Notes from Peter Thiel’s speech at the National Conservatism conference on July 14, 2019
I took notes on my phone, so any mistakes are mine. These notes should be treated as paraphrases and not as direct quotes, since I was not able to write everything down, and I have added context. I did not record audio, since when I asked in advance about whether I could, I was told no. However, I was told that it would be fine to take notes and write about Peter Thiel’s speech online. These notes do not imply endorsement.
The title of his talk: “The Star Trek Computer Is Not Enough”
Peter Thiel started out his speech by evoking the photograph of earth from space on the Apollo mission in 1972, 30,000 miles away. From afar, the earth looked unified, with no boundaries between nations. But the picture excludes the city, the nation, and the political, and we have not gone that far in space since then.
That picture epitomized the year of 1972: the year that Nixon went to China and globalization began.
Now, we need to step back and ask ourselves of the things we do: Is this good for the U.S.?
In particular, we need to ask:
- Is big tech good for the U.S.?
- Is free trade good for the U.S.?
- Is college good for the U.S.?
- Is war good for the U.S.?
Google is building the Star Trek computer. It knows everything and can answer all of your questions. It’s organizing the world’s information.
But now let’s ask the question on the level of the U.S.: Are people’s living standards improving? Silicon Valley says yes, but their story is at odds with what people are experiencing on the ground.
There’s been a lot of innovation in the world of bits and software, but not in atoms — real, hard engineering problems. If you had been in college a few decades ago, it would have been a bad career move to go into engineering at Stanford. Instead, there has been a narrow cone of progress around bits (software). (Note: This has been a consistent point in Thiel’s talks.)
Maybe we’ve built the Star Trek computer, but we don’t have anything else from the Star Trek universe. We’ve had a few decades of relative stagnation. The younger generation is now finding it a struggle to live up to the living standards of Baby Boomers.
Silicon Valley is an insular place. In 2011, we published a manifesto on how we were promised flying cars and instead got 140 characters. (Note: Here is the current version of Founders Fund’s manifesto, “What happened to the future?”)
Silicon Valley now realizes its propaganda isn’t working. It now has a bad conscience, which is manifesting itself in insane, self-hating left-wing politics. Google employees are donating more to Elizabeth Warren than to any other candidate.
Google is building artificial general intelligence at DeepMind. We need to be asking: Is this a military weapon? Is this a dual-use weapon? Silicon Valley has been a lot more dishonest about artificial intelligence than we were about the nuclear bomb, and we have also had far less discussion of it.
We now need to be asking: How many foreign intelligence agencies have infiltrated Google’s Manhattan Project for AI? Is Google’s senior management infiltrated by Chinese intelligence? Is it because Google is so infiltrated that they have decided to work with the Chinese military and not the U.S. military? Are they worried that their technology will be stolen through the backdoor anyway?
These questions need to be asked by the FBI and the CIA, and in a not so gentle manner.
(Here is Bloomberg’s reporting on Thiel’s remarks on Google.)
Silicon Valley now has a story that is off, that we are going to automate all the jobs, and people will now get UBI (universal basic income) or play video games in their basement. But this does not show up in the unemployment rate or the productivity numbers.
In fact, most of the jobs that could be automated were automated a long time ago. Most of the jobs that are left can’t be automated — like yoga teachers and waiters. In fact, we should be more concerned that we will be stuck with low productivity growth for the foreseeable future.
Think of a thought experiment where there are robots just like you, or 100 clones like you. That would presumably be bad for your wages, but that is nowhere about to happen. Instead, what we are having are human beings being treated like robots and being paid little. This is happening in China and India. This talk about automation and technology is actually about globalization.
One of the signature achievements of the Trump administration has been to reopen this conversation about free trade.
We are incredibly far from a functioning free trade regime. We should expect money to be flowing to where the return is the highest. We shouldn’t be having Chinese peasants saving money to invest in low-yielding U.S. Treasury bonds. (Thiel also made this point about the current account deficit in this discussion at Harvard.)
China has been stealing our intellectual property and conducting cyber-warfare, and China is an unusually dirty country dirtying up the planet. Trump’s 25% tariffs on China should be reframed as a carbon tax.
You don’t want people negotiating trade treaties who are dogmatic about free trade. The worse job they do, the better job they think they are doing. You need people who are skeptical to be negotiating trade treaties, in order to get a better deal for the U.S. You don’t want them to be playing John Lennon’s “Imagine” in the background.
This is a political economy question. A General Motors executive once said, “What’s good for GM is good for America.” This wasn’t exactly true, but now money-center banks are negatively correlated with the U.S. when it comes to trade. When money flowed from abroad into the U.S., these banks invested in subprime real estate, and this caused the 2008 financial crisis. Every time the current account deficit goes down, we have a banking crisis. Like when Michael Milken went to jail.
The current account deficit should go from -3% to 0%. We should have a controlled crash landing for the banks for when we fix our trade deficit and current account deficit. Anyone on Wall Street will fight tooth and nail against sensible trade policy, and we need to keep them away from the negotiating table.
The lies we should worry about the most are the ones that are so big that no one calls them out.
Michelle Obama lied that there are thousands of good universities and it doesn’t matter where you go — but then she sent her daughter to Harvard. I would have been disturbed if she had sent her daughter to the 1,000th-ranked school instead of a place like Harvard, so it shows that she doesn’t believe that lie herself.
Barack Obama said that just because it’s not a name-brand, fancy school, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to get a great education, but this was actually a double-lie. An education at a low-ranked school is a dunce hat in disguise, and you are not necessarily going to get a great education at a high-ranked school.
The other side deals in these abstractions like “free trade.” We need to disentangle them.
There is the fraud of university education. Student loan debt is not dischargable in bankruptcy. The government can garnish your Social Security payments when you’re 65 to pay off your student loans. I’m very optimistic that this fraud is finally coming to an end.
We should always attack at the strongest point. The universities’ strongest point was how strong their STEM is at Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. But science is technology’s older brother who has fallen on hard times. It is in much worse shape than technological innovation. The only two scientific or technical fields it has made sense to study are computer science and petroleum engineering.
We need to stop the student debt at the bottom thousands of universities, and we need to start criminal investigations into what is going on there.
Then there is the tournament model at Stanford and Harvard. It’s good for their students’ prestige and bad for their morals. It’s like the Studio 54 nightclub where it’s desirable to get in because there is a long line of people wanting to go there. The Studio 54 model is not deserving of nonprofit tax-exempt status.
In all foreign entanglements, we should be asking: Does this help the U.S.? If we asked this question, we’d have fewer foreign entanglements.
There’s a crazy conspiracy theory on the left that we were in Iraq to get the oil. It’s actually crazy that it wasn’t true. Shouldn’t American oil companies have gotten the oil?
One of the signature achievements of the Trump presidency has been to not get us into these insane foreign entanglements. He’s been even more libertarian than Ron Paul would have been on this important issue.
Why have these questions not been asked? What is it about our society that these obvious questions can’t be asked, or obvious answers can’t be given?
On the left, since the 1970s, their magic trick to distract us from these questions is identity politics. Identity politics is where identity is that which makes you identical and that which makes you unique. Because of identity politics, a left-wing or progressive discussion of what’s good for America is still not going to happen. It’s only going to happen on the right. The left has to get over that issue.
The single thing I would see in distracting the right is the idea of American exceptionalism. If God is radically singular or radically different, can you know Him? Similarly, if the U.S. is so exceptional, you can never talk about it. We’ve had this doctrine of American exceptionalism, but instead we are now exceptional in bad ways: We are exceptionally overweight, we are exceptionally addicted to opioids, it is exceptionally expensive to build infrastructure here, we are exceptionally un-self-aware, and we are exceptionally un-self-critical.
Nationalism is not my country, right or wrong. It is: How does my country compare to other countries? Nationalism is going to be extremely critical, not unreflective.
The Trump presidency is a move beyond American exceptionalism. We should go beyond exceptionalism and settle for greatness.
During the brief Q&A, Peter Thiel said in response to a question that the left is captured by the institutions, and the institutions are corrupt and sociopathic. He also said that political correctness is the biggest problem in our society, and Silicon Valley has the feel of a one-party state.