Welcome to The Portal. Episode 1 is a conversation with Peter Thiel. Please subscribe to The Portal anywhere you listen to podcasts, and leave us a rating and review in Apple Podcasts.
Eric Weinstein: Hello and welcome to The Portal’s first episode. Today, I’ll be sitting down with Peter Thiel. Now, if you’ve been following me on Twitter, or perhaps as a podcast guest on other podcasts, you may know that I work for Thiel Capital. But one of the things that people ask me most frequently is, given that you are so different than your boss and friend Peter Thiel, how is it the two of you get along? What is it that you talk about? Where do you agree and disagree? Now, oddly, Peter and I both do a fair amount of public speaking. But I don’t believe that we’ve ever appeared in public together and very few people have heard our conversations. What’s more, he almost never mentions me, and I almost never mentioned him in our public lives.
So hopefully this podcast will give some indication of what a conversation is like with somebody who I find one of the most interesting and influential teachers of our time; somebody who has influenced all sorts of people in Silicon Valley involved with technology and inventing tomorrow, and who is often not seen accurately, in my opinion, by the commentariat and the regular people who opine as pundits in the world of science and technology.
I hope you’ll find Peter as fascinating as I do. Without further ado, this is the first episode of The Portal. Thanks for joining us.
EW: Hello and welcome. You found The Portal. I’m your host, Eric Weinstein, and I think this is our first interview show to debut, and I’m here with my good friend and employer, Mr. Peter Thiel. Peter, welcome to The Portal.
Peter Thiel: Well, Eric, thanks for having me on your program.
EW: No, this is a great honor. One of the things I think is kind of odd is that lots of people know that I work for you and many people know that we’re friends, but even though we both do a fair amount of public speaking, I don’t think we’ve ever appeared any place in public together. Is that your recollection as well?
PT: I can’t think of a single occasion. So this proves we’re not the same person.
EW: We’re not the same person, yeah. You are not my alter ego. But on that front, I think it is kind of an odd thing for me. I mean, we met each other, I think when I was in my late 40s, and if you’d ever told me that the person who would be most likely to complete my thoughts accurately would be you, I never would have believed it, never having met you. We have somewhat opposite politics. We have very different life histories. How do you think it is that we’ve come to share such a lot of thinking? I mean, I have to say that a lot of my ideas are cross pollinated with yours. So you occur in a lot of my standard riffs. How do you think it is that we came to different conclusions, but share so much of a body of thought?
PT: So I’m always hard pressed to answer that, since the conclusions all seem correct to me. And it’s always mysterious why it feels like we’re the outliers and we’re among the very few people that reach some of these conclusions about the relative stagnation in science and technology, the ways in which this is deranging our culture, our politics, our society, and then how we need to try to find some bold ways out; some bold ways to find a new portal to a different world.
And I think there are different ways the two of us came at this. I feel like you got to some of these perspectives at a very early point, sort of the mid 1980s, that something was incredibly off. I probably got there in the early, mid-90s, when I was from this track law firm job in New York city. And somehow everything felt like it was more like a Ponzi scheme. It wasn’t really going towards the future everyone had promised you, in the elite undergraduate and law school education I had gone through.
And so, yeah. So I think there was sort of a point, we got to these insights. But it’s still striking how out of sync they feel with so much of our society, even in 2019.
EW: Yeah, I mean, that’s a very striking thing for me. And it’s also something that’s frustrated me. Sometimes, when I look forward to you being interviewed, it often feels to me that so much time is spent on the initial question, like: “Are we somewhat stagnating in science and technology?”, that rather than assuming that as a conclusion – which I think we can make a pretty convincing argument that there has been a lot of stagnation – it seems to me that a lot of these conversations hang at an earlier level. And so one of the things that I was hoping to do in this, which is, I think, your second long form podcast. You did Dave Rubin’s show sometime ago … Is to sort of presuppose some of the basics that people will be familiar with who’ve been following either one of us, or both of us, and to get to the part of the conversation that I think never gets explained and discussed, because people are always so hung up at the initial frame issue.
So with your indulgence, let’s talk a little bit about what you and I see, and any differences that we might have, about this period of time that we find ourselves in, in 2019. What would you say is the dominant narrative before we get to what might be our shared counter narrative?
PT: Well, you know, the dominant narrative is probably fraying and has been fraying for some time, but it is something like we’re in a world of generally fast scientific and technological progress. Things are getting better all the time. There’s some imbalances that maybe need to be smoothed out. There’s some corner case problems. Maybe there’s some dystopian risks, because the technology is so fast and so scary that it might be destructive. But it’s a generally accelerationist story. And then there’s some sort of micro-adjustments within that, that one would have to make.
There are all sorts of ways that I think it’s fraying. I think 2008 was a big watershed moment, but that still what’s largely been holding together. And then there’s sort of different institutions. You can look at the universities where there’s a tracked thing. It’s costing more every year, but it’s still worth it. It’s still an investment in the future. And this was probably already questionable in the 1980s, 1990s. College debt in the United States in 2000 was $300 billion. Now it’s around in $1.6 trillion, $1.7 trillion. And so there’s a way in which the story was shaky 20 years ago and today is much shakier. It’s still sort of holding together somehow.
EW: So in this story, in essence, the great dream is that your children will become educated, they will receive a college education, they will find careers. And in this bright and dynamic society, they can look forward to a future that is brighter than the future that previous generations look forward to.
PT: Yeah, so I think … Now again, I think people are hesitant to actually articulate it quite that way, because that already sounds not quite true to-
EW: Well, to your point, they’ve been adding epicycles for some time.
PT: And so it’s a … Maybe it’s a bright future, but it’s really different from the parents, because we can’t quite know. And they have all these new devices. They have an iPhone and they can text really fast on the iPhone. We can’t even understand what the younger generation is doing. So maybe it’s better on … But “better” has sort of an objective scale. Maybe it’s just different and unmeasurable, but better in sort of an unmeasurable way.
So there sort of are ways it’s gotten modified but, that would still be a very powerfully intact narrative. And then that there are sort of straight forward things we can be doing. The system’s basically working, and it’s basically going to continue to work. And they’re sort of a global version of this. There’s a US version. There’s an upper middle class US version. There’s a lot of different variations on this.
EW: So it always strikes me that one of the things that you do very well is that you’re willing – and you know, you’re famously a chess player – you’re willing to make certain sacrifices in order to advance a point. And in this case, I think you and I would both agree that there’s certain areas that have continued to follow the growth story more than the general economy, and that you have to kind of give those stories their due before you get to see this new picture. Where do you think the future has been relatively more bright in recent years?
PT: Well, again I sort of date this era of relative stagnation and slowed progress all the way back to the 1970s, so I think it’s been close to half a century that we’ve been in this era of seriously slowed progress. Obviously, a very big exception to this has been the world of bits: Computers, internet, mobile internet, software. And so Silicon Valley has somehow been this dramatic exception. Whereas the world of atoms has been much slower for something like 50 years.
And you know, when I was an undergraduate at Stanford in the late 1980s, almost all engineering disciplines, in retrospect, were really bad fields to go into. People already knew, at the time, you shouldn’t go into nuclear engineering. AeroAstro was a bad idea. but you know, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, all these things were bad fields. Computer science would’ve been a very good field to go into. And that’s been sort of an area where there’s been tremendous growth.
So that’s sort of the signature one that I would cite. There are questions about how healthy it is, at this point, even within that field. So, you know, the iPhone is now looking the same as it did seven, eight years ago. So that’s the iconic invention. Not quite so sure. And so there’s been sort of a definitely a change in the tone even within Silicon Valley in the last five, six years on this. But that had been one that was very, very decoupled.
The decoupling itself had some odd effects, where if you have sort of a narrow cone of progress around this world of bits, then the people who are in those parts of the economy that have more to do with atoms will feel like they’re being left behind. And so there was something, there was something about the tech narrative that had this very … Didn’t necessarily feel inclusive, didn’t feel like everybody was getting ahead. And one of the ways I’ve described it is that we live in a world where we’ve been working on the Star Trek computer in Silicon Valley, but we don’t have anything else from Star Trek. We don’t have the warp drive, we don’t have the transporter, we can’t re-engineer matter in sort of this cornucopian world where there is no scarcity. And how good is a society where you have a well-functioning Star Trek computer, but nothing else from Star Trek?
EW: Yeah, that’s incredibly juicy. I mean, one of the ways that I attempted to encode something, which, in part I got from you, was to say, “Of course your iPhone is amazing. It’s all that’s left of your once limitless future,” because it’s the collision of the communications and the semiconductor revolutions that did seem to continue. And I date the sort of break in the economy to something like 1972, ’73, ’74. It’s really quite sharp in my mind. Is it that way in yours?
PT: Yes. I’d say 1968, people still … The narrative progress seemed intact. By ’73, it was somehow over. So somewhere in that five-year period. The 1969 version was we landed on the moon in July of 1969 and you know, Woodstock starts three weeks later. And maybe that’s one way you could describe the cultural shift. You can describe it in terms of the oil shocks in 1973 at the back end. With the benefit of hindsight, there were things that were already fraying by the late 1960s, so the environment was getting dramatically worse.
PT: You have the graduate movies, you should go into plastics. I think that was 1968 or ’69. So there were sort of things where the story was fraying, but I think it was still broadly intact in 1968, and somehow seemed very off by ’73.
EW: Actually I’m scanning my memory and I don’t know that we’ve had this conversation, so I’m curious to hear your answer. One of the things that I found surprising is that I think I can tell a reasonably decent story about how this is a result of a scientific problem rather than the mismanagement of our future. Do you believe that if we assume that there was this early 1970s structural change in the economy, that it was largely a sort of manmade problem? Which is what we seemingly implicitly always assume. Or, might it be a scientific one?
And let me give you the one iconic example that really kind of drives it home for me. I think quarks were discovered in 1968. And to find out that the proton and neutron are comprised of up and down quarks is an incredible change in our picture of the world. Yet it has no seeming implications for industry. And I started thinking about this question: Are we somehow fenced out of whatever technologies are to come – that we sort of exhausted one orchard of low hanging fruit and haven’t gotten to the next?
PT: I think one way to parse this question of scientific, technological stagnation is sort of nature versus culture. Did the ideas in nature run out? Or, at least the useful ideas. Maybe we make some more discoveries, but they’re not useful.
EW: Or the easily useful.
PT: Easily useful. So it’s a problem with nature. And then the cultural problem is that there was actually a lot to be discovered or a lot that could be made useful, but somehow the culture had gotten deranged. And I sort of go back and forth on those two explanations. I think it’s very complicated. Yeah, I think in physics you’d say … I mean, probably even the fundamental discoveries stopped after the mid 1970s, but certainly the translation didn’t happen. Quarks don’t matter for chemistry, and chemistry’s what matters on a human level.
I would say there was a lot that happened in biochemistry. You know, not chemistry down, but sort of chemistry up; the interface between chemistry and biology. And that’s where I would be inclined to say there’s a lot more that could happen and has not quite happened, because maybe the problems are hard. But maybe also the cultural institutions for researching them are restrictive. It’s too heavily regulated in certain ways and it’s been just somewhat slower than one would have expected in the 1970s.
EW: So maybe it’s really just a constant dialogue between nature and culture.
PT: Yes, obviously. Because obviously, if nature has stopped, then the culture is going to derange. So there’s a way in which culture is linked to nature. And then if the culture deranges, it also will look like nature stops. There are probably elements of both.
But I am always optimistic in the sense that I think we could have done better. I think we could do better. It’s not necessarily the case that we can advance on all fronts in every direction, but I think there’s more space on the frontier than just in this world of bits. So I think there are various dimensions on atoms where we could be advancing and we just have chosen not to.
EW: Why do you think it’s so hard to convince people that … Because both of us have had this experience where we sit down, let’s say to an interview, and somebody talks about the dizzying pace of change. And both you and I see almost … I mean, it’s almost objectively true. I have this test, which is: go into a room and subtract off all of the screens.
EW: How do you know you’re not in 1973 but for issues of design? There aren’t that many clues.
PT: Yeah, there are all sorts of things one can point to. I mean I always point to the productivity data in economics, which aren’t great. And then you get into debates on how accurately are those being measured. You have the sort of intergenerational thing where our generation, Gen X, has had a tougher time than the Boomers. The Millennials seem to be having a much tougher time than either us or the Boomers had. So there seems to be this generational thing. So there are some of these sort of macroeconomic variables that seem pretty off.
The direct scientific questions, I think, are very hard to get a handle on. And the reason for this is that in late modernity, which we are living in, there’s simply too much knowledge for any individual human to understand all of it. And so in this world of extreme hyper specialization, where it’s narrower and narrower subsets of experts policing themselves and talking about how great they are, the string theorists talking about how great string theory is, the cancer researchers talking about how they’re just about to cure cancer, the quantum computer researchers are just about to build a quantum computer, there’ll be a massive breakthrough. And then if you were to say that all these fields, not much is happening, people just don’t have the authority for this. And this is somehow a very different feel for science or knowledge than you would’ve had in 1800 or even in 1900. In 1800, Goethe could still understand just about everything.
PT: 1900, Hilbert could still understand just about all of mathematics and so this sort of specialization, I think, has made it a much harder question to get a handle on. The political cut I have on the specialization is always that if you analyze the politics of science, the specializations should make you suspicious, because if it’s gotten harder to evaluate what’s going on, then it’s presumably gotten easier for people to lie and to exaggerate, and then one should be a little bit suspicious. And that’s sort of my starting bias.
EW: And mine as well. And I think perhaps sort of the craziest idea to come out of all of this – and again you met your version of this in a law firm, which is predicated upon the idea that a partner would hire associates and the associates would hope to become partners who could then hire associates. And so that has that pyramidal structure. And in the university system, every professor is trying to train graduate students to become research professors to train graduate students. And I think that the universities were probably the most aggressive of these things I’ve called embedded growth obligations. But the implication of this idea that we structured almost everything on an expectation of growth, and then this growth that was expected ran out – it wasn’t as high and stable and as technologically-led as before – has a pretty surprising implication. Which is, I mean … Well let’s not dance around it. It feels like almost universally, all of our institutions are now pathological.
PT: Or sociopathic, or whatever you want to call them. Yes. Yes, I suppose there’s sort of two ways one could imagine going, if you had these expectations of great growth – Great Expectations was the Charles Dickens novel from the 19th century.
PT: We had Great Expectations. And then you can try to be honest and say the expectations are dialed down, or you can continue to say everything’s great and it just happens not to be working out for you, but it’s working out for people in general. And somehow it’s been very hard to have the sort of honest reset. And the incentives have been for the institutions to derange and to lie. There’s probably a way the universities could function if they did not grow. You’d be honest, most people in PhD programs don’t become professors. Maybe you’d make the PhD programs much shorter. Maybe you’d be much more selective; you’d let fewer people in. There would be some way you could sort of adjust it, and the institutions could still be much healthier than they are today.
But that’s not the path that seemingly was taken. And something like this could have been done in a law firm context. Maybe you still let the same percentage of people become partner, but the partners don’t make quite as much money as before, or something like that. So that there would have been ways when one could’ve gone, but those are generally not the choices that were made.
EW: Yeah. I wonder if that’s even possible. Because if you had a law firm that was honest or university that was fairly honest and you had one that was dishonest, it seems to me that the dishonest one could attempt to use its prestige to outcompete the honest one. And so that would become a self-extinguishing strategy, unless you somehow have a truth-in-advertising program.
PT: Yeah, I don’t know. I do think the truth, when it breaks through, you’re better off having told it than not not having. And so it’s always … As long as everybody was dishonest, it could work.
Look, it’s mysterious to me how long it worked. We had these crazy bubble economies in the … You know, we had the tech bubble in the 90s, the housing bubble in the 2000s, what I think is a government debt bubble this last decade. And so if you’ve had this sort of up-down bubble, that’s sort of harder to see than if things were just flat. So if the growth in 1970, things had just flat-lined, and you had 40 years of no growth, that would have been problematic. And you might have noticed that very quickly.
PT: But in a sense, simplifying a lot, you could say the 70s were down, the 80s were up, the 90s were up, the 2000s were down. So two down, two up, net flat, but it didn’t feel that way internally.
EW: With lots of excitement.
PT: There was a lot of excitement, a lot of stuff happened. And California was like a even more extreme version of this. You know, the last three recessions in California were much more severe than in the country as a whole. The recoveries were steeper, and so California has felt incredibly volatile. The volatility gets interpreted as dynamism. And then before you know it, 30 or 40 years have passed.
EW: One thing that I’m very curious about is how this discipline seems to have arisen, where almost everyone representing the institutions tell some version of this universal story. Which, I’ll be honest. To my way of thinking, can be instantly invalidated by anyone who chooses to do so. It’s just that the cost of invalidating it is quite high. You know, Paul Krugman wrote this column called A Protectionist Moment, where he said, “Let’s be honest. The financial elite’s case, for ever free-er trade, has always been something of a scam.”.
And so you had people who were participating in this who seem to have known all along that there’s no way of justifying this on paper, but yet were willing and able to participate with seemingly very few consequences to their careers. It didn’t give opportunities to people who were heterodox and saying, “Hey, aside from a few bright spots, more or less, we’ve actually entered a period of relative stagnation.” How did this happen?
PT: Well, I think the individual incentives were very different from the collective incentive. The collective incentives, in which we have an honest conversation and level set things and get back to a better place. I think the individual incentives were often, you pretend that it’s working great for you. The 20,000 people a year who move to Los Angeles to become movie stars, about 20 of them make it. And so you could say, “Well, it’s been really hard. Nobody wants to hire me. This is a terrible city.” Or you could say, “You know, this has been wonderful, and that all the doors are being opened to me.” And the second one is more fictional. But that’s sort of the thing you’re supposed to say if you’re succeeding. And I think there’s a way this is how we’ve been talking about globalization, a weird sort of a glib globalization. It’s working great for me, and I’d like to have more people, more talented people come to the US. I’m not scared of competing with them. And on and on.
Or academia. If you’re a professor in academia, so the tenure system is great. It’s just picking the most talented people. I don’t think it’s that hard at all. It’s completely meritocratic. And if you don’t say those things, well we know you’re not the person to get tenure.
So I think there is sort of like this individual incentive where if you pretend the system is working, you’re simultaneously signaling that you’re one of the few people who should succeed in it.
EW: I used the word kayfabe for the system of nonsense that undergirds professional wrestling, and you’ve taken to using LARPing, live action role playing. It strikes me that we have two separate parallel systems. Now, this podcasting experiment that you and I are now part of provides for a very unscripted, out of control narrative. And then there’s this parallel institutional narrative that seems to exist in a gated form where the institutions keep talking to each other and ignore this thing that’s happening that has reached more and more people, so that you effectively have multiple narratives. (One of which, I think almost no one needs to believe. It’s just that the institutions need to trade lies and deceptions back and forth amongst themselves.) How is it that these two things can be kept separate? It’s like a real wrestling league and a professional wrestling league, side by side, where somehow they just don’t come into contact with each other.
PT: Well, I think if they came into contact, then they wouldn’t both be able to exist. So I think that’s not surprising that they can’t come to contact.
I don’t think it’s ultimately stable. So I think ultimately our account is going to prevail. The institutional account is so incorrect that it will ultimately fail. I’ve probably been more hopeful about how quickly truth prevails than than it has.
EW: It’s taken forever.
PT: But I would still be very hopeful that our account is really going to break through in the next few years. I’ve been talking about this, the tech stagnation problem for the better part of a decade. And I think when I was talking about this in 2008, 2009, 2010 this was still a fringy view. It was very fringy within Silicon Valley. And I think even within Silicon Valley, there’s sort of a lot of people who’ve come around to it, who’ve partially come around to it. There’s a sense that tech has a bad conscience. It feels like it’s not delivering the promises. Google had this propaganda about the future and it’s now seen as …. The self-driving cars are further away than people expected. And so I think there is sort of a sense that things have shifted a lot over the last decade.
EW: But even five years ago. I moved out to work with you in 2013, and I had never seen a boom before. I mean, this was one of the things that was really important to me, is that being an academic … The academy had been in a depression since this change around 1972, ’73. And seeing a boom and seeing people with flowers and dollar signs in their eyes, talking about a world of abundance and how everything was going to be great, it seemed like everybody was the CEO or CTO of some tiny company.
And then very, very quickly, it all started to change, and I felt like a lot of people moved back into the behemoths from their little startup having failed. A lot of the ideology felt poisonous, like, “Don’t be evil,” was not even something you could utter without somebody snickering behind your back. There’s a self-hating component, where the engineers have been recruited ideologically and are not actually there to do business.
EW: How did this happen so quickly? Am I wrong about that?
PT: No, it’s striking how fast it’s happened. It’s striking how much it’s happened in the context of a bull market. So if you describe this in terms of psychology, you’d think that people to be as angry in Silicon Valley as they are today, the stock market must be down 40% or 50%. It’s like people in New York city were angry. In 2009, they were angry at the banks. They hated themselves. But the stock market was down 50%, 60%, the banks had gotten obliterated. And that sort of makes sense psychologically. And the strange thing is that in terms of sort of the macro economic indicators, the stock markets, the valuations of the larger companies, it’s way beyond the dot-com peaks of 2000, in all in all sorts of ways. But the mood is not like late ’99, early 2000. It has this very different mood.
And the way I would explain this is that, for the people involved, it is sort of a look ahead function. Yes, this is where things are, but are they going to be worth a lot more in five years, 10 years? And that’s gotten a lot harder to tell.
And so there’s been growth, but people are unhappy and frustrated because they don’t see that much growth going forward, even within tech. Even within this world of bits, which had been very, very decoupled for such a long time.
EW: Now, one of the things that’s interesting to me is, is that when we talk like this, a lot of people are gonna say, “Wow, that’s a lot of gloom and doom. So much is changing so much is better.” And yet, what I sense is that both you and I have an idea that we’ve lived our entire life in some sort of intellectual Truman Show, where everything is kind of fake, and something super exciting is about to happen. Do you share … Is that a fair telling?
PT: Well, I think there’s been the potential to get back to the future for a long time. And there have been breaks in this Truman Show at various points. There was a big break with 9/11. There was a big break with the 2008 crash. You could say some sort of break with Brexit and Trump.
And the last few years, it’s still a little bit undecided what that all means. But I think there were a lot of reasons to question this and reassess this for some time. The reassessments never quite happened, but I would say I think we’re now at the point where this is really gonna happen in the next two years to five years to decade. I don’t think the Truman Show can keep going that much longer.
And again, I’ve been wrong about this, so-
EW: Me, too.
PT: I’ve been very wrong.
EW: I’ve been wrong. I’ve called it earlier.
PT: We had an offsite when I was running PayPal in spring of 2001. The NASDAQ had gone from 2,000 to 5,000 back to 2,000, the dot-com bubble was over. And I was explaining, we were just battening down the hatches. At least one little company has survived, and we’re going to survive. But the sort of insanity that we saw in the dot-com years will never come back in the lifetimes of the people here, because psychologically, you can’t go that crazy again while you’re still alive.
PT: The 1920s didn’t come back until maybe the 1980s, or something.
EW: The lessons of the depression were long lived.
PT: So it was generationally over. And yet, already in 2001, we had the incipient housing bubble, and somehow some other shows kept going for 20 years, 25 years.
EW: With a crazy narrative. The whole narrative behind the Great Moderation. I mean, I remember just clutching my head, “How can you tell a story that we’ve banished volatility?”.
PT: Yes. I always think of the 1990s narrative was the new economy, and you lied about growth. And then the 2000s narrative was the Great Moderation, and you lied about volatility. And maybe the 2010s one is secular stagnation, where you lie about the real interest rates, because the other two don’t work anymore. In sort of a complicated way, these things connect.
But yes, new economy sounded very bullish in the ’90s. Great Moderation was still a reasonably long stocks, but sounds less bullish. And then secular stagnation – in the Larry Summers forms, to be specific to what we’re talking about – means again, that you should be long the stock market. The stock market’s going to keep going up because things are so stagnant, the real rates will stay low forever.
So they are equally bullish narratives, although they sound less bullish over time.
EW: So that effectively we need … What happened with the Roaring ’20s followed by the depression was that there was a general skepticism, and here the skepticism seems to be specific to something different in each incarnation. You keep having bubbles with some lie you have yet to tell.
PT: And of course, I think the crazy cut on the ’20s and ’30s was that we didn’t need to have as big of a crash. You could’ve probably done all sorts of interventions. Because the 1930s was still a period that was very healthy in terms of background scientific, technological innovation. If we just rattle off what was discovered in the 1930s that had real world practical things, it was: the aviation industry got off the ground, the talkies, the movies got going. You had the plastics industry, you had secondary oil recovery, household appliances got developed. And as you know, by 1939 there were three times as many people who had cars in the US as in 1929. There was this crazy tailwind of scientific and technological progress that then somehow got badly mismanaged, financially, by whoever you blame the crash on.
And so, I think that’s what actually happened in the ’30s, and then we tried to manage all these financial indicators much more precisely in recent decades, even though the tailwind wasn’t there at all.
EW: So, let me focus you on two subjects that are important for trying to figure out the economy going forward. I’m very fond of perhaps over-claiming, but making a strong claim for physics. That physics gave us atomic devices and nuclear power, and it ended World War II definitively. It gave us the semiconductor, the worldwide web, theoretical physicists invented molecular biology, the communications revolution. All of these things came out of physics, and you could make the argument that physics has been really underrated as powering the world economy.
On the other hand, it’s very strange to me that we had the three-dimensional structure of DNA in ’53, we had the genetic code 10 years later, and we’ve had very little in the way of, let’s say, gene therapy to show for all of our newfound knowledge. Now, I have no doubt that we are learning all sorts of new things – to your point about specialization – in biology, but the translation hasn’t been anything like what I would have imagined for physics.
So, it feels like somehow we’re in a new orchard, and we’re spending a lot of time exploring it, but we haven’t found the low hanging fruit in biology, and we’ve kind of exhausted the physics orchard, because what we’ve found is so exotic that, you know, whether it’s two black holes colliding, or a third generation of matter, or quark substructure, we haven’t been able to use these things. Are we somehow between revolutions?
PT: Well, I’d be pessimistic on physics generally, so that sort of be my bias on that one.
EW: Me as well.
PT: Biology, I continue to think we could be doing a lot more, we could be making a lot more progress. And you know, the pessimistic version is that no, biology is just, is much harder than physics, and therefore it’s been slower going.
The more optimistic one is that the culture is just broken. We’ve had very talented people go into physics. You go into biology if you’re less talented. You can sort of think of it in Darwinian terms. You can think of biology as a selection for people with bad math genes. You know, if you’re good at math, go to math, or physics, or at least chemistry, and biology we sort of selected for all of these people who are somewhat less talented. So, that might be a cultural explanation for why it’s been been slower progress.
EW: But, I mean, we had people from physics, we had, like, Teller, and, Feynman, and Crick. There’s no shortage of, to my earlier point, molecular biology, anyway, was really founded by physicists more than any other thing, I think. Why is it that in an era where physics is stagnating, we don’t see these kinds of minds? Like, I’m a little skeptical of that theory.
PT: Well, I’m not so sure. Like, if you’re a string theory person, or even sort of an applied experimental physicist, I don’t think you can that easily reboot into biology. I mean, these disciplines have gotten sort of more rigid. It’s pretty hard to transfer from one area to another.
You know, when I was an undergraduate, you still had some older professors who were polymaths, who knew a lot about a lot of different things. This is, I think, the way one should really think of, you know, Watson and Crick, or Feynman, or Teller. They were certainly world-class in their field, but also like incredible in a lot of different fields.
EW: They were highly transgressive.
PT: And, you know, the cultural, or institutional, rule, is no polymaths allowed.
Peter Thiel: You know, you can be narrowly specialized, and if you’re interested in other things you better keep it to yourself and not tell people, because if you say that you’re interested in computer science and also music, or studying the Hebrew Bible, wow, that’s just, that must mean you’re just not very serious about computer science.
EW: Well, so I totally want to riff on on this point, because I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. To my way of thinking, the key problem is, if you go back to our original contention, which is, is that there is something universally pathological about the stories that every institution predicated on growth has to tell about itself when things are not growing.
The biggest danger is that somebody smart inside of the institution will start questioning things and speaking openly.
PT: The polymaths would be the people who could connect the dots and say, you know, there’s not that much going on in my department, and there’s not much going on this department over here, and not that much going on in this department over there, and those people are very, very dangerous.
PT: You know, one of my friends studied physics at Stanford in the late ’90s. His advisor was this professor at Stanford, Bob Laughlin, who, you know, brilliant physics guy, late ’90s he gets a Nobel prize in physics, and he suffers from the supreme delusion that now that he has a Nobel prize he has total academic freedom and he can do anything he wants to. And he decided to direct it at, you know, I mean, there are all these areas you probably shouldn’t go into, you probably shouldn’t question, climate science, there are all these things when one should be careful about, but he went into an area of far more dangerous than all of those.
PT: He was convinced that there were all these people in the university who were doing fake science, who were wasting government money on fake research that was not really going anywhere, and he started by investigating other departments, started with the biology department at Stanford university. And you can imagine this ended catastrophically for Professor Laughlin, you know, his graduate students couldn’t get PhDs. He no longer got funding, Nobel prize in physics, no protection whatsoever.
EW: Julian Schwinger fell out of favor with the physics community despite being held in its highest regard and having a Nobel prize, and he used the epigram in a book where he wanted to redo quantum field theory around something he called source theory, he said, “If you can’t join them, beat them.” And I think it comes as a shock to all of these people that there is no level you can rise to in the field that allows you to question the assumptions of that field.
PT: Right. It’s like, you know, you’re sort of proving yourself, you’re getting your PhD, you’re getting your tenured position, and then at some point you think, you would think that you’ve proven yourself and you can talk about the whole and not just the parts, but you’re never allowed to talk about more than the parts.
PT: You know, like the person in the university context, or the class of people who are supposed to talk about the whole, I would say, are university presidents, because they are presiding over the whole of the university and they should be able to speak to what the nature of the whole is, what sort of progress the whole is making. What is the health of the progress of the whole? And, you know, we certainly do not pick university presidents who think critically about these questions at all.
EW: Well, I remember discussing, with a president of a very highly regarded university, he came to me, he said, “Can you explain how your friend Peter Thiel thinks? Because I just had a conversation with him, and I could not convince him that the universities were doing fantastically, and this university in particular, like how does he come to his conclusion?”. And I said, “Well look, Peter doesn’t come, you know, with a PhD, but let me speak to you in your own language,” and I started going department by department talking about the problems of stagnation. It was very clear that there was no previous experience with any kind of informed person making such an argument. I mean this was a zero day exploit.
PT: But it’s all, yeah, but in some sense, if you’re a president of a university, you probably don’t want to talk to people that dangerous. You want to avoid them, and you don’t want to have such disruptive thoughts because you have to convince the government, or alumni, or whoever, to keep donating money, that everything’s wonderful and great.
PT: And I think one has to go back quite a long time to even identify any university presidents in the United States who said things that were distinctive, or interesting, or powerful. You know, there was Larry Summers at Harvard a decade and a half ago, and tried to do like the most minuscule critiques imaginable, and got crucified. But, you know, I don’t think of Summers as a particularly revolutionary thinker.
EW: Well, he was possessed of an idea that the intellectual elite, in which he undoubtedly saw himself a part of, had the right to transgress boundaries. And I think what’s stunning about this is the extent to which this breed of outspoken, disruptive intellectual has no place left inside of this system from which to speak.
PT: But it’s not that surprising. In a healthy system you could have wild dissent and it’s not threatening because everyone knows the system is healthy. In an unhealthy system, the dissent becomes much more dangerous.
PT: I think that’s not that surprising. There’s always one riff I have on this is always, if you think of a left wing person as someone who’s critical of the structures of our society, there’s a sense in which we have almost no left wing professors left.
EW: That’s right. Like Noam Chomsky is still there as sort of a last remnant of some clade that no longer exists.
PT: Left-wing in the sense of, let’s say, just being critical of the institutions they’re a part of.
PT: And there may be some that are much older, so if you’re maybe in your eighties we can pretend to ignore you, or you know, this is just what happens to people in their eighties. But I don’t see younger professors in their, let’s say, forties, who are deeply critical of the university structure. I think it’s just not, you know, you can’t have that.
It’s like, again, if you come back to something as reductionist as the ever escalating student debt, you know, the bigger the debt gets, you can sort of think what is the 1.6 trillion, what does it pay for? And in a sense, it pays for $1.6 trillion worth of lies about how great the system is.
PT: And so, the more the debt goes, the crazier the system gets, but also the more you have to tell the lies, and these things sort of go together. It’s not a stable sequence. At some point this breaks. You know, again, I would bet on a decade, not a century.
EW: Well, this is the fascinating thing, you, of course, famously started the Thiel Fellowship as a program which, correct me if I’m wrong on this, 2005 is when student debt became non-dischargeable even in bankruptcy.
PT: Yes. The Bush 43 bankruptcy revision. If you don’t pay off your student loans when you’re 65 the government will garnish your social security wages to pay off your student debt.
EW: Right. This is amazing that this exists in a modern society. And of course, well, so let me ask, am I right that you were attacking what was necessary to keep the college mythology going, and you were frightened that college might be enervating some of our sort of most dynamic minds?
PT: Well, I think there are sort of lot of different critiques one can have of the universities. I think the debt one is a very simple one. It’s always dangerous to be burdened with too much debt. It sort of does limit your freedom of action. And it seems especially pernicious to do this super early in your career.
PT: And so, if out of the gate you owe $100,000, and it’s never clear you can get out of that hole, that’s going to either demotivate you, or it’s going to push you into maybe slightly higher paying, very uncreative professions of the sort that are probably less good at moving our whole society forwards. And so I think the whole thing is extraordinarily pernicious.
PT: I started talking about this back in 2010, 2000, it was already like controversial, but it was not, you know… younger people all agreed with me.
EW: The younger people did?
PT: And it’s a decade later, it’s a lot crazier, we haven’t yet completely won, but I think there are sort of more and more people who agree with this. I think at this point the Gen X parents of college students tend to agree, whereas I would say the baby boomer parents, you know, 15 years ago, would not have agreed.
The 2008 crisis was a big watershed in this too, where you could say the tracking debt, you know, roughly made sense as long as everything, all the tracked careers worked, and 2008 really blew up, you know, consulting, banking, you know, sort of a number of the more track professions got blown up, and so that was kind of a watershed.
EW: I mean this is incredibly dangerous, but also, therefore, quite interesting, if you imagine that the baby boomers have, in some sense, in order to keep the structure of the university going, have loaded it up with administrators, have hiked the tuition much faster than even medical inflation, let alone general inflation, this becomes a crushing debt problem for people who are entering the system.
I saw a recent article that said that the company that, I think it’s called Seeking Arrangements, which introduces older men and women with money to younger men and women with a need for money for some sort of ambiguous hybridized dating, companionship, financial transfer. And the claim was that lots of students were using this supposed sugar daddy-ing and sugar mommy, I don’t know what the terminology is, in order to alleviate their debt burden.
EW: It’s almost as if the baby boomers, in so creating a system, are subjecting their own children to things that are pushing them towards a gray area a few clicks before you get to honest prostitution.
PT: No, look, I don’t want to impute too much intentionality to how this happened.
EW: No, no, no, it’s somewhat emergent.
PT: I think a lot of these, it was mostly emergent, mostly these things people, you know, yeah, that we had sort of somewhat cancerous, we don’t distinguish real growth from cancerous growth, and then once the cancer sort of the metastasizes at a certain size, you know, you have, you sort of somehow try to keep the whole thing going, and it doesn’t make that much sense.
PT: But yes, I think one of the reasons, one of the challenges in, on our side, let’s be a little more self critical here, on this, is that the question we always are confronted with, well, what is the alternative? How do you actually do something?
PT: And it’s not obvious what the individual alternatives are. You know, on an individual level, if you get into an elite university, it probably still makes sense to go, you know, it probably doesn’t make sense to go to number 100 or something like this.
EW: Yeah, I think that’s right.
PT: There is sort of a way it can still work individually even if it does not work for our country as a whole. And so, there are sort of all these challenges in coming up with alternate tracks.
I think in software there’s some degree to which people are going to be hired if they’re just good at coding, and it’s not quite as critical that they have a computer science degree. You know, can one do this in other careers, other fields? I would tend to think one could. It’s been slow to happen.
EW: Well, so you and I have been excited about a great number of things that have been taking place outside of the institutional system, but one of the things that I continue to be mystified by is that we are somewhat politically divided, where you are well known as a conservative and I really come from a fairly radical progressive streak. So, we have this common view of a lot of the problems, but sometimes we come to very different ideas about how those problems should be solved.
EW: Do you want to maybe just try riffing?
EW: Like, assume that we somehow found ourselves in possession of some degree of power, with an ability to direct a little bit more than we have currently. What would you do to create the preconditions – so not necessarily picking particular projects – but what would you try to do to create the preconditions where people are really dreaming about futures, both at a technological level, family formation, making our civil society healthier. Where would you start to work first?
PT: So, I’m always a little bit uncomfortable with this sort of question, because-
EW: You can turn it on me, too.
PT: … because I feel like, you know, we’re not going to be dictators of the United States, and then, you know, there all sorts of things we could do if we were dictators. But certainly, I would look at the college debt thing very seriously. I would say that it’s dischargeable in bankruptcy, and if people go bankrupt then part of the debt has to be paid for by the university that did it. There has to be some sort of local accountability. So, this would be-
EW: Love that.
PT: … that would be sort of a more right wing answer.
PT: The left wing answer is we should socialize the debt in some ways, and the universities should never pay for it, which would be more the, you know, Sanders-Warren approach. But so, that would be one version.
PT: I think one of the main ways inequality has manifested in our society in the last 20, 30 years – I think it’s more stagnation than inequality – but just on the inequality side it’s the runaway housing costs, and there’s sort of, there’s a baby boomer version where you have super strict zoning laws so that the house prices go up, and the house is your nest egg. It’s not a place to live, it’s your nest egg for retirement. And I would, yeah, I would try to figure out some ways to dial all that stuff back massively.
PT: And that’s probably intergenerational transfer, where it’s bad for the asset prices of baby boomer homeowners, but better for younger people to get started in sort of family formation or starting households.
EW: What do you think about the idea of a CED, a college equivalency degree, where you can prove that you have a level of knowledge that would be equivalent, let’s say, to a graduating Harvard chemistry major, right? Or a fraction thereof, where you have the ability to prove that through some sort of online delivery mechanism, you can-
PT: Great idea. I love it.
PT: I think it’s very hard to implement. Again, I think these things are hard to do, but great idea.
PT: But look, we have all these people who have something like Stockholm syndrome, where they, you know, if you got a Harvard chemistry degree, and if you suspect that actually the knowledge could be had by a lot of people, and if it’s just a set of tests you have to pass, that your degree would be a lot less special, you’ll resist this very, very hard.
PT: You know, if you’re in an HR department, or in a company hiring people, you will want to hire people who went to a good college because you went to a good college, and if we broaden the hiring and said we’re going to hire all sorts of people, maybe that’s self-defeating for your own position. So, you know, I think one should not underestimate how many people have a form of Stockholm syndrome here.
EW: I should’ve said earlier that the Thiel Fellowship, for those who don’t know, is a program that has historically, at least began paying very young people who had been admitted to colleges to drop out of those colleges. So, they got to keep the idea that they’d been admitted to some fairly prestigious place, but then they were given money to actually live their dreams and not put them on hold.
PT: Yes, it has been an extremely successful and effective program. It’s not scalable.
PT: So, we had to hack the prestige status thing, where it was as hard, or harder, to get a Thiel fellowship than to get into a top university. And so, that’s part that’s very hard to scale.
EW: When I was looking at that program for you, one of the things that I floated was the idea that if you look at every advanced degree, like a JD, or an MD, a PhD, none of them seem to carry the requirement of having a BA, which is quite mysterious.
And if you fail to get a PhD, let’s say, there’s usually an embedded master’s degree that you get as a going away present. And therefore, if you could get people to skip college, if you give them, perhaps, four years of their lives back, and you could use the first year of graduate school, which is very often kind of a rapid recapitulation of what undergraduate was, so everybody’s on a level playing field, and then, worse comes to worst, people would leave with a master’s. They would, in general, get a stipend, because a lot of the tuition is remitted to them in graduate programs. Is that a viable program to get some group of people who are highly motivated to avoid the BA entirely as sort of the administrator’s degree rather than the professor’s degree?
PT: Let me see. There are all these different subtle critiques I can have, or disagreements, but yeah, I think the BA is not as valuable as it looks. I also think the PhD is not as valuable as it looks.
EW: Oh, you know how to hurt a guy.
PT: So, I sort of feel it’s a problem across the board. It strikes me that what you’re proposing is a bit of an uphill struggle, because at the top universities the BA is the far more prestigious degree than the PhD at this point. So, if you’re at Stanford or Harvard, you know, it’s pretty hard to get into the undergraduate, and then you have more PhD students than you have undergraduates.
There are all these people who are a very questionable track. They’ve made questionable choices. And they probably are going to have some sort of psychological breakdown in their future. You know, their dating prospects aren’t good. There are all these things that are a little bit off.
PT: So yeah, in theory, if you had a super tightly controlled PhD program, that might work, but you have to at least make those two changes. As it is, the people in graduate schools, like, it’s like Tribbles in Star Trek. We have just so many, and they all feel expendable and unneeded, and that’s not a good place to be.
PT: And, whereas I think the undergraduate conceit is still that it’s more K-selected instead of R-selected, that it’s more that everybody is special and valuable. You know, that’s often not true either.
Peter Thiel: So, I’d be critical of both, and I think, but yeah, if we could have a real PhD that was the required, you know, that was much harder, and that actually led to sort of an academic position or some other comparable position, that would be good.
PT: You know, one of the questions I always come back to in this, is what is the teleology of these programs? Where do they go? One of the analogies I’ve come up with, is I think elite undergraduate education is like junior high school football.
EW: Junior high school football. I did not see that coming.
PT: Playing football in junior high school is probably not damaging for you, but it’s not going anywhere-
EW: Ah, I see.
PT: -because if you keep playing football in high school, and college, and then professionally, that’s just bad. And the better you are, the more successful you are, the less well it works.
PT: And then the question is what’s the motivational structure? And when I was an undergraduate in the 1980s there was still a part of it where you thought the professors were cool, it might be something you’d like to be at some point in the future, and they were role models, just like in junior high school football an NFL player would have been a role model.
EW: But now it just looks like brain damage in both sides.
PT: And now we think it’s, yeah, you’re just doing lots of brain damage, and it’s a track that doesn’t work, and therefore the teleology sort of has broken down.
So undergraduate, part of the teleology was that it was preparing you for graduate school, and that part doesn’t work, and that’s what’s gotten deranged. Then graduate school, well, it’s preparing you to be a postdoc, and then, well, that’s the postdoc apocalypse, or whatever you want to call it, postdocalypse.
EW: You heard it here, folks, postdocalypse.
PT: But just at every step, I think, the teleology of the system is in really bad shape. Of course, this is true of all these institutions with fake growth that are sociopathic or pathological, but at the universities it’s striking as very bad.
And I think this was already true in important ways back in the ’80s, early ’90s, when I was going through the system. And when I think back on it, I think I was most intensely motivated academically in high school, because the teleology was really clear. You were trying to get into a good college. And then, by the time I was at Stanford, it was a little bit less clear, by the time I was at law school, really unclear where that was going. And by the time I was 25 I was far less motivated than at age 18, and I think these dynamics are just more extreme than ever today.
EW: What I find so dispiriting about your diagnosis is first of all that I agree with it. Second of all, if we don’t train people in these fields, if we don’t get people to go into molecular biology, or bioinformatics, or something like that, we’re never going to be able to find the low hanging fruit in that orchard. So, it seems to me that we have to find some way that it makes sense for a life to explore these questions.
PT: I think that’s fair, but I would say the bigger problem with a lot of these fields is, yeah, I think we have to keep training people. I think we need to keep training people in physics or even these fields that seem completely dead, you know?
EW: That’s super important.
PT: But I think the question we have to always ask is how many people should we be training-
EW: Way fewer.
PT: —and my intuition is you want the gates to be very tight.
One of my friends is a professor in the Stanford economics department, and the way he describes it to me is they have about 30 graduate students starting PhDs in economics at Stanford every year. It’s six to eight years to get a PhD. At the end of the first year, the faculty has an implicit ranking of the students, where they’ve sort of agreed who the top three or four are. The ranking never changes. The top three or four have, are able to get a good position in academia, the others not so much.
And, you know, we’re pretending to be kind to people and we’re actually being cruel.
EW: Incredibly cruel.
PT: And so, I think that if there are going to be – you know, it’s a supply demand of labor – if there are going to be good positions in academia, where you can have a reasonable life, it’s not a monastic vow of poverty that you’re taking to be an academic, if we’re going to have that, you don’t want this sort of Malthusian struggle. If you have 10 graduate students in a chemistry lab, and you have to have a fistfight for a Bunsen burner or a beaker, and you know, and if some somebody says one politically incorrect thing, you can happily throw everyone, them all out of the overcrowded bus. The buses still overcrowded with nine people on it. That’s what’s unhealthy.
And so, yes, it would be mistake to say we should dial this down and have zero people in these fields.
EW: Right. But this is what’s scary to me.
PT: That’s not what I’m advocating, or what was being advocated here, but there is a point where if you just add more and more people in a starvation Malthusian context, that’s not healthy.
EW: Well, this gets to another topic which, I think, is really important, and it’s a dangerous one to discuss, which is it seems to me that power laws, those distributions with very thick tails where you have a small number of outliers that often dominate all other activity, are ubiquitous, and that particularly with respect to talent, whether we like them or not, they seem to be present, where a small number of people do a fantastic amount of all of the innovation.
What do we do, if power laws are common, to make people more comfortable with the fact that there is a kind of endowment inequality that seems to be part of species makeup? I mean, I don’t even think it’s just limited to humans.
PT: Well, I’m not convinced these sort of power laws are equally true in all fields of activity. You know, the United States was a frontier country in the 19th century, and most people were farmers, and presumably some people were better farmers than others, but everyone started with 140 acres of land, and there was this wide open frontier. Even if you had some parts of the society that had more of a power law dynamic, there was a large part that didn’t. And that was what, I think, gave it a certain amount of health.
And yeah, the challenge is if we’ve geared our society saying that all that matters is education, and PhDs, and academic research, and that this has this crazy power law dynamic, then you’re just going to have a society in which there are lots of people playing video games in basements or something like that.
So, that’s that’s the way I would frame it. But yeah, I think there definitely are some areas where this is the case. And then we just need, you know, we need more growth for the whole society. If you have growth, you’ll have a rising tide that lifts all boats. So, it’s the stagnation, is the problem.
EW: Well, I’ve joked about this as we are not even communistic in our progressivism, because the old formulation of communism was from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs, and the inability to recognize different levels of ability. I mean, almost every mathematician or physicist who encountered John von Neumann just said, “The guy is smarter than I am.” He’s not necessarily the deepest, or he did all of the great work, but you know when you’re dealing with somebody who’s able to employ skills that you simply don’t have. I mean, I know I’m not a concert pianist, and-
PT: Right. Look, I don’t know how you solve the social problem if everybody has to be a mathematician or a concert pianist. I want a society in which we have great mathematicians and great concert pianists. That seems that that would be a very healthy society. It’s very unhealthy if every parent thinks their child has to be a mathematician or a concert pianist, and that’s the kind of society we unfortunately have.
EW: So, this is why I try to sell you sometimes on a more progressive view of the world, which is I want deregulated capitalism. I want the people who have the rare skillsets to be able to integrate across many different areas, and to be honest, this is the thing that I wish more people understood about what you bring, which is that you’re able to think in, I don’t know, 15 different idioms that most people only have one or two of. So, whatever it is that you’re doing to integrate these things as an investor and to direct research and direct work is really something that I’ve watched firsthand for six years. The problem that I have is, we are going to have to take care of the median individual. And I less think that the median individual is going to be reachable by the market over time, as some of these things that are working in Silicon in terms of machine learning-
PT: Yeah, but then you’re being more optimistic on progress in tech than is… Because look, I think, yes, if we have runaway automation, and if we’re building robots that are smarter than humans and can do everything humans can do, then we probably have to have a serious conversation about a universal basic income or something like that, and you’re going to end up with a very, very weird society. I don’t see the automation happening at all, and I think the question of automation in my mind is identical to this question of productivity growth. We’ve been automating for 200, 250 years, since Industrial Revolution, agriculture and manufacturing, and the sort of society we have in the early 21st century is one in which most jobs are non-tradable service sector jobs that are not easily automatable.
So, it’s like a waiter in a restaurant. It’s a yoga instructor. It’s a nurse. It’s a kindergarten teacher. That’s what most jobs in our society are, and because they’ve been so resistant to automation, that this may be one of the reasons why the productivity numbers are slowing down, even if we’re still innovating as fast in manufacturing, and even if we’re still agriculture, they’re a smaller and smaller part of the economy. So, even 5% a year productivity growth in manufacturing, that means a lot more if manufacturing is 60% of the economy, than it does when it’s, say, 20% of the economy. So, that’s roughly what I think would happen, and if you just look at the current dynamic in the US as we have unemployment, like 3.6%, 3.7%. It’s super low, and still, there doesn’t seem to be that much wage pressure. There doesn’t seem to be that much growth. The productivity numbers still aren’t great. You’d think there’d be enormous incentives to increase productivity.
EW: It’s quite confusing to me. Yeah.
PT: But I think, again, my read on it is just the automation story has been oversold.
EW: I agree that the automation story has been oversold.
PT: It’s possible it’s going to happen. It’s possible it’s just around the corner, and it’s about to happen. That’s what we’ve been told in a lot of these areas over the last 40, 50 years.
EW: So, I have a couple questions about this. One is sort of, if I think about how common retail occupations are, is there something about retail that is resistant to Amazonification, if you will, where people actually want to go shop in a physical place and are willing to pay a premium that we have just to have human contact? Maybe there’s some information exchange. Maybe there’s a recreational aspect that’s bundled. That’s one of my two questions, and the other one surrounds the idea that we’ve always focused on when is AGI coming, and the robots that will do everything? Part of the lesson for me about machine learning is how many things humans were doing that don’t require anything like artificial general intelligence. Just some specialized neural net seems to be good enough to do the job. So, those would be two questions in my mind as to how-
PT: Yes, but I think all these things you have to concretize, and yes, I think retail is a sector that’s under quite a bit of pressure, and is going to stay under quite a bit of pressure. That’s the top one I would come up with is-
EW: Well, it’s looks vulnerable to me.
PT: Amazon is the most threatening of the big tech companies in that it’s threatening a lot of other companies elsewhere in the industry and disrupting them and making things more efficient, but probably with a lot of sheer forces at work in that process. So, I agree that that’s a candidate for automation or productivity improvements or things like that. I’m still not convinced that it’s in the aggregate shifting things that much, and then you can go through all sorts of individual job descriptions where people used to have secretaries because typing was a skill, and with a word processor you don’t quite need this. You can do short emails. You don’t quite need a secretary. People still have executive assistants that sort of somehow do slightly different set of responsibilities, but it’s not clear we have fewer executive assistants than we used to have secretaries.
So, when one actually concretizes it, it’s not quite clear how disruptive the automation that’s happening really is. Again, it’s a version of the tech stagnation thing. It’s always the last 40, 50 years, things have been slow. We’re always told it’s about to accelerate like crazy. That may be true. In some ways, I hope that’s true, but if one was simply extrapolating from the last 40 to 50 years, perhaps the default is that we should be more worried about the lack of automation than excess automation.
EW: Oh, that’s really interesting.
PT: Yeah. Again, I think if we had this sort of runaway automation, you could get to 3%, 4% GDP growth, and at 3% to 4% GDP growth, we can solve these problems socially.
EW: You would be willing to have… This thing that I’ve been talking to Andrew Yang about has been the idea of hyper-capitalism, which is a deregulated hyper-capitalism where you can do more experimenting, more playing, coupled to some kind of hyper-socialism where you recognize that the median individual might not be able in the future to easily defend a position needed for family formation.
PT: Well, let me rephrase this a little bit. You’re not going to get a conversion experience on your first podcast here, Eric.
EW: You’re going to make me wait for the next?
PT: Maybe, or maybe even a little longer than that too. But I would say if we can get the GDP growth back to 3% a year on a sustainable basis-
EW: Without fudging.
PT: … without fudging, without lying about productivity numbers, et cetera, then there will be a lot more room for various social programs. I wouldn’t want them to be misdirected in all sorts of ways, but there would be a lot of things that we could do. And I would be very uncomfortable starting with the social programs without the growth. That’s the sort of conversation that I often see happening in Silicon Valley, where we start with UBI, because we’re lying about automation. If automation’s happening, then we’ll see in the productivity numbers, and then eventually, maybe we need something like UBI. If automation is not happening and you do UBI, then you just blow up the economy.
EW: Right. I should say, and you’ve come somewhat towards-
PT: Doing them in parallel, I’m okay with that. I’m not not okay with starting with the socialism. Even a Marxist wouldn’t believe this. Even a Marxist thinks you have to first get the capitalists to do things before you can redistribute stuff.
EW: Right. I know.
PT: You can’t start with the redistribution before we’ve done the automation.
EW: I’m not even a Marxist, Peter, but the thing that I was going to say is that as you talk about the fact that we can solve some of these problems socially, I want to talk about from the progressive side, I’m not interested in using social programs where markets continue to function. I mean, the idea of making people personally accountable for their own happiness and their own success and path through the world is incredibly liberating, and I view markets as providing most of the progress that we now enjoy. So, there is something that’s very weird and punitive about the desire for redistribution. I mean, there’s almost a desire to tag the wealthy that has nothing to do with taking care of the unfortunate, and what I really am talking about here is how do we get a conversation between left and right, which isn’t cryptic, which isn’t-
PT: Yeah. Of course, I have a much more cynical view of this where I think the redistribution rhetoric, it’s mainly not even targeted at the wealthy.
EW: Oh, it’s targeted at the sub-wealthy.
PT: It’s targeted at the lower-middle class, at the deplorables, or whatever you want to call them, and it’s a way to tell them that they will never get ahead, nothing will happen in their life and, and that’s actually why a lot of people who are lower-middle class or middle class are viscerally quite strongly opposed to welfare, because it’s always an insult to them. It’s always heard as an insult. I’m not sure they’re wrong to feel that.
EW: Well, and I feel that a lot of the talk about redistribution is actually families of high eight through eleven figures trying to figure out how to target families of six-figure through low eight-figure wealth as the targets of the redistribution, that the very wealthy will be able to shelter assets and protect themselves or maybe even switch nations, whereas people who are dentists and orthodontists and accountants are going to be the ones viewed as the rich, who are going to be incapable of getting themselves out of the way.
So, I think that partially, what good faith conversation between left and right opens up is that we have a shared interest in uncovering all of the schemes of the people who enjoy pushing around pieces of paper and giving speeches in order to engineer society for their own reasons.
PT: Yeah. So, one way I would restate what you just said would be that redistribution from the powerful to the powerless, from the rich to the poor, is like from the powerful to the powerless, and so using power to go after those with power, and that’s almost oxymoronic.
EW: It’s almost oxymoronic.
PT: It’s almost self-contradictory. So, there may be some way to do that. I think most of the time you end up with with some fake redistribution, some sort of complicated shell game of one sort or another. I know the causation of the stuff is much, much trickier, but if we look at societies that are somehow further to the left on some scale, the inequality, you have to go really far to the left, and maybe just destroy the whole society, before you really start solving the inequality problem.
California, when I first moved here as a kid in 1977, would have been sort of a centrist state in the US politically, and was broadly middle class. Today, California’s the second most democratic state. It’s a D plus 30 state. It’s a super unequal, and at least on a correlated basis, not causation, but at least on a correlated basis, the further to the left it’s gone, the more unequal it’s become, and there is something pretty weird about that.
EW: There is. Something that sort of fits in here is that, in part I’ve learned from you, and you can tell me whether you recognize this formulation or not, is start with any appealing social idea. That’s step one. Step two, ask what is the absolute minimal level of violence and coercion that would be necessary to accomplish that idea. Now add that to the original idea. Do you still find your original idea attractive? This flips many of these propositions into territory where I suddenly realized that something that people see as being very attractive actually can only be accomplished with so much misery, even if it’s done maximally efficiently, that it’s no longer a good idea. This has been very influential in my thinking, and what I’ve-
PT: Yeah, look. The visceral problem with communism is not its redistributed tendencies. It’s the extreme violence. It’s that you have to kill tons of people. One of the professors I studied under at Stanford, René Girard, was a sort of of great philosophical, sociological, anthropological thinker, and he had this observation that he thought communism among Western intellectuals became unfashionable. You could date it to the year 1953, the year Stalin died, and the reason was they were not communist in spite of the millions of people being killed. They were communist because of the millions of people who were being killed. As long as you were willing to kill millions of people, that was a tell, a sign that you were building the utopia, you were building a great new society, and when you stopped, it was just going to be like the lethargy of the Brezhnev era or something like that, and that that was not inspiring. I mean, people shifted from Stalin to Mao or Castro, but the violence was charismatic, very charismatic, but then also, if you think about it, it’s very undesirable.
EW: It’s so fascinating that we actually finally get to something like this. I think that that is a correct description of part of the communist movement, but not all of the communist movement. There were a lot of people, I think, and just my own family was certainly involved in far-left politics, and some of it probably dipped into communism. What my sense of it was is that there was a period in the ’30s where people realized that there had to be coordinated social action, and that there were people who were too vulnerable, and that that somehow got wrapped up in all of the things that Stalin was talking about that sounded positive if you didn’t know the reality.
So, for example, Paul Robeson, a hero of the left, was extolling Stalin’s virtues openly. My guess is that he didn’t fully understand what had happened, that he had gotten involved in an earlier era, and that as things became known and progressed, there was a point at which many people suddenly opened their eyes and said, “I’ve been making excuses for the Soviet Union,” because at least it had the hope… I mean, there were American blacks, for example, who moved to Moscow because of the hope that it was going to be a racially more equal society. My own family, I would say, was talking about interracial marriage and open support of homosexuality, female access to birth control. Those things were associated with the communist party, and a lot of those ideas are now commonplace, but we forget that once upon a time only the communists were willing to dance with these things.
PT: Yes. I don’t want to make this too ad hominem, but I want to say that people like your family, were likely very intelligent people, were somehow still always the useful idiots, and there was no country where the communists actually came to power where people like those your family actually got to make the decisions.
Somehow, maybe there were indirect ways that it was helpful or beneficial in countries that did not become communist, but in countries that actually became communist, it didn’t actually ever seem to work out for those people.
EW: I definitely think that there was some sense that they were fooled and duped in this situation, but by the same token, not wanting to make this too ad hominem, as a gay man, I think that a lot of your rights would have been seen much earlier by the communists who were earlier to that party. I think that to an extent, some of the things that we just take for granted as part of living in a tolerant society were really not found outside, and so if you were trying to dine in a la carte, maybe you could take something from the commie buffet, you could take something from the anticommunist buffet, and you could steal a little from regular party politics. Of course, the Dixiecrats were not exactly the most racially progressive group in the world. Things were very different, and there was no clear place to turn.
PT: Yeah, it’s always easy for us to judge people in the past too harshly, so I think that’s a good generalization. I would say that there’s something about the extreme revolutionary movements that always seem to be… From my point of view, the violence was always too much, and it’s a package. It’s a package deal, but I don’t like the violence part of the package, and that’s the part that, at the end of the day, makes me think the package would not have been worth it.
EW: So, what I would like to do is to take a quick break, and I would like to come back on exactly this point, because it’s the point where I feel that perhaps you are least understood by the outside world in terms of what we’ve been talking about, both growth and progress on the one hand, and violence on the other. So, when we come back, we’ll pick it up with Peter Thiel. Thank you.
EW: Welcome back to The Portal. I’m here with my friend and employer, Peter Thiel, for this, our inaugural interview episode, and we’ve just gotten to a point which I hope people who’ve been tracking your career, your books, your thought process are going to find interesting, because I think it’s the thing that if I had to guess, would be the thing that people least understand about you, or maybe they have wrong the most. Ever since I’ve known you, your focus has weirdly been reduction of violence across a great number of different topics at a level that I don’t think has leaked out into the public’s understanding of you and what causes you to make the choices you make. How do you see growth as attached to reduction of violence?
PT: Well, I think that it’s very hard to see how anything like the kinds of societies we have in Western Europe, the United States, could function without growth. I think the way sort of a parliamentary republican democracy works is you have a group of people sitting around the table, they craft complicated legislation, and there’s a lot of horse trading, and as long as the pie’s growing, you can give something to everybody. When the pie stops growing, it becomes a zero sum dynamic, and the legislative process does not work. So, the sort of democratic types of parliamentary systems we’ve had for the last 200, 250 years have mapped on to this period of rapid growth. We had sort of a very bad experiment in the 1930s where the growth stopped, at least from the economic sense, and the systems became fascist or communist. It doesn’t actually work.
So, I suspect that if we’re in for a period of long growth [Ben: I think Peter here means “a period where growth is a long way away”], I don’t think our kind of government can work. I think there is a prospect of all sorts of forms of violence, more violence by the state against its citizens. There may be more zero sum wars globally, or there may be other ways things are super deformed to pacify people. So, maybe everyone just smokes marijuana all day, but that’s also kind of deformed. But I think a world without growth is either going to be a much more violent or a much more deformed world. And again, it’s not the case that growth simply solves all problems. So, you can have very rapid growth, and you can still have the problem of violence. You can still have bad things that can happen, but that’s our only chance. Without growth, I think it’s very hard to see how you have a good future.
EW: You have to know that there is a version of you that exists in the minds of pundits and the commentariat that just loves to paint you as if you were a cartoon villain, and I always think that for those people who are actually confused about you, as opposed to those who wish to be confused about you, it says, if you’re looking through a window and they’re looking at the reflection in the window, not understanding what it is that you’re focused on, why do you think it is that almost nobody sees your preoccupation with violence reduction?
PT: It’s hard for me to come up with a good answer to these sort of sociological questions. I think people generally don’t think of the problem of violence as quite as central as I think it is. I think it’s a very deep problem on a human level. If you think of sort of this mimetic element to human nature where we copy one another, we want the things other people want, and there’s a lot of room for conflict, and that if it’s not channeled very carefully, a violent conflict in human relationships, in human societies, between human societies, and this is sort of, I think, a very deep problem. It’s sort of Christian anthropology, but you also have the same in Machiavelli or… There are sort of a lot of different traditions where human beings are, if not evil, they’re at least dangerous. I think the sort of soft or anthropological biases that a lot of people have in sort of late modernity or in the enlightenment world are that humans are by nature good, they’re by nature peaceful, but that’s not the norm. So, that might be sort of a general bias people have, is that people can’t be this violent. It’s not this deep a problem. It’s a problem other people have. There’s some bad people who are violent, but it’s not a general problem.
EW: I didn’t know you when I was young, and this feels like a lifelong friendship that got started way late in my life. One of the things that that kind of was surprising to me is that my coming from a Jewish background, your coming from a German background, I think both of us were sensitized by the horrors of World War II, which obviously, the problem for the Jews is very clear, but the fact that Germany never really recovered its proud intellectual traditions that had gotten bound up in a level of mechanized and planned violence is a decimation of a great intellectual tradition.
One of the things we’ve talked about in the past is whether the twilight of living memory of the Holocaust should be used for some more profound German/Jewish reconciliation, that these are two communities that have held somewhat similar thought processes from the perspective of mimetic competition. Maybe there was a problem, that they were doomed to run into each other, but that in some sense, there are two wounds that need to be healed now that all of the original participants are either quite elderly or gone. Do you think that that is informing our conversation?
PT: Well, I think there’s certainly an element of that between the two of us. I think that there’s probably a degree to which the history was so traumatic that that people still understate this aspect. There was something about late 19th century, early 20th century Germany where the Judaism was better integrated into the society than in many other places, and there was something very synergistic, very generative about that, and then getting at all these ways that it was lost are very, very hard to do.
It’s the sort of social democratic response to the Hitler era and the Holocaust was sort of radically egalitarian. It’s everybody’s equal, you shouldn’t kill people, everybody’s equally valuable, and yet, in some ways, Hitler killed the best people. So, there’s a way in which the social democratic response to what happened doesn’t even come up to the terrible thing that happened. So, in an egalitarian society, well, we don’t have quite as many people. We’re all equal. Nothing’s really changed, but, well, maybe you have no Jewish people left in Germany, and there’s a lot less dynamism in the society as a result, and that’s something that people still can’t say in Germany because that’s-
EW: Is that right? You feel like it’s…
PT: You know, if I say it, people won’t contradict it or anything, but it’s sort of profoundly uncomfortable. So, I think there is a sense that there’s sort of all these strange ways that Germany is still under the shadow of Hitler. Even the ways that people are trying to exercise Hitler, in some ways, have deformed the society where you can’t go back to the things that worked incredibly well in pre-World War I Germany. There was probably a lot that was unhealthy and wrong with it, too, but yeah, there’s a sense that something very big has been lost, and there probably are a Jewish version of this that one could articulate as well, but yeah, I think there’s something about the synergy that’s very powerful and that’s quite missing.
EW: So, from my side of the fence, I was just listening on NPR to a description of Fiddler on the Roof being put on by Joel Grey in Yiddish, and the sound of Jewish Middle High German, there’s something about it that is shocking in today’s era. So, there’s been a Jewish loss. I felt this a couple of times. I avoided, to be honest, going to Germany because I didn’t want to run into old people and wonder where they had been, but eventually, at Soros’ invitation, found myself at a conference in Berlin, and when I checked in to the hotel, I heard my last name pronounced in impeccable German, and it was both a horrible feeling and a wonderful feeling, like somehow, weirdly, something was home. I went to a restaurant near Checkpoint Charlie with my wife, and I was missing a fork, and the person spoke no English, and I remembered from some old story of my father, and I asked for a gopl, which I guess is the Yiddish for fork, and it was close enough, and somebody brought me a fork. By uttering a word that I-
EW: Gabel? Okay.
EW: By going through that exercise, I found that when this fork was brought to me, I realized that there was some part of my experience, in fact, that was missing, that this uncomfortable relationship, which my grandfather, when we went through Israel, driving north to south, was singing Leider. I mean, German was the language of the culture. It was the language of the intellectual, and that never left him. So, I think that weirdly, this is the first time, because I think it’ll be too late if we wait for 20 more years, because there will be no one to remember, but that there is some opportunity to recognize a dual wound.
PT: Yeah. No. Yeah. I think the challenge on the Germany side is that it’s sort of… I had somewhat of a idiosyncratic background here where I was born in Germany, but we emigrated when I was about a year old, and we spoke German at home and lived in Africa, in Namibia were I went to a German-speaking school, but it was very different, I think, from the general post-World War II German experience, and so there are all these things that I can see from the outside looking into Germany that I think are… I still have a connection to it in sort of all of these ways, visited it as a child many times, and it’s something that I connect with, and then it’s obviously super different, and the contrast of Germany and California I always like to give is that California is optimistic, but desperate, and Germany is pessimistic, but comfortable. But from a Californian perspective, the incredibly deep pessimism is really, really striking, and even on that one dimension, I think Jewish culture is super different.
EW: And I feel like Jewish culture is, in part, starting to attenuate that we don’t feel… I mean, this is crazy talk, but we never thought that there was anything positive about antisemitism, and obviously it’s not a positive thing, but there were positive externalities in that it allowed us to push ourselves very, very hard because we always knew that we weren’t going to get a fair shake and that at any moment you might need to flee to someplace that was less dangerous, and I feel that as we’ve become comfortable, we’ve lost some of the dynamism, which is a hard thing to admit, but I do think that that is in part true, and I see this in Germany. Germany’s intellectual contribution was so profound that nothing post-World War II seems to suggest the same nation. I think that that loss is a profound loss, not to Germany, but to the entire world.
PT: Yes, and of course, one of the challenges is we can sort of describe these things, we can speculate on some of the causal things. I think it’s somehow, we don’t want to go back. We can’t go back-
EW: Can’t, and don’t want to. I agree.
PT: So, yeah, there is a history, and I think something’s been lost in both Germany and in Jewish culture, and how one reconstitutes this is… Even if we can convince people of the causes and the losses, what you actually do about it is, is super hard to say and that’s, that’s sort of always the strange dynamic of this.
EW: Something I’d be open to us working on at some future point if we can find the time, but let me switch gears slightly and come back a little bit to the violence point.
But one of the things that I think has become kind of interesting in our relationship is that a certain class of theories that are not popular in the general population are traded back and forth between us, partially around the idea of how do we restart growth, how do we avoid violence?
And I wanted to sort of alert people who are interested in the portal concept to this idea of orphaned or unpopular theories that are traded among a few but maybe not are among the many. So if we could go through a few of these, one of them has to do with how you and I both, we’re much more, I think we believe that Trump was much more likely to get elected, than the general population did.
And this has to do with the theory of preference falsification, that people will broadly lie about what their true preferences are, so they’ll keep one set of public preferences, but a hidden set of private preferences. And then in our culture it gets revealed every four years where you kind of have a Schrodinger’s cat experiment, you find out where the country actually is.
PT: Yes, I felt this was a dynamic that was going on in all these strange ways in 2016 there was a dinner I had in San Francisco about a week before the election with a group of center right people. One of them was a very prominent angel investor in Silicon Valley, and he said, you know, I’m voting for Trump in a week, but because I’m in Silicon Valley, I have to lie. And so he was unusually honest about lying. And the way I lie is that I tell people I’m voting for Gary Johnson.
So he couldn’t say that he was going to vote for Hillary Clinton. Like the facial muscles wouldn’t work or something would go wrong. But Gary Johnson was sort of the lie that you could tell. And then if you actually look at what happened in the month before the election, the Gary Johnson support, you know, collapsed from I don’t know something like six to two percent or whatever.
And as far as I can tell, all of that went to Trump. And the question one has to ask is were these people, you know, lying all along? Were they lying to themselves? Did they sincerely change their mind in the last month? Or some combination of that. But yeah, one sort of vehicle for this preference falsification was that you had a third party candidate who was sort of a gateway to the transition, this is what happened with Ross Perot, where the people went, you know, eventually went to Clinton in ’92 or John Anderson in 1980. So that’s been a sort of repeated and that’s, I think that was one element of what was going on.
But then I think there were also all these aspects of, of the Trump candidacy, that people were super uncomfortable about polite society. And so one would, you know, that the preference falsification was somehow perhaps much greater than in many other past contexts. And so, you know, even the day of the election, the exit polls suggested that Trump was going to lose. And so there were still a two to three percent effect like this, literally the day of the voting.
EW: I voted for Bernie in the primaries and I felt that both you and I had realized that the Clinton neoliberal story was a slow-motion, one-way ticket to disaster if it kept going on election after election. So that both of us recognized that we had to get off the trigger.
PT: Of course, one of the complicated questions in all this is, you know, did people actually already sense this? And were they lying about this? So, like everybody was saying all the way throughout 2016, most of the people were saying, well, there’s no chance that you know, Trump’s going to win. This is absolutely impossible.
And I didn’t really connect this before the election, but with 2020 hindsight, I wonder was the fact that everyone was clicking on the Nate Silver 538 statistical polling model site a few times a day, to reassure themselves that Hillary Clinton was still ahead, was going to win. Was that some sort of acknowledgement that on some, maybe subconscious or barely conscious level, people sensed that it wasn’t really as done a deal as they were constantly saying.
So, there’s even a version of that question that I wonder about. You know, because there was something about the polling that took on this unusually iconic role in 2016, it was so important and there was no truth outside the polls. I remember there’s, you know, one of the Democrat talking heads saying something like, you know, Republicans don’t believe in climate change. They also don’t believe in polls. That’s why they’re going to lose. And generally polls are right, but there was something about how all-important they were in 2016 that might’ve, been a tell that something was a little bit amiss.
EW: Well, I think people knew, to my way of thinking. I think people knew that there was something very bizarre about this election. I think that the Bernie scare, that if the Democratic party hadn’t … been so skillful, in sidelining Bernie and where the party regulars were, you know, clearly backing Clinton, my sense is that it could well have been Bernie versus Trump and that would have been enough to say the neoliberal story is over.
So I think there was that fear that this was coming to an end. My sense of it was that the major reaction to Trump was sort of a class reaction. That it was you’re rejecting the entire concept of an educated group that knows the right things to say. And you know, you’re clearly sort of not the kind of person who should be in the Oval Office, much more than the issue of whether or not Trump was going to be a warmonger or turn the U S into a police state, which of course doesn’t seem to have happened as of this moment in 2019.
But I guess what my sense of it was is that people really were shocked. I was, because I live in a left-of-center universe, the day after-
PT: They certainly pretended to be shocked.
EW: No, there’s no-
PT: Look, I’ll concede your point. They were pretty shocked.
EW: They were pretty shocked.
PT: But you know, if, but I still have my question, why were they clicking on the Nate Silver site just a few times a day?
EW: One version of it was, let’s say even if Hillary trounced Trump, but it wasn’t enough. That would be a scary thing, given what Trump had been built up to, which is a, you know, orange Hitler. You know, if you imagine that your country is supporting somebody who thinks all Mexicans are rapists and is going to take the country back to, you know, to the Middle Ages, it would be very disconcerting if such a person could get 20 percent of the vote.
So I think that the poll had its own significance. However, you know, I think that one of the things about preference falsification is that when you start to believe that this is a robust phenomenon, that all of the economic models that assume that your private preferences and public preferences are the same, you start to see the world very differently. And so this is one of the portals into an alternate way of seeing the universe so as not to get surprised by revolutions.
PT: Well, it’s always this question, in my mind, this question of preference falsification, the Timur Kuran theory is tightly coupled to this question of, you know, how intense is the problem of political correctness, where, you know, how much pressure is there on people to say things they don’t actually believe?
And I always come back to thinking that the problem of political correctness in some sense is our biggest political problem. That, you know, we live in a world where people are super uncomfortable saying what they think, that it’s sort of dangerous. And to use the Silicon Valley context, it’s a problem that Silicon Valley has become a one party state. But there are two different senses in which you can be a one party state. One sense is that everybody just happens to believe this one thing, which you know … is one thing.
And then the other one is in which 85 percent of people believe one thing and the other 15 percent pretend to. And you know, sort of like, it’s a dynamic with super majorities where you know, in a democracy, we think 51 percent of people believe something, they’re probably right if 70 to 80 percent believe something, it’s almost more certainly right. But if you have 99.99 percent of the people believe something, at some point you shifted from a democratic truth to North Korean insanity.
And so there is, you know, there’s a subtle tipping point where the wisdom of crowds shifts into something that’s sort of softly totalitarian or something like that. So in my mind, it maps very much onto this question of, you know, the problem of political correctness. It’s always hard to measure how big it is, you know, in a politically correct society. Of course, you know, we’re just saying what we think. We all love Stalin, we all love Chairman Mao and, and maybe, you know, we’re just singing these songs because we’re all enthusiastic about it.
And I think, my read on it is that problem has gotten more acute in a lot of parts of our society over the last few decades.
EW: Yeah. I think that’s gotten, well, as you know, I started this whole intellectual dark web concept in part to create kind of a broad based and bipartisan coalition of people who are willing to speak out in public and take some risk. Speaking for a large number of people, I would never have understood how many people feel terrified to speak out if I hadn’t done that. Because people come up to me all the time and say thank you for saying what I can’t say at work. And then when I asked them, well, what is it that you can’t say at work? It’s absolutely shocking. Completely commonplace things, things that are not at all dangerous, not scary or frightening.
One of the things I believe, and I don’t know whether you’re going to agree with this, is that, you start to understand that a lot of the people who are enforcing the political correctness suspect that they are covering up dangerous truths. So for example, if you believe that IQ equals intelligence, which I do not, I mean, let’s just be honest about it. You’re going to fear anything that shows variation in IQ between groups. If you don’t believe IQ equals intelligence, if you believe that intelligence is a much richer story and that no group is that far out of the running, you’re not terribly frightened of the data because you have lots of different ways of understanding what’s happening. And also you generally find that the truth is the best way of lifting people out of their situation.
So I secretly suspect to be blunt about it, and this is kind of horrible, that a lot of Silicon Valley is extremely bigoted and misogynistic and it can’t actually make eye contact with the fact that it’s secretly thinks women aren’t as good programmers. Where I happen to think, you know, fisherian equivalence suggests that males and females one protein apart, SRY protein, are not likely to be. I mean they might have different forms of intelligence and different forms of cognitive strengths, but if you don’t actually worry too much about an intellectual difference, you’d be willing to have an intellectual conversation that was quite open about it. So maybe I can turn that around.
PT: Yeah, let me see. There’s sort of a lot of different things I want to react to there. Yeah, I suspect that it’s a distraction of sorts. You know, I think, I mean on this very superficial layer, we want to have debates, want to have debates on a lot of areas, a lot of, you know, hard questions and questions in science and technology and philosophy and religion, there’re all these questions that I think it would be healthy to debate.
And there’s a way in which political debates are sort of a low form of these questions. And there’s one sense in which I think of these political questions as less important or less elevated than some of these others, but there’s also a sense in which these questions about politics are ones that everyone can have access to. And so if you can’t even have a debate about politics, you can’t say you know, I like the man with the strange orange hairdo or I like the mean grandmother. If you can’t even say that, then we’ve sort of frozen out discussion on a lot of other areas. And that’s always one of the reasons I think that political correctness starts with correctness about politics. That when you aren’t allowed to talk about that area, you’ve implicitly frozen out a lot of others that are maybe more important and you know, and where we’re certainly not going to have a debate about string theory if we can’t even have a common sense debate about politics or something like that.
I’m very sympathetic to this sort of distraction theory that, you know, that what’s going on our society is like a psychosocial, magic, hypnotic magic trick where, you know, we’re being distracted from something very important and political correctness, identity politics and maybe American exceptionalism, these various ideological systems, are distracting us from things. The thing I keep thinking of, the main thing it’s distracting us from, is the stagnation and it’s that there are these problems that we don’t want to talk about in our society. It’s possible it’s also a way to distract us from bad thoughts that we have about people with the sort, you said.
But the one I would, I would go back to first is just that it’s distracting us from dealing with problems. You know, the reason we have a newspeak, this sort of Orwellian newspeak in politics with these zombie politicians, you know Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush or whoever it might be, is that we’re not supposed to talk about the real issues and maybe they have a bad conscience and they think they’re bad people, but it’s just, I think the primary thing is just too dangerous to talk about what’s actually going on. They don’t know what to do about it and better not talk about that.
EW: Yeah. I think there’s another take on it, which you know, if I’m honest about it probably originates from my side of the aisle, which is that I have a sense that if you believe that productivity and growth is over, you don’t want to emphasize issues of merit because you don’t really think that the merit is going to translate.
And so therefore all you can focus on, like you know, a board of a company, is just a bunch of slots at a trough. And so you have to make sure that every group has its slots at the trough, because it doesn’t actually matter. The board isn’t doing anything to begin with. And so it’s only a question of receiving the wealth that is already there. And so I worry that that is, you know, I guess where I break with a lot of progressives is that I believe that most progress comes from progress, which is technologically led and informationally led, that the more we know and the more we can do, the more we can take care of people.
PT: Yeah. So, I mean, again, this is always maybe naive hope on my part or something like this. But I always think that when we can’t talk about things, we can’t solve them-
PT: … and that this is so, you know, maybe these are the calculations you make and this is, you know, this is the way we pat people on the head, even though they’re never going to get ahead or something like that. But you know, it’s never going to work. It’s-
EW: Well at least let’s go down swinging.
PT: … and eventually, and people aren’t that stupid and they will eventually figure it out. And so that’s sort of why I’m undermotivated to play that game.
EW: Yeah, and I have to say that one of the things that I’ve learned from you is that it’s one thing to have a contrarian position. It’s another thing to hold it when the whole world starts hating on you.
For example, I watched the world go from viewing removing Gawker as removing a nuisance, or worse that was threatening people selectively, to a concern, you know, about like First Amendment rights and silencing, you know, free speech. And you know, I do have the strong sense that people are willfully misinterpreting these actions that are necessary to sort of self correct in our society and are not being terribly honest. There’s a lot of bad faith acting in our system at the moment.
PT: But, I’m always like this, where I’m always quite hopeful that people realize there’s a lot of bad faith acting and they discount this accordingly.
EW: They grow out of it.
PT: I don’t know how many of the people disagree with me on the support for Trump will be more open to it in five years or 10 years, and we’ll see. On the Gawker matter, you know, I’m going to win that one. I think people understand that, when it gets criticized by people in the media who themselves are up against super challenged business models where they have to act in sociopathic ways to get clicks by their readers, that this is just the game they have to play. There’s more of an understanding of this than you think, and therefore, you know, it’s not quite what it looks.
I was extremely disturbed by Gawker a decade, decade and a half ago because I think it was a really powerful thing at the time where it worked because people didn’t understand how it worked. It was this hate factory, the scapegoating machine, but people didn’t see it as such. And because of that it was super powerful. Once you see how it works, once you understand it, it is less powerful. So, you know, even had I not succeeded in the litigation against Gawker, I think it would be a weaker version of that today. There are of course equally nasty things on the internet, but they’re not as powerful because-
EW: Or as well organized.
PT: …there’s more transparency into the bad motives and people get it, and the hate factory only works when it’s not perceived as such.
EW: Well, I think that there is a way in which some of this stuff is slowing down because people are getting tired of the constant state of beheading, figuratively, of people via their reputation, that we’ve moved from honest physical violence into reputational and economic violence against people that are considered undesirable.
But I think that like there’s a story with both Gawker and Trump, which the rest of the world will never see. And I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t been working with you. In the case of Gawker, I don’t think anybody even knows the story about how much you sweated the ethics internally of: How do I do this right? How do I make sure that I don’t hurt anybody that I shouldn’t be hurting? How do I make sure that this represents something narrow and not something broad? Which is a story so far as I know that hasn’t been told.
And then there’s the story with Trump where, I don’t know if you remember this, when Trump won, you had a gathering at your house and you did not invite me, and I was so pissed at you that even though I was tooth and nail against Trump, and I remain really pretty close to a never Trumper. I knew why you did what you did. I knew that you felt that it was a reduction in violence and I think that you had theories that nobody believed at the time.
If I look out at this world, out through these windows, Trump has not changed mostly day to day life except for the phenomena of Trump, but it’s not, there isn’t you know a policeman on every street corner with an automatic rifle. We’re not in some sort of siege from the White House. And you said, I think much less is going to happen than people imagined and I think we’re going to be in a much less interventionist mode than we were previously. And whether or not you were right or you’re wrong. So far, I think you’ve been borne out to be right on both of those points. I knew that you had an idea that we had to shake things up or we were going to be in some very dangerous situation.
PT: I had two speeches in 2016, one was at the Republican convention, one was at the Washington Press Club about a month before the election. And in both speeches, I underscored the ways in which I think Trump would represent a break from the interventionist, neoconservative, neoliberal foreign policies, that Bush 43, that Obama still continued and that Hillary was likely to, would have been likely to continue. And I still think that that’s roughly what’s happened. It’s not been, you know, it’s not been … as far away from interventionism as I would like. But it’s directionally, directionally that’s happened.
And I think that, you know, I do think we’re not going to go back to that on the Republican side, which is like a very important thing. We’re not going to go back to the Bush foreign policy ever. That was an important thing. In the primaries, when, the republican primaries, when Trump spoke out against the Iraq war. That was, you know, that was a very important moment from my point of view. And I think, you know, we always think of the, I think one way to think of the President of the United States is that you’re sort of the mayor of this country, but you’re the dictator of the world because in the US your power is very limited. Outside the US you can do, you know, a great number of things. And that’s why I think these foreign policy questions are actually, are very important ones in assessing the president.
EW: Well I guess my take on the great danger of Trump was that there were certain sorts of standards and agreed upon cultural aspects, which I’ve likened to the Oral Torah of the United States where the Constitution is our Written Torah. And my concern is that Trump has had an effect on degrading certain expectations where it does matter how one comports oneself as a president, maybe not as much as some of my friends would like to think.
And I do think that we needed some dynamism, but my concern is that it’s going to be very difficult to recover from the kind of damage to our sense of what can and cannot be said and done. I did think that we needed to break out of our Overton window, if you will, on many topics. I would just, the way that Trump touched those was not comfortable for me.
PT: Yeah, I agree. There are certain ways in which president Trump does not act presidential in the way in which the previous presidents-
EW: I agree that he’s breached things that needed to be said.
PT: … but then maybe there’s some point where it was too much acting and the acting was counterproductive. I think there is something extraordinary about how it was possible for someone like Donald Trump to get elected. And probably a useful question for people on both the left and the right would be to try to think about, you know, what the underlying problems were, what some of the solutions to that are. And you know, it’s, I think the left or the Democrats, you know, they could, they can win. They can win in 2020 but they have to have more of an agenda than just telling the Republicans to hurry up and die, it has to be more than that, you know?
EW: This is the thing that convinced me that I didn’t get the Trump thing, which was, I was convinced that Trump was going to be such a wake up call that the Democratic party was going to, you know, go behind a closed door and say we cannot let this happen again. We have to look honestly at how he got beat, what this represents, what it means and what we’re going to do next time.
And the idea that we were going to double or triple down on some of the stuff that didn’t work never even occurred to me. I had no idea that that party was so far gone that it couldn’t actually, you know, if you imagine that he’s orange Hitler, you would think orange Hitler would be the occasion to think deeply and question hypotheses. And I really have been shocked at the extent to which that didn’t happen. So maybe I got my own party wrong on that front. I didn’t know that we were this far gone, but.
PT: I think there’s still a lot of time to do that. And I keep thinking that, you know, we are at some point where the distractions aren’t going to work as well. You know, I think the big distraction on the left over the last 40, 50 years have been forms of identity politics where, you know, we don’t look at the country as a whole. We look at parts of it and it’s sort of been a way of, you know, I think obscuring these questions of stagnation.
EW: Fair enough. And on the right?
PT: I would say the right, the right wing distraction technique has been, I would say something like American exceptionalism-
EW: That’s interesting.
PT: -which is this doctrine that the US is this singular exceptional country. It’s so, so terrific, so wonderful. It does everything so incredibly well that you shouldn’t ask any difficult questions, any questions at all. I think it, in theological or epistemological terms, you can compare it to the radical monotheism of the God of the Old Testament where it means that God is so radically unique that you can’t know anything about him. You can’t talk about God’s attributes, you can’t say anything about him whatsoever.
And if the United States is radically exceptional, then in a similar way you can say nothing about it whatsoever. And there may be all these things on the ground that seem crazy, where, you know, we have people who are exceptionally overweight. We have subway systems that are exceptionally expensive to build. We have universities that are exceptionally sociopathic. I mean, you don’t have the student debt problem in any other country. You know, we have trade regime that’s exceptionally bad for our country, like no other country—
PT: —is as self-destructive as this. There are all these things that we somehow don’t ask. So I think exceptionalism somehow led to this country that was exceptionally un-self aware. And-
EW: That’s very interesting.
PT: … that’s and so, you know, there’s greatness is adjacent to exceptionalism, but it’s actually still quite different because many countries can be great and great is more, it’s more a scale. And there’s something you measure it against-
EW: It’s multi-variate.
PT: … whereas exceptional, it’s just completely incommensurate with anything else. And I think that’s gotten us into a very, very bad cul de sac.
And I think that there’s a way in which that sort of exceptionalism has ended on the right. And there’s been, we’ve moved beyond that. And I’m hopeful that in a similar way, the left will move beyond identity politics even though, right now it feels like the monster is flopping about more violently than ever, even though I think it might be its death throes, but maybe not.
EW: Yeah. And it could be that it’s gotten very strong or it could be on its last legs and it might as well go for broke.
So let me return back to the line of inquiry. I mean, sorry, just enjoying so much hearing what you have to say. Some of it’s new to me. The theories that might be portals into a different way of looking at the world.
One of them that you brought into my, I’ve never heard of before was Girard’s various theories. And I wonder if you might say, you’ve often credited success in business to how you understood and you applied Girard. I mean obviously he didn’t have this kind of level of business success. So can you talk a little bit about your personal relationship to Rene Girard’s theories as a portal into a different way of seeing the world?
PT: Well let’s say a little bit about the theory. So it’s, it was sort of this theory of human psychology as deeply mimetic where you sort of, you copy other people.
EW: So, so just for the folks at home mimetic as in mime rather than memetic is in meme.
PT: Yes. Well they’re probably closely related. But you imitate people but that’s how you learn to speak as a child. You copy your parents language, that’s how, but then you also imitate desire and then there are sort of all sorts of aspects of mimesis that can lead to sort of mass violence mass insanity. So it has, it’s both what enables human culture to function, but it also is quite, quite dangerous.
And you know, when I came across this sort of constellation of ideas as an undergraduate at Stanford, you know, my biases were sort of libertarian, classic liberal, only individuals exist. Individuals are radically autonomous, can think for themselves. And so this was, it was sort of a powerful corrective to that intellectually. But then it also worked on an existential level where you sort of realize, wow, there are all these ways that I’ve been hyper mimetic, I’ve been hyper tracked, why am I at Stanford, why does this matter so much? Why, you know, why am I doing all the things I’m doing?
And that’s, it’s a prism through which one when looks at a lot of things that I found to be quite helpful over recent decades. I think the preference falsification you can think of in mimetic terms where, you know, everybody goes along with what everybody else thinks, and then you can get these sort of chaotic points where all of a sudden things can shift much faster than you would think possible because there are all these dynamics that are not, you know, not simply rational. It’s not quite correct to model people as these sort of classical Adams or something like that, it’s much more entangled.
EW: What would be a good way for a people listening at home to start to get into Girard’s philosophy if they were interested?
PT: Well there are, you know, it’s, there’s sort of a number of different books that Girard wrote. I think the magisterial one is probably Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. So it’s this truth of mimesis and violence and the ways. So it’s sort of part psychology, part anthropology, part history.
EW: All portal, I should point out because they’re all hidden.
PT: It’s, you know, it’s a portal onto the past, and to human origins. It’s our history, it’s a portal onto the present, onto, you know, the interpersonal dynamics of psychology. It’s a portal onto the future in terms of, you know, are we going to let these mimetic desires run amok and head towards apocalyptic violence where, you know, even the entire planet can no longer absorb the violence that we can unleash or are we going to learn from this and transcend this, in a way where we get to some very different place.
And so it has a sense that, you know, of both danger and hope for the future as well. So it’s, it is sort of this, you know, panoramic theory on a lot of ways. Super powerful and just extraordinarily different from what one would normally hear. You know, there’s sort of like almost a cult like element where you had these people who are followers of Girard. And was sort of a sense that, you know, we had figured out the truth about the world in a way that nobody else did and that was generative and very powerful.
So, you know, it’s always, there are parts of it that are unhealthy, but it was, you know, it has sort of an incredible dynamism. And then it just, you are aware that, you know, maybe things are so different from how they appear to be that, you know … there may be a portal out there, there may be, you know,
EW: What was shocking to me. I mean, the first time I heard about it, you invited me to a conference that you were keeping quiet and I was in the news and there was quite a lot of anger and furor that I had done something wrong. And you waited a few days to give a talk and you talked about scapegoating and the mechanism by which violence that might be visited upon the many is visited upon the one. And then you also started talking about the King as if he is sort of scapegoat in waiting, so that the King is not necessarily something that one would want to be.
And I found it absolutely fascinating because it turned so many ideas on their heads that I got angry at you. Why hadn’t you told me this earlier when I’d been through three sleepless nights before I’d heard the theory. So I found it instantly applicable, particularly if you’re the sort of person who’s likely to get scapegoated by not taking refuge in the herd. Do you think it has more relevance to people who are struggling to break out as individuals because of the possibility of being picked off?
PT: Well, I think it has universal … I think it is broadly true, and so it has some sort of universal relevance. I think the problems of violence and scapegoating are universal problems. It’s probably the case that there are certain types of people who are more likely to become scapegoats, but it’s not an absolute thing. So there’s always, you could say there’s an arbitrariness about scapegoating because the scapegoat is supposed to represent, to stand in for everybody. So the scapegoat has to be perceived as someone who’s radically other, but then also has to somehow emerge from within the group. There are times when the scapegoat is the sort of outlier, extreme insider, extreme outsider, king/criminal or whatever personality.
That’s probably a dangerous sort of thing. It’s like Abraham Lincoln, the incredible orator who also grows up in a log cabin, these extreme contrasts are often people who are at risk of this maybe more than others. And then at the same time, because these are mob-like dynamics, there is sort of a way in which it’s not like anyone’s really safe from the violence ever. No one’s completely safe.
EW: I think that’s quite true.
PT: But yes. There is a thought that one of the history ideas that Girard had that is that there’s a dynamic to this process where scapegoating, it only works when people don’t understand it. As you understand it better, it works less well or it has to get displaced into other dimensions. If you have a witch hunt, say, we need to find a witch to bring back peace to the community, that’s a psychosocial understanding of what you’re doing is actually counterproductive of the witch hunt itself. The witch hunt is supposed to be a theological epiphany that God’s telling you who the witch is. If you think of it as some sort of psychosocial control mechanism, then it won’t work any more.
A metaphor that Girard uses is that the sacred is like phlogiston and violence is like oxygen, but it only works in a world where it’s misunderstood. So if you understand scapegoating, you end up in a world where it works less and less well, and the kind of political and cultural institutions that are linked to it will tend to unravel. I think one of the ways in which this has happened a great deal in modernity is that we scapegoat the scapegoaters, go up one level of abstraction.
EW: That’s interesting.
PT: That always, it makes it a little bit more complicated. If we go after the people who were the historical oppressors, the historical victimizers, that’s often a super powerful way, and it’s slightly too complicated. There was a Bill Clinton formulation of this, “we must unite against those who seek to divide us”, which is on some level itself contradictory, but then it’s a little bit too hard for people to fully disentangle.
EW: That’s very funny.
PT: That’s one way that I think it still works even though it’s, again, when everyone sees these moves, when everyone understands them, it just doesn’t work that well any more.
EW: So it’s like saying, “Would you like me to prescribe you a placebo?”.
PT: Yeah. That probably does not work very well.
EW: But then the other part of it that I find terrifying which is, but also interesting, is that implicit in this framework is that there is a minimal level of violence needed to accomplish an end, and that the scapegoating mechanism while entirely unjust has the virtue of being minimal in this, that horror is visited upon the individual.
PT: Yes, yes. Or the theological terminology Girard would use would be that scapegoating is satanic and that archaic cultures were a little bit satanic but not very. They were sort of satanic in an innocent way because the violence was actually a way to limit violence, that violence is both the disease and a cure for the disease. We need violence to drive out violence. This is how our societies work. And then it’s not quite clear how things will continue to work. You could always say that there is a sense in which – and this is super broad brush stroke-type argument – there’s a way in which you can say that the Left is more focused on the unjustified nature of violence, and the Right is more focused on how a certain amount of violence is needed for society. There are ways in which they’re both right, and then there are ways in which they’re both deconstructing each other.
You could say a nation state contains violence in both senses of the word contain.
EW: Oh that’s good.
PT: Because it contains it as it limits it, it channels it in certain ways, but then it’s also part of its very being. You get into all these questions. When it’s appropriate, when it’s not. That’s why I don’t like violence. I think it’s a very serious problem, but-
EW: You also recognize its instrumental nature.
PT: If you said, “We’re going to get rid of all violence tomorrow. It’s going to stop-“
EW: You’d be talking about nothing.
PT: Or I think-
EW: There’s no way in which that can-
PT: Well, that might require a tremendous amount of violence to enact or if we’re going to have no more violence at all, maybe you’ll have just total chaos and a lot of violence in that form. It’s an interesting problem to… all these interesting descriptors, but then how to practically translate into action, very, very tricky.
EW: Yeah. I think that one of the things on the Left that people don’t get right, and I don’t know whether you’ll agree with me or not, is that I think we on the Left are somewhat divided between two camps. One camp is quite open about wanting to end oppression and the other camp is cryptic about wanting to reverse it. In other words, you’ve oppressed for long enough. It is your turn to be oppressed by us and we are actually envious of oppression. There is something of a civil war. I mean I would say this is the way in which the IDW’s left wing or left flank is misunderstood, which is that almost none of the left wing members of the IDW are interested in oppressing anybody. So there’s going to be no payback period that sounds like fun to us.
One of the things I hadn’t understood until it was said to me quite starkly, progress is messy and you got to break a few eggs to make an omelet. There is this just tolerance bordering on excitement about the opportunity to stick it to those who have stuck it to you, from your perspective, that this is an aspect of justice. Whereas the cessation of oppression is interesting to another part of that group.
PT: The disturbing thing is that it’s, of course, much less exciting and much less energizing.
I often think if you listen to a political speech, the applause lines are always the ones, “We are going to go after the other side. We’re going to go after the bad people. We’re going to stop them.” If you try to construct a political speech in which it was, “We’re going to unite people. We’re going to get everybody onto this goal and there were no bad people.” It’s almost impossible to have a speech that has any energy at all.
EW: Let me take issue with that slightly.
PT: As a political speech.
EW: I understood exactly what you said. I don’t think I’m going to mischaracterize it. I think that the problem is the reason I pour energy into trying to stop the political correctness and the rules about what can be said, mostly has to do with the fact that I’m incredibly excited, except I’m excited about something non-political. If what I’m excited about is pursuing technological progress, scientific progress, more people being able to form families, et cetera, that’s where the excitement is. It’s not coming from the politics. It’s coming from what the politics facilitates. So I think that the problem with these speeches is: if you don’t believe that there is something that we’re keeping this space clean for, we might as well riot or something because at least that’s exciting and that’s got some energy behind it. Then it’s my team versus your team.
I mean look, at some level anybody who’s focused on technology as you are is a progressive in the sense of caring about what is actually progress. I think that the danger comes from when politics becomes your entertainment. You read very correctly, and I learned this from you, that when you look at a bunch of candidates debating on a crowded stage, look at where the energy is. The energy is something that is not, in my opinion, a good indicator – it’s not a good approximate for the ultimate that I care about.
PT: Yes. Look, I’d like it to be just the way you describe. I just-
EW: No, no, no. I understood what you-
PT: …want to report it often is not. Scientific, technological progress, in a way, the hope is it can lead towards a more cornucopian world in which there’s less Malthusian struggle, less violence, and then at the very same time, an honest account of the history of these things is that a lot of it was used to develop more advanced weapons. It was in the pursuit of violence. One account of the tech stagnation, the scientific tech stagnation, is that the breakthrough thing was the atom bomb and then you built the rockets to deliver the bombs more quickly. By 1970 we had enough bombs and rockets to destroy the world 10 or 20 times over or whatever, and the whole thing made no more sense.
If one of the big drivers of scientific and technological progress was actually just the military dimension, when that became absurd did the whole thing slow down to the space age? Not in 1972 when Apollo left the moon, but was the key moment 1975 when you had the Apollo Soyuz docking? If we’re just going to be friends with the Russians, does it really make sense for people to be working 80 hours, 100 hours a week around the clock? And again, I don’t think it’s all that, but I think one of the challenges, that we should not understate how big it is in resetting science and technology in the 21st century is, how do we tell a story that motivates sacrifice, incredibly hard work, deferred gratification for the future, that’s not intrinsically violent? It was combined with that in all these powerful ways.
A lot of people deny that there’s a tech science stagnation going on, but then one of the other things one hears is, “Well, maybe it’s not progressing as fast, but do we really want it to progress as fast? Isn’t it dangerous? We’re just going to build the AI that’s going to kill everybody or it’ll be biological weapons or it’s going to be runaway nanotechnology.” I don’t think we should dismiss those fears completely.
EW: Well, the fear is that it’s going to make these things cheap and easy. Whereas right now you still need a state to do a lot of this work. I mean, Elon Musk is one of the first private individuals with a space program.
PT: That’s a version of it, but I think in general it’s just that somehow you will lose control over the violence. You think you can control it. Maybe it’s a large state. Maybe it’s autonomous AI weapons, which in theory are controlled by state, but in practice, not quite. There’s all these scenarios where the stuff can spiral out of control. I’m more scared of the one where nothing happens. I’m more scared of the stagnation world I feel ultimately goes straight to apocalypse. I’m much more scared of that, but we have to understand why people are scared of the nonstagnant world.
EW: I mean, boy, there are a couple of threads here that are super important, one of which is that one thing that I sense that both of us get frustrated with is that if you think about growth as necessary to contain certain violence, and you think about growth as largely also being how much fossil fuels you’re able to burn, climate is not paired with a reduction in opulence. It’s paired on the other side with war. If you over-focus on climate and you result in a situation in which growth is slowed to a halt … Now, growth doesn’t need to be the amount of fossil fuel you burn, but it has largely been that up until the present. You actually see that the trade-off that you’re facing is very different than the one that’s usually portrayed by either side. Somehow we never get around to that conversation, which would be, if we were very serious about climate, would we be plunged into war?
PT: Yeah. Obviously you can’t have an economy without an environment, but it may also be the case that you can’t have an environment without an economy. And then if both of those statements are true, maybe the set of best solutions looks really different than if you just focus on one and not the other.
EW: This is why it’s so important for me to have environments in which people who don’t agree on things, but agree on what constitutes a conversation, can sit down with an idea that nobody’s going to leave the table with their reputation in tatters to the extent that they can’t find a job on Monday to support themselves. It’s that you have to actually weigh both of these things simultaneously. The great danger is people trying to solve either problem in isolation.
PT: Well, if one goes with the general climate change narrative that it’s anthropogenic, it’s CO2 levels are rising in a way that’s dangerous and has a serious risk of some kind of big runaway process, I think always the political question in my mind is, what do you do about China and what do you do about India? Because these are the countries that are trying to catch up to the developed world. They have a enormous way to go to catch up and-
EW: It’s a logical consequence.
PT: I think Europe has something like 8% of the carbon emissions in the world. Then we have to have more than just the magical political thinking where it’s something like we’re going to have a carbon tax in California and this will be so charismatic and so inspiring that people in China and India will copy us and follow suit. They’re not willing to actually say that literally because it sounds so absurd-
EW: It sounds crazy.
PT: But if you say that that’s not the way things actually work, then somehow you need to do some really different things. We need to find energy sources that are not carbon dioxide intensive. Maybe we need to figure out ways to engineer carbon sinks. I mean there’s all this crazy geoengineering stuff that maybe should be on the table. Maybe we should be more open to nuclear power. It was like a range of very different debates that pushes you towards—
EW: Let me take a slightly different tack. Two statements that I found later in life unfortunately, but have both been meaningful to me. One is Weber’s definition that a government is a monopoly on violence. And the other one, it’s a guy I can never remember who said, I think it was a French political philosopher who said, “A nation is a group of people who have agreed to forget something in common.” If you put these things together, if you imagine that somehow we’ve now gone in for the belief that transparency is almost always a good thing and that what we need is greater transparency to control the badness in our society, we probably won’t be able to forget anything in common. Therefore, we may not be able to have a nation, and therefore the nation may not be able to monopolize violence, which is a very disturbing but interesting causal chain. Can we explore the idea of transparency, given that people seem to now associate certain words with positivity, even though normally we would have thought about privacy, transparency, trade-offs, let’s say?
PT: Yes. Well, I always do think there’s a privacy-transparency trade off. One thing that’s always confusing about transparency to me is there’s transparency in theory, which is like this panopticon-like thing where the entire planet gets illuminated brightly and equally everywhere, all at once. So that’s in theory. But then in practice is often it sounds more like a weapon that will be directed against certain people where it’s a question of who gets to render who else transparent, and maybe it’s even a path-dependent sequencing question where if you do it first-
EW: First strike transparency.
PT: First strike transparency is very powerful. So you have to think about Mr. Snowden against the NSA, and then the NSA trying to expose Mr. Snowden’s Swedish sex cult, whatever you want to describe it as. I think a lot of it ends up having that kind of an-
EW: You mean Assange’s.
PT: Sorry, Assange. Assange’s Swedish sex cult, Assange against the NSA, NSA against Assange’s Swedish sex cult or something like that. I think in practice full transparency, it assumes people can pay attention to everything at once or equally. That seems politically incorrect. Then even if you had this much greater transparency in all these ways, there are all these ways that that would seem creepy totalitarian. If you stated in terms of the problem of violence, you can think of the trade-off between transparency and privacy as transparency is we’re looking at everybody and therefore they can’t be that violent, but the state may be very violent in enforcing all this transparency.
Privacy is you get to have a gun and you get to do various dangerous things in the dark and no one knows what they are. So there’s probably more violence on the individual level, but then less control on the state. It’s, again, this question of are you more scared of the violence of individuals or more scared of centralized violence? Probably one should not be too categorical or too absolute about this, but it can show up in both places and that’s why it’s a wickedly hard problem. Wickedly hard.
EW: It does seem to be. I have to say I’ve started to hate the transparency discussion, because if you’ll notice there’s a vogue in 2019 for simply saying, “Well, I believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant,” as if that constituted an argument. Now, first of all, one thing that people don’t understand is that there are infections, like brucella, that are actually accelerated by sunlight, so it’s comical. It’s not even true. Bleach is probably a better disinfectant. But the idea that that constitutes an argument in our time, to me, speaks to the fact that we’re living in a very strange moment where if you go back to Ecclesiastes and the inspiration for Turn Turn Turn, there was an idea that there was a purpose to everything and inclusion or exclusion were both needed. “A time to kill, a time to die, time to refrain from killing.”
There does seem to be an absolutist mania in which it would be hard to imagine writing a song about a time to kill in the modern era. And likewise, I’m not positive that people recognize how imperative it is for a well-functioning government to have places where it doesn’t have to constantly account for itself.
PT: If you have no back room deals, maybe that’s less corrupt, but maybe nothing gets done.
EW: Not functional.
PT: The US Supreme court still doesn’t televise its hearings. I suspect that’s the right call. I think part of it is that if you know that everything is going to be transparent, you will censor yourself and you won’t say things. So it’s not like the same thing happens in a transparent way. Maybe it just stops happening altogether. If you’re a politician or an aspiring politician, you’re not going to engage in bold ideas. You’re not going to experiment with different ways about thinking about things. You’re going to be super conventional, super curated.
It’s not like we get all the benefits of transparency with none of the costs. They come with a very, very high cost. I do wonder if one of the strange dynamics with the younger generations in the US is that there’s a sense that you’re just constantly watched. There’s this great Eye of Sauron, to use the Tolkien metaphor, that’s looking at you at all times. It would be good if you could act the same way and if something bad happened, we could take care of you. But if you’re always being watched, I suspect it really changes your behavior.
EW: It’s interesting, in a moment where I wanted to make sure that my son didn’t misbehave, I toured him around our neighborhood and pointed out all of the cameras that would track anybody on the street where we live. I had never noticed them before, but sure enough there they were in every nook and cranny that we don’t realize that if it has to be stitched together, there’s an incredible web of surveillance tools that are surrounding us at all times.
Are you familiar with the theory of Jennifer Freyd’s called Institutional Betrayal?
PT: I know you’ve mentioned it to me, but I don’t know all the details. So tell me a little bit about it.
EW: Well, I don’t know all the details either. But I think what she isolated was that people who have been betrayed by institutions that have a responsibility of care, like a hospital for example, or if you trust a sense-making organ like your newspaper, and then you find that you’ve been betrayed by that institution that had something of a principal-agent problem where you had to trust your agent in order to take care of you, that the quality of trauma is in fact different and that it leads to a universal fear of the infrastructure of your society. That’s sort of what I picked up.
What I was going to ask you about is, given our central belief that there was something about growth that led to universal betrayal by institutions, which has compromised experts in the minds of most of people, do you think there’s a preferred way of waking up as a society out of a kind of universal institutional betrayal? (If we’re excited about the next chapter, what I’d love to talk to you about in a future episode is what we’re excited about, about what comes next.) Is there a way of waking up from this most gracefully?
PT: Don’t know about that. It strikes me that there are ways we don’t want to wake up. We don’t want to wake up in a way where it de-energizes us and demotivates. I think one of the ways I think these institutions worked was they took care of people, but it was also motivational. You study. You get good grades. You’ll succeed in our system. One way, when you deconstruct these institutions, there’s one direction that I think is always very dangerous, that it just shifts people into a much more nihilistic, very low energy mode where it’s just, “Well, there’s no point. Nothing can be done.” That’s the way that I definitively do not want to wake people up.
So I think it has to always be coupled a little bit to… There are these paths that aren’t really going anywhere and you shouldn’t go down these paths. But then there’s some other paths here that you need to take. There’s a portal here that you need to look at. If we are just saying all the paths are blocked, I think probably the risk is people just sit down where they are and stop moving altogether. That feels like the very wrong way to wake people up.
EW: That sounds very wise. Let me just ask, since you’ve been attached to some of the highest energy ideas, whether it’s crazy-sounding stuff like seasteading or radical longevity or some other ideas from your background in venture capital and as a technologist yourself, what are the things that you’re most excited if we could move them back into the institutions where they probably have belonged all this time? What are the first subjects and people that you would move back into institutional support to reenergize our society? People or programs.
PT: Well, I do think there is something about basic science that doesn’t all have the for-profit character. Some of it has this nonprofit character. We’re building up this knowledge base for all of humanity. I don’t yet know how we do basic science without some kind of institutional context. That’s one that would seem absolutely critical. I’m super interested in the problem of longevity, radical life extension. My disappointment in the nonprofit institutions and nonprofit world has directed me more and more over the years to just invest in biotech companies and try to find these better-functioning corporate solutions. And then I always have this worry in the back of my head that maybe there are these basic research problems that are being sidestepped because they’re too hard. So I think basic science is one that you’d have to do, but you have to somehow also reform the institution so that you don’t have this Gresham’s law where the politicians replace the scientists.
EW: That sounds like a great one. I was very surprised to see that your friend, Aubrey de Grey, who you funded to get the radical longevity thing, was in the news for having solved a hard math problem in his spare time that nobody even knew he was working on. So it seems like even though people would treat him as crazy, he certainly has a lot on the ball and probably is exactly the kind of a person who might energize the department even if he might infuriate it.
PT: If you can get him back in. If you were able to get him back in, I think you’d be able to solve a lot of problems. End
EW: Well, Peter, it’s been absolutely fantastic having you. Thank you for a very generous gift of your time, and I hope that you will consider coming back on The Portal to talk about some of the specifics about the things that you and I are most excited about doing next.
PT: Will do. Thank you so much.
EW: All right, Peter. You’ve been watching The Portal with Peter Thiel. I’m your host, Eric Weinstein. Thanks for tuning in. Please subscribe to the podcast, and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below on YouTube. Thanks.