With this release, we try something a little different on The Portal. We begin an initiative to search for ways to feature members of the vibrant Portal sub-communities as part of the podcast itself, by requesting that listeners send in their questions around the prompt: “Mass media, markets, and human malware.”
The questions that came in were interesting and enlightening, and we hope that you may find the answers similarly useful.
We look forward to hearing your feedback on this new format as we continue to expand and experiment on The Portal. Hope you enjoy this episode.
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Eric Weinstein: The following release represents our first foray into Portal-community-oriented content. In an attempt to make our sponsors brief messages as unobtrusive as possible, they’ve been placed after the first and third answers to your questions.
Hello, you’ve found The Portal. I think we’re going to be doing something interesting today, which is we’re going to start to bring in the portal community into a portal episode. The purpose of this is to show some of the interactions that we’ve been having with our people, whether it’s through Instagram or over our Discord servers that people have set up to allow and facilitate members of the Portal community to interact directly with each other. Now, I’ve been doing a lot of Q and A’s off-the-cuff on live Instagram chats while I try to get my 10,000 steps in a day. It’s been very productive, but my producer, Colin Thompson, has suggested that maybe what we should be doing is AMA-style episodes in which we solicit questions from the audience, perhaps on a restricted topic, and then we actually get the people who write in, after my producer has gone through the questions that he thinks are the most interesting, and go back to those people and allow them to ask the questions directly and to get an off-the-cuff answer that isn’t scripted, which is just from the heart so that people have an understanding that in fact, the show is being hugely informed by the number of people who are interacting with us directly.
As people are taking the concept of The Portal into their own lives, I actually wonder whether the podcasts will continue to be the leading part of the Portal community. We’re going to keep doing it, but there are now so many different opportunities for people to interact, whether it’s the voice chat rooms, the various projects that people are on, or these Q and A’s that we’ve been doing across different sorts of platforms, that these opportunities are going to continue to grow as an important part of the Portal experience. And, in fact, I have a fantasy that, at the end of this, I might even be able to remove myself completely from The Portal for a period of time and let the community take over as they come to understand what it is that this show is doing for them, because, after all, that is the entire point of doing the show. So, ask yourself, what is it that you want to see and instead of just hanging back, consider sending in questions the next time we solicit them on Twitter or Periscope, wherever we happen to ask the question next. And then, if we are able to find your question amongst the flurry of activity that comes in, we’ll try to contact you so that you can appear either through audio or on video and interacting with us directly. And I just wanted to do this in part to say thank you guys for making the show a success. We’re coming up on the one year anniversary from when we began the show at first, and perhaps the biggest part of this experience for me has been finding out what an enormous worldwide community of people are interested in the topic of looking for The Portal to get us out of our current frameworks of thinking and to find the door towards a more transcendent future, and even a present. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to start by allowing some of the people who responded to our first request for questions to ask their questions, and I’m going to give my off-the-cuff answers and we’ll find out whether that’s something that you guys find interesting, so stay tuned, and hope you like it.
Q: Hey, Eric, my name is Aviv, and I’m calling from the Boston area. Could you help resolve the media markets and human malware Mobius band? We are told that the media and social media influence our opinions, but at the same time, we are told that, in this day and age, the media is thirsty for our clicks. So, in effect, we tell the media what we want, and they give it to us. Well, which is it? Are we the Masters? Or are they? The same goes for markets. Markets are great at identifying needs and pricing them. But markets also convince us that we need some really bad things. As an example, universities want to import cheap labor to do research. This is done to maximize research per dollar spent. And this is perfectly rational. Yet you have argued that this is a problem, even though the market is doing exactly what it was designed to do. My intuition tells me that human malware seems to be the culprit here, but what exactly is going on? I’ll leave that for you to answer.
A: Aviv, you raise a very important topic. This has come up in a bunch of different places. George Soros, for example, has a famous Principle of Reflexivity, which he believes that he can convey to almost no economists. And effectively it is the concept that not only do minds move markets, but markets move minds. That is, if you think you know what’s going on, and you start to see that the market isn’t behaving in any way that seems to reflect your preconceived idea, you may change your mind. For example, you thought that the world was falling apart but now the stock market starts gapping upwards. Well, that’s very confusing to most people. So there’s a way in which you have a two way interaction that you would expect—social media is both dictating our tastes, and it is trying to figure out our tastes, so that it can profit from it, at least the people who run the companies that social media is dominated by.
Now, what do we do in a situation in which taste formation is not understood? For example, in economic theory, given that all of this is market-mediated, we have a very long standing tradition, that tastes are to be treated as given, which I think goes back to Marshall, probably the early part of the 20th century. So we’re not allowed to ask, “Why do you prefer X to Y, and what would cause you to change your taste?” In fact, once tastes are given, they tend to be fixed in economic theory, precisely because the economist didn’t know enough math to be able to track taste change. In fact, this is the basis of my research with Pia Malaney into gauge theoretic economics. By adding more mathematics, we were able to show that you could continue to compare people’s tastes between two different points in time if the tastes are not the same. So we have a big problem because taste formation has, in fact, eluded any kind of analytic effort within the economics profession and we are in a market-mediated situation. I think we have to take this two-way relationship very seriously.
Now, John Archibald Wheeler, once famously tried to take the mathematics of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, and he said, “Here’s how you’d express it—you say that space tells matter how to move; matter tells space how to curve.” Well, in some sense, this is exactly what is occurring in the two-way process that you’re talking about. That’s actually mediated through a single equation rather than two separate equations.
So you have a very interesting situation. Are there equations? Are there new mathematics? Is there new form of analysis that can actually deal with an interacting nonlinear system in which we are both being influenced by media and we are influencing media in return? And now when you have a really complicated feedback loop like that, can you say anything about whether or not the market will tend towards a positive or a negative social outcome? That is, is the market going to efficiently get us to a better place? Or is it going to efficiently get us to a place that we don’t want to be at all? These are the sorts of questions that have been traditionally punted by the academics.
And so I think you may not even understand just how profound a question you’ve asked. We’ve been at this for a very long time. And it’s stunning to us the way in which the economics profession pretends to be incurious about this, there’s a paper by two particular authors, both of whom have received the prize that is frequently referred to as the Nobel Prize in Economics. And although it technically is not, and these authors are Gary Becker, and George Stigler, and they wrote a paper called De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum, and they argued that tastes should be treated as the same for all men, and do not vary over time, comparing them to the Rocky Mountains. The reason that paper is so bizarre is that the field is terrified of your question. What happens when you ask that question is that the field may in fact collapse and it required two people at the very highest levels of the economics profession to effectively put a tourniquet on the bleeding that you can expect to stem from asking that question, because they didn’t have the mathematics or the sophistication to be able to handle it. And furthermore, it may very well lead to a check on the power of economists, if that question does not have a positive answer. Maybe markets, in fact, lead us right up to the gates of hell.
So what the economics profession did was that they put in a very artificial claim, which is that you don’t need to worry about that because tastes cannot, in fact, be altered. This is positively academic nonsense of the worst kind. You’ll find this paper in the late 1970s, and I have an excellent authority from a member of the economics profession affiliated with the Chicago department, in which both of these gentlemen worked, that, in fact, they did not see economics as a free field so much as as a bulwark against totalitarian Soviet-style communism, given when they were writing. Now, if that’s true, it means that we came up with an artificial position in order to make the claim that capitalism was superior to communism. Communism then was defeated, but modern economists don’t necessarily even know that some of these claims were inflated, specifically as a political Bulwark rather than as an intellectual contribution. So you’ve asked one hell of a question. I don’t know whether you find that that was one hell of an answer, but maybe we should do more on this topic you’ve raised, and thanks for having such a an incisive look at the situation.
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Q: Hi it’s Seb from the UK, @seblawson11 on Twitter. My question is: Similar to some long form podcasts, do you think it’d be possible for mainstream journalism to implement a duality of opinion on a current issue, or at least take time to digest events before printing? Or will the current model not allow a mainstream publication type an unsexy headline such as “it’s more complex” than an article written a day later? Similar to shopkeepers putting up a sign saying “back in 15 minutes”, The New York Times, for example, might say “we’re thinking/digesting events—will report back in a few days.”
A: That’s a really interesting question. What is the penalty for not being fast? We don’t know. We know that if you if you always race into print, and you’re famous forgetting everything wrong, that that probably has a cost, unless you do it in an entertaining way. And that’s a terrifying idea that you could be wrong in a very entertaining way, and nobody would care. If there is a penalty for being wrong, and there is a penalty for being fast that indicates that there has to be some sort of a trade off between them. And I think kind of the problem is that the exchange rate favors fast. But I think people are also getting bored and fatigued. And I do believe that a lot of what’s going on is that the legacy media we’re still dependent upon, is integrated into our lives in ways that we don’t really understand. So for example, a newspaper would typically have had two principal sources of income, it would have subscription income from the people who are choosing to consume and would have advertising income for the people who are looking to use it as a medium by which to sell their product.
In a world in which subscription income is very important, you’re constantly catering to your readership. However, when that becomes too slight, and it’s all ad driven, you suddenly change the orientations. The first question has to do in part with the business model. We could disincentivize very quick takes by, for example, strengthening our libel and slander laws and making it very expensive to get things wrong. On the other hand, you could imagine, you know, putting in speed bumps, in digital platforms, everything feels very artificial. But I think what will happen is we’ll start to see bolt-ons like for example, a scorekeeper as to which which sources have been the most reliable, and which have been the most biased, in ways that the scorekeeping is relatively transparent.
So one of the problems you might have is you’ll have something like Snopes that will advertise itself as being bias free. And then it appears that it actually isn’t bias free. It has its own bias. It might be that instead, what you do is you set up an algorithm that looks for things like Russell Conjugates. And I’ve talked about this—if a particular leader is referred to as a president, a strong man or a dictator, you’re being told a great deal about the editorial viewpoint at that particular media origin. And so one possibility is that you’re just have robots that crawl the internet and discern from which Russell Conjugation of something like dictator, strong man, president. What is it that every outlet actually believes?
You can easily imagine that as people came to understand the means by which they were being manipulated, they would, in fact, start to shy away from the things that they felt were not treating them with respect. So then if you rushed in very quickly with your take, there might be some penalty. I guess the great fear that I have is that we’re not really interested in the information as much at the moment as what is likely to be a massive redistributive event. And people are, in effect, jockeying for position to see whether or not we have a revolution and a ton of value shakes free. So think about the idea that maybe we’re all becoming pretty disinterested in fairness and objectivity and an understanding of the world because we see that there’s a pinata that’s being swung at, and at some point that pinata is going to break and there’s going to be a mad dash for all of the goodies that fall. to the floor. And so people are really positioning themselves not to understand what’s going on, but to scoop up as much of what falls out of what is to come as is possible. And that’s not a very optimistic perspective, but I think that there are things we could do if we were convinced that we were trying to build the future. And I think that too much of what we’re talking about is squabbling over the spoils that have accumulated in the past to build the present. And so once we become concerned with the future again, we’re going to be much more focused on getting things right. At the moment, we’re concerned with the present and the past. And so we’re much more concerned to getting things early, and getting things powerful, so that we might be the ones who benefit when the pinata finally breaks. That’s not a very optimistic perspective, but it’s how I see it. I really appreciate the question.
Q: My name is Felix Kamelander. I live in Frankfurt, Germany. My Twitter handle is @FelixKamaralan1. And here comes my question. Recent attempts to counter the radical left malware simply consists of criticism towards it, which is unlikely to be heard through echo chambering. Which features must a human software update have for it to be sufficiently attractive to establish a pull in a better direction?
A: It’s an interesting question. Part of the problem with a lot of the current human cognitive malware that we’re seeing, particularly from the Marxist perspective, is that it anticipates its own removal. And so the attempt to remove it creates a huge problem. So I’m a huge fan of not letting it get its first foothold, rather than saying, “Oh, well, let’s take all arguments under our open architecture”, and then you find out that you’ve got some sort of a new problem that you can’t get rid of.
Now, why is this so difficult? Well, there are particular moves that if somebody invokes them, my feeling is is that you one should stop talking to that person. For example. If your response to finding that something is offensive is to have the person say, Wow, you have x fragility, where “x” is something, “American” fragility, “white” fragility, “male” fragility, that entire line of argument, if it’s allowed, says that certain people do not have the right to be heard or offended. And therefore, those who use that line of argument have to be ejected from the conversation, because otherwise it sets up a hierarchy of haves and have nots inside of a conversation about who actually is allowed to have the full spectrum of positions, including talking about how they’re concerns have been hurt or infringed upon.
I think that when you’re looking at these sorts of arguments, you can detail what their behaviors are, namely, that they allow one group of people, usually, to profit within the argument at the expense of another because of an asymmetry of what those people are bringing into a conversation. And if we lose the idea of interoperability, or the idea that the correctness or incorrectness of a particular position is completely decoupled from the characteristics of the person holding that position, then we’re in real trouble because we’ve lost the ability to actually share experience. And I think that human empathy, for example, is quite substantial so that we can imagine the lives of people that are very far away from our own lives. And those that have that capacity to be empathic and to use the imagination allows us to go to the movies, for example, or to lose ourselves in a book or a song, because many things happen to people that haven’t happened to us. Listen to the old song, “Billy, don’t be a hero”, and, in general, you will not have the experience of either being the woman asking her true love not to go to war and come home in a box, or Billy, who decides that he has to go and do this thing for glory. You don’t have either of those two experiences in most cases, but you’re able to lose yourself immersively in the song. I think that that idea that we can can’t actually understand each other maybe not perfectly, but we can get to very high levels of understanding, has been completely lost, and there’s a form of malware in the situation.
So when you see certain sorts of moves, you should know that if you actually accept those moves as legitimate, from that point on, the conversation will almost certainly derange, and you can’t actually object to those moves internal to the other person’s ruleset. In other words, if the idea is that in a conversation, whoever has experienced the most pain becomes the most expert, because the only thing that matters is lived experience and oppression—once you’ve accepted that that’s how the conversation will be scored, you’re in a very difficult situation. And there’s a point that I’m going to start to make quite a bit, which is illustrated with the difference between two games.
So, the way I usually phrase it is, imagine that you come upon a beach, and you see a very high net with two teams of three, and a ball to be exchanged by the two teams over the net. Most of us would assume that we are looking at volleyball, and then we would imagine that is played under standard rules for beach volleyball. But in Southeast Asia, the same equipment and configuration supports the second game called Sepak Takraw, which is effectively a form of volleyball played with the feet in a kind of incredible martial arts, you know, Hong Kong wire-act style. It’s kind of amazing to watch. What happens when you’re in a conversation where you think you recognize what the rules are just from the nature of the conversation, that would be the analog of looking at the net, the ball and the teams, where you’re making an inference, “I bet this volleyball”. Unfortunately, your conversation is going to be scored under completely different rules. That subtle change has fouled up a huge number of people because if they actually examine the rules, they will realize that they effectively can’t win at the conversation, even if their points are correct.
So, the most important thing is to understand what the frame is that you’ve been handed, who will be doing the scoring of the argument? Based on what principles? And if you don’t share the same sense of what the rules are, my advice to you is get yourself out of the conversation or object to the idea that the wrong rules are being used to score the conversation. And if somebody keeps saying, “Wow, that’s so bigoted, that’s so backward, that’s so paternalistic, that’s so unacceptable or problematic.” Well, okay, that’s the best that they’re going to be able to do. But it’s your problem if you decide to begin in good faith by assuming that you will be able to self-referee the game, much the way, in the United States, touch football, or a pickup game of basketball would be self-refereed. In that case, everybody’s more interested in the game. You don’t have endorsement deals on the line. It would be ruined if you couldn’t trust the other players to adjudicate, you know, whether or not somebody got fouled on a shot, or there was some kind of a penalty on the play.
Now, good sportsmanship is what allows us to be able to reliably find a pickup game with people we don’t know. It’s very important that we have a culture that anticipates what a discussion is, in good faith. As people start to realize that good faith discussions will not aid their point, they will attempt to look like they’re engaging in good faith, but will substitute a second set of rules. And so once you detect that that second set of rules has been substituted, it’s time to either eject the other people from the conversation, to leave yourself, to note that you don’t agree with the scoring of the conversation, that you will be using some set of rules. And, you know, I think about the evolution of, let’s say, Queensberry rules for fighting. It’s not true that in combat sport, everything is all out. You know, eye gouging or small digit manipulation is usually frowned upon. Of course, there were contests for example in Thailand, where the Muay Thai actors would wrap their knuckles in plaster and liberally salt them with broken glass to do maximal damage for the pleasure of onlookers. If you find yourself in such a situation expecting a boxing match, which is, in general, my impression of what it’s like to argue with the radical left, you better either be prepared to do something equally as disturbing, which will probably debase your morality, or get the hell out of the ring. And I would highly recommend the latter, noting a protest that this isn’t boxing, this is madness. And if somebody tells you this is Sparta, then you know exactly where you are.
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Q: Hey Eric, my name is Joe Constantino. I’m a Bay Area native, but I’m calling in from Los Angeles, California at the moment. My Twitter handle is @Joe_Constantin0, but the last “o” is actually zero. Anyway, here’s my question. I wanted to extend an idea that you and Peter Thiel put forward in your first episode of The Portal, the idea being growth as a mitigation to conflict. And Walter Scheidel’s book, The Great Leveler, Scheidel asserts economic inequality as something that is built into all societies. And the only events that level inequality are state failure, mass mobilization, warfare, pandemic, and revolution. In the first chapter of his book Scheidel describes the difference between relative and absolute inequality. The idea is simple. Let’s say in a society, the top 1% of earners make $100,000 and the bottom 1% make 10,000. Now we introduce growth, and everybody becomes twice as rich. Relative inequality hasn’t changed. The top 1% is still 10 times richer than the bottom 1%. But now, absolute inequality has doubled. It seems that growth inevitably leads to exponentially larger absolute inequality. If you accept Scheidel’s premise, then exponentially growing inequality will eventually lead to a leveling event, three of which certainly involve violence: state failure, pandemic, and revolution. Interestingly, I think we are experiencing these three events in the present moment. Do you agree with with this analysis, which said more simply states that growth leads to increased inequality, which leads to a leveling event characterized by violence? If yes, how do you reconcile this with Peter’s premise of growth as a mitigation to violence? Thanks again, and I really appreciate everything you’re doing with The Portal. All the best.
A: Well, Joe, I think you’re bringing up an excellent question. Rephrased slightly—and I don’t know whether you’re going to accept the rephrasing—are we both dependent on growth, to stop violence, as well as being consigned to violence by growth?
Well, let’s put it this way. Whatever we, whatever double bind we might be in, we can at least attempt to minimize the loss to needless violence. So, in other words, there might be a level of essential violence of one form or another that we can’t get rid of. I mean, certainly, there’s no shortage of examples in nature where violence is baked into a species. Particularly, for example, in mating contests, how many four legged mammals, you know, have large antlers as weaponry for contesting for mates? So very often, violence is an expected part of a species condition, but you can talk about compensated and uncompensated violence and violence minimization. So it’s very important not to fantasize about a world without violence. because nobody’s ever figured out how to devise such a world it’s not even clear that that would be a positive thing. You can talk about monopolizing violence, which is Weber’s theory of the state. You can talk about trying to shift from physical violence towards financial violence or digital violence, or anything to reduce or abate the harm that comes from essential violence that cannot be gotten rid of.
Now, if I understand correctly, we have a situation in which a growing world might be a world that would accentuate inequality and therefore resentment. But if we don’t have growth, people are not optimistic about the future, and they’ll start to fight over whatever is present in the here and the now.
One thing we’ve learned is various techniques for either avoiding violence due to, let’s say, taxation schemes or concepts of patriotism, where people are willing to sacrifice for a national project that excites them, think about the number of people who went through the 60s who, when they when asked about like, inside of the United States, what they think of their country, they say, well, we put a man on the moon. It was viewed as a communal achievement, and so even people who had never achieved anything remotely like a great scientific breakthrough individually, or a great innovation, or invention, were able to participate in something that made them feel positive. Remember that that putting a man on the moon had to do with tax dollars. It was also obviously a demonstration to our chief geopolitical rival, the Soviet Union, of our capabilities, because there are lots of things that you can put on top of a rocket other than a few guys to take pictures on a foreign orb.
I think that, in general, without national projects that we feel great about, it’s very tough to say, “Well, what are you getting out of your country?” If it has a high tax rate, particularly a high marginal tax rate, what does that—what is that buying you? And, here’s a question, did the rich really understand why they might want a high marginal tax rate? I think that’s a very weird question for most rich people. Obviously, they would say, I don’t want a high marginal tax rate and they, individually, should not. But what if they were told, let’s say, you know, we don’t know how to prevent violence. And if we do a good job of a reasonable, although somewhat high marginal tax rates on top earners, we can probably avoid the revolution that may, in fact, threaten your ability not only to earn, but to be unmolested by civil unrest in the future. It’s a very upsetting thing for people to think about, who have 10 or 11 figures worth of wealth. However, it may be that a highly unequal society is not a stable society. So I’m not really sure whether we’ve ever had deep conversations about the essential violence that may be embedded within human organization, and what the very powerful and very wealthy need to fear about becoming ever more unequal, because, in fact, I have no doubt that would have been very hard to have a conversation with Marie Antoinette and King Louie, about their long term interests. I don’t think their long term interests were served in a world in which they were viewed as presiding over an incredibly unequal state. And I don’t know how to begin the conversation with the wealthiest families that what they think may be in their best interest with respect to wealth conservation, they might, in fact, be far better served by making sure that the society on which their success rests is a stable one. So these are fascinating and interesting questions. I don’t know whether that fully answers that but I would say that you want to minimize the violence that might be necessary in the system between your two possible alternatives, and you should also try to get the very wealthy on board and get them to understand exactly why they don’t want to become too wealthy. And why that should best be shared. And if you want to see what can happen, take a look at what happened to the Soviet Union. Take a look at what happened to Communist China. Take a look at what happened to any of these societies that experienced a very violent communist revolution.
Q: Hi, Eric, this is Steve calling from Tacoma, Washington. My social handle is @SteveWanderer. My question for you: If the current political age is coming to an end, and by that I mean Reaganism, Neoliberalism, and Third Wave Democrats, what do you believe needs to die? And what should take its place? What is a 40 to 50 year theory for the American Dream that can meet the challenges of our times, and that most people could embrace? What shared myth can take us towards something creative? Thank you for taking my question.
A: Oh, that’s easy. I mean, obviously, capitalism and communism both have to die. You need to hybridize it into something which captures the essence of what capitalism did best, which was to provide for freedom, you have to figure out something, short of communism, that provides for people on the basis of being a soul rather than a pair of hands, so that we can’t have your entire value resting on whether or not jobs will continue to exist. As the economy continues to transform, the new economic system has to take much more into account, the issue of public goods and services, because the market will not be able to associate the proper price to the value provided. So you should expect that we were going to have to have hyper capitalism because people will have to be allowed to sort of invent in an unfettered environment because it’s gotten very difficult. And the individuals on whom we depend are really outliers. They’re determined by very fat tails, power laws, kurtosis, various things that people don’t think about. So when you have an Elon Musk, for example, you probably need to give him a wide berth in order to create as much value as possible, but then you probably need hyper socialism to go with hyper capitalism. And the idea there is that our traditional claim in a capitalist economy is simply through our labor. And, in fact, we have two claims we have one claim as a sole and one claim as a set of hands or a brain, which is what do we what do we provide and what do we need?
We are going to have to experiment with something like universal basic income to deal with the fact that technology is going to obviate many occupations that we would think of as providing for dignity as well as an ability to share in the wealth created. On the other hand, if we cannibalize the entire thing by talking in nonsensical terms in order to get justice, if you will, we are going to keep the people who would be able to innovate from even being able to think or function, because so much of this is intellectual rot that may be, in fact, attempting to achieve a positive social outcome, which is to make sure that all souls are provided for. So we’re gonna have to be more honest that there are certain people who are just remarkable. And there are others of us who are going to provide things that the market can’t see. So for example, when musicians watched vinyl turn into CDs turn into mp3s, by the time a song could be recorded as an mp3, there was no ability to keep that from spreading too broadly. So you have something become a public good that was once a private good, and musicians were no longer able to make the same kind of money from record sales.
That kind of behavior is going to occur again and again, because effectively what the internet and computers are doing is they’re taking tangible physical objects and their virtualizing them. When they become virtualized, they become public good. When they become a public good, they sit in the blind spot of the markets, constituting market failure.
It’s a very serious state of affairs. And so, whatever this new thing is, it’s not going to be capitalism, it’s not going to be socialism, we’re probably going to need to start talking about escape, because I don’t think that we can afford to run one single correlated experiment. What globalization has done is it has created a situation with our increasing technological abilities, so that a problem anywhere in the world can spread everywhere. You could look at COVID. You could look at the radiation that came off of, let’s say, Chernobyl or Fukushima. You could look at the danger that we were in with Deepwater Horizon. Roughly speaking, we are not stewards of this planet who know what to do with all the power we have.
Every mistake that we have can go global the way COVID has gone global. We’re probably going to have to figure out how to get off this planet. There are various ways to think about that, but they all sound insane. If I were to tell you that we’re going to upload that would seem nonsensical to me. If I could tell you that we have to become a society spread out between the moon, Mars, and the earth, as Elon might have it, I would say it’s not enough diversification and quite honestly, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to terraform Mars.
My own bet is that we have to break the laws of physics because rockets aren’t going to be the way that we’re going to spread out into the into the solar—beyond the solar system, into the galaxies. But who knows whether that’s even possible? Are we going to upload? Are we going to reboot from tardigrades? Everything sounds insane. But you want to know the weird part about it? The thing that sounds craziest is imagining that we’re going to be able to continue doing what we’ve been doing and it’s going to work for the next 2000 years, I think you can tell from the power of a hydrogen device that that’s not going to happen.
I recently was exploring virtual reality inside of Oculus Quest. And I had the idea that after I called for a return to very limited above ground nuclear testing on Ben Shapiro’s program, I wanted to experience what it would be like to stand near a nuclear test and found a simulator in VR. And let me tell you something, we really need to have everybody go through this experience, because everyone who thinks that we’re going to have a little bit of revolution or we’re going to have a little bit of global conflict doesn’t realize that it’s it’s almost an unbelievable occurance that, since 1952, we haven’t had a hydrogen device, a fusion device, exploded in combat. So, I think we’re in a most unusual situation, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not we can get out of it. But I think, you know, there’s no other option, other than to try, and so everybody should pick his or her own best way of thinking about how we avoid this fate and spread out and let 1000 flowers bloom.
Q: Hi, this is Sean from Washington, DC. Eric, regarding economics, you have very thought provoking opinions. For example, you’re the only person I’ve heard voicing skepticism of high skilled immigration. I wonder why this is. You have also voiced concerned about capitalism. Given the complexity of economics and the wide ranging disagreements among experts, how can a lay person get a handle on how to think about these issues to form a coherent worldview? Thanks.
A: I really appreciate the question. Thanks very much for asking, Sean. It’s an interesting problem, because I really believe, as I’ve said before, that economics is in a very unusual position for a modern field and maybe this is going to happen to more fields, but it happened to economics in modern times in a very brutal and dangerous way. What I’ve said is that there was probably a time when you had chemists and alchemists in the same department, or astronomers and astrologers, and every modern economics department represents a fusion of two separate traditions, a bullshit tradition that attempts to rationalize power and an analytic tradition that attempts to understand the world as we as we have it.
In the case of of my opinions, one of the things that happened is I did not go through a standard economics department. I went to working in the field directly without any education or background except from what I learned from my wife. That was a situation which led me to very different conclusions.
In the case of high skilled immigration, the reason that you don’t hear almost anyone critiquing high skilled immigration, is that we’ve put a very dangerous piece of malware into our collective understanding, which is that anyone who opposes immigration can only do so because they hate foreigners, which is about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Immigration is a very complex phenomena, it creates all sorts of different effects. There are good reasons to be for it. There are good reasons to be against it. Bad reasons to be for it, bad reasons to be against it.
So the first thing you have to understand is that we have to turn this around. How insane is it that there, in general, is not understood to be a position which I have termed as Xenophilic Restrictionism, where you’re fascinated by foreign cultures. You probably cook in different idioms, you learn foreign languages, you travel all over the world, you have friends from all different backgrounds, and yet you’re a restrictionist because you’re very concerned about certain economic issues. You don’t want your vote diluted. And you have an idea that your country has a national character that makes it interesting, just as you wish to visit other countries that have their own national characters, and you want to be thoughtful about how immigration changes and transforms your particular home society.
So the first thing that’s insane, I mean, just completely insane, Is that Xenophilic restrictionism is denied by our media—there’s no coverage of it. Try to find an article in which people are given the option to say I both find the world’s cultures fascinating and very attractive, and, I don’t want to adopt every single person from every other country and bring them to my own home country and home labor market.
The next part of it is that there’s a very simple story called “the best and the brightest” story. And just imagine, for example, that we start playing the Stars and Stripes Forever in the background, and you see a picture of a waving American flag, and somebody starts to speak, you know, saying, “America has always welcomed the immigrant, some of our largest companies, our biggest employers that have delivered us vaccines and untold wonders were in fact founded by immigrants. Do we wish to cut off the supply of talent and ambition? People flocking to our shores? Or do we wish to welcome them with a giant golden welcome mat, letting people know we are open for business, send us your best and your brightest”. So as we start to hear this patriotic appeal, you know, naturally we stand at attention to the flag, our hand goes over our heart, we ask ourselves, “Is this not the best example of Emma Lazarus’ poem that sits at the base of the Statue of Liberty?”
Okay, well, cut all that out. That’s not how immigration works. That is an attempt to get you not to think about the various positive and negative effects. What are the rights issues that are raised by immigration? In particular, with high skilled immigration, people love to say, “look, I love high skilled immigration”, because they think it’s a very small market. They think that it gets us the best and the brightest. They think all sorts of things that have nothing to do with labor markets that don’t really make sense, for example, the number of companies that are founded by immigrants would undoubtedly change if we had a more restrictive policy, but one of the things is that a lot more companies would be founded by Americans that wouldn’t be founded by immigrants because this would be a much more attractive field to enter, let’s say, a technological field or scientific field.
It doesn’t take into account the way in which the wage mechanism alleviates labor shortages. It doesn’t take into account the fact that changing our immigration structure would probably decrease inequality and bring lots of minorities and females and less represented groups into the workforce. There’s no such thing as a labor shortage of long term in a market economy, right, because the wage level just rises to the to the appropriate point at which you can attract the labor you need. I’ve talked before about having a Steinway shortage in my house. It’s not that I can’t afford a Steinway, it’s just that I have not chosen to purchase one. So when somebody tells you that they have a terrible labor shortage, they’re telling you I’m too cheap to pay the market price of labor.
The whole thing makes actually no sense. But the reason that you don’t find other people talking about a problem with high skilled immigration is, first of all, that we have a hidden history that it was in fact largely determined by the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, who, unknown to us, effectively conspired inside of something called the Government University-Industry-Research Roundtable, and the Policy Research and Analysis division of NSF to decrease the wages of what I think of as being the top labor force in the world, because the American educational system is quite heterogeneous. We have terrible schools, and we have the world’s best schools. And in fact, we’re not getting the most innovative people anymore, because we’ve really given up on that, and what we hear is the best and the brightest is, in general, a very competent pliant labor force that is not particularly empowered to make bold decisions.
Try to imagine that you’re on an H1-B visa inside of the United States and you need to tell your employer that he or she is an idiot. You’re not going to be in a position to do that because you’re tethered to them because the H1-B doesn’t actually even allow you to listen to wage signals from other employers. It’s effectively a tethering device to make sure that you are wedded to the person who employed you. Well, it’s not quite slave labor, but it’s certainly not free labor either.
So the reason you’re hearing this from me, and me alone, is that I know where this came from, and I know what it was intended to do, and I’m emboldened by the fact that I know why they erected it, which was to destroy the power of scientists and engineers to be able to bargain for higher wages, better benefits and more rights. And as a result, the reason that they don’t come after me, and I’ve been relatively unmolested, is that they don’t want the story getting out. So we sit here, kind of looking to see who’s gonna blink first. The second they come after me and they call me a xenophobe, I’m going to tell the actual full story about how they conspired to destroy their own labor market for the very people that they were supposed to promote and protect.
With respect to capitalism. I’m a huge fan of what capitalism did. And what I’m concerned about is that people don’t realize that capitalism has a different future than it has a past. It was absolutely the most powerful idea in the 19th and 20th centuries, because it created so much wealth, it lifted so many people out of poverty, but it has various problems. It doesn’t incorporate all of the negative externalities. So for example, the price of a gallon of petrol or gasoline almost certainly doesn’t include all of the costs of belching the waste product into the atmosphere or the despoiling of the environment that was needed to go after that oil.
You have all sorts of situations where it doesn’t deal well with public goods and services. And those are things that are increasingly created by technology from what were private goods and services. I’ve talked about that elsewhere. So capitalism may have been tied to a particular place and time, and people get emotionally invested because they think that it’s always going to function the way that it did function. I’ve called this problem the problem of anthropic capitalism, that is, that capitalism was tied to a particular time and place in history, and it’s now time to move on to the next thing.
And I’ve talked a bunch about the idea of what happens when you graduate from high school, but you keep hanging around year after year, you know fewer and fewer of the people and it becomes more inappropriate that you aren’t moving on with your life. In part, I think that that’s what we have, we have a failure to launch our post capitalist society. So you’re watching capitalism come unraveled. And as I’ve said before, we thought that capitalism and communism were in fact rivals, but I’ve likened them to Thelma and Louise, in the final scene from that film. It doesn’t really matter who hits the ground first, but both capitalism and communism are intrinsically unsustainable. And the fact is, we don’t know what that leaves us with except to invent the future. That’s what Adam Smith had to do. That’s what we did with Bitcoin and crypto. We have to invent the future. And so I don’t know why our economists and our best thinkers aren’t realizing that they’re probably looking at a system on its last legs. We’re going to have to take what worked from capitalism that continues to work, and we’re going to have to fuse it to what we now know about markets and the human condition. It’s a very tall order, and it’s scary, but I don’t understand why we think that the answers are going to be in the past, and not things that we’re going to have to invent for ourselves in the future if we want to have a long term perspective on our own viability.