Interview: Noah Smith
On Genghis Khan, meritocracies, worldviews, Japanese awesomeness and maintaining sanity through fun and rabbits
No introductions (didn’t you read the byline?), just an exhortation to go subscribe.
First question, a trip back in time. What lessons can we learn from studying the crusades? You had a theory about lack of motivation as the key factor in Europe's loss. What's the general theory here? Isn't this a malaise that comes from having multiple factions who drive policy decisions, no different than IBM seeming listless decades after peaking?
Maybe. I don't think even professional historians have a good answer here -- as is so often the case for these big historical questions. And I'm not sure studying historical analogies like this really makes a lot of sense when trying to derive lessons for modern business strategy; the parallels are so loose that even if we knew exactly why Europe lost the crusades, it wouldn't tell us much about IBM. At best we can hope to be inspired by specific features of specific anecdotes. For example, in Frank McLynn's book about Genghis Khan, he notes that Genghis was a master of "dual-use" policies -- actions that would generally serve a military purpose, an economic purpose, and a domestic political purpose all at once.
Now, I don't know if that's an accurate characterization of Genghis's genius, or one historian's narrative, but reading that certainly spurred me to think more about how policy ideas could serve dual purposes in the present day. For example, basic research spending can be used to advance productivity, revitalize certain regions, and help the U.S. compete with China all at once. As for the Crusades, I'm not sure what the main lessons are beyond "Don't let your society's foreign policy be dominated by organized religion", and "Try to avoid initiating an open-ended war against a technologically superior civilization".
I always loved Victor Hugo's line, "History is mostly guessing; the rest is prejudice". It is however useful as ways to expand our understanding of things that could be!
That said, a key facet of Genghis' genius was also his exceptional openness to talent regardless of provenance. He was also famously hands-off as a ruler post conquest. The former we see more in some startups, and the latter not even there. How can we affect our culture to make this happen more in our policy landscape? The outcome seems great in theory, but does it require a Khan to implement it?
To be honest, I think our society has moved a huge amount in the direction of meritocracy -- of being open to talent. I think we're really good at that at this point. But I think our pursuit of meritocracy has caused us to neglect a few important things. One is ambition; the people whose talent we discover are the people who come to us, who shove their talent in our faces, because their parents instilled drive and ambition and confidence in them. But there are a lot of talented people out there whose abilities never get discovered because no one ever told them they should aim high, or because they didn't have parents to push them, or because they simply lacked confidence. My brother-in-law grew up poor in a trailer park, no one in his family had ever been to college. But my sister instilled him with a little more ambition, and he just graduated from a top law school. Without the luck of meeting my sister, he might still be in a trailer park! So our system is so focused on setting up these tournaments for ambitious people that we fail to go out and nurture the ambition of people who have undiscovered talent.
The second thing we've neglected is the talents of the broad middle. Most people aren't super-geniuses, and yet having a broad and deep industrial base relies crucially on the mass application of the talents of people who are not super-geniuses. You can't run a flourishing technical society entirely on the genius of Harvard hedge fund managers, Stanford entrepreneurs, and MIT engineers. You need the process engineers who went to Michigan State, the lab techs who went to CUNY. the IT support staff who went to Texas Tech. In America we're so focused on screening for the top talent that we often miss our opportunities to uplift the broad base. As a result, we've been losing middle-skilled jobs, our society is polarizing, and we're losing our industrial base. We need to refocus on uplifting and utilizing the broad middle of our society. Even Genghis Khan could never have conquered Asia if the regular soldiers in his army didn't know how to shoot a bow and ride a horse.
That story about your brother-in-law is harrowing, mostly because the Rawlsian veil is so thin. It's astonishing what a little motivation can help spur! I had a similar notion on outlier spotting - not just that we're overweight on the right tail, but that in being so focused we often fall prey to Berkson's paradox.
Also, education and employment have also historically been the core ways to create a resilient and self-fulfilled middle class. You did have an education proposal a while back, to start federal universities like IITs in the US. You also had a Bloomberg column about how jobs provided people with much more than money, they were a source of pride. In the era of Thiel Fellowships and Emergent Ventures and the creator economy, are these still the right answer? Back to techno-utopian roots, what can a new version of this look like?
I know some Thiel fellows, and I like them and I hope they do great things. But at the same time, I feel that the Thiel Fellows program isn't the kind of thing that can scale up -- it's not a call for the average person to eschew college to be an engineer or technician, it's a call for a tiny thin sliver of the ultra-elite to eschew college so they can get a head start on amassing vast wealth in winner-take-all markets. And on some level, that still assumes that we live in an Atlas Shrugged world, where a tiny number of geniuses produce the value and everyone is still along for the ride. Maybe it really is that way, but I don't think so.
Let's think more about Genghis Khan's society versus the societies he overcame. The Middle Ages were an epoch where warfare was dominated by cavalry, and in settled agrarian societies you had these hereditary aristocratic classes who knew how to fight on horseback because their families were rich enough to purchase them a horse. This is where the word "chivalry" came from. These horse-riding nobility were able to essentially have their way with the other classes of society. But in steppe nomad society, practically everyone had a horse and knew how to fight on horseback. They had their aristocratic hierarchies as well -- the so-called "black bone" system being the Mongol version -- but Genghis realized he could do away with that. Because human capital was broadly distributed throughout Mongol society, he could leverage human capital on a mass scale. And so he just rolled right over everyone else -- both the sedentary societies who depended on hereditary cavalry classes, and the other steppe societies that clung to outmoded aristocratic hierarchies. Obviously having brilliant generals like Subutai and Muqali helped with that, but they couldn't have overcome societies with 100x their population if even the poorest, most humble Mongol warrior hadn't been an absolute badass.
There's a lesson here: A successful society rests on a broad foundation of human capital; it does not place all its hopes on a thin sliver of genius. I see too many people in Silicon Valley -- both liberals and conservatives -- tacitly accept the notion that only a few people have real potential. And maybe that's because venture-funded software is such a winner-take-all market. I don't know. But that's not the attitude that will bring this country a broad industrial renaissance or social revitalization.
I truly do like the notion that looks at human capital less as a pyramid where only the capstone matters with a trickle down theory for benefits for the rest of humanity!
Meanwhile, changing subjects a bit. Something I really enjoy in your writing is that it is unabashedly a fan of, dare I say, popular culture, whether that's the best anime or science fiction for economists. So a question on cultural transmission - why hasn't Chinese/ Japanese culture permeated Western culture more, compared to vice versa? Do you have a theory of how/if we might expect this to happen?
Well, in terms of Japanese culture, I think it really has permeated Western culture quite a lot. In terms of popular culture, anime, manga, Japanese video games, and cosplay are pretty huge. In fact, I wrote a whole post about how Japanese cultural products have spawned subcultures in other countries. Japanese food is huge in America. Continuous improvement (kaizen), six sigma quality control, and a bunch of other manufacturing practices have changed the way we make things. Young people who post food pics or street fashion on Instagram may not realize it, but those things come from Japanese culture. I go to suburban malls and there are a bunch of Japanese stores, and American stores are selling Japanese products.
On a subtler level, Japanese cultural concepts are starting to diffuse into American culture as well. The stories we tell are subtly influenced by Japanese stories -- the original Star Wars was based on a Kurosawa movie called Hidden Fortress, and the word "jedi" comes from "jidai", meaning the "period" of a period piece. When American kids fight with toy swords, the styles they're imitating come from kendo, not from European swordsmanship (and a lot of that is because of Star Wars). All kinds of other story tropes have made it from Japan to the U.S. American Idol was based on a Japanese show. Americans know what "senpai" and "kohai" are now. Americans are starting to take off their shoes inside. Americans are starting to do karaoke as a regular form of entertainment. Americans know about the yakuza. I could go on, but you get the point; Japan is one of our biggest cultural influences.
I will say that we haven't made cities like Japan makes them, but then again, no one does; that kind of urban planning is incredibly difficult to pull off, and even other Asian countries can rarely copy it.
As for China, the big problem there is that China until very recently was a poor country, and very closed-off. It has recently become more open, but it's still hard to get into China (and to get into the U.S. from China), and now even that is reversing. So partly it's just a matter of contact, and until recently it was partly a matter of income. But part of it is also that China is ruled by the CCP, which has instilled in many Chinese people the idea that America is the enemy. And now Americans are starting to get this idea about China as well. So enmity is going to impede cultural transmission, I think.
Hmmm, I feel that I'm over-exposed to Japanese culture as well, but then I do love anime and read Murakami and Ogawa and watched Miyazaki so there's selection effects at play here. But if we think back to the good old days of Die Hard, I feel we were expecting imminent Japanisation of society. And while weeb culture has permeated us, it does feel like it exists in a cul-de-sac, and not prominent in the way Western culture permeates back. And when I land in Tokyo it still feels alien (in the best way). But I take your point! My personal favourite of these is of course the Ninja Warrior because of how insane it is. And I can't wait until wabi-sabi is a bigger part of life.
You did have a few posts recently about how the world is about to get weirder. I wanted you to talk a bit more about it - which parts of it are you most excited about? What does the world you want to live in, say 20 years from now, look like, if you could paint a picture?
The truth is, Japan feels like an alien world mainly because Japanese cities are built differently than our cities. They're built on a block system rather than a grid system, they have multi-level retail, they have a lot more underground stuff, and their transit is denser than pretty much anywhere. There are a few other differences too. It's really hard to build cities on that sort of plan -- almost no one else in the world does it (maybe only Taipei). I don't think Japanese cities can be models for American cities, to be perfectly frank. We're better off trying to imitate Seoul or Amsterdam or Munich. Those are good models for what our cities could be like if we densified.
I'm excited about all kinds of weirdness, but part of loving weirdness is loving the unexpected. It's not weird if you expect it! But anyway, I'm excited about all kinds of technological stuff I think I can predict. mRNA vaccines to end most of our chronic infectious diseases. Brain-computer interface to let us control machines with our minds. Cybernetic limbs with high-quality touch feedback. Artificial eyes wired to the internet. Electric bikes and scooters making cities much easier to get around. Electric aircraft. Hell, electric everything! Green hydrogen for industry. AI to figure out the true toxicity of all our organic chemicals. Dog collars that let dogs talk to us. Brain implants that cure depression. Space colonies. Digital telepathy. Anti-addiction technology. The list goes on.
As for what kind of world I want to live in...We need to kick the global trend toward authoritarianism and the local trend toward sectarianism. We need to make social media less of a hellscape of trolling and criticism and cancel culture. We need to remember why we spent years trying to tamp down and calm down the violence in American society, so that we can recommit ourselves to nonviolence. We need to learn to appreciate other cultures without constantly thinking about them in terms of past wars and conflicts. We need a lot of stuff. Right now things look very bad, but things looked bad in the mid-70s too, which I think is the best allegory for where we are now.
Indeed! In order for us to get there I feel a key hurdle to be jumped across is the ability to coordinate ourselves better. I've been thinking about the fact that with increase in scale and complexity we get hit with various forms of obstruction. This is as true in large companies, governments, public services, or even collective action to fight NIMBYs. How can we make more progress here do you think, compared to what we've managed to accomplish thus far? Is it all street level guerilla warfare per issue, or are there possibilities of progress that can span fields?
As we saw with Covid, not even a disaster that killed a million Americans was sufficient for us to make major changes to any of our institutions. Thus, it's probably going to be street level guerrilla warfare. Mancur Olson's theory of institutional ossification probably applies here; we have a lot of incumbents who are very used to getting benefits from the American system, and who are intent on retaining those benefits even when the economic rationale for them no longer exists, and who have the political power to make sure they keep getting paid at the expense of the efficiency of the overall system. So we are going to have to wrestle these institutions to the mat one by one, and it's going to be very annoying and take a lot of effort.
Going off from that, what are the best non-private agencies today, in your view, and what can we learn from them? Not just in the US, but internationally, those whom we can look at and sigh that at least some parts of the world are working properly!
Well, obviously, BARDA worked pretty well, did it not? I mean, we created the best vaccines in the world, in record time (igniting a new technological revolution in the process!), and distributed these vaccines extremely rapidly on an absolutely vast scale with no noticeable supply chain hiccups. Is that not an incredible success by a public agency? That wasn't just a scientific triumph (as we've come to expect from, say, DARPA), it was a triumph of large-scale rapid logistics, execution, and public-private cooperation. It was absolutely as impressive as anything we did in World War 2. It's a feat that no other government on Earth except Germany (who cooperated with us on the mRNA vaccine effort) has matched. And certainly not China, which even now is struggling to reinvent mRNA vaccines after its own vaccines have proven ineffective against Omicron, and which as a result is being forced to slow down its economy in a losing battle to contain the uncontainable new variant. Compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. government executed an absolute miracle.
And the people who are saying our government is broken and is a failure and can't do big things anymore are just utterly ignoring this. When our government executes miracles, we ignore it; it's just how things are expected to work. And then when things go wrong we throw up our hands and wail about decline and dysfunction, or turn to easy simplistic wrong ideas like "government can't execute anything efficiently". This sort of toxic attention asymmetry is itself a contributor to government dysfunction, because it means we ignore all the things that go right. So we fall back into this trap of thinking that we either have to just throw more money at the problem or cut back the set of things we expect government to do. Efficiency of execution is off the table because when it does happen, as it did with BARDA and the mRNA vaccines, we ignore it.
BARDA was amazing and its actually quite crazy that they don't get the fanfare they should! And I couldn't agree more on the selective myopia towards government actions, as I've written about, and it drives me bananas. Do you feel that BARDA's success was because it was (mostly) left alone to do its thing without a huge amount of public attention to it? I have a hypothesis that the Sauron's eye of people's attention causes issues and agencies to become caricatures of themselves, and consequently 10% more opacity (a la Garett Jones) is actually needed!
I think part was because BARDA was left alone, but to be honest the CDC and FDA started having issues long before Covid thrust them into the public eye. More likely it was a combination of other factors. BARDA probably draws more competent and elite personnel from the bio world. The CDC got a fairly incompetent Trump appointee to head it (Robert Redfield). But other than that, there are probably a lot of historical and organizational factors that need to be looked into by careful research, so we can understand why BARDA did well while the CDC consistently dropped the ball. Again, we can't simply draw generalizations about government doing things efficiently or inefficiently; we need to find out how to make government do its job right. Which means recognizing the successes and drawing lessons from them.
Agreed! Ok, final question. We've covered techno-optimism, cultural osmosis, institutional sclerosis, Genghis Khan's managerial lessons, meritocracy and the awesome cities of Japan. Combine this for me - what constitutes the unique Noah Smith worldview? What is the philosophy you hold that helps you make sense of this funny crazy world we live in?
Well, to be honest I'm still trying to figure that out. I have a lot of ways of thinking about a lot of different topics, and I don't really feel the need to combine those into one simple, internally consistent worldview the way many do. In fact, that may be the clearest expression of my worldview -- the idea that internal consistency is useful for proselytizing an ideology but not useful for seeing the world clearly. The world is not a consistent place, and neither the set of theories that best describe the world nor the set of principles that best guide us to do the right thing will tend to be internally consistent. We can apply lessons from one area to another, but trying to enforce internal consistency simply limits our thinking and forces us to espouse things we don't really believe. Internal consistency is thus more about salesmanship than it is about being right about stuff.
In general, though, my outlook on the kind of stuff we've talked about here is not too complicated. The United States has allowed zero-sum thinking to turn what was once an expansive, growing nation into one that now feels cramped and constraining. We need to go back to being the kind of place that has room for everyone -- where identity groups don't feel like they're pitted against each other, where one person's success isn't predicated on another person's failure, where cities don't price people out, etc. We need broad-based education that lifts up the broad middle instead of just selecting the elite at the top. We need to build more housing and more transit. We need to fund and improve science so that we get more technology to better our lives, protect us from threats like disease, and power faster growth. We need better, simpler welfare policies to make sure growth is broadly shared even when people can't work. And we need a society that respects all of its members, that credibly promises everyone that they have an inalienable place in American society. These are the goals we need to agree on. Our arguments should be about how to get there.
And just to bring it back to Genghis Khan...this was something that Genghis never imagined. He was born into a zero-sum world, where the best way to get rich was to seize land and privileges from others. He won that zero-sum game, probably more brilliantly and completely than anyone before or since. But in the end he was playing the wrong game. We were not born into this world to fight over scraps until we die. We were born into this world to remake it so that we don't have to fight over scraps.