Investor Balaji Srinivasan is a highly original thinker in Silicon Valley on Biotech to Blockchain and everything in between. Most recently, he was quite early in warning us about the Coronavirus and was ridiculed for his efforts by many in the world of institutional sense-making. That is, before people realized he was not wrong, but simply early.
In this episode Eric talks to Balaji on the topic of what it was like to see the future before it arrived and what his crystal ball suggests about what is likely to happen next. As Balaji understands our world, the Corona virus presents a complex set of challenges that will strongly discriminate between those who can pass it’s tests and those who will fail them. He sees this resulting in functional Green Zones which will become dominant in the future and Red Zones which will be characterized by dysfunctional responses. Presumably this new divide will then be expected to take over from the “North-South” divide between industrialized and developing nations.
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For a transcript of the audio essay at the beginning of this episode, see link below:
Eric Weinstein: After a few brief words from our sponsors, I’ll be back to introduce the guest for this episode’s discussion.
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Today’s guest is general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, a founder of the biotech firm Counsyl, and former CTO at Coinbase. He’s also a friend and one of the people in tech I always love talking with on almost any subject because of the originality of his homespun analyses.
Balaji Srinivasan is a fellow STEM PhD, who left research for tech. If you think about academics as having a natural culture that is often as strong or stronger than national or ethnic cultures, Balaji and I still maintain various sensibilities in common that reveal us to be academic expats from the system of research universities. In a different era, Balaji would likely have become a quirky professor—loved by students and feared by anyone with the soul of an administrator. But perhaps because his move (from Silicon Valley electrical engineering to tech) was later in time, and not quite as far of an intellectual jump from conventional East Coast mathematics, Balaji went in for a much more aggressive computer- and data-centered vision of the future than I was prepared for.
Balaji is a firm believer in visions where crypto and decentralized computing, together with other technologies, ultimately liberate us from the world of excess social engineering, financialization, and declining technical competence. Thus, I have always enjoyed our conversations immensely, as I view him as one of the most aggressive and generative futurists out there, with an interesting and original take on almost anything involving our various possible worlds to come.
It was thus no surprise to me that Balaji was one of the earliest and clearest major voices on the coronavirus. While predictably derided and misportrayed by journalists and others as being part of a world of “tech bro” preppers deranged by cheap apocalyptic fantasies from too many dystopian video games, Balaji held his ground and calmly, analytically explained why everyone needed to radically change her or his thinking as quickly as possible surrounding the virus. Of course, in that nearly-forgotten academic world—where such a highly original non-joiner would have been welcomed—Balaji might have spoken with the authority of a professor. Yet despite having a PhD from Stanford and having co-founded a major biotech company that sold for nine figures, I was shocked to see far less technical people, making their living as writers, taking potshots at this so-called “tech bro.”
Okay, I admit I don’t get it. If you’re male and you make a living in technology, you’re automatically a dismissable “bro,” according to people who write for a living across the country in either Brooklyn or near Dupont Circle? Well that’s moronic. Balaji may be crazy, but he’s certainly the right kind of crazy according to us—and not a prepper, a grifter, or a bro.
And if I may speak directly to the so-called commentariat: cut it out; stop with the jealousy. You guys are losing mindshare for rational reasons because you can’t compete with people who are actually trying to think ahead and help other people think rationally for themselves. If you want to compete with the Balajis of the world, stop trying to figure out who is up or who is down, and start learning to look at the world from first principles—that’s what they do. Then get the story early, get it right, and then show us how you don’t back down. Dare your editors to fire you if they don’t like the scoop you just filed and you did so responsibly. But whatever you do, you have a responsibility to the world to stop running everyone outside your little club down for the thoughtcrime of giving good advice that contradicts whatever nonsense is being spouted by the three letter official organization that you’ve been led to believe represents the gold standard or the word of god, like the WHO or the CDC. It’s enough already, capisce?
Okay, so Balaji might be crazy, but he’s very much our kind of crazy, here at The Portal. Thus, I wanted to introduce him to our audience. As you will note, he and I disagree—but that is hardly the issue. Balaji is trying to think critically about what happens next and how this virus remakes the world. I personally tend to think Balaji might be too quick to give up on making institutions sane again, and he likely views me as stuck in the past, unable to realize how the blockchain and private enterprise WILL allow us to disintermediate the traditional institutions and their subversion. Suffice it to say that I think I am more correct, but that I hope that his vision is closer to accurate. And, if I’m honest, neither position is a slam dunk.
I do hope you will enjoy this first uninterrupted conversation with Balaji Srinivasan, which will begin after a few brief messages from our sponsors.
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Eric Weinstein: Hello, you found The Portal. I’m your host, Eric Weinstein, and today I get to sit down with my friend, a constantly-inspiring mind which is always restless, Mr. Balaji Srinivasan. Balaji: great to have you with us!
Balaji Srinivasan: Eric, great to be here.
EW: So Balaji, of course, is the former CTO of Coinbase, as well as general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, and also the founder of a biotech startup that I think sold for over $300 million, if I’m not incorrect. Balaji, is that correct?
BS: Yeah, that’s right, yep.
EW: And generally just a great uncorrelated mind and spirit, who has been particularly good … getting us early information on the corona situation. So Balaji, can you just give us a little bit of history with you, and the coronavirus, and how you came to be concerned about this, and what you’ve learned in this process?
BS: Yeah, sure. So, you know, I’ve been, basically, I guess, a part time citizen-journalist on corona for the last three months or so—four months—since late January. I was going to be doing some other things this year—and I may still do them and try and fold them in or reboot them—but I was basically just following the news and I saw the lockdown of Wuhan on January 23, and I realized that was a very serious thing, because actions speak louder than words—especially in China. And from that I started digging into the biomedical literature and read everything I could get my hands on and talked to a lot of people in China to get a view on the ground. And mainly the reason that I dug into it is, you know, like as an investor, you’re tuned to look for things that can get very big from a small base. And this was the first thing that I felt like I was diligence-ing that, if it did get really big, that I would feel BAD about it. Like, normally you’re doing diligence, good investment, and you want to hope … you hope it gets big. And this was something where I was diligence, again, trying to attack it and cut the legs out from under it, like, you know, like what one normally would and I couldn’t. And so I started tweeting about it and covering it and and that kind of brings us to the present day—lots of things happen, obviously, over that period.
EW: So this is really an interesting perspective. In some sense, the virus was “pitching” us from Wuhan— with all of those fumigations—and there were a small number of early adopters in the states who really got the virus. But for the most part, the herd couldn’t understand what was going on. And, in part, that puts you as an “early adopter” because you started talking very early about this being a potentially worldwide disaster.
BS: Yeah, I mean, like, the thing about it is, it’s one of those things that had tail risk, right? Actually, you know, I was certainly by no means the only person-, Like, Nassim Taleb also had some writing at the same time—put out a paper on this. And, you know, if you think about tail events, right—whether Taleb has, from kind of a Wall Street perspective, or, like I have (we have) from a from a tech or VC perspective— … Tyler Cowen has a good way of talking about this where he calls it, like, “base-raters” versus “growth casers,” right? And the “base rate” people essentially say, “Hey, what you’re talking about has never happened before, and therefore, tomorrow will be the same as today. And therefore, you know, you’re crazy. You know, like, things won’t change.” Right? And frankly, actually, most of the time that prediction algorithm is pretty good, in the same way that predicting tomorrow’s weather from today’s is actually … took a while for weather prediction to beat that, right?
And then, of course, you’ve got another school of thought, which is the growth algorithm, or the growth mindset, where you can say, “Hey, actually, maybe this thing COULD go vertical. And you try and diligence it.
EW: Yeah. So who do you think of as being early on this that had a large platform and a strong voice?
BS: Early, yet had a large large platform, strong voice. Um … So I actually want to give … let’s see …
So there’s folks in China, like Kai Jing [?]. I’m probably mispronouncing that, but basically, there are actually some Chinese news outlets that published really important stuff on the coronavirus, and it was actually censored in real time. (Like, I archived the links, and I could see them being taken down in real time.) And they had a fairly large platform in China. So that’s kind of one group.
A … let’s see … So I’d say Laurie Garrett, who … she had written a book on, basically, you know, illnesses, like the, I think, The Coming Plague, she had written.
I think, Taleb is somebody. I think …
Actually, Scott Alexander put together a long list of folks, and you can kind of go through that list, because I’m sure I’ll forget somebody off the top of my head.
And, you know … Actually Matt Stoller—who I disagree with on many things—was also early on this. You know, Matt and I have … I don’t know, we may agree on 30% of things. Maybe 40%. But we very much disagree on the rest. However, he was he was absolutely right and early on this.
EW: Well, he is a very disagreeable person in general and it seems to me like no one who lack- … There was no agreeable person who got this early. You had-
BS: I think that’s right. And that’s, that’s because, … You know, the thing is, the term ‘disagreeable’ has a pejorative connotation, right? And you can use it in the neutral sense of, “Someone who will not agree for the sake of agreeing.” But it’s basically something where you might might portray both of them as positive. There’s a consensus model, and there’s, like, I don’t know, an independent thinking model or a first principles model. And, yeah, like, if you’re a consensus thinker, it is something where they’re, you know, … you just get attacked and yelled at and mocked for saying something that was quite different. And, you know what? Like, a lot of people who say something that’s different from consensus aren’t necessarily correct. And then you get back into the loop of, “Okay, how do you know whether they’re correct or not?” Right? But go ahead.
EW: Well, I guess I just … I feel like if I actually have to re-fight that battle every show I’ll get nowhere. So I’ve just decided that we’ve won and that they’re obviously wrong because the record shows that they’re obviously wrong. And wrong for the same reasons every time. Like, if I were to say something about the fact that we should really be thinking about the potential for the COVID epidemic to turn towards armed conflict and war, I’ll elicit the same reaction from people who aren’t allowed to think that many steps ahead. It’s like, “Well, Chicken Little, I don’t know. You know, I guess the sky is falling again!” And …
BS: Right, right, right.
EW: … whatever that energy is, part of our lesson, I think, is just to ignore it—to learn that it’s sort of an evil thing that will hurt us very badly. Because what we’re doing, is we’re learning to associate the people who have the timestamps-, Again, on this one, I don’t have the timestamps. In fact, the first thing that I say on this is on February 9th, where I say, “No, I don’t yet have a take on the coronavirus.” Where I at least knew that I wasn’t doing the work. I was seeing too much crazy stuff.
So I guess what I want to do is to sort of say, “Look, let’s try to do something different. On my show, we don’t have to re-fight the battle of disagreeability—the disagreeable people are right, and the other people are wrong.
Okay. What do we do now with the co-existence of these communities? Like, for example, you’ve seen these tech journalists who really wanted to go after the “tech bros” who are, like, preppers and you know … the whole thing. How do we continue to manage our sense-making operation in a world where the giant sense-making organs get things wrong and don’t even stop to take, you know, the measure of the situation—they don’t catch their breath. It doesn’t matter whether somebody like Mike Cernovich was early. The point is, Mike Cernovich is off the menu, and whoever got it wrong and said, “This is a psychological problem, we should treat it psychologically,” that person will continue to have a job at the Washington Post. Why won’t this change?
BS: So, a few things. One is … Actually, I think both these questions, but the first thing and this are related. Which are, … There’s two ways that you can diverge from the conventional wisdom—this is almost tautological, but: one is, you can be MORE correct, and the other is you can be LESS correct. And the thing is, I think, you know, … Let’s call it (and that’s just on the West Coast, but) there’s a disagreeable state of mind, or whatever … you know, Taleb state of mind … is, you diverge from the consensus because you’ve got a better view than the consesnsus—you’re not consistently right, you know, in [garbled]. And we’re also seeing, like, QAnon-type stuff, and so on, which is non-consensus and, you know, I would argue, wrong, and kind of crazy stuff. And …
EW: But even there you have to be very careful because any large group of disagreeable people finds a lot of discarded truth that the mainstream doesn’t want to deal with. So even in-
EW: -the darkest corners of the web—and make them as dark as you want—they usually have a little bit of truth that they’re carefully polishing because the mainstream won’t deal with it.
BS: So this gets basically to, I think, one of my one-liners, which is, “The internet increases variance.” And you can hover on that and you can do a lot with that statement. So, for example, you go from 30 minute sitcoms to 30 second clips and 30 episode Netflix binges. You go from a stable 9-to-5 job to gig economy on one side and a 20 year old billionaire on the other side. And on many different dimensions, the internet is increasing variance. It’s going, for example, from three television channels or cable news to an incredible variety of different media outlets. It’s every [indecipherable]
EW: And where N has grown arbitrarily large.
BS: Yes. N is arbitrary large. That’s right. And, you know, in the sense every person is now a personal media channel. And I think a big next thing is that they are going to become personal media corporations.
And so what I think IS important in this world is to think about what decentralized truth looks like. And how do you come back to reference points that are true even if people don’t want to believe they’re true?
So one that I think about a lot is the blockchain. So basically, the Bitcoin blockchain … There’s actually a great book on this concept of this angle on Bitcoin that I don’t think people outside this space really think about too much. It’s called The Truth Machine. It’s by Paul Vigna and Michael Casey. Casey’s a former Wall Street Journal journalist and Vigna’s a current WSJ journalist. And they both think about … (They’re actually very good—they’re not haters or anything like that; they’re smart, and you can learn something from them.) Anyway, so this book, The Truth Machine, makes the point that … or it popularizes a point that’s well-known within the community: that whether you’re Saudi or Japanese or Brazilian, American, Norwegian, Chinese, what-have-you, you have the same view of the Bitcoin blockchain as everybody else. And that means the database of who has what money, everybody agrees on. And that’s a really important point, because that’s a truth which there’s an enormous literal incentive to change, in the sense of, if you could falsify it, if you could somehow manipulate it to award yourself a billion dollars, you would do so, or people would do so. And so this is a really interesting example of truth in an adversarial environment—where there’s enormous incentive to break it to abuse it, but the database hasn’t been corrupted because we’ve used technology—cryptography, other kinds of things, proof-of-work–to make it difficult to fake this history, to fake this truth. And that’s very powerful, because I think you can extend that to other kinds of things. As traditional sources of authority are metabolized, people do want to have common reference points—where you can cite this and the other person will have to concede it’s actually true, and then you can move forward from there premise, premise, premise, premise. (At least with a rational person.)
So let me pause there, because I think that’s part of where I think we end up going.
EW: Well, I like that a lot, and this is what I talk about in terms of self-refereed games that … In a math department, you may really dislike somebody, but if they have the better argument as to who’s right and who’s wrong … I’ve almost never seen an argument go multiple days where people can’t come to terms with who is correct and who is not. So there are these, you know, jiu-jitsu, to an extent, as long as you’re not talking about rule-breaking … somebody either chokes you out or they haven’t … and there are edge cases, of course, in every situation, but …
We have a coming world in which the attempt to reference things to authoritative sources is, I think, now going to fail. Wikipedia—which is the ultimate, sort of, top layer on top of an authoritative source model—is probably going to get degraded because too many people have write privileges inside of what were previously authoritative sources.
So I like the idea that the blockchain is an example of how you force reason and rationality, because it’s too expensive NOT to participate in communal truth. Although I don’t think it works as well for situations where you’re not solving an arithmetic problem or something equivalent to an arithmetic problem. I mean-
BS: So that’s-. So wait. So you’re smart enough that you added that qualifier on the end, which is somewhat “something EQUIVALENT to an arithmetic problem.” And a really interesting question is: how many things can be so reduced? And I think it’s a much larger set of things than people think.
So once you can track who has what bitcoin, you can extend the same thing to any digital form of property, right? Which includes stocks, bonds, you know, much of the world economy. It includes the passwords to who has access to what website. Who has a private keys to a device? To a car? To a house? Right?
EW: Right. So it has to do with who can … We can agree that a robber might have a painting, that the painting may not BELONG to the robber. And so when you start getting into issues of fairness, as opposed to just issues of custody—and again, to the same extent—when you have something that might or might not be equivalent to arithmetic, one thing that you find that’s very interesting is watching the number of bets that don’t complete. Where two people start off acting like they’ve got a really serious disagreement, and then somebody says, “Well, let’s settle it with a wager.”
EW: And then watch as the state statement gets sharpened, you realize that the two people never really had a disagreement—because they can’t come to an agreement as to what the bet should be, because quite frankly, they both have the same underlying model of reality, but they wanted to put a different sort of emotive layer on top of it.
I think it’s also interesting because, in the formulation of a bet, each participant immediately, with the prospect of loss, starts hedging. Right? And that’s rational to do in the sense of, if you think some metric is going to hit 80%, well, you take the bet if someone says it’s only going to hit 10%, right? There’s a sort of a tug-of-war on it, and people want to give themselves more margin, right?
But actually Tyler Cowen, a while back tweeted (or maybe was Tabarrok), he posted something about how betting reduces partisanship. That is to say, it is, you know … capitalism is the opposite to tribalism, where the prospect of individual gain and loss means there’s an incentive to give a non-consensus answer.
Now … I want to return to your point about sources of authoritative truth melting down—like “the center cannot hold” and metabolizing[?]. I think there’s at least five replacements for universal, authoritative truth.
The first is the most obvious, which is tribal truth. Like, it’s true because your chieftain says it’s true. And we see that a lot, right? So that actually kind of rebuilds authoritative truth, it’s just not universal truth—it’s what your group leader is saying. Right? So that’s a big thing on social media.
A second is iterative truth. So the next three I’m going to talk about come from, I think, tech. So iterative truth (of the GitHub sense) where, rather than put out a story and say it’s capital T “True,” you know, like New York Times, literally … The New York Times markets itself as essentially infallible, neutral truth. Right? And it runs that ad campaign saying, “The truth isn’t easy. The truth isn’t this and the truth isn’t that,” right? And they publish a fair number of “just the flu” pieces, by the way, you know? (And then recently, they’re like, “You know, the truth is, it’s not just the flu.” And I just kind of laughed when I saw that, right?) So an alternative to saying, “The article is true, and how dare you question it?” is the Git or GitHub model, where you put out some code, and you know it’s going to have bugs, and whereas in an East Coast model or an academic model of retraction or correction as this huge black mark that people will fight tooth-and-nail to avoid, right? (As you’re aware, you know, folks will try to avoid that in academia, they try to avoid that in journalism—a correction is like “OooOo,” you know, and it’s like, you know, … man, it’s a humiliation for them, right?) By contrast, a pull request … somebody who files a bug … an active project WILL have edits, and it will have issues and bugs and pull requests—there’s nobody who’s ever in software who will pretend to say, “Oh, my code is always right and it has no bugs,” right? In fact, the whole thing is set up, recognizing that it’s fallible and iterative. And so that’s the second model of iterative truth. Okay? It works well in the West Coast model, the GitHub model … [simultaneous] Go ahead.
EW: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Except the problem is that the … In the GitHub model, you have individual coders who are submitting code, and there is this concept of just a very basic level … whether or not the code should or should not run, DOES it run? Will it compile? And a lot of what we see in … and I guess the first thing you had was “tribal” truth, which I don’t even want to call “tribal” truth. Maybe it’s tribal STRATEGY? Like, “Don’t contradict the quarterback. We’re trying to win a game here. You know, whether the quarterback is right or wrong, the quarterback is running the show.” And so this could be like, “Well, the Democratic Party has chosen Joe Biden and our our associated organs are behind him. What are you doing questioning Tara Reid and the fact that he’s 77 years old?” Like that’s, that’s a particular kind of an issue, which is, you’re going to break down the coherence of the system.
I guess what … where I’m really driving with all of this, Balaji, is: I saw this with 2008, and I saw it with Nassim (of all people), which is, when it was clear that the world had gotten this wrong and that a tiny number of people have gotten it right, we did not promote those tiny number of people appropriately.
(I’m just going to repeat myself [Transcriber’s note: audio problems?]) So one of the things I find interesting in this situation is I went through this a little bit with Nassim Taleb in 2008. And, you know, he was getting it right. And there was a small group of us who were very alarmed about the state of finance and the risks that were being swept under the rug. In particular, through well-established metrics like “value at risk.” And what we found was, is that the people who had been the big critics didn’t become super prominent establishment figures; the establishment would rather deal with the failed people who screwed everything up (a second time, a third time, a fourth time) because it’s really not about us improving as a society—it’s about the fact that it’s hard to profit in stagnant times if you’re not getting things wrong.
Like, getting things wrong is actually VALUABLE if what you’re doing is transferring money between parties. So for example, when you print money, you can talk about it in terms of “stimulus,” “much-needed stimulus,” “we’re determined to put on a floor in the market,” “restore confidence.” All of that is language for transferring wealth. We don’t hear it as wealth transfers. And to your point about Bitcoin: What happens when I have a group of people who can transfer wealth by using a printing press and they talk only in terms that are so abstract as to be lifeless, bloodless, meaningless?
BS: Yeah, well, so I so I think two or three things I want to respond to there, which … One is, we can actually invert the … So there’s a line of argument (which I’m sympathetic to) which says, “Folks who are criticizing aren’t building.” Or rather, “You’re criticizing the man in the arena; it’s always harder if you’re the man in the arena,” etc., right? And the answer to them, is …
EW: You want to … just … It’s a reference to Teddy Roosevelt’s famous speech if you don’t know …
BS: Exactly. That’s right.
So, the answer to critics is actually pretty easy, which is, “Okay, go start your own company.” Right? Because the barrier to starting your own company is actually very low—you can just go out and incorporate it—and so I think that’s a good response to the person who says, “Oh, I could do so-and-so better than so-and-so CEO,” or whatever. Like, you know? Some people really could! Some of those critics are actually talented people and they COULD do better if they were in, but you only know for sure if you actually go and make the leap. Like, many of us in tech, for example, ARE former academics who may have grown up as critics. Until you put yourself in the driver’s seat … (And then you have to actually be both, by the way: as CEO or as a senior executive, you have to both be a big booster of the company and division and so and so forth, and your own harshest critic, and write detailed reviews of, “Hey, we should have done x rather than y,” that kind of thing. Right?)
So applying that to this, the fundamental question is, how do we exit these institutions and build alternatives? We can start a new company, but how can we start, for example, a new FDA or equivalent? How can we start a new city[?] how to eventually start a new country? How do we start new currency? Well, that one we’ve actually made some progress on, right? And so then, once you start a new currency, if you notice the energy out of, like, the anti-Fed stuff, it’s like bitcoiners are laughing, right? They’re not mad anymore. And the reason they’re not mad is they have the exit—if they’re right, they’ve got a bet. Which is very divergent from where, you know, Bernanke and Co were and where the current Fed is, right? They’ve got a bet that’s very divergent. And they’ll do well in the event that they’re correct. (And they’ve BEEN correct, for the last, at least 1000 X, or 10,000 X up, right?)
So I think that’s a real question: is, not so much how to get the critics into power within legacy institutions, but to empower them to build new institutions without too much interference from the legacy establishment. So … go ahead.
EW: This is where you and I obviously disagree. For those of you who are actually watching this rather than listening to this: Balaji looks like he’s got a tremendous amount of money—he showed up with practically a hoodie, unshaved. I’m still clearly trying to please my boss by wearing a jacket and shirt, ridiculously, indoors during quarantine.
EW: Okay, I disagree with this. I think that this is part of the West Coast fantasy that we can just do everything from our garages and we can neglect the legacy stuff. And, as you know, with something like Bitcoin … If you think about gold, the dollar, and Bitcoin (let’s say, as three example currencies), one of them is backed by violence (the dollar), one of them is backed by quantum chromodynamics (gold), and one of them is backed by elliptic curves or equivalent error … mathematics. And so, something backed by violence can choose to disagree with you in a very different way—you could just make it very dangerous to hold Bitcoin.
So there are all sorts of weird ways in which I don’t think that this is played out; we don’t really know how the government’s legacy structures will interact with new structures. I do believe in, not the WHO, but The Who, when they say, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” We will have definite problems that will be … Bitcoin isn’t going to get us out of all of our human stuff. It’ll get us out of some of it.
But I guess what concerns me is that all the West Coast people are so sick of the East Coast stuff (again, letting West and East stand for something that we kind of understand).
BS: Sure. Metonyms.
EW: Yeah. Right. Well as metonyms, I would say that the West Coast just says, “I don’t want to deal with that East Coast stuff. It’s boring. It kills all the fun. All profit is lost. It’s so consensus-driven, hierarchical, credential-focused … F it!” And as a result, I feel like what’s happened is that we’ve abandoned any hold that we might have in, let’s say, the National Academy of Sciences or the great universities. And we’re NOT really creating these things anew—we’re still feeding.
I mean—if I could just put one horrible spin on it—Burning Man is like a blast for one week a year and it makes fun of the default world, but all of the riches that are needed to run Burning Man are amassed in the default world and then plowed as treasure into this giant weird celebration for one week. And I feel like the rest of us are, in some weird ways, partially parasitic on the very institutions that we’ve allowed to be taken over.
BS: So let me give something to this argument, because I’ve actually been thinking about it more (over the last few months in particular), which is, from the standpoint of corona, part of the reason that we’re in the COVID-19 crisis (maybe the biggest part of the reason) is that we just don’t have people with scientific and engineering backgrounds in the press or the state, for the most part. We have lawyers, we have liberal arts majors, we have accomplished character assassins, but we don’t really have too many people who know math or computer science. Or, in this case, biology, bioinformatics, genomics, etc., that’s …
EW: You’ve looked at the advanced degrees in Congress on Wikipedia?
BS: It’s all JDs right?
EW: It’s … it’s beyond pathetic. I mean, just … The idea that you would expect that the next president of the United States should be able to write a few lines of code … I just … We’re just drawing from the complete wrong pools of people.
BS: Right. And the thing about this is, [garbled] doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s where … Let me give you a few different riffs on Exit in this context.
So one version of it is: look at other countries, right? Like, look at some of these different space[?]. And so you can look at Lee Hsien Loong (who’s the Prime Minister of Singapore) and … he was a (as you may know), like, the senior wrangler at Cambridge—so like an actual research mathematician caliber person in terms of IQ—but also could really execute. You know, he posted a Sudoku solver, for example, on his … Well, he can execute as prime minister. He’s also very (still) very sharp. He posted a Sudoku solver on his Facebook page in C++ and knew two’s complement and relatively obscure binary bit flipping type stuff, right?
And there’s other folks, like Toomas Ilves, who is the president, I believe, of Estonia. He was actually a critical figure that helped make Estonia, like, E-stonia—like an internet-based country, right? And I think he was a Princeton graduate and was familiar and … Basically was kind of like a Bitcoin proponent in 2020 who was starting helping start a new country. It’s because he was next to the Estonian heads of state that he could do that.
So those are some examples of “It doesn’t have to be that way.” You know, you have heads of state who do have some technical skill. But, so, I definitely want to give something to your argument (which I agree with), which is that we cannot completely neglect. And so then, how do we reconcile this … you know, take that thesis-antithesis and come to a synthesis?
Something I think about a lot is like a kitty-corner strategy. For example, Google went and built up its wealth initially in Search. And after it had build a cash cow in Search, then, and only then, did it decide to take on Microsoft on its home turf with first Gmail and then Google Docs and Sheets and so on. And it was a huge … I mean, that battle is still being waged today, right? Like, that would not have been the smart FIRST thing for Google to do. They had to build up kind of their own thing first—their cash cow—before they went to engage more competitive markets. So that’s one option.
I mean there’s … Something kind of like that happened with the United States as well, you know? It exited Europe in 17- … like, actually not 1776 … in the 1600s and 1700s. Eventually declared independence—fully exited. And then over 140 years, essentially built its strength, had its own problems. And then by 1945 was STRONGER than almost every European country, right? And kind of came back in. So that’s a second example of “kitty-corner”: you go to a diagonal; you win in that diagonal; you build your strength there; and then you come back.
And today, with what’s happened, I think of (of course, you know this, but maybe not all your audience knows this) Founders Fund has this funny one-liner, which is, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Right? Meaning: where’s the innovation of the future? We just have this messaging service. And so on. But I have a feeling that social media and cryptocurrency are going to actually be the way that we DO get that future. And the reason is, I think of them respectively as American glasnost being social media, and American perestroika being cryptocurrency. Now, should I explain that for your viewers or you want to take it from there? Do you … have you thought about that?
EW: No, you can you can do that. Although I am worried that right now we’re in the COVID epidemic. And I think, you know, of course I find cryptocurrency fascinating. I do think it’s more speculative, because of the different ways in which … Look, obviously, you’ve been very early on COVID. You’ve been early on Bitcoin. And a major proponent in all things blockchain.
The concern that I have, Balaji, is that … I don’t know how to reformat this conversation. Like, I know how to have this boring conversation with the East Coast. And I know how to have the wild-eyed conversation with the West Coast. But the thing that I’m looking to have is a conversation that doesn’t really sound like either one of those two. And it has to do with the following thing:
Okay, so imagine that you’ve got like, more or less these two bad families, the Clintons and the Bushes. Okay? And, you know, it’s like the Hatfields and the McCoys, and then maybe they’re more similar to each other than we know. And, you know, of course, Barack Obama is somehow attached to the Clinton family—whatever. But it’s a little rich that we’re going to take this most powerful of nations—with all of its great universities, all of its culture—and in the space of, like, 20 or 30 years we’re just gonna screw the whole thing up so much that we’re talking about, like, moving on to the blockchain. And we’re gonna just, you know … hey, let the legacy institutions die; we’ve outgrown the New York Times; we’ve outgrown Harvard; we’ve outgrown political parties and countries; we should just be the, you know, Electronic States of America.
And it’s just like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” We skipped a bunch of steps here, you know? At some level, we’ve got a really bad economic problem. And then we’ve got two (what I view as) relatively non-productive strategies: either continue to go with the Bush-Clinton stupidity (now represented by Biden and, weirdly, Trump, who obviously is not really coming out of the Republican Party). But all of this is a reaction to how sick people are of the kleptocracy. You know, this geriatric kleptocracy. And then the other the other option is, “Well, let’s make ourselves into a really large version of Estonia—because Lord knows they’ve been forward-thinking.”
And I guess I have the sense of, “Is there no one to have a more integrated conversation?”
BS: So yeah. I mean, I actually do think … I think my point of view maybe is more integrated in the sense of … For example, I believe in RE-centralization—I believe all progress happens along the z-axis. And let me explain what I mean by that. You know, if you visualize like a clock. You start a company and it’s one minute after midnight—you’re starting it as a solo person and maybe people will die, the company will die, before you get to the next milestone. But if you start making revenue, more people join around 3pm—you go from just one person on the tundra to a lean-to with a few people. Then you start getting around to six o’clock, and now you’ve got a whole group of folks. And something crucial happens at this time, which is, your most important number goes from your burn rate to your bus number. It goes from, basically, every single person has to be indispensable, to every single person must be dispensable. Because in the first stage, where you’re coming up to product/market fit, and so on, you need just these absolutely exceptional, unique, iconoclastic, crazy people. But then once you’ve built a machine where you need to scale it, actually you don’t want iconoclastic people—or at least you have to be careful about it, since you need something where you can add 30 more engineers and get x more result, right? Like it has to be more, kind of, you put in people and you get a result, right? And so then you’re led to … Or you put in customer service reps, you put in drivers, if it’s Uber … you have some model that works like that. And then you get to a totally different thing where now you’re talking about bus number, meaning how many people can get hit by a bus before the system no longer works. And the bus number way of thinking about things starts making you think about folks as replaceable. Because if not, then you wouldn’t be doing your job. If you had a company of 400 people and 300 of them were essential, and they quit and your company would go to zero, you wouldn’t be doing your job as CEO. It literally … it’s like REQUIRED to make them redundant—not in a bad sense, but redundant the sense of, if one of them goes down, the whole company doesn’t go down. You’re making the thing antifragile in Taleb’s sense.
But then this is taken, almost always, too far. To the point that people do feel like cogs. They feel the redundancy; they feel the de-skilling; they feel the bureaucracy creeping up, where the bureaucracy is basically a substitute … Bureaucracy is not always bad. Bureaucracy, at its best, is a substitute for the thought process of a very talented executive or CEO. Like, Bezos implements a process, rather than him being there to manage that process every step of the way, he writes down instructions and people follow that. That’s actually a functional bureaucracy where it’s like writing or code that scales a human being’s judgment in such a way that it can scale across other human beings who don’t maybe have the same level of judgment. That’s why you have written policies and procedures—there’s consistency; customers get the same experience. Then, of course, what happens is around nine past the hour, you start going into the degeneration mode and the bureaucracy stifles individual initiative to such a point that someone leaves to start their own company. And now it’s 12:01 again, right?
And that’s the cycle that happens. And that’s … I’m not saying it’s exactly someone leaving from A to start B. But that’s IBM to Microsoft to Google to Facebook to then what’s next, right? And I’m not saying the guy from IBM left to [garbled] but I am saying that progress happens along the z-axis. If you think about this clock as turning, but each turn it’s like ascending a helix, where it kind of goes up, right?
EW: Now you’re starting to sound like Ken Wilbur and spiral dynamics, but …
BS: I don’t know him.
But, so, this is just my mental model where it might seem circular that the Libertarian founder rebuilds the state.
BS: Right. Right? You know, because you start a company to get away from control and bureaucracy and so, and then you find that you have to actually rebuild it to scale the company. Right? It’s kind of a deep insight.
EW: Yeah. So I like the helical model. Effectively, you know, the premise of The Portal is to find the way out of Flatland. And if you’re born into Flatland, how do you learn about the z-axis? And so the typical example that we like to give is that the square root of -1 is the question that can be posed in Flatland that is on the real line but forces you to invent the imaginary axis to solve it. So what’s the problem that you-
BS: In fact, 1 / (1 + x^2) is a great example of a function that … it’s defined everywhere along the real line, but the power series doesn’t converge at +1 and -1 because there’s poles at +i and -i, so you can’t even understand Flatland unless you understand …
EW: Its context. Right.
BS: Yeah, Exactly.
EW: So … yeah, I like all that. But, Balaji, look: one of the things that I want to get to is that I really enjoy our conversations. I find you to be one of the most generative people that I speak to, just across many topics. I don’t think you could possibly be right about everything that you’re talking about, because you have so many interesting different opinions on so many things that it sort of statistically doesn’t seem likely. But it’s always like one of the most interesting perspectives in the room and always gets me thinking.
I want to get back a little bit to the virus. And I’ll have you back one or more times after this to talk about whatever you want to do.
EW: But I want to get to a little bit of what I think you’re doing, essentially, right now.
EW: Where the hell are we? It doesn’t … I mean, I don’t know how to say this to people, but this virus and our response to it is so bad that it’s particularly crashing my operating system. I can’t believe how lousy the explanations are, how completely willing people are to talk about “flattening the curve” or “social distancing” or when the vaccines will be ready … And, like, all of this strikes me as the kind of nonsense speak that I saw around the financial crisis, where you get people to parrot whatever the phrase is that’s repeated on television as if they understand it. I’m feeling like my IQ is plummeted to low two figures. What’s going wrong with me? Why am I not functioning well with the explanations that are being given? And how is it that you’re functioning better? (And I’m legitimately not doing this to compliment you. I’m saying, I can’t believe how badly I’m doing understanding this because I keep wanting to make contact with some grown-up in some official position who makes sense and I can’t find a one.)
BS: Well, I think … So … First, thank you for (I THINK) the kind words, though, and … But I’ll tell you at least my mental model—I wouldn’t say that you’re doing badly or I’m doing well, or anything like that—but at least my mental model on this.
In an interesting sense, the world has actually receded such that we know what we don’t-, well not everybody. But let’s say smart people, like yourself, increasingly know what they don’t know. And here’s what I mean by that. So in one sense, the world has receded physically, where lots of people are now literally sitting in their rooms, right? They can’t travel around the world and … or even to their office, or what have you, right?
But the second way in the world has receded is: most of what we know about the world is mediated, right? You’re a research scientist. I’m sure some of the folks listening are. And so you have discovered facts that are true of your own accord in some discipline, right? You write a PhD thesis, or what have you … or even just do any kind of research—it’s kind of like that. Many people … This is what I call kind of like a pre-headline person. A pre-headline person (as opposed to a post-headline person) a pre-headline person is like a research scientist, or a founder, or a journalist, or a politician, … someone who has known about the facts … known something to be true prior to being printed in a newspaper. And that seems like a very small thing, but it’s actually a big thing. Because it means that those people are responsible for discovering and disseminating new facts, right? Whereas a post-headline person will not believe something until it’s actually printed in a newspaper that they trust. Your personal, kind of, statement to them that, “Hey, x is true,” they won’t necessarily listen to it unless they believe in your authority from some other thing, some other institutional position.
So in many senses, our domain has shrunken, both physically because we’re in our rooms, and mentally because all of these nodes who we trusted to give us information about things, we’re realizing that those folks messed up. And so the signal they’re giving today, well, yesterday they were basically saying, “Oh, this thing has nothing to worry about. It’s just the flu.” “Don’t wear a mask. Now you have to wear a mask.” Like, these contradictions are so obvious and coming so quickly, that we are forced to realize that those folks are extremely fallible human beings and not oracles. It’s not, “The institution said …” It’s not “The New York Times said …” or “The Washington Post said …” It’s “This guy said …” Or “This girl said …” “This person said …”
And so I think that’s … The first step that Saul Alinsky would say, the first step in community organization is DISorganization. I think the first step in understanding is NOT understanding—having an all be a jumble, right? And, at least what I’m doing, is I’m leaning on … You have training in physics. I know, something of physics (certainly I’m not going down to elementary particle level). But I do know genomics, and I know bioinformatics, and I know diagnostics, and I know how to read biomedical papers. So that’s also mediated, of course, but it doesn’t have the pretense of being capital T “Truth.” It’s, “Here are some researchers, we put out something we believe it to be true,” and you CAN contest it—within the domain, it’s legitimate to contest it in biomedical research. And so leaning on those … that gives me SOME information (maybe more, maybe it orients it).
I would also say, for two other standpoints: as part of the earlier part of our conversation, I think, discipline-wise … or I don’t know, I’m not sure … call it mentally or dispositionally, rather—that’s better. From from a dispositional standpoint, I EXPECT authority to fail. [laughing] I already knew the state was going to fail. The EXTENT to which it failed is kind of interesting. But, like, the direction and magnitude was not 1000x off from what I expected. I think for those who did not expect that, or who found it to be 1000x off-. Go ahead.
EW: I expect institutional failure. I think about it all the time; I talk about all the time. The MAGNITUDE of this institutional failure caught me by surprise.
BS: And that’s fair. That’s fair. I don’t want to say … this is something where the the permanent bureaucracy failed—FDA, CDC, international organizations like WHO failed, the elected government failed. The UNelected government (meaning the career bureaucrats) they failed. State and local … the mayor of New York etc. … and legacy press failed. And the military, frankly, has failed. Like, the only thing … you know, I was tweeting about this, but basically, biodefense, since anthrax, was something that billions of dollars has been allocated for.
EW: Why cann’t I talk about the Wuhan lab?
BS: You- Well. So that’s actually now come back within (I’d say) the somewhat mainstream to discuss. …
EW: [sarcastic] Oh, sorry. I can talk about it again?
BS: [laughing] Right, right. Like, … So, with the Wuhan lab (just to touch on that for a second) … It is certainly the case … Let’s say we’ve got two hypotheses or … I mean, there can be k hypotheses, frankly, and you want to distinguish between them, right? It is certainly the case that there have been deadly natural viruses (and infectious diseases in general) that have arisen before the age of modern bio-
EW: I can see where you’re going.
EW: I don’t want to do it that way. Let me phrase it …
BS: Well [indecipherable/simultaneous]
EW: Let me phrase it because I don’t want to waste time showing that we’re not crazy people. Obviously, we’re not crazy.
EW: No, it’s a-
BS: Sure, sure.
EW: It’s a tax that I don’t want to pay, Balaji. That’s the thing is I don’t want to pay the tax of saying, “Well, of course, you know, nobody’s saying x. Nobody’s saying y.” By the time we get done with the recitations of what nobody’s saying, you know, our time will be over.
BS: So I guess by my nature, when I have the time to do it, I like to be precise in the statements that I feel that there’s uncertainty about, right? So let me give the other side of it.
Why is it … I think it’s plausible that it was naturally-occurring. I also think it is plausible—or certainly not impossible—that the … There’s a scientist, Zhengli Shi [?], who works in Wuhan, who had co-authored papers with a guy named Ralph Baric, which were on gain of function research in coronaviruses …
EW: This is a North Carolina lab head.
BS: That’s right. And by the way, I’m not, like, attacking this person or anything like that. I’m just saying that it was published research that is on, essentially, making …
EW: Can we just not spend our time saying what we’re not saying?
BS: I know, I know. But I just want to say that like, … Let me asterisk that. Okay? So-
EW: There’s a giant asterisk: Balaji’s a smart guy, he is not saying any of the stupid stuff you’re going to try to ascribe to him …
BS: [laughing] Sure sure sure.
EW: … like it was a synthetically engineered bioweapon let loose by a rogue faction of the Chinese Communist Party.
Like, “Yes, he’s not saying any stupid thing-” I don’t want to waste our time on this.
BS: Sure. Sure. Sure, sure. So what do I think … But I think it is-. Just given the context, though, I think it’s important to be precise about what I think it could have been.
I think it could have been that, because SARS hit China in 2003, that folks were studying SARS viruses (or SARS-related viruses) and something got out on someone’s shoe. That’s very possible. Where, you know, you were doing experiments … I mean, there’s a coronavirus from bats in Yunnan Province, that’s published on GenBank, that has 96% sequence homology to the SARS-Cov-2—to the COVID-19 coronavirus.
EW: This is the horseshoe bat on … from some cave in 200-
BS: Yeah. However, however, there are later pangolin-derived sequences that were published that have even higher homology and in theory … So one of the things I always think about in this is what I know to be true for sure. And what can I go and check for myself if I was willing to spend enough time and money, right? And, in theory, if you had somebody on the ground in China—China’s a big place—there’s going to be somebody who you could collaborate with (or pay or what have you) to go and capture some … I mean, I’m not sure too many people would want to do this, okay? But they could go and capture some bats or pangolins (with whatever local regulations there are around that) and sequence them. Right? That is a that is a conceivable experiment you could do.
EW: This is not an answer to the question.
BS: No, no. It does. It does because what you want to do is you want P(y|x) [“p of y given x”], right? Or P(H|D) [“P of H given D”], right? Probability of hypothesis given data. And the thing, for example, like I always think about what could falsify or prove …
EW: Balaji, you’re going down a different path. Like, my question is different.
EW: My question is … there is no way that the Wuhan lab should be discounted at this point. We don’t have enough information to suggest that no one should bring up the Wuhan lab because of concerns about racism or concerns about …
BS: Oh, yeah.
EW: But, so …
EW: This is where I’m having a different issue, which is, I didn’t … I’m not trying to tell you what the probability is. I’m not trying to say where it originated. I’m trying to say what I think and don’t think. I get very nervous when somebody removes one of the choices and says, “Don’t …”
BS: Yeah, yeah yeah. Right.
EW: Right? And so the issue that I’m having is, that’s bad scientifically. When somebody says, “Well, only bad people think that the Wuhan lab might be involved.” It’s like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.” Something broke down. Because that should be a live hypothesis. And that shouldn’t carry stigma. If you’re saying, [dumb voice] “Well, definitely, you know, it’s the Chinese are just trying to get us and they’re trying to take our stuff”—that would be stupid. But saying, hey, we’ve got a pretty significant lab doing research pretty closely related to this topic. And it could be anything from an accident to somebody was trying to grow (let’s imagine) trying to grow bat coronavirus tissue in human lungs and cadaver tissue. You don’t know. And it’s not a question …
BS: So let me …
EW: Let me just finish it.
BS: Okay, okay. Go ahead, sorry.
EW: And the instant you start talking about this, you get these really weird comebacks, which is like, “Uhhh, I don’t think anybody smart thinks that this was engineered from first principles in a lab and released as a bioweapon.” And you’re saying, “Well, yeah, nobody SAID that. So why is it that that’s what you’re responding to?”
Like that you can FEEL that there’s a force field around the issue of, is there more significant Chinese responsibility and falsifying data, controlling the WHO, disguising the origins that they know about this virus … And why are we participating in some thing to aid China? I don’t understand. Why is the US leadership so courteous to these people? The Chinese Communist Party.
BS: So … well, okay. So I think there’s a few interlocking things there. The first is, should a legitimate scientific hypothesis be shamed out of public debate? I don’t think so.
The second is … and this is somewhat difficult, but let me see if I can get there. You know, you’ve graded math exams, you’ve graded physical exams, almost certainly, right? If somebody gets the right answer, and they just circle it at the bottom, but they don’t show their work, or they get the right answer, and they just put pi down there, or whatever, and it just happens to be right, but all their steps are wrong, right? Then that usually doesn’t get credit, right? And I think there were a number of folks (at least in January) who were throwing around things like, “Oh, it’s like an HIV-infused sequence and so-.“ And because of that, because those were just kind of … That’s like, being in the direction of it coming from a lab, though it’s not the same as it. But it was just, like, noise and dumb and bad. And wrong, because, like, basically, if you went and looked at the sequences in BLAST (which is like a Google for DNA sequences or RNA or protein sequences, right?) … you look at it in BLAST, and you could see, actually, no: it wasn’t similar to HIV sequences at all. That was a spurious kind of assertion. Right? And so I think it is in the presence of that noise, that chaff, that is incumbent upon those who are correct to look like signal—not just BE signal, but look like it, you know? (Like the whole thing about Caesar’s wife and so on, right?)
So that’s why I try to be careful—the more controversial it is, the more it could be misunderstood.
EW: I understand the impulse to being careful-
BS: Yeah. Good.
EW: … That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is … and this is really hard on me. In essence, the way I’m seeing this is, is that I’m trying to stand up for a missing position. Once upon a time we had top people—professors, you know, people would be virologists—who would get up and they would say something approximating the truth. You know, like, “We can’t know this. These are the available hypotheses based on this information. I’m leaning this way. We can’t rule anything out.” Here we don’t have that. We’ve got this very different sort of a thing—which is what’s confusing me— which is … I’m not used to the Surgeon General sounding like a goddamn moron.
EW: No, no, no, I’m not-
BS: Yeah. Right.
EW: I’m not used to reporters … I, like … You know, I was just watching this old video of Richard Threlkeld in the Vietnam jungle getting shot at with the platoon he was covering, you know? and like my old notion of reporters is that they’re fairly heroic. And my new notion is, is that they just don’t … they sometimes hate the people they’re covering so much that they don’t pay attention to reality. They just try to contradict whatever it is that they hate. They’re jealous of powerful people in politics. They’re jealous of rich people in San Francisco. They’re jealous of beautiful people, you know, somewhere else. And so it’s just like, “Okay, fine, let’s just trash people. That’s my job.”
So I wasn’t used to the idea that I couldn’t turn to the Surgeon General and say, “Stop lying to me.” Or, you know, … this is gonna come out on YouTube. And now I’ve got a problem. I’m building a channel on YouTube. And the CEO of YouTube says, “We won’t allow videos that contradict the WHO.” And my jaw is on the floor. Like, are you an American? Or … who are you? And do we just have to nationalize YouTube? Do we have to …
BS: So that’s exactly the wrong approach, by the way-
EW: No, because you’re gonna say blockchain. “Just put it on the blockchain”-
BS: Well, hold on. I’m not gonna … just gonna say it for … Let me explain why. The issue is the entire impulse that YouTube has there—in terms of, “Let’s give in to the centralized political authority, because the only one we have”—is the same one that says, “Oh, nationalizing will make it better.” No, it’s gonna make it worse. It’s gonna just basically make it political truth. Again. Right? Even worse now because now it’s, like, the national outlet of this. It basically becomes like the Chinese state controlled media.
EW: Balaji, it’s not like I disagree with you, in the sense that I’m trying to say, I’m standing up for a position … Like, what you’re saying … There are three versions of crazy here, and I want to talk about all three of them.
There’s ‘Balaji’ crazy, where the idea is that we all move our lives onto the blockchain. And …
BS: So, that’s a caricature. I want to come back to [simultaneous]
EW: I’m caricaturing all three of them.
BS: Sure. Okay.
EW: So I’m not being fair to any one of us and I will be merciless to myself.
BS: Fair. Okay.
EW: So the ‘Balaji’ version of craziness is, “Hey, don’t you understand we can all retreat into our garages. We can have sex with tardigrades. And we can form government on the blockchain. And as long as we take enough nootropics, everything is going to be awesome.” Okay? That’s the California version, and you are being saddled with that.
Then there’s the ‘Eric’ version (which is equally, if not more embarrassing): “Hey, I once saw some functional institutions when I was growing up, even though they’ve all since been allowed to fall into disrepair and we have lunatics heading all of them, I still think that we can get things back together so that we can trust the CDC and the Surgeon General. And if we can only get our people in office (and, by the way, we’re running running Biden against Trump—a 74-year-old versus a 77-year-old—which is completely insane) … but nevertheless, in 2028, everything will be fine.”
Then there’s, like, the ‘establishment’ position, which is like, “Okay, we’re wrong every four seconds; we contradict ourselves constantly. Everyone can see that we’re lying (more or less) 24/7. But hey, you’re all still forced to pay attention because these institutions still matter because, ultimately, it’s all backed by guns.” Okay?
So we’ve got one guy backed by the blockchain, one guy backed by nostalgia, and one guy backed by firearms.
BS: So the first one is “exit the system.” The second is “fix the system.” And the third is “system isn’t broke.” Right?
Now, I think there’s a synthesis of these, which is: there are certain ASPECTS of the system that people will need to reinvent; the system DOES need to be fixed; but it can’t be fixed in a down-the-middle way—that’s too fortified a route, you have to go kitty-corner. You need a creative approach that is different, right? And I’ll give several examples of reform that has happened by going kitty-corner. And you know what I mean by kitty-corner: going to a diagonal rather than straight ahead. Okay?
So one was the example I mentioned, where Google went and made money in Search, and then it went and attacked Microsoft, right?
The biggest example—you know, that’s like civilizational example that we’ve had recently—is the internet opening up and giving us this digital frontier where you could build without a license. And that metaphor becomes more than a metaphor when you talk about not just Minecraft, but VR and so on. Like that domain name where you can build, and you have complete authority to do so, is the opposite of what happens in the offline world where you cannot build without a permit and without a this and without a that, right? And this reopening of the frontier is this meta game, which has sucked a lot of talent out of DC because now there’s an option to go into tech—not just DC, but pulled talent out of academia, and out of journalism, and out of even Hollywood (frankly). [simultaneous]
EW: Boston, New York, and Washington DC. It’s a good …
BS: Exactly. That’s right. That’s right.
And so, in a sense, the fact that the frontier exists and that people have moved to this digital frontier has in turn weakened legacy institutions. So it’s kind of this double whammy: a minus one for them and a plus one for the frontier.
And a third example is cryptocurrency. Right? Rather than Satoshi going down-the-middle and trying to get a meeting with the IMF or the World Bank to say, “Hey, let’s start a new currency—one that you can’t print.” Had he done the down-the-middle kind of thing, he … First, he probably wouldn’t have gotten a meeting. And had he got the meeting, would have been laughed out of the room. Right?
And so a new [simultaneous] approach is actually needed-
EW: You know that I tried to get prime brokerage for Bitcoin in 2010?
BS: Wow, really? Okay. So you were ahead of the curve.
EW: Well, yeah, but I’m sure I still couldn’t get anyone to take it seriously. So it’s not like I bought a hard drive and just loaded it up with Bitcoin.
BS: Exactly. That’s right.
So this is also related … I mean, there’s so many other examples of this. For example, in 2020, Google and Apple and so on, they still don’t have TV channels, but they do have Apple TV and YouTube and iTunes and so on, right? It was literally easier to build and scale the internet and get it to people’s houses than it was for them to go and wrestle with, you know, television companies or … You know, like the entire licensing complex around television. Right? And so, I think that is … Yet the reform happened, right? It just wasn’t … You didn’t attack the Maginot Line head-on. You know? You recognize it was the Maginot Line and you figured out how to go around. Yeah?
Now, the flip side of this (to bring up the Maginot Line point in a different way): when you talk about how you’ve been like amazed by what’s happened in the US. Unfortunately (and this is this is actually something I do not think most people have realized), America has been invaded and defeated by the coronavirus. And that is the first successful invasion of America in modern times. I think the war of 1812 is like the last time … You know, the British burned the White House. Like serious kind of foreign damage on American soil. I mean, obviously, there’s Pearl Harbor, right? But, like, the continental United States has been so safe for so long that there has never been a foreign occupier. And what happened is this virus basically bypassed the Atlantic and the Pacific; it bypassed the nuclear umbrella and all the aircraft carriers; it bypassed all of that to go and kill like almost 80,000 Americans sick and a bunch more. And we basically lack—whether it’s our military, whether it’s our regulatory bureaucracy, whether it’s simple lack of the people to get the thing under control—we lack the ability to stop this.
And so right now what is happening is … the country’s efficiency in negotiating … it’s essentially an unconditional surrender to the virus, because … Like, for example, the concept of, “Hey, everyone’s gonna get it: herd immunity.” That’s basically throwing oneself on the mercy of God. Because it’s not at all clear that everyone’s gonna have immunity to this virus that’s lifelong. Other coronaviruses, for example, have immunity that only drops off after two or three years (there’s a paper on that). So it’s not clear that letting everybody get it means that they won’t be able to get it again in the future. It may just be that letting everybody get it makes this almost like a temperate malaria. You know? It’s just endemic in the region and it just takes a toll every year. You know, people have talked about this being like the fifth endemic coronavirus, and it becomes “cold and flu and COVID-19” season not just “cold and flu” season.
And so the Maginot Line concept is one I think about a lot in this context, where basically the entire 20th century establishment- Interestingly, by the way, the other entity major entities that have been invaded by the coronavirus—the ones who have been doing the worst—are the other NATO countries (UK, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Russia). So the folks who are squaring off in the 20th century, have basically been invaded and defeated by the coronavirus so far. (And when I say “defeated,” like … the “occupation” is going to begin. And that’s not going to be pleasant. People are fooling themselves and thinking it’s gonna be pleasant—it’s not gonna be pleasant.)
Anyway, I got on that because, you know, we were just kind of talking about Maginot Lines and moving around them. But recognizing that something that seems impregnable ISN’T, if you change your mode, is, I think, really important—you change your point of view.
EW: Well, so … I sort of like this. But I also feel like …
I feel like I don’t even understand where we are. And maybe the idea, Balaji, that I want to entertain, is that I have a certain kind of weakness of mind. That I’m very good at opposing institutions (because I know how they work), but I’m not used to an institution being this wrong—like blatantly …
You know, when I start seeing Science and Nature talking about things that are completely insane in social justice theory, and I just think like, “Okay, whatever this thing is, it’s broken through to Science and Nature. It’s invaded Harvard, Princeton, Rockefeller University.” This inability to think seems to be attacking everything institutional. And I would really say that that’s the major thing that invaded us—it wasn’t the virus, because you know …
EW: What’s really invaded us is that everything institutional is playing host to this particular kind of establishment stupidity, at the moment. And there … In the old days, we had Noam Chomskys inside of the establishment. Now we’re down to like our last Noam Chomsky. So it used to be that was very tough for everything to go this dumb, because of the number of smart iconoclasts who sat in official chairs. And, like, what I see now is is that effectively there are no people who are willing to stand up and say, “This is insanity.”
BS: Well, so here’s a couple of thoughts on that. I mean, I think that in terms of history, a comparable period, in some ways, is … I mean, the Cultural Revolution, from ’66 to ’76, was much more violent than the recent Wokeness in the US. There are some similarities in the sense that Tsinghua[?], for example, (which is like the Chinese MIT), was literally occupied by rival gangs of, you know, machine gun-toting students and they were shooting each other over some point of Maoist theory. Right? Woke and Woker[?], basically, over there. Right?
And I think a very important thing for folks to understand … Actually, Dalio had a very similar comment. Like, he had a similar, I think, mental model. Nobody has lived through anything like this in the US. But, people have in history, and they have in other places. And that’s what’s useful to really read: the history of other places and other times. (Obviously history is of other times but, you know, meaning non-American history.) And many of the folks who have landed in the US—whether from South America, or from Central America, or Iran, Russia, Eastern Europe, India, China, Korea, etc., etc.—have been leaving economic or political instability—often communism; or, in the case of India, socialism; or, in the case of Iran, Islamic fundamentalism—and they’ve been part of functioning societies like … Cuba, for example, under Batista, was a flawed, but actually relatively well-off country, and then it all just went completely to hell. Right? Same with many countries. Like, when when communist revolutions come to town, they can go from decent levels—like Venezuela, for example, prior to Chavismo—to starvation. And so other places have seen that kind of fall. And …
Like, how far do we have to fall? We still have a ways to go. And I think that it’s useful to think about these other countries and figure out how bad it could get. But why don’t we come back to that point?
EW: So, I … Yeah, look. I don’t want this to be … We can explore why we’re getting knocked over by a feather. But maybe what I’d rather do is to use the COVID situation, and your different lens on it, to illustrate sort of where we are. So the, kind of … Here’s some of the questions that are on my mind.
EW: What is the real end game of this? Where are we really? When people are talking about “re-opening,” “back to normal” … I have the feeling that almost none of this stuff makes sense. And, you know, my take on “flatten the curve” was that we were caught with our pants down with respect to preparedness, and so we were trying to avoid deaths of accountability, which would be triage deaths. So then the issue was that the limbo bar was so low because we didn’t want people dying to show that we were completely incompetent. So everybody should stay home so that we don’t have deaths due to triage, as opposed to deaths due to the coronavirus. I believe that a lot of what we’re hearing in terms of how we’re going to come back, or when there’s going to be a vaccine … Nobody really knows when there’s going to be a vaccine, or what that’s going to look like.
What is the grown-up, mature perspective on the possible scenarios towards normalization?
BS: So I think the grown-up, mature perspective is a) the virus is actually serious, and I can go into why. Basically, it’s not just mortality (the mortality is quite high) but it’s morbidity (that is, say, a lot of people are actually getting sick for weeks, or even months, and that doesn’t show up in death statistics).
EW: So let’s just pause there, because I think this is super important.
So, Balaji, here’s something that you could really do that would, I think, be very helpful to me: I would like to understand what are the basic scenarios that may be playing out. If our public officials were able to speak to us truthfully, what would they be saying? If political economy and relationship with China and issues having to do with questions about preparedness in our supply chains weren’t deranging everything. What do you think the various scenarios are, more or less—in terms of the universality classes—of what might happen next?
BS: So, maybe I’ll say something you may not agree with, which is, I think, for being truthful, in the public square, folks—say, in main dimensions—America is actually behind. It thinks it’s ahead, but it’s behind. Which is similar to Blockbuster, or Barnes and Nobles, or Blackberry, or other once-powerful entities that were disrupted by something that they didn’t see coming or didn’t understand. And what this virus has done is basically … it has shown that America can’t physically innovate anymore—or at at least cannot do so quickly enough or at any scale above an individual or corporate level. It can’t coordinate at the level of a town or a city, or a state, let alone a country. And it can blow things up in other places, but building is harder than blowing something up. And so first thing is, America’s actually behind.
Actually it’s funny, I did a Twitter poll on this (for what that’s worth—it’s not a representative sample, but it’s really a survey of the folks who are kind of in my my following, or what have you) and I said, “Is America a) ahead, b) behind, or c) tied with China for physical innovation?” (Or other’s [than?] China ahead.) And 51% said China was ahead (in this little non-scientific poll, for what it’s worth, again—but just to have folks who are in tech, and of folks who would follow me on Twitter or what have you). And the other question I asked, was (it’s a kind of two part question): “a) Are you an American or not? And b) Do you think the US is still the world’s undisputed number one superpower?” And again, roughly about half of the American said “it is” and half “isn’t.” And same for the rest of the world: maybe about like 55 or 60/40[%] for the Americans, and maybe 45/55[%] for the rest of the world. And so I think these are things which, if you’re being honest with the US, you want to start thinking about it in terms of, like, a great company, or a great country that missed a few steps, and that is not as far ahead as people think and that could fall further (and maybe WILL fall further, given the corona crisis) and needs to realize that and needs to rebuild.
So … And I think just SAYING that … The problem with this is, people will not receive a dispassionate analysis of strengths and weaknesses as constructive criticism. They’ll say, “Oh my God, why do you hate this or hate that? Why you hate the country or this …” That’s not at all where it’s coming from. It’s a great country. It’s given my family and a lot of people a lot. However it’s kind of like Japan before the Meiji Restoration, or China before Deng Xiaoping fixed it, or the Soviet Union in the 80s, in some ways. (You know, I’m not saying that the US is as bad as Soviet Union or or Maoist China.) Or, frankly, Microsoft under Steve Ballmer. It’s basically in a stagnation that it needs to get out of. And Peter has talked about this. But it’s now very clear that the consequence of not being able to innovate in the physical world has led to this. And that’s one of the big things.
The second big thing is: the smart people (folks with technical and scientific ability) are simply not steering the ship. And thus you have … That you asked, so, okay, which official is going to give a straight answer? Those folks don’t have the technical ability to give a straight answer. It’s not like you’re on the board and you can ask the CEO, “Hey, give me the figures on X, Y, and Z by W date.” Right? Like, you can expect a tech CEO to be on top of their metrics, because they HAVE to be to survive as a company. But our current government of the United States is not like the founder-CEO. It’s not the person who inherited from them. It’s not the third generation. It’s like, the 40th generation. You know? For example, the mayor of New York wouldn’t be able to build the NYPD from scratch, you know? But somebody DID, at some point. They did staff that unit, and they gave it tasks, and they figured out the esprit de corps, and rules of- Not exactly rules of engagement, but basically …
EW: But Balaji: John F. Kennedy wasn’t one of our founding fathers, nor was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
BS: Right. But the thing is that, at a certain point when you go enough generations, you lose that. Enough generations …
EW: We went enough generations. It was still working.
BS: Yeah, but it’s not anymore.
EW: I agree with … I mean … I see us as dying from a very mysterious ailment, which is that we got two bad generations that do not give a shit about the future and they’re not smart enough or honest enough to recognize that what they’re doing is stealing from their own children.
BS: You know, FDR put some of that stuff in place, right? Social security and whatnot. And there’s a saying that, “There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation.” And I agree there’s a GREAT deal of ruin in a nation. Do you know what that’s from? It’s like in Britain, someone said to a prime minister, “Oh, this will be-” (or to someone in government—I don’t know if it’s the Prime Minister—someone in government), “Oh, this will be the ruin of the nation.” And he turned to the guy and he said very wisely, “Well, there’s a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Meaning, “Calm down, hold your horses, like … lots of stuff breaks. But you know, we’ll figure it out.”
But here’s the thing: There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation, but not an infinite amount. You could well say that Cuba was ruined by Castro’s revolution, or that Iran was ruined for for a generation by the Islamic Revolution. Countries do get messed up.
And it’s one of these things where, if you were wanting to be REALLY provocative about it (and, yeah, this is … we’ll have to see where things land up in a few years), you could say 1492 to 2020. You could say, basically this is the first time that the number one power in the world is a western country that has sort of been invaded and defeated. You know? Like, let’s[?] say like Portugal, Spain, the UK, France, Russia, and then the United States. The number one (or, in some cases, tied for number one powers in the world) have been Western for a long time. And you can argue Russia—it’s Eastern or Western, people argue about its identity in that way. But now it’s something where it’s no longer, I think, the undisputed number one. And if you want to regain that, first you have to realize that you don’t have it anymore. You can’t just like declare victory, mission accomplished, over corona while it’s rampaging through the country and there’s green zones in other countries. You have to realize that actually, it’s- …
EW: Let’s get back to scenarios that the virus will take, and then we’ll come back to whether or not the real issue is is that our leaders aren’t smart enough to deliver information about spike proteins or something (you know?).
BS: It’s not just technical ability, though. That’s the thing is, that’s easy to quantify. It’s also, like, managerial ability and leadership ability. Like, people are selected … like elections select for people who are good actors, not necessarily good leaders. And you can you can play-act at being a mayor or a governor or a leader of some kind, as opposed to someone … Right?
EW: So let’s assume that there’s some issue that maybe somehow we don’t have people smart enough to convey news from experts to the general public. But I don’t want to get infinitely caught up in that.
What am I not getting about this virus? Like …
BS: What do we know about this virus? (I’m sorry.)
EW: What am I not getting? What are the likely scenarios for how we get to something where people aren’t asking, “Can I come out of my house yet?” I mean, obviously, at some level, it could become normal that everybody shelters-in-place ad infinitum; it could become normal that we just say “F it!” and we throw caution to the wind and we all go on spring break in Florida; it could be that we come up with some sort of managed titration, where we titrate back into the world, but nothing ever goes back to the way it was.
What are the most likely scenarios that a competent and honest government would be able to level with us about if that was where we were (with a smarter population and smarter government to boot)?
BS: So first thing I would say is, I think … It’s very … There’s a great website called endcoronavirus.org. by guys out of the Northeast (I think they’re affiliated with Harvard). And it basically shows that many countries have managed to get the virus under control—basically through a combination of not just lockdown, but central quarantine, testing, border control …
EW: What does it mean to “get the virus under control”?
BS: Two things. It means, number one, that daily new cases are either 0 or very close to that. (And that’s why the explicit goal of the head of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden, the Prime Minister of Singapore … is to get new cases to 0, number one.) And then number two, to keep the Rt (reproduction number) below 1, in the event that it does arise again. So basically, keep it down, and have it stay down. Right?
And for that to happen, you need to have not just a coordinated society, but a coordinated state, … You need both society and the state to work together. There’s some exceptions to this, I would say. (Maybe I should say “need.”) Hong Kong is arguably a counterexample, where people will say a society did it but the state didn’t. Right? But I think the first thing is, it is possible to get the virus under control. It is not an inevitability that it goes to 100%. I think it’s an important point.
Now, one can counter-argue as to, “Okay, how expensive is it to do that forever?” Right? “Will these green zones be able to keep themselves green?” And I kind of think they will. Or at least many of them will. Because once you’ve gotten cases down to 0, and you’re sort of “woke” to the virus, and you’ve set up your defenses (I can get into what those defenses are, technologically and societally, because I don’t think people in the West have really followed it too much. Should I talk about that?)
Okay. So here’s just some of the things folks-
EW: And you might want to talk about green zones … talk about the zones as well.
BS: Yeah, well let me define it. So a green zone is a place with comprehensive testing that has no new cases in, let’s say, the last two weeks. Okay? You could change the timeframe, or you could say four weeks or something. But conceptually that’s right. And it also keeps the virus from coming back up. So the reproduction number stays below 1 in the event that there is a flare-up. A red zone is everywhere else. And there’s degrees of green and red. And essentially, the new developed world and developing world I think is going to be green zones and red zones. And that is to say, talent and capital will prefer to be in green zones and to avoid or get out of red zones if it can. And the reason for that is severalfold.
First is (and this a premise which I’m surprised that I still have to argue it in May, but), the virus IS serious. And … At first you might think, “Oh, look at the death counts.” Of course people would agree it’s serious. But people will throw out various, in my view, spurious objections. The most (I think) intelligent objection is, “Yes, there’s 80,000 deaths in the US, there’s hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide, but they’re concentrated in older people and people with pre-existing conditions, and therefore, you know, much of the population isn’t at risk. So let them at a lockdown; go back to work; It’s not a big deal for most people.”
My counter-argument to that would basically be: Alright. Other countries … Lockdown was just one component of what they did. It was an important component, but the US has sort of done a Cargo Cult lockdown. Number two is, there’s a lot of folks (we don’t know the exact number) but there’s many folks under age 50 who’ve had very serious conditions that are not lethal (they’re not dead), they may not always be hospitalized, but they’re serious. And whether you want to believe WHO or not, WHO reported like something like 19% of people have a severe or critical condition, whereas 80% are mild. If that maps to the experienced severity that folks that I’ve seen … people I KNOW have had very severe cases: they’re not dead, they’re not hospitalized, but it’s the worst illness they’ve had in their lives, they’ve had very long convalescences (weeks to months, like eight weeks or so) …
EW: Are they permanently impaired? For example, lung tissue never comes back.
BS: Great question. So I tweeted on this in March, actually. SARS and MERS … there are studies … So there’s a group out of UCLA and (I think) David Geffen School of Medicine … UCLA and USC … to publish a paper saying we need longitudinal monitoring of people who have recovered from COVID-19 to see if they have permanent lung damage, because a good chunk of folks with SARS and MERS did.
So the thing about the long term is we’ll only know it in the long term. But I do think we should be doing longitudinal studies of patients. We should be quantifying morbidity better (not just mortality). Yes, we need to know death statistics across demographics—it’s very important. But we also need to know things like self-reported severity, duration of illness, length of convalescence (meaning recovery after illness), self-reported recurrence of symptoms, and then things like CT scans (like at 30 and 60 and 90 day intervals), and other kinds of things like, are people getting back?
And here’s the issue is: even if it’s just a series (and I say “just” in quotes, but) “just” a very serious illness, which knocks out, with some probability, healthy 30- and 40-year-olds for eight weeks or 10 weeks, that’s something where … if you had a choice, you would avoid an area where you could get that very easily. Your team would avoid an area. You would not be able to recruit people to such a city very easily if they had a choice of an equivalent job somewhere else. So what that does is it turns the first thing in real estate from “location, location, location” to “infection, infection, infection.”
It’s deeper than that as well. People think, “Oh,” you know, “end the lockdowns.” But “end the lockdowns” doesn’t, by its own, bring back the market. One way of thinking about it is … You know, earlier we made the analogy to an invasion, right? An invasion by a virus. There’s another analogy I’m going to give, which is in terms of a public utility. Our society is explicitly premised on electrical power. That is to say, there’s power outlets for all kinds of stuff. And if the power goes out, we wouldn’t tell people, “Oh, just bowl through it.” Right? Because you need to charge your computer and, you know, you can’t tell a restaurant, “Oh, just bowl through it” if their oven doesn’t work—they’re not gonna be able to serve too many customers. Maybe they can cobble a salad together, but they’re operating way below capacity. They won’t be able to handle any apps. Their demand will be way down and lots of ways people won’t be able to get there and they won’t be able to serve them—supply will also be down.
And so the point I’m making is, our society is also IMPLICITLY premised (just like it’s explicitly premised on power, as well as water, internet, roads, …) it’s implicitly premised on the absence of serious infectious disease from public venues. And the thing is that 50 years ago this was understood to be a big deal. That is to say … you know, I tweeted something on the conquest of public health, or conquest of infectious diseases, a bicentennial review. It was understood that getting cholera and malaria and stuff like that under control and turning them into non-issues, was a massive achievement. And that was that was something that was a huge social and technological achievement of coordination.
EW: Well, even like the banishing of malaria from Southern Europe and the southern United States … it led us to think in terms of, “Well, malaria cannot be an American problem or an Italian problem.”
BS: Yes. Bingo. That’s exactly right.
So, the issue is that power and water, are utilities that are noticeable by their presence. Public health is noticeable by its absence. And so just like an electromagnetic pulse would mean the power has gone out in America, this is like the health has gone out in America. And so that means is, you can’t just tell a restaurant, “Bull through this.” Okay? Because here’s what happens.
First, like, California put out these guidelines for in-person restaurants, how to reopen. (I’m just using restaurants as a working example because many of the things apply there.) First, these guidelines essentially expect Joe’s Diner to implement biodefense mode. Okay? It’s like 12 pages of like the most ridiculous requirements—get hand sanitizer, get this … You can’t even buy that stuff. Or if you can, it’s expensive. So first is the restaurants are hit with new guidelines. They’re not trained or skilled in this kind of thing—they’re they’re great at cooking food, not like sanitizing a place for a deadly virus. Number two is, it’s a new tax on them because they have to buy all this equipment and train their workers. Number three is, because of social distancing they have to space their tables out. So they have less revenue that way. It’s the opposite of a crowded restaurant, right? Number four, they have fewer customers, because half their customer base or whatever fraction, basically, like having the uncontrolled virus means, “Hey, I’m risking it every time I walk down.”
And this is something that the folks who are arguing, “Oh, the virus isn’t that bad, because the mortality rates … it’s not killing 50% of people.” Right? And my argument is, okay, yeah, sure, relative to DEATH you can say anything is not a big deal. Right? Death is the worst outcome, right? But relative to a cup of coffee or a slice of cheesecake or whatever at the local cafe, 10 weeks of serious illness is not something that you’d want to casually risk for that. Yes, okay, you can argue the virus isn’t as bad as dying. Fine. But it’s also … this consumer benefit you’re offering is not as good as the risk of … where it is in the middle. Right?
And so one way of conceptualizing that is … And, you know, I’m not just, like, an economic determinist, by any means, but for those people who are in the language of economics: okay. Let’s say that the virus would, on average, do $10,000 of damage to you. For example, it puts you out of work for that many weeks—you make $50,000 a year puts you out of work for 10 weeks. Okay? So let’s say it does $10,000 of damage (in the event of a serious case) and you have a 5% chance of getting the virus and a 30% chance (conditional on getting the virus) of having a serious case and then it costs you $10,000 for 10 weeks of sickness. Okay. That is 5% x 30% x 10,000 … that’s $150 cost that is now being imposed on every interaction that has a chance of getting the virus. Right? And that’s not worth it for many kinds of things. And I’m not saying that people will calculate that numerically and explicitly. But implicitly, I think that that is going to be a tax on a lot of economic behavior.
EW: So I like the general framework here, but I think we’re sort of skipping a step, which is that most of us want to know what this is going to look like. So in a Green Zone, for example … So let’s say that I buy into your Red Zone/Green Zone thing. In a Green Zone, am I shaking hands with people I meet?
BS: No. You’re probably having some degree of social distancing … Well, okay, I’ll put it like this. I think you’re more likely to shake hands with somebody in a Green Zone, certainly, but I think that on balance, until … Smart people will probably continue to take precautions even in Green Zones. But I think that you’d be more likely to shake hands or go to a restaurant in a Green Zone, certainly, than a Red Zone.
EW: And in my Green Zone, let’s say, five years from now: am I wearing a mask constantly when I’m outdoors?
BS: So there’s major branch points here. And so here’s some of the key variables. The first is, do we get a drug or vaccine EVER for this? Because there are some things … HIV we’ve turned into a chronic disease, but we haven’t cured it. Okay? So I’m not saying this is … we don’t know, yet. People thought there was going to be an HIV vaccine very quickly. There’s good reason … Peter Kolchinsky actually has a great article in City Journal on the case for why you SHOULD get a coronavirus vaccine—he thinks it is possible, it’s been done in other animals, and so on. So that’s important.
On the other hand, nothing’s ever certain. (Especially in science. You’re talking about technological innovation—something that has not been done, so it’s hard to do it on a schedule.)
So A is, is there a drug or a vaccine (and a “drug” meaning something that knocks it down to a basic non-issue—it doesn’t have to cure it completely, but it knocks it down) … Is there a drug or vaccine, number one. And if so, how fast does it arrive? Right? And there’s this Warp Speed project that’s been announced. I mean, maybe they’ll get something out there. We’ll see what happens through …
EW: Have you seen the list of people who’s in it?
BS: No. Actually I didn’t look at that yet.
EW: Can I ask you a question on that, just as an intermediate?
EW: When you think about the smart people you’re talking to, relative to this virus—technically-capable people, people who can think well-outside-the-box, operate there, execute … Are you aware of these people being herded up by our national government and put in service of the public health?
BS: So there WAS a Wall Street Journal article saying that there’s, like …
EW: I don’t want to talk about informal things that we’re all doing to connect up.
EW: Like, I have a very simple …
BS: The thrust of your question is … You know, I would say “No.” Like, there’s informal connections and so on and so forth. There’s nothing that … You know, and again, I need to look at Warp Speed—I think it just came out, like, yesterday so I just have to read [simultaneous]
EW: Yes, yesterday. But Balaji, it’s not working.
The question is different. And I guess part of the problem is, is that it feels to me like nobody has the right emotional valence. And so I’ll just say it very starkly: The instantaneous thing to do was to identify a group of people who were early (or are thought of, I don’t know, highly by people who were early) and get them all tested, tell them to report to central facilities, put them in some giant dorm with a marine at the entrance, make sure that you print up secure, you know … expedite security clearances, and have them go crazy.
BS: Like kind of out of a movie.
EW: No, not kind of out of a movie. Kind of out of the World War II era.
BS: Right, right. Sure. I mean, so it might as well be out of a movie. [laughing]
EW: Right. Yeah. But, like, I saw that move, but I rejected it.
EW: This is like what smart people do when they’re not stupid. I don’t know how to say this politely …
EW: I know tons of people who should have been called. And I kept asking, “Are you called?” and they’d say things like, “No, we’re passing our best thoughts to somebody who might be close to somebody on the Security Council.” And my thought was, “You’re not IN Washington, DC. You’re not at whiteboards. Nobody told you to tell your family you’re going to be gone for three months.” Like we didn’t do anything smart.
BS: Yeah, so … I tweeted this, but basically … Amazingly, the US today reminds me of the India of my youth. In the sense of, India’s a country with a lot of smart people that just couldn’t get it together at a societal level for a long, long, long time. Now, amazingly, I would actually argue (even though it’s got a serious outbreak and so on) … India, I think, when (this is a prediction, and I would not call it 100%, or anything like that I could be proven wrong in six months to a year) … My overall feeling is India’s punching above its weight in this whole crisis, and has had a higher state capacity than the US over this. Which is amazing to me. Where
EW: Well India is astounding.
BS: [simultaneous] It’s astounding. And India’s actually done a better job than, frankly, maybe, France, Italy, the UK …
EW: I don’t even want to get into whether they did a good job or a bad job. When I … I mean, both you and I have a fair amount of interaction with India. When I heard that India was going to actually try to coordinate, like sheltering-in-place, I thought, “What do you think you are? Luxembourg?” I mean, …
BS: Right, right, right. But they’ve actually … so they didn’t just do that. They’ve shipped, like, a national telemedicine app with contact tracing … I mean, it has bugs, and so on. But, like, it’s out there. Which no other Western democracy, to my knowledge, has. At least, maybe Estonia has something, but not a large Western democracy.
I remember in March, I posted a SoundCloud where every single Indian, when they picked up the phone to call somebody, there’s a 3 second public health announcement played with a consistent set of talking points from the government. You know, the Prime Minister never said, “Oh, it’s just the flu,” or anything like that. They were taking it seriously from the beginning. They sealed the border to such an extent that even citizens found it hard to get back in. Etc, etc. I mean they did a lot of the blocking and tackling that … I was just like, “What!?”
I was honestly stunned. Because India has come so far. And then the US has come far in the opposite direction. Do I have an explanation for it? You can’t give a technological determinist explanation (or at least not not an obvious one) because India and China have been rising over the same period that the US and UK and Italy and so on have been falling. I think you sort of have to argue it from just like a civilizational arc standpoint. You know? Just like empires rise and they fall, you know? Maybe you could, you can give other …
EW: You and I are in different places about this. I feel like, okay, so we got stuck with, you know, the modern Republican and Democratic Party leadership and like, you know, 30 people are going to take down one of the greatest national experiments in the history of the world.
BS: Ah, so you think of it as a small … You think if you just change out 30 people, you could fix it? Is that is that your mental [indecipherable]? I think that’s a really … it’s like-
EW: No. My model is, is that we got hit with something almost 50 years ago, which is this economic anomaly.
EW: … that we then developed a culture of covering up the economic anomaly that has run its course after 50 years. But my belief about that was that … about when we got the Clintons, in 1992, we took a really dangerous turn towards sophisticated-sounding total bullshit. Like, I really believe that the … you know, Reagan, you could sort of see that they were trying to restart the the miracle, and maybe all of the mergers and acquisitions and getting rid of anti-trust and de-reg and all that kind of stuff … was thought that it might work. And then realized, okay, well maybe it doesn’t work well enough to restart growth, but it’s good enough to get some of us rich at the expense of some of the rest of us. And then the Clintons just took that and raised it to some really high power. And now we’re left with a situation where we can’t reboot from anything because, roughly speaking, I don’t know, the people that I would want in control of this thing are, like, people on the internet. They’re like you. I mean, who the hell are you? I don’t know. But when I when I get confused about where we are, I don’t call up the Centers for Disease Control and and say, “Walk me through this.” Or “Dear WHO, explain how this all makes sense.” I call up people who are in these weird off-the-beaten-path technical centers, you know?
And that is a failure of our society. So what my model is—different from most of the rest of yours—is that I just think the important thing is to tell Hillary Clinton and all of her friends to get up out of their chairs and move. Like, we can’t have the dumb people leading the country. We can’t have Donald Trump, as the president, bungling this this badly.
And then we get into this really weird thing where we’ve got, like, the Trumpies who can’t stand the fact that they can see that the New York Times is full of nonsense, and that the Democratic Party is filled with nonsense—which they’re quite accurate about. Or then you get, you know, all of the Democrats and the academics are like, “Oh my god, you’re opening us up to crazy anti-vaxxers and gun nuts,” you know? And it’s like, “Okay, well, first of all, whoever you guys are, don’t you realize that this is a pandemic, and this is the time to get all of the weak people, the stupid people, the non-creative people, the conventional people, out of the chairs?” And there’s like a religion about, “You can’t say that.” “Who would you put in the chairs? And why are your friends better than …”
It’s like … Look: I guarantee you that if you ask the virology community, “Who are the 10 best virologists in the world?” you get a fair amount of agreement. And the key thing that we don’t have is, we don’t have people who know that they have a job the next week if they speak the truth (or that they can get grants the next week).
But I wanted to continue to get back on this other topic, which is: What does it look like if you manage everything well? Do we ever go back to hugging strangers when we meet them? Do we ever go back to expecting that we’re going to walk down the street and not see face masks? Do we … Because you see, even if we get these vaccines for this, Balaji, it’s really the case that we forgot what pathogens WERE. You know? We’ve had this very long … Like, you know, you’re younger than I am and I at least had the Hong Kong flu as a very young kid. And, you know, most people don’t even remember that there WAS a Hong Kong flu in the late 60s. And that sense that swimming pools were a dangerous place during the polio epidemic. That … you know, we’ve BEEN through this stuff. And I’m not sure that this is the disease that … Maybe we’ll defeat this one, you know?
But there’s still some different thing, which is, are we going to continue to have, you know, gain-of-function research? Are we going to continue to have biosafety level 4 labs all over the world doing whatever it is that they do? Are we going to continue to be able to meet each other as strangers? Or is this a permanent cultural shift? Is it … I mean, I guess what I’m asking is, what is the likely trajectory for this particular disease?
BS: So … obviously predicting the future is challenging. But, here, let me give different scenarios, and I’ll give some probability estimates or whatever …
So I think the biggest branch point is, as I mentioned before, a) is there a drug or vaccine developed? And b) how fast? And obviously, in the event that some miracle cure comes out tomorrow and it’s scaled to billions of people … Well, even then, I still think … you’ve still got a giant crisis on your hands, because a lot of these jobs have basically been destroyed—there’s a lot of bankruptcy. You can’t unwind. You know Josh Wolfe actually had a good point on this where … to bring the market back up, you just need people to repurchase the stocks they just sold—it’s a reversible thing in the language of thermodynamics, right? But when lots of people are fired, businesses shut down and bankrupted, those folks get new jobs, they move other places, the economy gets reallocated … That’s not something you can just reverse, right? You can’t just click your fingers and reverse it. So even if …
EW: You can piece together any glass that you drop on a tile floor. It’ll just take you some time.
BS: Well … So my point is that when you have something where … The peak number of unemployed, on a weekly basis, was something like 7 million people (in the recent reports), and that was 10x the highest number during the financial crisis. And it took, I think, on the order of 10 years, like 2017, before unemployment levels returned to before the financial crisis. So when you’ve got 10x the financial crisis … I mean, I think that’s a generational recovery, just on the economic stuff. I mean potentially, at least. There’s a scenario that I don’t say 100% but that’s, like what I … Would I bet that this is worse than the financial crisis? Yes. Because it’s not fundamentally an economic event or a political event—it’s a biological event, right? It’s upstream.
Let me go a bit further. So let’s talk about … I want to answer your question. So I think Green Zones may be able to get it under control without a drug or vaccine just by testing, border control, and frankly, having locus of control, right? Like they say they BELIEVE that they can actually do it. Whereas Swedes and others have adopted some sort of fatalistic posture, which is “Everyone’s going to get it, so might as well get it over with.” And they don’t realize that that has a lot of risk to it. And … you know, it DOES. It just, like, it … Maybe it works out, right?
EW: Yeah, I don’t even understand … Look, every time somebody says one of these things, I just I scratch my head because I think, “Well, do you want to get it early before people understand best practices? Or do you want to get it late when people understand what works and what doesn’t?” For example.
BS: I mean, it’s … I SORT of get that people are like, “Oh, let me rip the band aid and get it over it.” But we don’t know what the length of immunity is. It’s OBVIOUSLY knocking out a bunch of people. I think it’s gonna make people sicker than they think it is. And why would you let … Basically, at one point, (I made this point to somebody), like, if you had the state capacity of a South Korea, or a Taiwan, or a New Zealand, or a China, or an Australia, or Slovakia, or any of these places that’s gotten it under control (or at least seems to have), you would never, if you had the option of getting it under control, CHOOSE herd immunity as a strategy. Like, you never do that, right? It’s like, “Hey, you’ve got a fire extinguisher. You put out the fire.” “Oh, let me burn down my house so that-, or let it burn my house such that, like, it’ll be a fire break to future fires in the future.” Okay, you know … might work. You know? But it wouldn’t be the strategy you would choose. It seems more like calling defeat “Oh, I meant to do that.” “Oh, I rejected Harvard.” You know? That kind of thing.
EW: It’s like if the old lady who swallowed a fly started with the horse.
BS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sort of like that. Right.
So I think the Red Zone/Green Zone distinction will be important as well, in terms of what that future looks like. In a Green Zone, I think you’re going to have a greater degree of normality. That is, say, you’re going to be able to assemble crowds. You’re going to be able to … People can go back to bars and so on. However, with that said, even in Green Zones … Did you see what happened in South Korea with the bar?
EW: Tell me.
BS: So a COVID-19 positive person (who was asymptomatic) walked into a bar and basically infected … went to five bars in a night and infected on the order of 40 to 70 people, resulting in 1900 people being tested and traced and 2000 bars being shut down. Okay? So that’s what a serious society is doing to keep this thing under control. And because …
An interesting mental model for this is a viral fire. Right? The fire is burning within people, and can pass between people, and can go “whoosh” like this very quickly. You know, people are kindling for the fire, right? If people are kept apart from each other, physically, the fire can’t spread. And so I think that the adaptation we’re going to have, I think … the most likely thing I can see is there’ll be very large economic costs for assembling large crowds in person. Especially large crowds or strangers.
EW: [indecipherable] incorporated externalities.
BS: Yeah. So what that means is, the pandemic insurance for your concert, or your rally, or something like that, is going to be high. Because in theory, you’re liable … once you know about this, once it’s no longer force majeure, this is … I mean, this is something that will be in every single contract, right?
So large crowds … I had one-liner for this, I call it “the physical divide.” The reason is, people used to talk about “the digital divide,” right? But for 70 years, we’ve gotten really good at packing a bunch of transistors on a chip—that’s become really cheap. You know what’s become suddenly really expensive, Eric? Putting a bunch of people in a room. Okay? So that’s become very, very, very expensive suddenly, okay? And so I think-
EW: [inaudible] have Balaji’s law, where we have to get more and more sparse as time goes on?
BS: So what I think is … yeah, there’s now … One of the big things is, there’s a tax on large in-person gatherings. And crucially, there’s a few big differences … People often quote this, they’ll be like, “Oh, hey, after the Spanish flu, we had the roaring 20s. It’s so ahistorical to say anything will change after this. It’ll all go back exactly how it was, you crazy tech person.” Right? And, you know, just like the “just the flu” kind of person, I call this argument “just the Spanish flu.”
EW: Just the Spanish one.
BS: Which I think is clever, right?
Okay. So the “just the Spanish Flu” argument basically says, “This is just the Spanish flu. Yeah, that killed like 100 million people. But nothing happened lasting from it. We had the roaring 20s. And you didn’t even read about it.” There are a few major differences. Not … yeah … Meaning: there are major differences from that period. And let me go through some, because I had to think about this a lot and do some research on it to articulate … Why would there be a branch point, right? Why would the Spanish Flu NOT seemingly have such a large effect, where people are in crowds two or three years later, but this this one would?
So first (and this is just to anchor), the economy … Do you know what the Carrington Event was? Okay, so for your readers or listeners, I think 1857 the Carrington Event was a solar storm that resulted in, basically like, telegraph’s catching fire or what have you. But for the most part, the economy of 1857 continued, despite this giant solar storm, because it wasn’t it wasn’t electric. Exactly.
So in a very obvious sense, the economy of 2020 is more vulnerable to an electromagnetic pulse or a solar storm than the economy of 1857 or 1918. Right? So despite all our advancements, we’re more vulnerable along that axis of an electromagnetic pulse. Everybody would agree with that. Right? So then a fundamental question is, is the economy 2020 also more vulnerable, in an unarticulated sense, to a pandemic than the economy of 1918? Right? Because we can give an example where it WAS more vulnerable, because it is very explicit and quantifiable: it’s “electrical stuff no longer works.” Right? Once you kind of analogize (going back to a previous point) about how it’s like a health outage, just like a power outage. The difference is the power is more tangible, because you bank on its presence. With health, you’re depending on the infections absence, and so it’s only tangible in the opposite case. With a health outage, what businesses, what activities, what parts of our economy and society are premised on the absence of serious infectious disease from society?
So the most obvious one are crowds, right? Big crowds are out, and I think out for a generation. That’s something, at least as a … To materialize a crowd in one location will be considered a show of strength. Okay? It’s considered a society that is so confident, and so advanced, that it feels like it’s just wiped out the disease. OR, it is also possible, by the way, (and I want to make sure I …) … It is possible the herd immunity argument works. So I can’t say … I don’t say it’s not possible. I’ve just said it’s risky. You know? So it is possible that this tears through the whole population, like the Spanish Flu did, and then it’s not a recurring issue—it just kills 100 million or whatever it is, and then-
EW: … there’s an issue about, is the best thing (from the point of view of lineage) a blood bath? You know? That even if a small number of us make it through because … You know, take something where you’ve got a mutant receptor that makes it very difficult for the virus to attach. Just imagine.
BS: I mean, I think the best thing for lineage would be for us to invent … to get the biotechnology and biomedicine of 2100 and bring it into 2021 or 2020. Like, essentially to advance biomedicine quickly so that all the crazy stuff, like … For example, just getting a readout on your body to figure out exactly what’s wrong. This is … (Mike Snyder’s integrome is kind of like this. He’s a professor at Stanford Medical School who took a bunch of different assays and ran them all at the same time and was able to find out when he was getting sick, and when he was having diabetes or diabetes-like symptoms, because he could SEE the readouts. It wasn’t just univariate, it was highly multivariate.) So, like, getting readouts like that on people. OR all the promise of, like, nanomedicine. And this is stuff where it’s like you’re actually sending in mini-robots to go and attack the virus—all the crazy-sounding stuff. Or life extension—like what David Sinclair talks about.
EW: So that’s cool.
What about surveillance medicine? Surveillance-based medicine.
BS: Okay, so let’s talk about this. Right. So, the good scenario, as I was saying, is you advance biomedicine—in the treatment sense and so on, diagnostic sense—well enough that corona becomes a non-issue, COVID-19’s a non-issue (even if it’s still around).
I want to talk about interesting things that China is doing, just for people to know what they’re doing. Whether or not … One of the things that the US did is it copied lockdown from Italy, which in turn copied it from China. So we’ve already kind of cloned China without acknowledging we’re cloning China, without looking at the original source material to figure out exactly what they did. For example, they didn’t just give stay-at-home orders: Anybody who has tested positive was then sent to central quarantine. For example. Right? There’s 100 differences in terms of the execution. It’s like the difference between saying “Build a social network” and “Build Facebook,” right? There’s a huge difference in execution.
Okay. So that said, we should understand what China is doing. If not necessarily to copy it, but at least to understand. Okay. One of the things they’re doing is everybody in China has WeChat, and WeChat is not used that much in the West, but in China it’s like a combination PayPal and Messenger and Facebook and so on. But even more than that, it’s like your handheld interface to society. Any restaurant stall that you walk up to, any government building—anything!—has a digital interface on WeChat. And in fact, you don’t even need the physical interface. You don’t need a point-of-sale terminal. They’re just like, “Here’s my WeChat code,” and you just QR scan it and go, right?
Okay. So WeChat’s completely ubiquitous in China, and it’s something where one of the features they’ve rolled out in WeChat is a national COVID-19 app that gives every citizen a green, yellow, or red code—corresponding to … green is you’re considered healthy—you can travel, get on subways, whatever, keep going. Yellow is you are supposed to be (I think) stay-at-home, and you’re exposed, right? And red is you’re confirmed positive, you have to go to supervised quarantine. Okay?
Now, this is basically a way of instrumenting the entire country for Coronavirus. And you could imagine standing in front of a gigantic monitor—where you’re looking at the greens, yellows and reds across China—and … You know, of course those labels need to be kept up to date, which I’ll come back to, but assuming they are (kept up to date) by sensor fusion, you know, you take a bunch of different kinds of tests and you have, “Okay, what is P of a label equals Y (yellow) given this vector of variables [P(label=yellow | variables)], right? You basically have a conditional probability function that you’re estimating. So you have this gigantic screen (mentally, at least) which has all of these nodes moving around—and they’re colored green, yellow, or red—and now … if you remember that South Korea example: what happened was a red walked into a crowd of greens or a yellow walked into crowded greens in a bar. Now, rather than going in just trying to track them down, you can see them on screen. You can hit one button, and the 50 people that that yellow was near are all marked yellow themselves. And they all get text messages …
EW: Is this exciting to you?
BS: I think it’s-. So there’s obviously bad aspects to it, right? Like, in the sense of, this is Total Surveillance and so on. …
EW: I’m just … I’m … I’m monitoring a change in my friends, from going from being die-hard libertarians to “Oh my god, the surveillance economy is going to be huge!”
BS: I would never call myself a die-hard libertarian. Nor would I call myself a statist or anything like that. Let me explain why.
EW: I’m not talking about you. You’re too original. Forget it.
BS: Yeah, yeah.
EW: I have noticed, like, a very strange change, where a lot of my libertarian friends who are early on the virus are wildly into surveillance.
BS: So, here’s the thing about this. The pandemic is like a war, in the sense of … it is like being invaded by a virus. And, you know, Lincoln famously suspended habeas corpus. There were many violations of civil liberties and so on that happened during World War II. But, crucially, the country did come back to a state of normality afterwards (after that rival was defeated; after that enemy was defeated).
And so there’s basically three models, right? The first model is, you don’t allow the state to do anything, and then you fall into kind of a market anarchy. (I’ll come back to that, because I think that’s what’s going to happen. And a lot of the US, we’re on track for that.)
The second model is, you do let the state do something, and it manages to solve the problem. (If it doesn’t, it goes back to market anarchy.) But it manages to solve the problem, and it doesn’t give up power, in which case by 2025, or 2026, or 2023, you’re going to be pushing hard on decentralization and crypto.
Or, in the third case (like the “good” government), it takes on these superpowers and then it, of its own accord, gives them up later, right? Now, that’s unlikely, but it’s not completely unprecedented. For example, South Africa, in the transition from apartheid, gave up nukes. Ukraine, when it became an independent Soviet republic, gave up its nukes. So it is unlikely for a state to give up its powers, but it’s not unprecedented for it to do so—it does happen sometimes.
So those are kind of three outcomes. I’d say what I’m most excited about (I’m not really excited about anything), but I do think that the best bet is an intelligent state that puts out the viral fire and then sends the fire engines home. You know? Like it does not, does not maintain that infrastructure for …
EW: So you say “intelligent state.” Do you mean “intelligent” as in smart or “intelligent” as in surveillance?
BS: Intelligent as in smart. As in, like, “enlightened.” You know?
So, just going back to the yellow, red and green code thing. So, the thing about this is, we already, in the US, have NSA tracking of cell phones—that’s been around since 2013, at least (Snowden has revealed that). We have lockdown and house arrest. We have taken on a ton of the economic costs. It kind of seems to me like, you know, you’d want to put out the viral fire.
But let me describe a little bit further this system, how it works. (By the way, to be clear, I’m not advocating for this. I’m just saying how it works so you can see it.) So focus[?] on this green, yellow and red code. And now there’s another aspect to it, which is, (at least it’s been reported that) China is trying to test all 11 million people in Wuhan in 10 days. Okay? Now, if they can do that, you’ve got WeChat, which is the social graph. Okay? So you visualize the social graph of Wuhan, and it’s superimposed on the map—everyone’s got x y coordinates and these nodes are kind of walking around, and they’re connected to each other in at least two ways. One is A is a friend of B. The other is a proximity graph, which is based on their x-y locations over time and whether they’re near enough to somebody else (because you can certainly be PHYSICALLY near somebody who’s not your friend in the social network, right?).
So you have this graph—the social network and proximity graph—and now you superimpose colors (green, yellow and red). And now, what they’re doing with this testing thing, is they’re trying to test (again, it’s been reported) 11 million people in 10 days. And if you have the state capacity to do that, it’s like dropping a massive amount of flares over a region such that you’re lighting up ALL of the nodes. It’s like total testing, right? It’s no longer population sampling, it’s total testing. And now you’ve got very fresh labels on the nodes—are they green, yellow or red? And here’s the crucial thing: If you can do that, if you can take an entire city, if you can light up the entire city social network with testing and find the yellow and red nodes, well, you would find any hidden disease reservoirs. That’s so amazing. You could then centrally quarantine or you have them do stay-at-home and you put out the fire because you find the disease reservoirs, right? And then you don’t have to, like … You can now do that like city by city. Okay? It’s like a clear-and-hold strategy; it’s like counterinsurgency.
So with just testing and quarantine, you could potentially put out the virus like this. Right? Now the reason I described this is, it’s … you might think, “Wow, that’s an insane violation of civil liberties that we would never do,” etc, etc. But that was what people said about what happened with the lockdown in Wuhan. And then it was basically done by Western countries like six weeks later. (And done in a bad and amateurish kind of way. It was like, if you’re doing a lockdown, you don’t want to … there’s 100 things that had never done[?].) And I published a bunch of this stuff in March, by the way, on what was actually happening in other countries—South Korea, Taiwan, etc.
But point being that it is possible—potentially, (it APPEARS possible)—to put out the viral fire with techniques short of a drug or vaccine. And this makes sense in the sense of … the US conquered a bunch of infectious diseases before they had PCR testing, before they had genome sequencing. You know, sometimes, like, quarantine and elbow grease can get you much farther than you might think.
So let me pause there. That gives some sense of how you can get the virus under control.
EW: Well, I appreciate your analogy to wartime. I often talk about regulated expression as a paradigm that we don’t use enough [simultaneous speech] … Well just from biology, that you have some reaction that you don’t want to be present, generally. But the idea is like, “Okay, well, I’m gonna upregulate this and downregulate that relative to the situation.” And saying that this is like life during wartime means that there are restrictions on civil liberties that aren’t usually in place. And then, you know, the concern, of course, is that the argument “Well, we already have x and so this is x plus epsilon.” “We already had Snowden revelations, and so we know that we’re doing this already, we should just make use of the data.” You know, if I play that game, that compounds to tyranny very quickly. Now, [simultaneous speech] information that says that, so and so is going to give syphilis to so and so else today, you know?
BS: Yeah, totally. And the thing is, basically, the US government has proven itself so incompetent in this current set of circumstances that I don’t think it would be smart to advocate for it having any more power. So I want to be clear about that. But I do think it’s important to understand what is being done successfully in the rest of the world, even if it’s not imitated directly.
For example, there’s privacy-preserving contact tracing. Maybe that gets you 60%. Maybe you have something where enough people opt in to a green/yellow/red code system to put out the fire in their city. There’s there’s different ways …
EW: So I think you’ve actually hit this nail on the head before and I want to bring back Balaji on Balaji, then.
Which would be … I think what you’re saying is that trust is a competitive advantage in the current world. Because if trust is high between a population and its government, that government can do things to fight a virus, that somebody else can’t and that means it’s a better place to do your production, manufacturing, what-have-you.
EW: So this is the thing that I’m very upset about with the US, which is: I don’t trust these people because they’re bad. They’re obviously bad. They’re stupid. They’re incompetent. They’re kleptocratic. They’re not technically adept. I get bored of saying this because I know people who are those things and they’re sitting at home—they’re not called up. You could solve this problem tomorrow if you could call up the Mark Andreesens, Patrick Collisons, Balaji Srinivasans, Laura Demings … I mean, you know, there’s any one of a number of people who are just very mentally agile. And if you had them addressing the country, you could completely change the US perspective on the virus. The key thing that we see is, is that I see Larry Kudlow and Steve Mnuchin[?] on a on a coronavirus panel—I’m just thinking, like, “What?”
BS: So let me give you some, like, aspect of how this is actually happening, in some way, different-
EW: So do you buy into this idea that trust is a central asset?
BS: Oh, absolutely. In fact, I’ve talked about that a lot. I mean, I’m not a ideological … So, ideological anything, usually … It’s funny. One can go meta and say, “Oh, you’re making an absolutist statement about absolute statements.”
BS: Yeah. But let’s just say ideology, in general, is about 100% consistency. But I think a better model is: ideology often identifies sliders (like polls), and then any particular situation requires you to set those sliders at some parameter values that are difficult to intuit in advance or even verbally defend. The only way you can defend it is outcome-based. Like, do people buy your product or not? Do they come to your country or not? Did you make the right set of trade-offs that you can give some kind of high level ideological justification of, maybe, but the specific parameter values—how much surveillance versus how much not; how much coercion versus how much voluntary—those are just, like … the exact dials can’t be discovered (in my view) by angels on the heads of a pin, but solely by what people respond to or not and how much wealth and health is created for the population, in a broad-based sense.
Coming to your second point. So that’s kind of like how I think about it is … ideology plays well verbally and on Twitter … ideology is viral, but pragmatism is functional. And I think that that’s like the Singapore style of “combine whatever things you need to make something work, but get the highest health and wealth for your population,” that’s-
EW: Well there’s another dimension, in my opinion. So you have the ideology playing well on the internet … practicality, I understand what you’re saying.
But there’s another thing, which is coherence. So for example, the New York Times, CNN, NPR, the Democratic Party are coherent. They may be coherent around nonsense. But if they all decide to start moving in one general direction, they will coordinate their movement enough that, in my opinion, the big knock against our world (our shared world) is that there’s a tremendous amount of noise, and in this haystack of noise are more often found the needles of truth than over in the establishment area.
So, in general, my feeling is that somebody in our network is usually on top of most of these topics before it’s clear to anyone else. But there is a fair amount of noise to sort through.
BS: So your previous point was very important one, which is: how do we get competent people into positions of leadership? Right? And I’d say there’s many dimensions to this. Let me give you one reassuring thing, which is: Gates and Bezos ARE doing some amazing things with the resources they have. For example, Bezos has said that Amazon is putting $4 billion of its profits into COVID-19 supply chain stuff. And Gates is spending billions of his own money on vaccines.
And the critical thing … Do you have the concept of bioavailability from pharmaceuticals? Have you heard that concept? Okay, so, if you take take a drug, there’s different ways you can take it—intravenously, orally, sometimes you can inhale it, and so on and so forth. And a critical question is, okay, you take 100 cc’s of something or 100 units of some drug. And then the question is, is it actually bioavailable? Does it actually hit your system, or does it leach out? Is it excreted and it’s not properly metabolized and it’s just in one orifice out the other. Okay? And bioavailability is often set to, like, 100% for intravenous administration. But the point is that you might take a drug, but it might not actually be that active—you might just excrete it without it hitting the relevant part of the body where you want it to excrete. And that’s the difference between the $2 trillion that the US government printed, and the $4 billion that Amazon is allocating toward COVID-19. Amazon will be a very careful steward of that capital because it’s run by Bezos, and he’s smart, and competent, and ultimately there’s one decision maker who’s very smart and engaged—and that’s him—to resolve any conflicts now the money’s allocated.
Those government’s $2 trillion, I remember seeing that and I was like, “Okay, well how much of that is masks and vaccines and this and drugs and testing and whatnot?” And I think there was something in there for hospitals, but most of it was not that. It was just a gigantic pork barrel thing with everybody getting an ask-in[?] and so on. That was when capital is allocated politically rather than ideologically. So that was capital that was highly non-bioavailable. It was $2 trillion, but only a fraction of that actually hit the target of the virus, as opposed to what Bezos and Gates are doing, which are very focused efforts with their own capital—one 1,000th as much capital, not 2 trillion, but like a billion—however, it was capital that, because an individual was pointing it, it was actually on target, as opposed to just, you know, sprayed all over the place, right?
EW: It was on target for the individual, whatever that person is trying to accomplish.
BS: Correct. That’s right.
But I think that is where we’re likely to go. Where we have these West Coast leaders who have enough individual capital and know-how and networks and capability … they’re actually able to put a dent in this thing with far less resources than the state. And I think over time, what that leads to is building up larger and larger and larger audiences.
And here’s why … Let me talk about audiences think for a second. There’s two different kinds of truths (at least): there’s political truths and technical truths. And a political truth is something which is based on the software installed in people’s heads. That is to say, for example, where the borders of a country? Or how much is the currency worth? Or who is the President? Those are ultimately things which are based on the software installed in people’s heads. And if you can change enough of that—if you can muscle them into believing something else—you can actually change where the border is located. You can change what the currency is worth. You can change who the President (or the leader of some organization) is. Okay.
Then, separately from that, there are technical truths, which are, you know, the diameter of this virus. Or the value of this expression in math. Or the gravitational constant. Right? Those are things which no amount of muscling of people’s brains is going to change, because they’re physics or they’re math, right? Or science. And it’s impor-.
I mean the thing is that … there’s also interesting things in the middle, right? Like something like cryptocurrency uses technical truths to make it harder to change political truths in certain ways. Because people are coming to consensus on who holds what money, but cryptography is being used to make it difficult to muck with that.
What’s my point? Point is, political truths are important. Political truths are where a lot of where the money is. Political truths are where our entire establishment is focused on and they’re incapable of thinking about technical truths at all. Here’s an interesting point: If you can convince enough people (like if you can get enough backlinks), then I think you can change things. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be through a standard process. I think, for example, if you just built a large enough specialist social network in San Francisco, I bet you could win the election of San Francisco—that would actually be an afterthought. For example, if you built up a San Francisco COVID-19 response community and you organized … (And maybe San Francisco is not a great place to start, by the way. It’s pretty hard nut to crack. Okay?)
EW: But Balaji, the thing is, is that … Look, I’ll be honest. I don’t really see—between the West Coast, the East Coast, and the nostalgic perspective (which I seem to represent)— … none of us seem to have it right. But I’ll be honest. I’ve spent enough time around West Coast billionaires to know that they don’t part with large amounts of money very easily.
BS: [laughing] Sure.
EW: No, seriously. There’s an incompetent news story that’s constantly written about, “So-and-so has a limitless wallet … $10 million is like blowing his nose …” And it’s like, I’ve never met this person where $10 million is like blowing your nose.
EW: I’ve never met someone so rich that they can’t think about whether or not they want to spend $10 million on something.
So we just had some sort of a rapid grant thing going on with, like, multiple billionaires all getting together to put up $11 million. So my first feeling about this is, we’re not that good on the West Coast to be able to take all this stuff on.
BS: No, not all of it.
Can I say one thing though? [echo/simultaneous]
EW: No no no.
BS: Okay, go.
EW: I’m going to get myself in trouble with my new tribe.
EW: My new tribe likes to talk an awful lot about dis-intermediating corrupt institutions, and then it can’t actually get its own act together (very deeply). The magic is supposed to be when these people inhabit the regular institutions. Then the regular institutions have to up their game because you’ve got a lot of people asking unfamiliar questions; the kleptocracy goes down—because people who are making their money by doing new things or pissed off about people making money from stealing things. …
And we are treating the problem of, how do we remove septuagenarians from our political parties (who’ve been there forever, or just got there)? You know, how do I get rid of Trump? Pretty easy, to me: you just stop the Democratic Party from being as corrupt and soulless as it is. How do you get rid of the people in the Democratic Party? Well, they’re gonna die, you know, in 20 … In the next 25 years, the current crowd of people who seem to be in control are going to age out of this thing. My guess is that within 5 to 10 years, there’re going to be far fewer of these types of people than there are now. …
And we’re treating this (weirdly) as like a given. Like, we can’t get rid of the rot. And I don’t want to keep getting back into it—it’s not that interesting—but I honestly don’t think that the West Coast solution … It’s like, you know, if you get a bunch of tech billionaires … Jack Dorsey has stepped up to the plate at a surprising level, if I understand correctly what he’s giving for COVID …
BS: But I’m not talking about ‘giving’—we need to be very precise about this. [? bad audio quality]
EW: Sorry, but yes, I’m talking about directing the capital. Remaining engaged. Bringing the same thing that built the businesses and built the VC fortunes into the mix, so that the idea is that you have an idea of “get shit done,” you have an idea of “get stuff funded,” …
BS: Even more precise than that, though, which is: what Amazon is doing is essentially rolling out the technologies to turn the Amazon campus into a Green Zone. And then it can sell that to other people as a business model to start expanding Green Zones out, where they MVP it for their own company first, they show that it works (because they’ve got outcome statistics in terms of who’s sick and so on), and essentially build a private health care system slash management system, and it radiates out from there. That is like the West Coast model, rather than trying to start with $2 trillion in a top-down kind of thing …
EW: No, I’m not talking about starting with $2 trillion.
BS: Yeah, I know, I know, I know-
EW: Amazon has a different situation because of its particular business model. Obviously, you know, a world that isn’t going to go out shopping quite as much in brick-and-mortar … this has accelerated a move towards online purchases … All sorts of things are happening, alright? And I understand that you can actually start to implement this and experiment within your companies, etc. Obviously, what Elon is doing in at an atoms-based company rather than an electron-based company is different.
Maybe I’m just bored of hearing my own take on this. But somehow there was a lost notion of competency that we had relatively recently that nobody thinks is even worth trying to get back.
BS: I’m not saying it’s not worth trying to get back. I am saying that I don’t think the mechanism for doing so is going to be a front door mechanism.
EW: Okay. And I appreciate the kitty-corner and trying to sneak up on things. You know, these are interesting-
BS: Yes. I wouldn’t even initially call it “sneak up on it” because that involves, like … It is more, accepting what you CAN change today with what you have. Doing that and then seeing what door opens in two years or three years. Right?
By Bezos, for example, … Let’s say Bezos going and fixing Amazon … which is within his power, right? I mean, a very important question … You know, like there’s that kind of thing that they make people say when they’re in, like, rehabilitation facilities (like 50 cent raps about this). It’s like, (I’m gonna butcher it), it’s, “God, give me the strength to know the … to change things that-“
EW: [simultaneous] Accept the things I cannot change …
BS: … Yeah. And the wisdom to know the difference. Right, exactly.
So, essentially, where is one’s locus of control? Right? Basically, it is … What is it that you can actually control yourself—without requiring some new powers, without getting new permissions from somebody, without winning an election … What can you do today? What’s under one’s control?
And I have a feeling that if there’s somebody who comes up with a reproducible strategy to develop … to turn things into Green Zones (and shows that with outcome statistics), that that person will, by dint of that success, be able to parlay that into larger and larger successes. And then you can see where that goes.
EW: But, Balaji … Okay, yes. But then, you know, I’m gonna have all my usual problems, right? Which is, what if that person does it through surveillance (through an unacceptable level of surveillance)?
I can’t stand surveillance. I fri**en hate it. And I’ve learned through time that most people don’t feel this way. They accept surveillance. You know? They don’t have a sense, like, you know … If I’m going to speak out about Jeff Epstein, if I’m going to speak out about our intelligence services, if I’m going to speak out about lots of different things, I want surveillance to be dangerous, illegal, expensive and difficult.
Somebody says, like, [dumb voice] “I don’t know, if it keeps me from getting sick, let them know!” Okay, so then we’re gonna have this. If you start telling me about these private solutions and Green Zones, and, you know, this whole nine yards, I’m going to say, “Okay, well, I don’t know where that’s going.” Maybe the idea is that we’re going to get an incredibly Jeff Bezos-type answer for what the world should be. Maybe I don’t want an Amazon-friendly version of this. Maybe I want a man-in-the-street, median individual-friendly version of this. Maybe I don’t …
Maybe I’m really frustrated, which is … We’re going to do what you’re saying because we’ve got this particular class of people we can’t get rid of. And they’re going to be gone soon. They’re just not going to be gone in time. Like, if you imagine that Andrew Yang, for example, were the nominee, rather than Biden (presumptively), I guarantee you that Andrew Yang would be making use of this time to tell us what it sounded like to be in direct dialogue with technical people. He would have a more technical version of this thing. But he couldn’t-
BS: But I mean, even … But, you know, it feels like-. I think one big difference between us on this is: you’re much, much more focused on electoral politics than I am. And the … I think one difference is, I don’t believe that that is actually the most important locus of how things get done. You know, there’s technology, there’s a permanent bureaucracy, there’s … I mean, like, … Like, folks are on Twitter, right?
BS: What’s that?
EW: I don’t trust Google’s relationship to China. I don’t necessarily trust Tech’s relationship to China.
EW: I don’t always love the business community’s solutions for things, which are also corrupt. You know, like the way in which we talk about what we do as “all of it is just returns to technology and competence and brilliance” is a bit of a PR campaign, you know? And the government has their version of a PR campaign and legacy media has their version of this. And I guess what my take on this is, is that I’m CLOSER to the Tech version, but there’s a missing chunk, you see? And I think that science is the most important part of this missing chunk. The thing that’s really flipping me out is that no one is trying to restore independent science—the kind of science you can do when you’re not worried about your funding.
BS: So I’m going to talking about the PR campaign aspect.
I understand that vantage point. I think that you don’t want to be really on a PR campaign. You want to be on a RESULTS campaign. And, …
EW: No, no … we’re going to get into this … Let me head it off at the path.[?]
If you want to say what your results are, I’m going to say to you, “Okay, cases reduced per unit surveillance, or cases reduced?”
BS: Right. Except, so, [indecipherable] you add that as a metric. And if it is truly the case that … ‘Cause here’s the thing. You know what Chrome Web Inspector is? Okay, so if you launch any web browser, there’s a thing you can do where you can show every tracking pixel and everything that loads on a webpage. And you should just do that sometime. And you’ll see … Like, you go to techcrunch.com, you’re in, like, 100 databases. Okay? You’re already there. Right? Now, you can argue that is bad. (And I would agree with you in many ways. And I think that there are technologies like Zero Knowledge and so on that maybe can get us there—Brave is working on Zero Knowledge ads—and get us much of what we currently have with the internet by also protecting privacy. Potentially. Or you move to, like, a micropayment ecosystem where you’re just sending the money and not your information. … Lots of different models are there.)
But I look at … I’m pro privacy, pro decentralization, pro encryption. I think that we can get there with some combination of technology and policy and whatnot. However, I also recognize that maybe we’ve got only a stone axe right now. And we’ve got a beast that’s coming at us. And, you know, take that thing out first, and then figure it out later. Right?
And now, there’s another possibility …
EW: I think my point would be: Consider fragging your commanding officer first, putting somebody competent in charge, and then regrouping—like, what’s the next part of the plan? If we can’t get rid of our commanding officer, then we’ve got a real problem.
BS: So, the thing is that … a better way of doing it, I think, is just pulling the backlinks away. Okay? So take your example (I mean, look, you can’t do this in a platoon or whatever), but a guy goes off and says, if it were legitimate-. It’s better in a startup, okay? Let me use that analogy rather than a platoon, because … being disobedient in the military is different.
But you’ve got a company and let’s say the traitorous eight, they just left and they just did their own thing. And the folks who followed them followed them—it’s a free country. And so the backlinks that were pointing in this direction are now pointing in another direction. So if you pull enough backlinks over, then you’ve reformed the system without changing it in a direct way—you haven’t taken it on in the front, you’ve taken on the backdoor.
EW: So the United States of Blockchain …
BS: It’s not blockchain only. It’s a tool.
EW: I’m just … I think that this is kind of a weird intellectual impasse, which is: I’m not disagreeing with you, Balaji, that the current system is corrupt/doesn’t work/can’t get it done/new things are exciting, they’re happening elsewhere.
I think we live in a persistent fantasy, either about what’s possible with, sort of, West Coast mentality …
BS: Well, I can say one thing that we haven’t talked about, which I think is very important. I think that the layer that … How would you reform the East Coast with West Coast tactics? Okay? Let’s maybe talk about that for a second.
I think that, for example, what Bloomberg did (where he spent like $500 million on the election (at least as reported)), I think that was a waste of money. But I do think that an equivalent amount of money spent on personal media corporations—that is, getting as many people to do Substack like things as possible, that are broadly aligned with the future (like with technology, they’re pro-transhumanism, they’re pro all this good stuff)—that would have, actually, a major impact. And it’s something that can be funded. It’s something that doesn’t require a huge amount of resources. It’s something that can probably at least break even. (Not that media companies necessarily make a ton of money.)
But the reason is, that writing is fighting. And if you have a large number of new writers who are scientists and engineers … And, crucially, these should be, I think, citizen journalists as opposed to corporate journalists—they’re not full time journalists, they have personal media corporations, meaning they basically have like a, like … they’re getting like $1,000 a year or $2,000 a year from a Substack equivalent or Substack itself. And they don’t have … This is not something they’re doing full time. This is a model where it’s something in between, like, a blogger and a journalist. But it is something where you’ve got a serious hobby of writing, and if you had 1000 people like that in SF (or anywhere), that would definitely shift the debate on the topic. And it would shift electoral politics; it would shift the Overton window; it would shift-
EW: I really don’t think this [simultaneous]
BS: You don’t agree.
EW: We’re in some kind of disagreement. My feeling is, is that there are plenty of smart, interesting people—you can find them all over the internet—it has nothing to do with anything. The key thing has to do with this sort of centralized exchange that I’ve called the Gated Institutional Narrative. And the idea is, it’s a world that only listens to itself. You can say the smartest things in the worl-
Like, you got attacked by tech journalists, I assume?
BS:  Everybody gets attacked by tech journalists—that’s all they do. Yeah.
EW: For being early on COVID.
BS: Oh, yeah, yeah. That’s true. Yes.
EW: Okay. So whatever that group of people is that seems to continue to persist no matter how many times they get things wrong: they clearly upset; they’re angry; they’re pissed off; they always have a job. Okay?
What I’m talking about is, roughly speaking, we did not get independence to the people who could use it. And we didn’t seat them in institutional chairs. And I don’t know why I seem to be the only person on this particular kick—it’s clear as day to me. But the idea is, …
You know, and let me go back to Noam Chomsky. Why does Noam Chomsky sit at MIT? He’s in his 90s. It’s because we used to have … People like you would … You’d be a professor!
BS: Okay, but let me [?] you there, though. Isn’t it better that Larry and Sergey went into Google than became professors at Stanford? Or that Zuckerberg went into Facebook rather than becoming a professor at Harvard?
EW: I can’t do this. Yes, for a few of the winners. But do you know how many people who were supposed to be … who became neither Larry nor Sergey and didn’t end up in a position in a chair where they could do anything … Like, you know, the FDA is in shambles. The CDC is in shambles. Harvard’s in shambles. You need people with agency protected from the people who want to control them by regulating whether they have a job on Monday if they mouth off on Friday.
I think that really what I’m trying to say, Balaji, is that there is no substitute for journalistic independence or academic freedom. It’s not on the blockchain. It’s not a question of … Mostly speaking, the very rich people that we discuss, on the West Coast, who have made it as so-called technologists … First of all, they’re really not technologists, they’re really business people …
BS: [laughing] It’s both. It is both, but go ahead.
EW: … But very often, the people who are really technologists just WORK for them. I’m sorry to say. And I’m not saying … There are all sorts of weird things that the West Coast does differently. And one thing is, is that it tries to bury the concept that their actual … Like, we’ll always talk about Larry and Sergey and we’ll never talk about the master coder who came up with MapReduce, you know?
BS: Jeff Dean?
BS: And Sanjay Ghemawat? Yeah, I know them.
EW: Well, yeah. I know YOU do, because you’re local[?]. But that was my point.
If I said, Jeff Dean, do you think that the world-in-general knows who he is?
BS: No, but the people who SHOULD know do know. I mean, I should actually-
EW: [simultaneous] Many more people should know.
BS: I think you’re right about that. So, … But here’s the thing, is … Okay, a few different things. Several different things to shoot out there.
First, you talked about folks being under economic sanction, such they couldn’t speak freely, and how does the blockchain solve that? Actually, this is something blockchain is pretty good at for two reasons. First is, you can earn pseudonymously. So you can separate out your earning name, your speaking name, and your real name. So that you only use your real name on official forums, you speak under one pseudonym, and earn under yet a third. And that starts to isolate your job from your speech from your, you know, kind of your real name. Right? So that’s kind of one aspect.
The second aspect is that the mainstreaming of crypto (and also cryptography as well as cryptocurrency) is mainstreaming encryption. And so technologies like Keybase, and so on, allow you to communicate with others, or even publish your thoughts pseudonymously, or in an encrypted fashion without someone being able to target you for thoughtcrime. Right?
So I actually do think that those two things are pretty important.
EW: Okay, we’re gonna get into another one of these things. But my point is that … It’s like we’re constantly working around something, you know, like …
What’s the problem with thoughtcrime? The problem with thoughtcrime is we’ve got a bunch of people terrifying everybody. A tiny number of people terrifying everyone—that if you observe what you see with your own eyes or hear with your own ears, you’re Satan. You know? I don’t even know why, for example, I have no idea why my world is SO convinced that I should never mention the Wuhan lab or you’re a crazy person. Like, I don’t even know where that COMES from. It’s not part of science. It’s not part of being a grown up. It’s it’s some sort of a directive that I don’t understand. I can’t grasp it.
BS: It’s decentralized consensus. It’s basically some … It’s quasi-decentralized. And here’s what I mean: It’s not something where most of the people repeating it were told to repeat it. It is that they saw it on social media or they heard it from somebody, and they saw the tone in which it was uttered (and it’s usually uttered in like a contemptuous tone, where A is looking down on B), and they don’t be the person looked down on. And so then it’s repeated that way.
Now, some of them actually go and diligence it for its factual characteristics, but that’s rare.
EW: You remember the Sinclair Broadcasting Network’s …
BS: Yeah, right. The only thing-. The thing that was funny about that is, that happens all the time—that was just something where someone put in the effort to go and get all of those clips out of a TV news search engine. Which was impressive and actually worth doing, but, you know, that happens all the time for all kinds of stories …
EW: Well Jon Stewart made something of a career showing that they were talking points, and that everybody fanned out[?] from the party …
BS: Right, right, right, exactly. Yep.
EW: But, like, at some level … Look, I think we’re going around and around on something which I would like to just exit from. I understand that the current situation looks hopeless and pointless, and that we have new technologies and … Fine.
BS: Can I give a positive vision of the future? Like what things, you know …
EW: Yeah. Why don’t you close this out with a positive vision of the future, you and I can talk about other things another show. That’d be great.
BS: Okay, great. So, positive vision of the future.
First, I think we’re going to get a Y-shaped recovery. Which is to say, not V-shaped (where it bounces back) or W-shape (where it bounces up and down), but Y-shaped in the sense of, we’re on one branch of the economy, and now we’re taking a totally different one. And so the BAD part about that is, I think we’re deprecating the physical leisure economy. So bars, concerts, restaurants, travel, hotels, a lot of that stuff will be looked back on nostalgically when, you know, a middle class person could easily travel, and vacation meant international travel. I think air travel, that type of stuff, is going to be less [inaudible].
But: where does that reallocation go to? Info, bio, crypto, robo, agro, and maybe astro. Okay?
So “info”: anything digital? That’s obvious. So that just continues. But that includes virtual reality. That includes cryptocurrencies, and so on.
Bio also goes without saying. I think this is now … People have talked about this being the Century of Biology, but I think we’re going to get 50 years of progress in 10, or even faster. And it’s not going to stop at corona. It’s going to be something where … One thing that’s actually underappreciated: people have gotten used to waking up in the morning and checking dashboards. They usually check it for, you know, their email dashboard or personal dashboard or their company dashboard—their metrics. But now they’re checking it for countries. And they’re checking it not just for money or things like that, but for health. That’s very new. It’s not like people didn’t look at life expectancy. But real-time dashboards of how countries are doing in terms of health and wealth starts to reorient towards better metrics, I think, for society. And hopefully, we apply that to tracking diabetes and heart disease … I’m not saying EVERYBODY will track it to the same extent they’re tracking corona, but in the same way the financial crisis awakened an entire generation to thinking about the Fed and the money supply and being aware of those graphs, I think you’re gonna have a much larger number of people looking at health. So we start thinking about important problems, and maybe we throw, not just money, but energy and time and intelligence at anti-aging, at brain machine interface, at limb regeneration, at stem cells … All of these kinds of things exist, but could use a shot in the arm. Okay? So bio.
Then crypto … I think this is both-. I mean, obviously I’m very “bull” on crypto. But crypto is … the crypto economy is … it’s Bitcoin, but it’s also … In many Red Zones, and in places where there’s market controls being put in place, I think crypto is going to be essential.
Robo, again goes without saying. But whether it’s drone delivery (I don’t know if you’ve seen these sidewalk robots that are rolling around), whether it’s the manufacturing robots, whether it’s bringing supply chains back to the US, …
EW: Boston Dynamics in Singapore.
BS: Boston Dynamics in Singapore. Right, exactly.
I love all that stuff, because any time you can have a robot do something, you’re freeing up a human to do a higher value thing. And … Or, in this case, you’ve also got the hygiene argument, where you’d much rather have one human and five robots touch something, then … like a …
EW: You know something? I can just feel it. You’re gonna tell me that, you know … First, it’s going to be, well, we already have robots that bark orders. Now it’s gonna be tasers …
BS: [laughing] No, no. I mean, here’s the thing …
EW: … tasers. Then it’s gonna be like drones with with 50 caliber ammunition. And the idea is that everything’s gonna be incrementally just a little … Like, we-
BS: I’m very conscious of the slippery slope argument. And in fact, I AGREE with it. What I’m basically saying … When I made that previous comment, what I was basically saying is that: We have the costs of this already. In the sense of, we have this NSA surveillance apparatus. It’s already there. You assume, hopefully, that someone could use it for good, because what is it being used for otherwise? I don’t know, right?
EW: Or we could shrink it.
BS: We could shrink it, that’s right. But I think that …
EW: … and make it make it responsive to civic, civil liberties.
BS: Sure, absolutely. You know, … OR you have, alternatively, a competent state, which takes root privileges for a period of time and then either gives them up or is forced to give them up later, right?
But, okay, so just finishing, like, the good scenario.
So robo is, as I mentioned, it’s robotic factories, it’s … basically like the real future, right? It’s autonomy, it’s drones, it’s automation of all kinds.
And then agro is actually kind of part of, you know, it’s got pieces of the others, but certainly food production is going to be a big thing. But food production in a hygienic way, you know? Like meatpacking plants, for example, are probably going to get robotized. Just given that, like, they’ve all gotten corona infections. And, you know, maybe people will eat foods that are less amenable to … For example, the organic foods, or the free range chicken type stuff is less factory farmed, and therefore there’s less people around, and so it’s less, I think, intensive, and so maybe it has a lower infection rate. That kind of thing may happen, right?
So those sectors—info, bio, crypto, robo, agro, and the last Astro (with what Elon is doing with Starlink)—those combine for really interesting scenarios. Like, for example, go and move from the city out to a really cheap rural area with a huge house, and it’s like 1/10th the cost, or whatever, depending on how far out you go. And you’ve got Starlink, so you’ve got internet. Every job is remote work, so you can pick from any job and switch jobs very easily—the liquidity of global labor market shoots up. You have drone delivery, and so you’re connected, you know, via Amazon. You have fewer drives, but they’re self-driving, …
EW: Your carbon footprint goes way down.
BS: Your carbon footprint goes way down, that’s right. And you’re in tune with nature. You know, you can walk outside and see green and you’re basically … It’s like a techno-rural sort of lifestyle.
Somebody told me Asimov’s book, The Naked Sun, talks about something like this, and I have to go and read it because I had not read until it was mentioned.
EW: I should say, I also did the intro to one of my episodes where I talked about my wife’s general belief, which is that coronavirus effectively just accelerates all aspects of the future that were being held back.
BS: Yes, that’s right. So let’s talk about three of the biggest ones, right? Education, healthcare, and real estate.
So last one first: real estate. So for the last, I don’t know how many years, people in San Francisco and big cities have all been talking about, “Oh, my God, we can’t build skyscrapers,” you know, because of … you know, the NIMBY versus YIMBY thing. And generally, I’ve been on the YIMBY side—it reduces costs to be able to build, etc. But now, we may obviate that entirely. For example, one of the things I’ve been talking about on Twitter: VR has gotten really good. Oculus Quest is, I think, the most important device since the iPhone.
EW: It’s amazing.
BS: It’s amazing, right? And it’s under-hyped relative to how good it is.
EW: The previous version seemed to have been slightly overhyped, and then people lost interest, [unclear]
BS: Right. That’s right. So one of the things I’m doing is experiments with portfolio companies of mine, where everybody’s buying Oculus Quests, and seeing if they can do, effectively, like a virtual office. Okay?
Now, there’s another version of this, which is, let’s say that folks move out from the cities—because cities are big crowds, basically, right? Like, remember the one thing I think is a pretty sure bet will decline, are big crowds. When I say “decline,” doesn’t mean go to zero, but it means declines.
EW: I’m with you.
BS: Okay, so cities—and big crowds in general (a city is like a persistent big crowd)—… you get away from the city. You go to techno-rural kind of thing. You’ve got a backyard now. What you could do, is you could drop a shipping container that is both a home office and a VR room in the backyard. And it doesn’t have to be exactly a shipping container—it can be a modular, okay? You’ve got home office plus VR room. And what’s interesting is, for a company, I would rather (for my 10 employees) pay, let’s say 100K, for 10 VR rooms and the VR gear, and then I don’t have to pay anything more. Right? Like, it’s not a lease. It’s like a piece of capital equipment. It’s an amazing perk that you get. And, you know, maybe it’s like something where the employee’s in on half of it—there’s all kinds of deals or whatever you can work out with that.
But the point is, now you’ve done something where you’ve decentralized commercial real estate. You’ve networked together a bunch of cheap pieces of property to create something where you can now deliver the office itself as a service. Okay? So that is to say, you’ve got these VR rooms, you deliver a virtual office in VR, and you can change the lighting, you can have rooms that have persistent whiteboards, you can teleport somebody in for a business meeting. This concept of actually making Microsoft Office, Microsoft Office VR, or whatever … that will actually happen. I think it’s pretty cool[?].
EW: [ad voice] Not the virus we wanted, but the virus we needed.
Okay, so what that does. also, it gets people out in nature, right? And the other thing about a VR lifestyle is, you’re standing more, and it’s actually better in some ways than sitting, right?
BS: So let me give you two more.
Education. So colleges, … The entire … (This is something that is near to your heart.) My friend slash colleague Noah Smith actually tweeted about this (about this coming college apocalypse) mentioned that state funding is being cut, foreign students aren’t coming (because both immigration and lack of demand), and domestic students aren’t coming. And if the pandemic goes on such that colleges don’t re-open in the fall (no one wants to pay 50K for zoom.edu) … and, so, suddenly you’ve got a tension between what the colleges think they’re delivering in terms of benefit, and what they’re actually delivering—and so I think you’re going to have a Wile E. Coyote thing, with lots of bankruptcies. And the thing that happens, in addition to those three factors, the fourth factor is all the online education that’s been built over the last 10 years. I think that goes vertical. So we started to start to actually get a future where anybody can get a quality technical or trade education, I think, online for a fraction of the cost and actually unlock, you know, the power of the internet on that. And that’s another major thing.
And third is healthcare. So we also already mentioned bio, but these telemedicine apps—like what India is doing with Aarogya Setu—put the doctor and the prescriptions and the EHR and so on in there. This something should happen a long, long time ago. But telemedicine suddenly becomes the first line of defense. And that’s already happening in the US. So telemedicine becomes the first line defense: you can get a house call; you can actually get prescriptions, you’d have to go down to the doctor; people will see the doctor more frequently; you’ll actually have checkups; you’ll have someone monitoring you—it becomes convenient. And so you start hyper-deflating at least one aspect of medicine, which is the GP visit—the general practitioner visit. So you start actually going after …
EW: Great points. All things that are going to change—some for the better. There’s no way to not … to avoid blowing[?] people some good. Balaji, I …
BS: I wanted to have some positivity. That’s all.
EW: I really appreciate. I want to end it here because it IS positive. And I don’t disagree. And we’ve been on this as well. I think that this idea that many aspects of the future that have been held back are going to be beneficial.
I would like to talk to you, of course, at great length about a lot of different topics. You’re one of my favorite divergent minds out there. And not just mine: a lot of people in my circle hold you in very high regards. I’m so glad we were able to bring you—you’re the first remote (I think) that we’ve done in the history of the show.
So I wanted just to say, thank you for coming through The Portal. And … do you want to say anything else about what you’re doing, where we should be looking for you?
BS: Sure, follow me at twitter.com/balajis and I’ll probably announce some stuff on my Twitter feed and you can see it then.
EW: Alright, so maybe there’s some interesting things coming up.
You’ve been through The Portal with Balaji Srinivasan, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, former CTO of Coinbase, and somebody who has been very active in the biotechnology sphere—in fact, shepherding a company to public offering or- sorry, rather a purchase, I believe, for over $300 million, and one of the people who was first and earliest and clearest on the coronavirus/COVID-19 situation.
So please try to find us wherever you listen to podcasts—on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify. Also, head over to our YouTube channel and not only subscribe but be sure to click the bell icon to be notified whenever the next video drops. And we will hopefully be back with Balaji on other topics.
Thanks for hanging in there, and stay safe out there. Be well.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai and human-edited by @Nick_N#5749