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Mark Zuckerberg Interviews Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen (conversationswithtyler.com)
230 points by yarapavan 6 months ago | hide | past | web | 135 comments | favorite

The most interesting part of the talk is what is avoided.

Like the positive effect of government policy. The US Anti-trust policy was very effective at times.

Temporary National Economic Committee (TNEC) 1938-1941 forced licensing of tens of thousands of patents.

When AT&T Bell Labs invented transistor it was forced to allow anyone to use it's knowledge. People went to Bell Labs and they were taught how to manufacture transistors. Massive industry spurted overnight. If transistor was invented today, the inventor would have a monopoly for transistor 25 years and generate huge profits.

In their public-facing work, Cowen and pc talk primarily about the importance and upside of progress and growth [1][2]. As someone who leans left, I find these writings both novel and compelling - some of the most compelling market-oriented thinking I've come across.

At the same time, pc, Cowen, and Zuck are in the thick of the SF "conservative libertarian" milieu. Thiel was a/the first major investor in FB, Stripe, and Cowen's "Emergent Ventures". Cowen's Mercatus center has deep ties (that I don't fully understand) with Koch industries and the federalist society. Etc.

I'm _far_ less impressed with the policies actually advocated for by these groups.

I'd actually be really interested in hearing the three of them discuss opportunities for government policy to have significant positive impact. I'd be surprised if pc wasn't a fan of at least some aspects of the FAA / NTSB [3], and I know Cowen advocates for public increases in basic research / R&D investment [4].

As "libertarian conservative" "public thought leaders", I wonder where else they might agree that government intervention can be net very-positive.

[Edit: sorry about the labels. There are real clusters of thinking and people here that need names, but I'm sure that they'd prefer different labels]

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/07/we-need-...

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Stubborn-Attachments-Prosperous-Respo... + thorough review/interview https://80000hours.org/podcast/episodes/tyler-cowen-stubborn...

[3] https://twitter.com/patrickc/status/1021995602970923010

[4] https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2013/02/th...

Conversely, I'd love to read a Vox editorial that looks for opportunites for government deregulation/step-back.

What I was most struck by in the conversation is that Zuck is actually doing some of the things Cowen advocates - policy experimentation, taking on long-term projects with uncertain payoffs, etc. at CZI.

I'm a huge fan of Patrick Collison and know that Stripe is also doing tons of experimentation and product innovation, but I was struck by how much less like an academic Zuck sounded. I don't know if it's a good or bad thing, but Cowen and Collison seem to focus on what everyone should be doing, while Zuck's focus is on what he, personally, can get done (again, caveat being that Collison is simply so well-read that he comes off as an academic, while I'm aware that in reality he's doing a ton himself as well).

> What I was most struck by in the conversation is that Zuck is actually doing some of the things Cowen advocates - policy experimentation, taking on long-term projects with uncertain payoffs, etc. at CZI.

I'm a big admirer of what Mark is doing with CZI (which is part of why Cowen/I agreed to the interview). Stripe is still a private company, but maybe I'll be able to intervene more directly over time. If I do, having CZI as precedent will be very helpful.

I don't want to sound like I am trolling or something. However, I find it hard to take anything Mark Zuckerberg does seriously. For that matter, I am so biased that I have no interest in these interviews at all (maybe to your detriment).

How do you see this? You say that you are an admirer of CZI. In my experience with obnoxious CEO types, they are happy to be philantrophic or "build" things when it suits them, and only then. Do you think it's a net positive? Wouldn't someone else (like Gates or even Buffet) be a better leader for these initiatives? I'm sure that if Mark did not get so successful with FB, it would have been the WA founders, otherwise someone else yet again.

Sorry if this is a steriotypical reaction, but I am sorry; I just can't trust something from camp Zuck.

If you went back 25 years, Bill Gates was considered by many (if not most) the "obnoxious CEO", but you're now using him as an example of "someone else I'd take seriously".

Interesting point, although I hesitate to see this as an effective counterpoint. People change, perceptions of people change, and those who were once maligned can become beloved, while those who were once beloved can become maligned. Bill Gates has followed the maligned to beloved arch over the last 25 years - it's easy for me to see how Mark could follow this same trajectory given that he's relatively early in his career.

I wouldn't call Gates "beloved", at least not in all circles. I consider his work with his foundation as basically table stakes in society for someone who has made his fortune from illegal, anti-competitive practices that damaged an entire industry.

Beyond that, while I'll certainly admit that government has a ton of problems, I'm not sure that the best model for funding -- for example -- research into various diseases is to put decisions under the control of rich people in the private sector, no matter how "reformed" and generous they seem. Or that super-rich people deserve to have praised philanthropic legacies because they managed to game the system during some point in their lives at the expense of income inequality and unfair markets.

Granted, Gates doing good with his money is orders of magnitude better than him sitting on it doing nothing, but I don't think he deserves all the praise he's been getting, given his background.

Mark my words: Zuckerberg will be remembered not for Facebook but for the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. Thirty years from now, people will talk about how he gave $100 million to the government to try out education policies and they zeroed it out and how US education needed the CZI to fix it. We'll be talking about how Zuckerberg SF General has premier care because of Mark Zuckerberg's kindness.

Bill Gates's transformation is not unique. It is a general pattern. Does the word Carnegie bring to mind Pinkerton union-busters? Or a brilliant university? Does Washington bring to mind a revolutionary hero or a slave-keeper? History will look kindly on Mark Zuckerberg.

And maybe this is the problem—that we live under the pretense of these people "contributing to society", rather than the ordinary Joe.

I agree. Billionaire-class philanthropy seems like it could be a societal anti-pattern these days; even if it isn’t, there are certainly problematic instances. A healthy amount of skepticism of billionaire-class philanthropy therefore seems warranted.

Moreover, given the repeated problems Facebook has caused, the repeated apologies Zuckerberg has offered with little demonstration of true repentance, skepticism of him specifically also seems warranted. The best thing he could do to help humanity would be to mitigate Facebook’s various negative impacts on our societies.

Zuckerberg has fooled us many times. However much he’s right about wanting to encourage societal progress, he’s actively contributed to its decline in much of the world—to the point that Facebook has now clearly has been an instrument of genocide (in Bangladesh).

Just because he’s a rich and a successful startup founder who’s conducted an interview where he says the right things (contrast with his Georgetown speech) doesn’t obviate him from criticism or skepticism.

Thanks for responding - just wanted to emphasize that I did not mean to minimize anything that you're doing, or the importance of your approach (I'm a huge fan of Stripe, as well as your work with Cowen on progress). I just thought it was interesting to highlight that Zuck is actually doing a whole lot of stuff.

It seems that naturally with technological progress and population increase, we are doomed to always zero out our gains in the minute with losses in the aggregate. How is it that science and technology move forward but crop yields remain constant? Cowen mentions that it seems to be a "last mile problem" for delivering scientific research benefits to all. Collison has a cool list of "Fast" completed projects on his site of big tasks in human history on the order of hundreds of days. Zuckerberg's main focus is to invest in medicine research because he believes the long term eventuality of such investment is a definite decrease in healthcare. Overall, it seems that the questions focus on the global population in aggregate or nations as wholes, and on long-term or permanent solutions to emergent issues. I disagree that Zuckerberg's major impact will be on medicine, human opinion is much more influential than hard science in the shimmering parallax of annals of dimly lit human history backwards into the ages. I'm glad they are talking about such matters: the intellectual hubs of Vienna and Silicon Valley, the research (or lack of research) in coming to understand Human Progress. One thing that seems to be ignored the whole time is the progress of the individual, the progress of the family, and the progress of the tribe. We can measure in aggregate all day, but the only true test of progress is if our newer generations of humans shine brighter and are more illuminated than we are.

>but crop yields remain constant

Some, not all, crop yields have been stalling in recent years. I think Tyler's point was maybe the increasing cost of research and effort to keep moving the yield curves up, such that it may be stalling progress there.

Data on crop yields here: https://ourworldindata.org/crop-yields

>> crop yields remain constant

> some, not all...

Good that you made this correction. In 1960 the average yield for tomatoes was 50 ton/ha or less in the area where I am from. [1]

In 2019, the yield was 100 ton/ha, but in the most optimal areas you get 140 ton/ha. If you use nets you get 250 tons/ha.

>> How is it that science and technology move forward but crop yields remain constant?

This is bordering on conspiracy theory; I have experience in tech in agriculture and the progress the last 50 years is nothing short of a humanitarian miracle. The miracle is far from complete though.

[1] First hand knowledge.

> I disagree that Zuckerberg's major impact will be on medicine, human opinion is much more influential than hard science in the shimmering parallax of annals of dimly lit human history backwards into the ages.

If CZI is successful, over the long arc of history, it's almost inarguable that his greatest impact will be on medicine.

It could be that the low hanging fruit in crop yields has already been reached. That is, the part addressable through better fertilizer, crop rotation, trait selection via breeding, etc., and to get a large leap from here requires something much more drastic (e.g., wholesale gene editing via CRISPR or the like) which may not be practicable given social pressures. I don't think it's reasonable to assume that the low-single digit CAGR in crop yields this century is remotely replicable. It's not like we are ever going to get 10,000 bushels of corn per acre.

The energy content of corn is about ~100 kWh per bushel. If you can magically convert all of the sun's solar radiation into corn with perfect efficiency (~2,500 kWh/m2 per year), you get 100,000 bushels of corn per acre. Compared to the actual efficiency of 176 bushels per acre, there's a lot of room for improvement. It might not be possible with anything similar to modern agriculture, but it's fun to think about.

"What’s interesting and, anyway should be concerning, is that for almost every conceivable applied measure we seem to be getting at best constant returns. But that’s really bad because we see exponentially increasing inputs and constant return outputs."

Ironically, in terms of innovation, the yearly output of companies such as Facebook and Stripe has seemed somewhat constant, despite those companies getting many orders of magnitude bigger!

Maybe MZ and PC should investigate this issue at their own companies, and perhaps even begin to fix it. After that, they'll be better able to look at fixing innovation in the world at large.

I had been listening to some "Game A" vs "Game B" podcasts - Schmachtenberger, Hall (Greenhall), Rutt, etc, just before listening to this podcast. For example: https://soundcloud.com/venturestories/game-b-in-a-silicon-va...

These thinkers propose a common constraint for stagnant growth in education and medicine: a philosophy of science. There is much more to it, and unfortunately it's not a concise explanation. However, I find this conceptual frame much stronger than the education/medicine problem "commonalities" described by Zuck, Collison and Cowen. Further, the "Game A" insight seems to predict the shortcomings of an applied meta-approach of "the tool-building which comes from having the experience building engineering teams."

Game A: ("hill climbing") invest in better microscopy tools, even though "right now, the actual technology of microscopes is ahead of scientists’ ability to process the data".

Game B: ("valley crossing") invest in a philosophy of science to better understand complexity management, causality and sense-making in the domains of education and medicine.

"And as engineers.. you really want to get into the code and step through it to see where the thing is breaking down" (Zuck). But whats 'broken' at FB? is it a server infrastructure? monetization? or is it interpersonal psychology of user relationships? Mistaking our tools' observation for reality, and optimizing for only what we can measure can build profits, but it has limits to make sense of complexity - and undefined/unmanaged complexity is common to the nature of education/medicine problems.

What exactly does it mean to invest in a 'philosophy of science'? I broadly interpret that as efforts geared towards gaining a big picture understanding of a problem, its subproblems, and interdependencies.

If I could be a shareholder of the things they're talking about (CA HSR / NY MTA / non-HHMI scientists), I would be better served by switching to Facebook or (if they were public) Stripe.

Facebook, especially, with the Oculus stuff, their tech stuff (React, Thrift, etc.), Instagram. They're damned good. No way around it. Facebook is absolutely on top of things.

It is possible that there are low hanging fruits for innovation in the world at large but less so at these companies?

So it still might be worthwhile to think about it.

if that were true the companies would have gone bankrupt, but even google keeps increasing its year to year profits.

Innovation is different than revenue -- especially when talking about companies with strong network effects and monopoly-sized marketshare.

ah yes they shouldnt exclude themselves . of course it depends on the roles and quality of their hires.

They discuss the fact that we are seeing linear gains from exponential investment in several fields (healthcare, semiconductors to name a few). This is a fascinating problem.

They discuss healthcare & higher education in parallel, and I do think the cost explosion in both is worth noting... But the differences are as important as the similarities.

Some big healthcare cost increases come from increased consumption. It's not just incentives, bureaucracies and inefficiencies that caused cost increases.

Once upon a time we had less medical care to consume, fewer procedures, cancer treatments and other such costly stuff. Medical care costs were mostly clinical, doctors salaries and such. Prenatal care once meant occasional visits to a doctor or nurse. These days, it also means ultrasounds, genetic testing, more blood tests & such. That costs more.

There are just more available treatments to treat patients, especially the already high-cost stuff like cancer treatment, surgery.... These are new things that the medical industry are doing, and cost money. It's at least partly a "we buy more" situation, not just price inflation.

A sociology degree, OTOH, is not different in a than it was in the 1950s. There are nearly no non-efficiency related cost increases in higher-ed. No new, expensive stuff is being used to teach these students. Prices just increased, and most of that got observed into administration.

In terms of ROI at a societal level... Idk if it's usefully measurable, for medicine at least.

There definitely aren't massive, healthcare-related increases I gross life expectancy and such. Does that mean bad ROI? This gets philosophical.

> It's not just incentives, bureaucracies and inefficiencies that caused cost increases.

This might be true if there weren't stark counterexamples, e.g. Singapore at 1/4 the cost, with better outcomes. Notably there, government dollars flow through to consumers who choose among competitors by price and quality.

There is also a lower focus on end of life care in Singapore, which makes up the vast majority of spending in the American system.

These issues are cultural, not just political or economic. I am looking forward to seeing what PC and TC can come up with for a common framework. This seems to be a tough problem.

The healthcare sector constitutes 18% of our GDP, a truly insane amount. That is 7-8% (~1.5 trillion) more than it should be. Excessive end-of-life care explains almost none of that. The two biggest issues in American healthcare are:

- Zero price transparency

- Payment through intermediaries like insurance companies and your employer, who often pays half of your insurance premiums and other healthcare expenditures

With no price transparency, prices are just made up with little connection to actual value delivered. Because of the middlemen, most patients don’t feel the full cost of healthcare. Patients in aggregate still pay for the full negotiated cost, just indirectly in the form of higher premiums and forgone wages (marginal premiums paid by the employer).

At this point, Medicare for All is our best hope. A true market-based healthcare economy, as great as it may be, is a pipe dream. With Medicare for All, the government would set reimbursement rates in stone. Most doctors who want a substantial amount of patients would have to accept those rates. Unlike insurance companies, the government would not be able to aggressively increase its “premiums,” or taxes, every year and it won’t get kickbacks from hospitals for high cost care. The government would also set empirically backed standards of care that lower their cost burden with no impact on average lifespan.

We could potentially allow for parallel “luxury care” purchased by the patient if they want to be able to expedite their non-emergency knee replacement from 6 months to 2 weeks. The government would be incentivized to launch health initiatives and laws that help lower the rates of obesity and diabetes in the population. Lastly, the government would also be incentivized to increase the supply of doctors. There are multiple instances in the past when medical organizations lobbied or misled Congress into over-limiting the supply of medical residencies. They also had a hand in restricting the number and size of medical schools. So yes, overpaid, scarce medical professionals are a big part of the cost burden, and their representative institutions are making sure they stay overpaid. Only recently have medical organizations lobbied to increase the number of residencies again. That’s just damage control.

The American people should not accept compromise on healthcare any longer. That’s what the ACA was, and it did not do enough. Medicare for All will bring us in line with the rest of the developed world which has better health outcomes at a much lower cost. We can save >$1 trillion and put that money towards things like a national high speed rail network, anti-poverty efforts, government-subsidized corporate internships, and an accredited national online education and retraining platform with the best professors on every subject imaginable.

Idk about Singapore specifically, and I'm not commenting on the us setup specifically either.

Health costs, across advanced economies, are on the rise for several decades. The UK system, and others are constantly busting their budgets.

The underlying cost base has grown, due to more types of medical things people are getting.

That doesn't exclude inefficiency of a particular system. The US system is expensive, and a lot of that is probably due to the US system accelarating the trend to more and more expensive procedures.

It might be interesting to note the difference in Singapore's age curve compared to western countries. They are certainly not 1/4 the cost after adjusting for age. They might still be less but this meme that price transparency is the sole cause has to stop.

One purely linear constraint is time. In many health care fields, it simply takes time for clinical studies to collect data, from which the next generation of clinical studies can be planned, and there's no good way to meaningfully speed up that process.

Sounds like pareto principle in final stages.

Wouldn't that be declining returns from linear investments?

Linear gains from exponential investments means declining returns.

Hm, you're probably right. Not sure though if it looks like linear returns when you choose the timeslot short enough.

in semiconductors, it's a natural result of hard physical limits driving up costs for innovation. In the economy overall it's institutional neglect for deep innovation, basic R&D and instead allocation of capital to eCommerce, finance, retail or the gig economy, with ironically companies like facebook contributing to the misery by keeping engineering talent occupied with fiinding better ways to get people to click on ads.

I'd think it's more of a problem to assume they should continue to rise with exponential gains....

to me this is a meaningless question.

it's so broad with so many variables, so many assumptions that you might as well ask if God exists and you'd have the same chance of answering it.

That reminds me of deep learning. Investment in computing resources is definitely increasing exponentially over time:



Tthere doesn't seem to by any evidence of exponential gains in performance, even on their own benchmarks (which importantly don't measure "intelligence", but something more narrow):


Even though we are doubling the compute available to AI every 3.5 months, so a factor 10x per year, since say 2015, so some 10.000x, the classification performance as measured by top-1 accuracy on ImageNet had barely moved. Now arguably top-1 accuracy on ImageNet is probably not the best measure, but still that seems somewhat striking. The diminishing returns are visible elsewhere too, even that Open AI Rubic's cube is somewhat indicative.

From an outside perspective, it seems that everyone is coming around to the fact that self-driving cars is harder than expected. There are no "exponential gains" in that field -- to the contrary, it seems like 90% of the problem was solved several years ago, and you can now take undergraduate courses that teach the basics.

But going from 90%, to 99%, to 99.9%, etc. is taking decades, not months or years. There seems to be something fundamentally wrong with the current approach.

I believe at the time the OpenAI blog post was supposed to be "impressive". Certainly I felt a bit of that -- "hey something important is going on there!" I believe that in 10 years it will look like a waste of effort. There will be a different, more efficient approach to solving these types of problems.


Peter Thiel is one of the only "major tech figures" speaking out against AI, which I appreciate. And the "AI is communist" meme is pretty memorable, and I don't think wholly inaccurate. I listen to him for his contrarian opinions.

I just wish he didn't have these random "tribal conservative" outbursts. The most recent one was a video on here where he was rambling about Obama saying something far worse than George Bush and the Iraq war. I guess it was about sending their daughter to Harvard, but saying that lots of schools are just as good.

He was trying to get some points from his conservative audience. I guess it gets attention, but that kind of tribalism undermines the rational points that he generally makes.

(I realize the OP doesn't feature Thiel but he was brought up elsewhere in this thread, and is one of the people also lamenting the lack of technological progress despite investment, although maybe due to lack of investment in certain areas too)

I loved this interview, and generally have a lot of time for Tyler Cowen’s podcasts and blog.

This topic is one that Peter Thiel has been talking about for over a decade. I have a general theory that whatever smart people are talking about now, Thiel was discussing 10 years before. This is why I always try to find out everything I can about what Thiel is talking about today - it’s like getting a glimpse into the future.

it's likely Thiel influenced both of them (is invested in both)

> what Thiel is talking about today

what he said 10 years ago is more actionable

I'm always cautious about Cowen as he receives backing from the Koch network.


The Kochs have also funded stem-cell research and gay rights initiatives -- are you similarly cautious about those things?

They also fund widespread climate denial, federal court stacking, and the tea party (probably not this anymore), likely at many times the magnitude. So yes I am cautious.

To be clear: You are also cautious about stem-cell research and gay rights initiatives, because those have been Koch-funded?

No I've never encountered those efforts and have had no reason to evaluate them one way or another. Maybe they are too small to have reached any appreciable public notice? (or at least my notice).

To be honest though, I feel the opinions and speech of billionaires are amplified in our media so one should always be more critical and cautious of any of their projects, because money gives the ability to shortcut a more critical vetting of the effort.

There is noting wrong getting funded by Koch in principle.

What your source points out is that the agreements Cowen made as a general director of the Mercatus Center seem to violate standard academic norms and "fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet."

What I dislike about a lot of his writing is the weird "mostest contrarianist" vibe I sometimes get. It's kind of hard to describe, but here's an example:

The growing YIMBY movement calls for, among other things, some deregulation of our cities so that more housing can be built. A broadly left-leaning movement pushing for fewer regulations might be something the average libertarian might find encouraging, but galaxy-brain Cowen seems to take the opposite tack in some of his argumentation, that maybe all that regulation is good.

That, and he seems to enjoy just saying random provocative stuff. Today it's that Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg are great orators: https://twitter.com/dwallacewells/status/1201544920110174208 uh huh...

I much prefer his co-blogger, Alex Tabarrok, who seems much more a straight-shooting libertarian-ish econ guy. I mean, you can disagree with his conclusions or policy ideas, but it's much more "what you see is what you get". He's someone I'll read even if I disagree, since it's often reasonably well argued.

> Collison: when we sort of talk about the phenomenon of “progress,” you know, I think GDP or GDP per capita is a pretty good first approximation measure of it and it correlates strongly ——

I got confused when Collison said that there was scientific evidence that business productivity increases with improved management practices. That’s the thesis of business schools and management consultants. What’s the new idea here?

1) What’s the difference between “Progress Studies” and economics?

2) When businesses acquire their competitors, does this accelerate or inhibit progress?

He's referring to research by Nick Bloom, an economist at Stanford. They've worked together.

Ctrl-F management on his research page (https://nbloom.people.stanford.edu/research). In one paper, they randomly assign consulting services from a management consultancy to manufacturing plants in India and found a 17% increase in productivity.

not sure that means it generalizes to all countries or types of business

Oh, definitely not! As with all RCTs, gotta worry about generalizability.

He has a lot of other work showing correlations between management and productivity at much more scale, but this was the one attempt (that I know of) trying to establish something more causal

2) Is a monopoly or a perfectly competitive business better for societal progress?

In theory, a monopoloy would be because you can make more profit and constantly reinvest more than any competitor into making better products and holding your monopoly.

Unfortunately, that doesn't happen in practice, because monopolies tend to buy competitors in order to stifle competition rather than reinvesting and building a better product.

So I think acquiring competitors tends to inhibit progress because you are wasting money that you could be reinvesting into building a better product for society.

The flip side is that if companies are making less profit, there might be more consumer surplus, leading to more savings (which can also be reinvested in the economy) or a higher standard of living.

Yes, but the average person with savings isn't going to create wealth in any way that a business can with that money. Most especially if that money is "saved" in stocks or bonds. This might be better for people in the short term, but we are talking about sociatal progress not short term benefits.

But there's the obviously counterexamples of companies hoarding billions and not paying dividends because they don't know what to do with it.

> What’s the difference between “Progress Studies” and economics?

It does sound a bit "Economic history. You've invented economic history." Mind you, VC/Koch-style libertarians are the only people who could be accused of that, given the recent beef between self-described economic historians and self-described historians of capitalism.

there is also a video version of the interview at https://about.fb.com/news/2019/11/a-conversation-with-mark-z...

> Collison: But even if technology solved that, I guess my worry would be that the socio-institutional dynamics that have ruined cities or made them less effective or whatever, probably also generalized and applied to other domains.

Reminder that Stripe as a company put out a position opposing Prop C. The hypocrisy, I guess.

Someone needs to update pg's 'founders should live in the future' to specifically include FAGSLC as the future, because otherwise we're just wasting heat.

>Fully Automated Gay Space Luxury Communism

For those having trouble parsing that acronym.

I'm afraid to ask, but, in what community is this phrase spoken frequently enough to warrant an acronym?

Satirical-edgy leftist meme pages

"So for example, if you look at the U.S., productivity growth mid-century or say between, you know, 1920, 1970, was maybe about 1.9% a year. Now most economists think it’s much lower, maybe around sort of .4% a year, something like that."

Isn't this just because the US was riding off of the coattails of two world wars and being _the_ global superpower? I wonder what the data says about the rest of the world in that period, probably not so good?

Why don't we ever see Larry Page doing such things? Don't even remember when I last saw news about him.

He has a vocal cord disorder and speaking is apparently a hardship for him.

Tyler makes a compelling case in his book[1] that economic growth is responsible for most of the biggest improvements in human flourishing over the past century. He concludes that economic growth is a moral imperative.

All three participants in this interview discuss the "exponential inputs, linear outputs" problem/slow-down that industries face as they scale and mature.

Question: how far does ROI have to fall for the growth of an industry to cost more than its returns to society are morally worth? Is this even possible? Or is there an assumption that the market would somehow fix/prevent this scenario?]

[1] Tyler Cowen, Stubborn Attachments, 2018

Mark Zuckerberg takes it for granted that the most important things in the universe are productivity growth and the number of people citing your publication and talks about ways we can make these numbers go up more in this podcast.

Are those really our biggest priorities right now? Should they be? How many more decades are we supposed to pretend the pie getting bigger will cause all problems to ~magically tricklesolve themselves~, because this there is lots of evidence that this is not happening.

Tyler Cowen has a book with basically that premise - that in the long run, economic growth is the only thing that matters. It's called Stubborn Attachments.

It's not an intuitive position for most people, but it's a pretty convincing argument - it's certainly been the most important thing in the last 100 years, in my mind (think the incredible increase in health, standards of living, etc, which, even if they aren't spread close to equally, have benefited literally almost everyone).

Endless economic growth is only a convincing argument if you don't understand basic math.

Things that appear exponential locally usually turn out to be logistic or cyclic.

I would like to say that I'm surprised that an economist doesn't understand math, but I can't.

Questions of endless economic growth are a red herring/off topic.

If exponential economic growth is possible now, then it should be invested in now. If yields change in the future, investment should be reassessed.

"If exponential economic growth is possible now..."

It's not.

You can arrive at many false conclusions by assuming a false antecedent.

I'm not sure what you think is happening then. What do you measure economic growth in, Dollars or percentages?

This line of thinking can lead to catastrophic consequences if the long-term implications are not well understood. Short-term exponential growth can lead to a catastrophic crash down the road if the debt, resources, or social fractures are not sustainable in the long run.

Yeah, most of that was before we discovered (or just didn't care enough) we have been destroying natural resources in a completely unsustainable way, from the extraction processes (mining) to disposal (ocean filled with trash)

Sounds like there are externalities that need to be internalized, but not like we need to stop growing.

His book argues a more nuanced form of economic growth. It’s basically growth is the most important thing, but there must also be human rights constraints along with some others that prevent destroying the world.

It’s worth reading (and it’s short). The only thing that bothered me about it was what I suspect was a poorly disguised justification of religion via “faith” that I found unnecessary and out of place.

Arguably the worst stewards of the environment and other resources have been those economies that didn't focus on growth in a capitalistic sense. Consider the corrupt banana Republicans of Brazil who cheerfully support burning the rain forests, or the apocalyptic levels of environmental disregard displayed by the Soviets.

Yes, it's true that here in the US, we set a river on fire that one time. That sucked. We tried to do better, and largely succeeded -- which feeds back into the larger question of why it takes 40x as much time and money to build a subway in the Y2K era as it did in the 1900s.

Point being, with a healthy economy, at least you have the option to do right by your neighbors, your countrymen, and the planet as a whole. That may be what Tyler is getting at.

Although in one part of the interview, his words sent chills down my spine ("I’ve often suggested for graduate school, instead of taking a class, everyone should be sent to a not-so-high-income village...") All three of the participants spent a lot of time and verbiage signaling their historical awareness, but apparently the Cultural Revolution escaped their notice because it didn't happen in Vienna or Edinburgh. I'd like to assume good faith... but holy hell, dude, how'd you think that would sound?

Maybe a growing pie is not perfect, but it is greatly preferable to a shrinking one. For a simple example, take a company that looses some contracts and stops growing; you get new conflicts or old ones become critical, ppl start leaving, etc. As long as the pie is growing, it can hide or solve by default many existing problems which would be very difficult or costly to fix otherwise.

> As long as the pie is growing, it can hide or solve by default many existing problems

I think one issue with this analogy, is that companies have central points of authority but Western economies don't so much. For example GDP growth doesn't magically fix rising homelessness, and in the absence of central authority it becomes very difficult to address. People often don't like the idea that their "taxpayers money" is being spent on other people that aren't (currently) working.

>For example GDP growth doesn't magically fix rising homelessness

Nothing magically fixes homelessness, but GDP correlates well with a host of public benefits, including "poverty reduction and per capita income growth performances are correlated" [1]. All these correlations can be more accurately detailed by searching google scholar.

In the US, it seems homelessness has decreased greatly since it was first investigated in the 1860s as people moved to cities. During the GD in 1930, there were about 2M homeless against a total population of 120M people, and now it's around 500k against a population of 320M.

I'd suspect that GDP rise over those periods helped reduce homelessness quite a bit by providing more resources per capita to address it.

[1] https://www.kiwiblog.co.nz/2011/02/gdp_correlations.html

Homelessness has been increasing rapidly in recent years across North America even while GDP growth has been adequate. You actually need to devote resources to fight homelessness.

>Homelessness has been increasing rapidly in recent years across North America even while GDP growth has been adequate

I don't think that's true. For example, in the US, dept of urban housing has this [1], which shows total number of homeless decreasing despite total underlying population increasing.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homelessness_in_the_United_Sta...

Isn't this a prime example of correlation, not causation?

Given that GDP/capita is not only correlated but causually related to many wellness factors in society, it much more likely not simply a correlation. These connections are well studied - check through google scholar is you really want to dig into it.

More GDP/capita means more resources to fight things like homelessness.

Is growing pie sustainable?

Why wouldn't it be? Humans have infinite wants and needs. These change overtime in terms of taste/perception as well. So the counter point should be made as to how this isn't the case and that a "growing pie" is actually against human nature.

It's the compound interest problem. If you keep compounding growth, like growing GDP at 1-2% a year, within some few thousand years you've grown bigger than all the resources within a sphere the same number of light years in radius. So clearly, growth is not sustainable and must eventually slow down until it approaches zero.

To be clear, we're far away from that today. But the parent is mathematically correct, the best kind of correct.

A lot of people nitpicking at the argument here, about resource substitutions, efficiency improvements, etc.

So let's simplify this argument a little. It's not possible to have infinite growth in a finite universe. By definition infinity > not infinity for arbitrarily large values of not infinity.

Therefore the limit of growth as time approaches infinity is 0.

At some point you reach the physical limit of the system and exponential growth ends. This is true even for digital systems if the digital good involves some physical resource like energy, storage space, bandwidth, etc.

For example, if we keep growing energy usage at the historical rate of 3% a year, we would cook ourselves with the waste heat within 400 years. It doesn't matter where the energy comes from. Now we can get around that by moving off the earth, which buys time, but eventually, also in short order, we'd use all the available energy from our star. We could get around that through nuclear energy sources or widening the area to encompass more stars. But there is only so much matter and energy in the universe. Eventually the show stops.

I challenge you to find a theoretical counter example.

You are assuming that increased resource consumption always is tied to increased GDP. Others have argued that once GDP hits a threshold, both incremental and total resource consumption decreases.

For example, a richer economy might replace physical goods with digital goods which have higher value and lower resource demand.

[1] Check out Andrew McAfee on More from Less

>like growing GDP at 1-2% a year, within some few thousand years you've grown bigger than all the resources

Increased GDP does not require consuming more resources. Using them more efficiently adds significantly to GDP, so this argument doesn't provide a rationale to claim infinite GDP growth is impossible.

A good example is many advanced economies have increased per capita GDP significantly while lowering per capita energy consumption at the same time (and lowering many other per capita material consumption areas).

Uh, more notable incorrect persons have noted this argument. You’re using what’s called a Malthusian argument.

Anyhow, let’s say everything you say is correct for today’s wants and needs. But if it is true that society changes and needs change etc, then your argument doesn’t hold for tomorrow.

Suppose for a moment there is only 10 years worth of X left, who is to say that one of these things doesn’t happen:

* X thing is no longer needed because Y thing is no longer in fashion

* X thing gets replaced by other comparable Z material

... and this goes on forever.

That’s the point.

> If you keep compounding growth, like growing GDP at 1-2% a year, within some few thousand years you've grown bigger than all the resources within a sphere the same number of light years in radius.

Would be super interested to see your math. What are the inputs and equation that get you to these specific outputs (a few thousand years, all resources, a few thousand light years)?

The calculation isn't so simple -- a lot of growth is efficiency growth: getting a lot more out of the resources you're using. Switching all energy production to nuclear, for example, would lower resource usage while drastically raising GDP.

But why should growth of the growing GDP should be the target? I don't think that anyone believes that the GDP growth can increase every year. But you can reasonably assume that it can grow every year

> Is growing pie sustainable?

Humans are encountering the limits of connection and communication. This means that even if the pie grows in the aggregate, we're going to fracture.

Are you Mark Zuckerberg?

What is the software package that MZ references at 55:21? It sounds like “nepariu”?

> U.S. life expectancy is basically going up in linear fashion. But if you look at expenditures, we used to spend a few percentage points of GDP on healthcare, and now it’s about 18%. So we’ve gone up to 18%, and we’re not even boosting the rate. I’m not saying it’s the fault of any one group of people, but something has gone wrong.

(US life expectancy actually declined for a 3rd straight year due to "deaths of despair" like drug overdoses and suicides)

But as for the 18% of GDP on healthcare, medicine is an inelastic good that has severe supply side restrictions (AMA + legislation) and no price transparency. Companies are profiting greatly, it's great for GDP and terrible for people.

Similar for the other "cost disease" areas mentioned: education and housing (though for different reasons).

Slatestarcodex has a good overview on cost disease too: https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/02/09/considerations-on-cost...

there's a video of the conversation in zuck's facebook page

The self-importance of pretty much everything in this interview is literally unbearable.

I will give you the precis: I think X is important, why doesn't everyone think X is important (usually about five sentences of escalating grandeur about the importance of X), because I think X is important and "no-one is talking about X" you know that I am a real genius...on and on.

Cowen is also an utter ignoramus. He seems to confuse being an economist with having knowledge about literally everything (the mistakes Collison makes can be forgiven, there is no reason why an economist shouldn't realise they aren't an expert on literally everything). Btw, afaik, he is the only economist who has actually tried political philosophy too (again, the ego on this guy)...he made the same kind of trite insights and tried to pass them off as signs of his genius there too.

Thoughtful critique is fine, but please don't post petty personal attacks to HN. It poisons the well regardless of how right you are. Also, please omit the name-calling.

If you'd please review https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html and take the spirit of this site more to heart, we'd appreciate it.

It isn't a petty personal attack. You believe it is petty but I explained my reasons. Ignoramous isn't a "name", it is a noun describing someone with the attributes that Cowen has (I specifically say that, as he is doing throughout the interview, he pontificates endlessly on subjects in which he has no expertise).

Just to be clear, whether he has those attributes or not, people like that exist. It isn't unacceptable to say something negative...ironically, as you yourself show by calling my comment "petty". One rule for us, amirite comrade?

> He seems to confuse being an economist with having knowledge about literally everything.

Cowen does have knowledge on almost literally everything. If you listen to his podcast he will get into the weeds with experts in a diverse array of fields. When he interviewed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar he asked about specifics of his basketball career and also his writing and political work, when he interviewed an Asian food writer he asked specifics about cuisine in different regions of China. He always seems to have studied the entire body of work of every guest he speaks to every week. He reads and travels extensively. You may still think Cowen's ideas are bad, but he is obviously well-informed on the issues he discusses.

I am sure that Cowen prepares for those interviews. But he doesn't have knowledge "on almost literally" (this isn't a phrase that makes sense btw) everything.

I am not going to do a line-by-line but several things he says in the interview are just inaccurate. That is fine, I am specifically saying that no-one knows everything. The issue is that he goes on to make other points based on stuff he doesn't understand.

As I pointed out too, his career is somewhat chequered. And he has a history of writing grand papers on subjects which he knows nothing about.

At times he comes across as a very bright guy who tries very hard to come across as a very bright guy.

Patrick should take some oratory lessons. As a CEO it is important to be able to speak slowly, be brief and on the point.

Only on HN will you find randos confidently telling a founder-CEO who grew his company from $0 to $35B what's "important" about being a CEO.

I'm pretty sure I've seen this phenomena on Reddit, Twitter, and Medium, too.

Only on HN will you find randos confusing making a lot of money with being good at everything. If you make money, your statements don't automatically become true.

Mark Zuckerberg is too full of himself. Not only does he have a track record of not having an imagination, he seems to have got it into his head, that if he reads two books on Economics and Sociology over the summer he needs to be at the policy making table. WTF seriously? I have no idea why he is being entertained. Hand the cash over to experts and fuck off.

> Not only does he have a track record of not having an imagination, he seems to have got it into his head, that if he reads two books on Economics and Sociology over the summer he needs to be at the policy making table.

The latter is at least arguably true if one assumes that's all the thought he's put into things, but the former statement is just wildly false

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. He is not qualified to be in the room. The problem when people like him with a big chequebook show up, is the majority of "experts" will just pander to get the cheque which has many unintended consequences. Fact of life.

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