Hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue. La Rochefoucauld
- By Tony Greenberg & Alex Veytsel of RampRate
Marc Andreessen has made a call to action around building big in response to our current crisis. First, some areas of agreement: it’s not like we haven’t written a “where’s my flying car” article ourselves back 10 years ago. And I agree that regulatory capture and fear of change are both big negatives. But while I’d get this sort of big idea criticism from someone like Elon Musk. But Andreessen’s VC investments are often the usual Silicon Valley fluff shuffling bits around. Andreessen Horowitz invested in Crypto Kitties, for heaven’s sake. So if he controls a few billion in investor funds and doesn’t invest a penny in anything he’s advocating here, there’s a pretty good chance he doesn’t actually think it’s feasible or profitable. And he’s way too smart to think the principal problems are something amorphous like will, desire, and fear of change. The real problems are incentives, integrity, and the lack of a shared community whose future will matter more to people than grabbing their bit.
1. The Hypocrisy
Here’s an analogy: If a random guy on the street says “federal deficits are an existential problem” then it’s a reasonable opinion, and maybe he really believes it. But if it’s a congressman saying that and always voting for spending increases and tax cuts, he’s full of poo. Same here — Andreessen has a good degree of control over at least $4B in investment money, and can probably draw in more with his firm’s brand. If he really thought that “all of these fields are highly lucrative already and should be prime stomping grounds for capitalist investment” then a chunk of that would go to moonshots instead of Crypto kitties. If he doesn’t put his money where his mouth is, that means he doesn’t really believe it.
And if he doesn’t really believe it, then why say it? Our guess is because it intersects with agendas like deregulation and socializing investment risk while privatizing the profits (i.e. the government invests in pure research and then someone collects lots of rents from proprietary products built on that research). Why do I think so? For one, it would follow Andreessen’s personal trajectory. He worked on the government-funded development of Mosaic at the NSCA and then took the know-how to become a co-founder of Netscape and eventually sell it to AOL for $10B.
2. Who is This “We” You Speak Of?
Andreessen says “we need to demand more” but 95% of the people don’t have the power to demand anything — they’re too busy just surviving paycheck to paycheck. Tell someone in Flint who can’t get clean water from the tap or someone in Baltimore who can’t go outside for fear of being shot that our biggest problem is the lack of flying cars. I’m not advocating for a populist revolution because let’s face it, if the hoi polloi did get the power, they’d spend that power on shrinking the pie by pwning perceived rivals, followed in short order by wasting the remnant on frauds, charlatans, and an ocean of unintended consequences. But it’s disingenuous to pretend that the people at large can fundamentally change the system. And that includes even moderately successful folks like you and me.
So who is the “we” with the power to demand something? It’s billionaires like Marc Andreessen — and these are by and large showing by their actions that they’re not interested in putting their money where their mouth is. It’s not just Marc Andreessen personally. When we started and continued all these costly wars, where was the money? On the “bomb ‘em” side. When all the bailouts were passed, was the business and investor community united around “no, no we don’t need any of that — invest it in infrastructure and consumer bailouts”? Hell no. The 1% we have today can publish all the articles they want, but when the chips are down, and it’s *their* money and *their* regulatory capture and *their* back yard, you bet that there won’t be an ounce of give to the public good.
The first thing to acknowledge is that this call to action is to billionaires, not the public at large. If Warren Buffett can do it, so can Marc Andreessen. And the call to action needs to be accompanied by personal action. Here’s what would make this seem sincere to start: “I’m sorry about spending the last 20 years mucking around with bullshit like Crypto kitties. Its not what I expect from such a futurist mind as Marcs. The last few months have really made me realize how vapid and pointless most of the chase for the killer mobile app or blockchain often is. With the new world reality, the next billion from Andreessen Horowitz will be invested in true moonshots. And if the money we make in these moonshots comes as a result of public action and government-sponsored research, we’ll donate the profits back into those institutions that ignited innovation.”
3. The Disingenuous Diagnosis
Furthermore to claim that 3 of the 4 problems are inertia, desire, and will is plain bullshit. He got 1 right with regulatory capture, but that’s just a special case of the main problem — pervasive lack of integrity which in turn breeds a lack of trust.
Leftists would just say “greed” but that’s not really right. Greed CAN be good. But it needs to be a greed to earn money, not make money — where only what you make by creating value for others matters. Instead, we use money as a proxy for value when a lot of money can be made by running a scam, creating externalities, and, yes, regulatory capture.
It could be the loss of the protestant ethic that was so important to the foundation of capitalism. It could be a general cultural / ethical decline. But the golden age of any innovation is shrinking down to months.
Build e-mail? You get spam. Build the smart home / car? It’s now hacked. Build a social network? It’s used to inflame political tensions and spread ignorance / propaganda. Discover how nudges into positive behavior help public health? Soon enough they’re used by every scammer. Reframe classic tales into new visual formats? Soon enough you get the eternal Disney copyright law to ensure no story or character is ever repurposed again. Find new synergies in finance by repeal of Glass Steagal? Oops, we fucked up the CDOs and are too big to fail. Build Tor to fight censorship of dictatorships? And 3, 2, 1… it’s now a haven to order a murder or buy kiddy porn.
Let’s just take one example from the article — replacing carbon-emitting power stations with safe, clean nuclear. Why doesn’t that happen? First there’s the march of the sincere idiots from Greenpeace. Then regulatory capture from the existing power generation investors. Then astroturfed outrage initiated by Greenpeace and funded by competitors to nuclear. Then deciding whose back yard it’s going to be in — and I’m sure as hell it won’t be in Marc Andreessen’s. Then weeding out all the scammers promising to do it at half cost and pocketing the money. Then weeding out the half-scammers who kind of intend to build it but are incompetent. Then figuring out who’s going to dispose of the toxic waste for a few million years if the original provider goes bankrupt. Then back for another round of populist anger funded by competitor money and unchecked misinformation. And maybe then some of the inefficient bureaucracy you keep going on about. But none of that has anything to do with desire, inertia, and will.
On the private side, every single innovation is turned on its head and used to steal, defraud, scam, and capture unearned rents. On the public side, everyone who gets a government contract views it as a sinecure, not a sacred duty. So if you want to change the world, the problems you need to solve are not “will, inertia, and desire.” It’s stuff like “tragedy of the commons” and “socialization of costs / privatization of benefits” and “externalities” and “adverse selection” and “too big to fail.”
If these are not part of your lexicon and your plan, you’re either hopelessly naive or in on the scam. And while I normally prefer to explain things with incompetence rather than malice, I reckon Marc Andreessen is way too smart to be that ignorant, so unfortunately I’d have to assume he’s in on a scam. Specifically the same scam as what got him his original fortune: privatizing publicly funded moonshot projects. We build the big vision and take the big risks and crony capitalists capture the upside.
4. The Big Ideas Are Simple
Andreessen’s deflection to potential critics is “well, instead of criticizing me, come up with new ideas.” But the question of “what” is trivial — we are not short of big ideas. A lot of them date back to as far as the golden age of science fiction 70–90 years ago. And I’m a fan of many of them — I even spoke at a transhumanist conference 10 years ago and am still a part of their Facebook group / mailing list. But there are very good reasons they haven’t been achieved — and it’s not lack of imagination or will.
A short list of technical advances off the top of our head: FTL (or even close to speed of light) travel, nanotech, the singularity, transhumanism (cyborgs, brain uploads, etc.), cure for aging / heart disease / cancer, personalized medicine, planet-scale terraforming, the space elevator, hyperloops / mag lev on a massive scale, a workable fusion reactor, lab-grown meat, human gene editing, sustainable closed ecological systems, and, yes, seasteading and flying cars.
These obviously have inherent technical challenge and not all may actually be possible. But importantly, they also have social challenges — from runaway nanotech replication resulting in the gray goo to weaponization of any form of energy / biotech, to some asshole blowing up a new fast form of transportation to your brain upload being hacked / held hostage by the hosting company.
There are also social advances — universal basic income, a shared truth (or at least a visible web of trust), accurate measurement of externalities, transparency / accountability for decision makers, open borders, universal literacy (and I don’t just mean ABCs — but basic principles of logic, critical thinking, cognitive biases, personal finance, etc.), identification / extraction of gifted kids from shitty environments, etc.
For those, in addition to the technical challenges and the hijacking of the process by crooks and dictators, you also have a fair degree of opposition from everyone who is fundamentally tribal. Religious fanatics wouldn’t want too much education (especially on critical thinking). SJWs want gifted kids to suffer in bad schools so that they drag the troglodytes around them up an inch. Every flavor of rabid nationalist hates open borders to the extent that “globalist” is a dog whistle as much as “rootless cosmopolite” used to be even though economic analysis suggests there’s trillions of dollars of productivity lost through restrictions on migration.
5. But Achieving Them Requires Big Social Shifts that Are Near-Impossible
I’ve spent a lot of time saying why we can’t do this. Let’s ask how we can. How can we build the moonshot and get our flying car?
Option 1 is a cult of honesty. I don’t think we can go back to the Puritan ethic, but some version of fear of god actually works (if you separate it from the other bullshit). As much as I’m very anti-religious personally, I do think the fact that Russia is much further on the kleptocracy path than the US actually does have a lot to do with its 70 years of mandatory atheism (also executing / exiling its best people for most of that time). If you think big daddy is frowning at you for your ill-gotten gains, maybe you’ll be just a tad more honest. Then again, we are the nation of the televangelists asking broke and sick people to send them donations for a Learjet, so our hopes for religion ever being anything but a scam are slim.
Option 2 is an enlightened technocracy whose number one mandate is to make sure that individual rewards match value delivered to society — count up every externality. People in charge (or delegated to) who are intellectual, educated, and qualified to discern all the negative side-effects and all the scams being run while objectively weighting them against the benefits. People who are going to be beholden to the entire nation rather than just their tribe. People who won’t have a penny invested in anything other than whole-market index funds so there’s no potential to corruption. And unfortunately most of their work would be focused not on the actual innovation but on keeping the crooks out of the cookie jar of the trillions in investment.
This is probably the most realistic, but still EXTREMELY unlikely in our idiocracy. It’s just too easy to portray the people who are qualified to make decisions as out of touch elitists — and too hard to find the actual good people who are willing to do the work without skimming and scamming — quis custodiet and all that. Also, it has more than a whiff of communism — and not just as an epithet. The whole idea of central planning was that experts can better decide what to produce than markets. For most of the 20th century that was proven painfully wrong. With 21st century technology, it may be more possible. And I think it’s a big contributor to China’s success — they have put up large, dense cities on spec, created massive infrastructure projects, and gave a big fat FU to western incumbents trying to stifle innovation through regulations, patents, etc. through corporate espionage and lack of IP enforcement. So I think they’re more likely to get their act together for a flying car or a Mars mission. Whether that’s at a reasonable cost is an open question.
Option 3, and our personal favorite, is the fragmentation of nations into virtual societies built around a shared ethos. A lot of the reasons why we can’t come together on big shared problems is that we don’t share the same moral or intellectual foundations with our fellow citizens. It’s why countries like Norway have an easier time around saying “we’re going to nationalize oil drilling, get really good at it and create a national investment fund.” So if we want to reduce the incentives for corruption, we need to really feel like we’re part of the community that reaps the benefits. That way we won’t spend our lives trying to reach in each other’s pockets or elicit sweet sweet tears from someone on the other side of the political spectrum but instead can actually focus on big collective projects. I could go on for pages on that subject, but I’ve spent long enough here. Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age has a nice sketch of it if you’re interested.