook fan page. But in a penetrating story in July, Kenny showed how Costco’s dirt-cheap chicken — purposely sold at a loss to get customers through the door — is a symbol of an industrialized food system that damages the environment, harms workers, and causes untold suffering to farm animals, all in the name of a low-cost dinner.

9) “How you can get free N95 masks from the US government” by Muizz Akhtar

How intense was the fear around the omicron variant a year ago? Strong enough that a straightforward explainer from January about how to get the free N95 masks the Biden administration was providing easily made our top 15 for the year. Though 400 million masks were made available, as the omicron wave waned and vaccines held up against death, fewer and fewer of them were put to use. That may not be the case for much longer, though — earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention once again encouraged Americans to wear masks in crowded indoor areas, this time to protect themselves and others against the tridemic of Covid, flu, and RSV.

10) “A study gave cash and therapy to men at risk of criminal behavior. 10 years later, the results are in.” by Sigal Samuel

Violent crime returned as a social scourge during the pandemic, though for some parts of the world, like the West African nation of Liberia, it never left. But while American politicians were debating gun laws and sentencing practices, the University of Chicago economist Chris Blattman was hard at work on another option: offering direct cash benefits and targeted therapy to men in Liberia who were most at risk of violent behavior. Research published by Blattman and his colleagues in May found that these twin interventions reduced the future risk of crime and violence, with effects still seen 10 years after the fact. Blattman is now at work importing those practices to Chicago, where more than 600 people were killed in 2022.

11) “Humanity was stagnant for millennia — then something big changed 150 years ago” by Dylan Matthews

How’s this for an opening line: “The 140 years from 1870 to 2010 of the long twentieth century were, I strongly believe, the most consequential years of all humanity’s centuries.”

It comes from the brilliant book Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century by historian Brad DeLong, whom Dylan interviewed for this piece in September. The conversation is full of fascinating historical nuggets, like the fact that the average number of years that a woman spent either pregnant or breastfeeding declined from 20 in 1870 to just four today. Collected together, they make a compelling case that the turbocharged economic growth that began in the late 19th century fundamentally changed human life for the better, though not without caveats. It’s a fact that we, living in the aftermath of DeLong’s long 20th century, too often fail to appreciate.

12) “The Supreme Court is about to decide the fate of millions of pigs” by Kenny Torrella

It wasn’t the most historic case on the Supreme Court’s docket this past year, but few legal battles have ever affected this many living beings. As Kenny described in his piece from October, National Pork Producers Council v. Ross “hinges on a simple question: Can California set its own standards for how pigs are treated on farms, even when they’re raised in other states?” Yet the legal questions that were argued before the Court went to the heart of what the meat industry should be permitted to do to the millions of pigs on its farms — and what individual states are allowed to do to change that often horrific system. We won’t know the Court’s ruling until next year, but we know its decision will resonate from farm all the way to table.

13) “Poor countries are developing a new paradigm of mental health care. America is taking note.” by Sigal Samuel

A default question behind both international news coverage and international philanthropy is this: What can rich nations do to help poor nations? But in this November story from Future Perfect’s edition of the Highlight, Sigal turns the question on its head.

Like the US, many nations in the Global South are suffering through mental health crises, a problem compounded by the fact that they have far fewer mental health professionals per capita than rich nations. But, as Sigal shows, the future of sustainable mental health care could take the form of the kind of community-based approaches being pioneered in countries like Ghana, featuring a “therapy that teaches people the skills to devise their own solutions to the problems they face.”

14) “Americans keep moving to where the water isn’t” by Bryan Walsh

Hey, I know that guy! I was inspired to write this story in August by a simple question: Why, as the effects of climate change like heat waves and droughts became ever more apparent, do Americans keep moving to those parts of the country most vulnerable to warming?

Ten of the 15 US counties that saw the most population growth in 2021 were in the water-starved Southwest, while the 50 US counties with the least vulnerability to climate change lost more people than they gained. As it turns out, the desire for relatively cheap housing, a robust local economy, and as many weeks of sunshine as you can find outweighs climate fears for most Americans, in a perfect illustration of what economists would call “revealed preferences.”

15) “The great population growth slowdown” by Bryan Walsh

This story from January was the first one I published on Future Perfect, and it just made the top 15. (Maybe I should have quit while I was ahead.) It was also the first of several I wrote this year about what I believe is one of the most important trends facing the US and the world: slowing population growth.

As I noted, the US population grew by just 0.1 percent in the year between July 2020 and July 2021 — the lowest growth rate in the nation’s history. There are multiple explanations, but they boil down to this: fewer people having fewer babies, and, in the US at least, fewer immigrants arriving on our shores. Both trends have improved a bit over the past year, which I’d argue is welcome news. Slow population growth is a recipe for economic sluggishness and cultural sclerosis. And if you’d like to know more, you can read the 4,568 words I published on the subject in November.

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