Cases for Optimism

Readers, I appreciate you all, but you are so negative. I’ve published 64 pieces on Medium, but 75% of my lifetime pageviews come from just three: one about why US residential real estate is broken, one about the challenges of the mealkit industry, and one about how California has

Readers, I appreciate you all, but you are so negative.

I’ve published 64 pieces on Medium, but 75% of my lifetime pageviews come from just three: one about why US residential real estate is broken, one about the challenges of the mealkit industry, and one about how California has peaked because it’s too expensive for startups.

Apparently the formula for popularity is to take a topic that polarizing to lots of people, and validate the opinions of half of them while really irritating the other half. Ideally you spin it as negative (“Brooklyn is fine” is not going to get the same traction as “San Francisco is doomed.”)

This is not a recipe for thoughtful, engaging commentary. It’s a recipe for picking endlessly debatable topics and just beating them to death over and over again. No wonder online news is boring: they’re managing to their metrics. As Scott Alexander pointed out a while ago, the best stories are not the ones that are right, they’re the ones that are debatable.[1]

While pessimism can be thoughtful and useful, it’s also pretty easy. If you extrapolate the status quo long enough, you can always get to a disaster: drive a car in a straight line long enough, and it will eventually crash. Useful pessimism doesn’t consist of pointing this out; it means tapping the driver on the shoulder and saying “Hey, you saw that sign saying ‘BRIDGE OUT — GIANT CLIFF AHEAD — ½ MI.,’ right?”

But pessimism is paralyzing, and optimism is galvanizing. If the powers that be are all doing something wrong, your options are either selling out to join them or becoming a revolutionary. It’s more practical act on optimism, by changing your life to take advantage of it. On the other hand, that takes effort. Hey! Maybe I’ve figured out why pessimism sells so well…

With that in mind, I’d like to present a few causes for optimism.

The World Has Never Been Richer

For most of human history, life has sucked for most humans. But today, especially since the last half of the twentieth century, we’ve never been richer.

The share of people living in extreme poverty is down from 44% in the early 80s to just over 10% now. Hardware is cheap, software is free, and Internet access for the very poorest is subsidized — so to the extent that you can live your life online, we’re in a utopia.

Americans and Western Europeans don’t feel rich, for two reasons: one is that most of the things that have gotten cheap were already a small share of our incomes, while the things we spend a disproportionate share of money on (housing, healthcare) have gone up in price. The other reason is the Elephant Graph. Middle-class people in rich countries are the one demographic other than the desperately poor that hasn’t benefited much from recent economic growth. From a utilitarian standpoint, we can consider the fact that we’re still lucky to be alive right now, just less relatively lucky than we would have been three decades ago. From a practical standpoint, the relative rewards of getting very rich are going up, so we ought to do that.

Filter Bubbles are Easier to Build

An ideological filter bubble — a system where you don’t have access to dissenting views — can be harmful, but it’s potentially benign or even essential. I wrote about this a bit last year: every good idea starts out as an idea believed by a tiny number of people, so building a bubble is a way to help that idea flourish.

If you only want to associate with Vegans, or Mormons, or gun owners, or polyamorous Javascript coders, you can pretty easily set up your social media experience so that’s literally all you talk to. To the extent that these beliefs are toxic, that’s bad; to the extent that they’re just stuff you really like to nerd out about, though, it’s wonderful.

Assortative Mating is Easier, Too

There have always been Power Couples, but — for certain values of power — they’re getting more common. Online dating is directly responsible.

Assortative mating gets a bad rap. The worry is that if two members of the elite marry each other, their kids will definitely be elites, and intergenerational mobility will decline. That may be true, although the thesis has some holes. As you go up the income distribution, things start to get really skewed. A couple who are both in the 50th percentile might be a trucker and a bookkeeper, with income of, say $40k and $41k. But within the top 1%, they might be a neurosurgeon making $300k and a VP of Biz Dev making $800k. This reduces the opportunity cost of becoming a stay-at-home parent, which is driven home by the striking and hilarious fact that there’s a positive correlation between the prestige of someone’s MBA and her likelihood of being a homemaker.

To the extent that this increases high status people’s average family size, it’s diluting their status over more heirs. (While there’s a negative correlation between birthrates and household income, there’s a positive one between birthrates and mom’s educational attainment.)

In relative terms, I don’t think the rich are getting better-equipped to marry each other. Elites have always tried to marry within elites (to put a finer point on it, their parents have always pressured their kids to marry someone of an equal or slightly higher social station). What’s neat today is the intermarriage among the weird, not the rich.

I’ve met couples who go to video game and comic cons together, who both write books in the same genre, who both work at startups trying to change the world in slightly different ways, etc. It’s a lot easier to find someone who is precisely simpatico with you if you can skim their profile for compatibility before you even say hello.

When my wife and I met — on an online dating site — the first two commonalities we figured out were that we knew the same group of New York anarchists and that we’d both been linked by the same popular economics blog.

There might be some weird sociocultural risk from concentrating all the specific esoteric kinds of nerdiness into the same few families, but it’s a good system for us. If my wife reads a book, there’s a good chance I’ll want to read it, too; our mutual friends overlap a ton, too. Of course, married couples have always had some overlapping interests and some completely separate ones, but it’s easier than it’s ever been to find someone whose quirks match yours.

Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Donald Trump, and Andrew Yang

In the last three years, the American political Overton Window has widened at faster pace than any other time in my life. A Green New Deal, a radical restructuring of global trade, Basic Income — these are not necessarily good ideas, but the ideas we need are of a similar magnitude, if in a different direction.

There are downsides to the rise of Entertainment Politicians. But perhaps the US has been moving in the wrong direction here for a long time. Politicians get accorded a lot of respect despite not adding very much value to the world, so it might be better to have a system where we’re indifferent to the grandeur of the office but enthralled by their sick Twitter burns.[2]

The fake critique of these politicians is that they’re not ready for prime-time — not fully aware of the issues or the details, fond of advocating stuff that’s somewhere between dumb and downright evil. But that misses the point! Most of the things politicians are well-informed about are things where we’re at a local maximum, not where there’s a lot of uncertainty. As for evil, it’s hard to think of any politician who didn’t countenance a lot of it, although I concede that many of them had slicker PR.

Planes Are Getting Faster

Since the start of the industrial revolution, travel has accelerated. Horses to trains to cars; ships powered by wind, then coal, then oil; and then planes. And now we’re slower than we were when I was born. We’ve made a negative amount of progress! That’s not supposed to happen.

That trend appears to be reversing. Boom has a legitimate shot at making supersonic travel possible again, and once it’s safe over the ocean I suspect that it will be legal within the US. I’d visit friends on the West Coast a lot more often if the trip took about as long as a long commute, instead of eating a chunk of an entire workday.

We’re Going Back to Space

It’s really happening, and it’s really cool. There’s a boom in private space exploration, costs are dropping, and there are a lot of interesting plans — from microsatellites and space tourism to asteroid mining.

It’s striking how much of the technology industry in the 50s and 60s was subsidized by the Apollo program. The main thing we needed computers for was aiming rockets; everything else was a side project. Fortunately, while the cost of building one computer is high, the cost of building one more is quite reasonable, so the space race kicked off a long golden age in the hardware business, which itself caused a later boom in software.

I don’t think that exact history will repeat itself, but space is an extreme environment, which means it requires electronics that are durable, don’t need much power, and can keep on ticking despite lots of stress. These will have earthly applications, and should make electronics in general even better.

Drones! The Three Dimensional Last Mile

The physical limit on a city’s size is getting stuff in and out. Every day you need to feed people and ship them stuff, and you also need to get rid of a lot of garbage. Right now, cities can expand in three dimensions, but the logistics network mostly exists in two. And a little calculus (or, if you insist, common sense) will inform you that volume grows faster than perimeter.

If you read The Power Broker, one of the frequent themes is that traffic expands to fill available space. Or, looking at it another way, the average speed of travel in London has been about eight miles per hour for two centuries. Cars totally changed the way we get stuck in traffic, but in a dense city their added speed is offset by more space requirements.

So, drone delivery will be incredibly, transformatively cool. Imagine ordering takeout and just opening a window to get it. As a famous mathematician once noted, cars don’t just change the world for car owners, they change it for everyone. A world with less road surface per capita is a world with more greenery, bigger metropolises, and fewer hours wasted in traffic.

I love the New York skyline, and I’m going to love it even more when it features swarms of quad-copters zipping to and fro carrying deliveries of pad thai and toiletries.

The Internet Bubble Turned Out to be Right

How naive we were in March of 2000. We thought we’d be able to buy anything we wanted online, that anyone with enough “eyeballs” had a viable business, and that Internet companies could be hugely profitable.

Whoops, every single one of those claims was true. The bubble had the big picture right, and got all the details wrong. I’m glad some people kept the faith.

Optimism is Cool Again

This may be specific to my social circle, but I’ve noticed that many of the people who embraced an almost nihilistic level of pessimism are feeling a bit better these days. The socialists can point to AOC and say that socialism is viable again; the libertarians can look at the Silk Road and say that crypto-anarchism works, at least for a while; the coders are naturally doing great in financial terms, but they’re also actually building stuff, and it works, and it sells!

Maybe it’s because many of us have had kids, and suddenly pessimism feels less like a way to be cool and more like a way to be an extremely bad parent. Our kids will be around after we’re gone, and we’re building the world they’ll have to live in. The idea that they’ll live in some kind of grim dystopia is too unpleasant to countenance, so if we see incipient dystopia, our parental urge is to squash it.

But it’s deeper than just biology. There’s a cultural shift. We live in an observably weird world. There’s a reason people love jokes about how the writers of reality think they’re about to get cancelled, so they’re using every crazy idea they can think of this season. But weirdness happens because someone makes it so. And if you must live in a weird world, you might as well make it one that’s weird your way.

It’s a Good Time to Start a Company

Peak California notwithstanding, it’s a great time to start a company: there’s much better information than there’s ever been, and while marketing and sales channels are expensive, they also work. There’s a known playbook for scaling all sorts of software businesses. On the hardware side, the Chinese supply chain has done amazing things to cost structures (although there’s the risk that they will do amazing things to your IP, such as steal it).

With corporate acquirers on the hunt for strategic acquisitions, and venture capitalists cutting record-breaking checks, there’s abundant capital for building new companies.

Some AI is Ahead of Schedule

When I first read about AI, one of the things I learned was that go would take a generation longer than chess. Chess has about 10¹²⁰ possible board configurations; go has about 10¹⁷⁴. An AI beating go was something that was going to happen in the indefinite future right up to the point that AlphaGo beat Lee Sedol.

This highlights the odd path-dependence of technology. One reason AI has made lots of progress is that GPUs are cheaper, and GPUs are cheaper because they’re good for two things: video game graphics and cryptocurrency mining. Neither of these have very much to do with reimplementing intelligence in a silicon substrate, but they both accelerated the process. This is unlikely to be the last time that low-status nerd hobbies lead to fundamental advances.

Nerds Feel Okay About Reading Self-Help Books

And speaking of nerds: an important social change that’s happened recently is that nerds feel okay with reading self-help gurus like Tim Ferriss, Mark Rippetoe, and Jordan Peterson. This is not important because of anything specific that those gurus say; it’s a big deal for more abstract reasons. A few generations ago, it was understood that, if you faced challenges in your life, you’d read a particular self-help book called the Bible. As we’ve gotten more secular, that’s become low-status, so not-explicitly-Christian-but-basically-Christian self-help books have flourished as a replacement.

Some people look down on these. (As a rule, I try to avoid looking down on anything that’s a human universal, but this is a hard rule to follow.) Some populations feel okay about reading these books, but nerds have always found them especially low-status. Unfortunately for the nerds, the desire for inspiring-but-unchallenging literature is probably a human universal for a reason; their disdain for self-help means that nerds are slower to bounce back from emotional low points. And since most of the developments I’ve mentioned above are things implemented by nerds, this has a direct negative impact on progress.

There’s a long lag between when a change like this happens and when you can look back and explain that that’s what was going on. When Vitalik was writing Ethereum’s mining algorithm, or a game developer was designing the blood-splatter pattern for the latest first-person shooter, it wasn’t obvious that they were implicitly subsidizing GPUs that could be put to more virtuous uses. We won’t know for a decade or more what parts of human progress we can attribute to someone who was one book away from suicide. But I don’t doubt that they’re out there.