Peter Thiel and Eric Weinstein, annotated

The full podcast lasts three hours. This essay selects certain themes and offers my own perspective.

First theme: stagnation

Around minute three, Thiel introduces the theme that there has been stagnation in science, technology, and the economy. He and Weinstein share that view, which is an outlier view.

Thiel says that the dominant narrative is that we are in an era of rapid technological progress, so that things are getting better. According to this narrative, technological progress is so fast that it poses danger.

He says that college debt has really accelerated, and that is an indicator that things are not going as well as it seems. There is something unsustainable about the expectations for the near future.

Thiel says in minute 9 that, starting in the 1970s, many fields of engineering, apart from computer science, were bad choices to enter. Thus, there has been only a narrow cone of progress in the “field of bits,” leaving everyone else out.

Weinstein also dates the break in the economy to around 1972. The optimism of the 1960s was not realized.

Big question: was this a problem caused by nature, or was it a cultural problem? Have we run out of easily-useful discoveries, or has the political culture turned against growth?

I can’t speak to science, but I suspect that nature is the problem there. That is, the problems are wicked. The next frontier is likely biology, but biological systems are far more complex than many non-biological systems.

On the economy, I do not believe we need great scientific discoveries to make progress. Our history over the past 150 years or so is one of steady economic growth, not the sort of “punctuated equilibrium” that one would expect to see if great discoveries were the determining factor. In fact, the benefits of great scientific discoveries are spread over time, and they get folded in to general economic growth, which tends to come from incremental innovation and diffusion.

I think that there are many man-made problems in our economy. The Trump Administration has quietly reversed the previous Administration’s regulatory enthusiasms, and this has been good for the economy. I suspect that it would be even better if there were no trade warmongering.

Weinstein says that if you walk into a room and subtract all of the screens, you will think that you are still in the 1970s. That is an indication of lack of progress.

I am inclined to push back. The first car I bought, in 1975, was a Ford Pinto. The quality of cars has gone up a lot since then. The food in my house is much better and much easier to prepare than the food in 1970. Outside my house, food choices at restaurants are dramatically better than they were in 1970. The ability to obtain goods made elsewhere, particularly overseas, has gotten much better. The ability to travel overseas has gotten much better, and once you get there it is much easier to pay for stuff, to find lodging, and so on.

When it comes to leisure-time activities, I would be bored out of my mind if you put me back in the 1970s. Check out the television programs that were popular back then, and consider how much more people depended on TV for their entertainment in those days. Or ask me about Israeli dancing now versus then.

Thiel speaks of a narrow cone of progress, centered on computer technology. Instead, I would speak of a narrow cone of stagnation, centered on housing, education, and health care. Those three sectors are where government intervention is particularly intensive. Contrary to economic theory, government intervention does not serve to correct market failures. Instead, intervention serves to subsidize demand and restrict supply.

If my view is correct, then our slow economic growth is man-made. We could do better by dialing back subsidies and supply constraints.

By minute 18, Thiel is discussing science. He argues that specialization is a factor in slowing progress. There is too much specialized knowledge for any one scientist to cope with. This tends to give power to incumbent scientists. Thiel says “It’s gotten easier to lie,” meaning that specialists can deceive funders about the potential for success, resulting in a deformed process. “Lie” and “deformed” (or “deranged”) are two of the important boo-words in Thiel’s lexicon.

Weinstein points out that many professions had “embedded growth obligations.” For example, in the 1960s, universities expected exponential growth, so they set up graduate programs that produced too many Ph.D’s. Institutions that function this way (such as law firms where exponential growth would allow new attorneys to have an easy path to make partner) are going to cause great social friction.

Thiel connects this to an economy as a whole. He says that occasional bubbles, such as the tech bubble and the housing bubble, disguised the overall stagnation.

Weinstein wants to press on the notion that mainstream media, politicians and academics persist in offering a false narrative. Thiel says that individuals have an incentive to pretend that the system is working, because if they don’t then the system will certainly punish them. But Thiel argues that the institutional account ultimately will fail.

Second Theme : Superstars

Weinstein and Thiel both seem to admire scientific superstars. Thiel disparages biologists as scientists who could not handle the math of physics.

Thiel argues that the great scientists were polymaths. As he names some famous polymaths, Weinstein says that they were “transgressive” (I prefer the term “disagreeable”). Today’s science establishment selects against both polymaths and disagreeables.

They both give examples of proven scientists who articulated critiques that caused them to become shunned by their profession. Thiel keeps blaming a lack of a polymath outlook (I could cite David Epstein’s new book Range in support), and both of them point out that disagreeable intellectuals are crushed by the system.

Thiel brings it back to the issue of the health of the system. Contrarians seem more dangerous when the system is unhealthy. I would infer that there is a sort of negative feedback loop, in that an unhealthy establishment is particularly hostile to the dissent that is needed to restore it to health. Thiel adds that this unhealthy system has to tell more “lies,” fueling the student debt bubble, for example.

In the field with which I am familiar, economics, I definitely would say that contrarian thinking is difficult to introduce into the conversation. My own essays go into outlets like National Affairs or Medium, not the economics journals. Meanwhile, the Soros-funded Institute for New Economic Thinking (with which Weinstein and more explicitly his wife are associated) holds conferences consisting of the same establishment economists who dominate the meetings of the American Economic Association. To me, that makes the name of the institute seem like a cruel joke.

Weinstein brings up the Thiel fellows, where the goal is to provide potential superstars a non-academic path to great accomplishments. It sort of reminds me of the Harvard Fellows program, at least as it used to work, which allows a promising individual to bypass some of the Ph.D rigmarole.

Around minute 56, Weinstein suggests a College-equivalency degree, perhaps based on passing a test. Thiel likes the idea, but he foresees resistance from people who got traditional college degrees.

Thiel argues that the Thiel fellowship is not scalable. By that, he seems to mean that he only wants superstars. He sees typical graduate students as expendable and psychologically vulnerable.

Thiel says that not much damage is done to undergraduates — he compares it to playing football in junior high. But going on to grad school is like continuing to play football until you get brain damage. This comes back to the false growth expectations.

I sense a sort of super-elitism in their thinking. They believe that too many are in Ph.D programs, and we instead need to give rein to the few superstars. At one hour and 8 minutes in, Weinstein suggests that power laws apply, so that a small number of people do much of the innovation.

Weinstein argues that progressives have lost the “from each according to his abilities” half of Communism, because progressives want to deny that abilities differ. Weinstein says that he wants the superstars to be free to operate in the capitalist system, but he has less confidence that the median individual will survive.

At this point, Thiel pushes back and returns to the point that automation is actually happening more slowly than one would have thought. So worrying about what automation will do to the median individual is premature. He thinks we would have a better social outlook with more automation and higher growth than with low growth and all the problems that entails.

Weinstein poses an issue that strikes me as libertarian, rather than progressive. He says that if you start with a good idea and then add the amount of violence that you need to implement to carry it out, then the idea might not seem so good anymore.

Third theme: Girard, Mimesis, and Violence

About one hour and 25 minutes in, Thiel cites Rene Girard as saying that for Communists the violence of Stalin was charismatic. If Stalin has to kill so many people, then important social change must be going on, or so the thinking went.

At an hour and 32 minutes in, Thiel argues that if economic growth is low, there is likely to be violence. There might still be violence even if growth is high, but chances are higher if growth is low.

Thiel emphasizes that the potential for violence among humans is very high. He returns to Girard, who believed that we desire what other people desire, and this gives rise to conflict.

Shortly thereafter, the discussion drifts for a while. I was somewhat interested when at an hour and 53 minutes, Thiel pivoted the discussion to the topic of political correctness. He says that political correctness is a serious problem. So if 85 percent of people believe something but everyone feels compelled to say they believe it, you are in a soft totalitarian world. Thiel also worries that political correctness is one of the ways that we are distracted from talking about stagnation. I thought that this discussion turned out to be less satisfying than I might have hoped.

At two hours and 8 minutes, Thiel makes the interesting observation that a President’s domestic powers are constrained but he has a relatively free hand in foreign policy. Since he prefers less intervention, he feels satisfied with President Trump so far.

At two hours 12 minutes, Thiel says that the Right has been distracted from the issue of stagnation by its insistence on American exceptionalism. So we cannot talk about obesity, high cost of building/repairing infrastructure, or other problems that we need to discuss and address.

I would add that the list of problems no one wants to discuss includes the Budget deficit. At some point, when the interest costs start to bite, Congress will find that instead of arguing over the allocation of government handouts they will have to argue over cutbacks. That will add to the ugliness of a slow-growth environment.

A few minutes later, Weinstein finally returns the discussion to Girard. In Girard’s view, people learn by copying one another. They copy the desires of one another. Their propensity to copy can give rise to mass violence. Thiel says that studying with Girard helped wean him away from a libertarian theory of people as pure individuals.

Apparently, Girard also speaks to the issue of scapegoating as a substitute for mass violence. Both are outcomes of mob dynamics.

Scapegoating only works if people don’t understand it. Thiel and Weinstein both find it fascinating that some social mechanisms work when they are not understood.

Thiel: a nation-state contains violence, in both senses of the word “contains.” That is, it carries out violence, but it also limits violence.

Weinstein: on the left, one camp is open about wanting to end oppression. the other camp is cryptic about wanting to reverse it. That is, some on the Left want to have the former oppressed “paid back by” the oppressors. He sees himself as in the cessation-of-oppression camp. I would note that a former graduate school classmate of mine, Sandy Darity, is not cryptic at all on the payback issue. He was cited the other day in the Wall Street Journal for his advocacy of reparations for slave descendants.

Thiel points out that it is politically more powerful to say that you are going to stick it to the other side. The milder speech, that says that no one is bad and we will not oppress anyone, has less power.

Weinstein says that he can become excited about innovation and growth, and perhaps that could lead people to be excited about reducing oppression and dialing down politics.

At 2 hours 39 minutes, Weinstein raises the issue of transparency. They point out that transparency has its problems. With more transparency, the state has more control but may be more violent. With more privacy, the state has less control but individuals can be more violent.

The podcast ends with a shout-out to Aubrey de Grey, a classic polymath who cannot fit into mainstream science. Odd note: Thirty-some years ago, Aubrey and I were both active in the board game Othello. I don’t believe we ever played against one another, but based on our respective rankings in the U.S. and the UK, I believe I was the better player.

Conclusion

What is perhaps most interesting about the discussion is that Thiel’s conservatism seems somewhat revolutionary and Weinstein’s progressivism seems somewhat archaic. That is, Thiel has a stereotypically conservative view that civilization is fragile and barbarism is always a threat to surface. But he has a very low regard for the establishment in politics, the media, and higher education. Meanwhile, Weinstein clearly is on the left on important issues like climate policy and income redistribution. But he is in many ways a throwback to an earlier left that championed free speech, nonconformity, and economic dynamism.

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