Big Things I'm Thinking About

A list of some of the questions I'm currently pondering. If you have insights into any of these, please reach out via Twitter!

Thank you to Patrick Collison for the inspiration. His list of questions can be found here.

What will economics look like in the 21st century and beyond?

Economics is predicated on growth. There are several arguments that the 20th Century was a historical anomaly in terms of economic growth. As the worldwide population levels out, can we continue to rely on productivity gains for economic growth? What would a no-growth economy look like?

What is the best type of economic system for innovation?

Had you asked me this question a few years ago, I would have quoted Adam Smith (“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the yada yada…”) and told you that the freer the market, the better. However, I’ve recently reconsidered my view.

In the last century, huge scientific achievements were made through public-private partnerships. Government funding and involvement was indispensable in the Manhattan Project, the development of the Internet, and myriad advancements that came out of PARC and Bell Labs. In the 1960s, NASA put a man on the moon with less computing power than the devices that sit in all of our pockets. These technologies were developed in part because government funding allowed for exploratory research; the inefficiencies necessary for innovation would not have survived in a solely private market setting.

Why don’t we place big bets and chase audacious goals like this today? Why don’t we do something similar to engineer our way out of global warming or mine asteroids?

Furthermore, China has pioneered a state-sponsored form of capitalism that has led to huge economic gains in the past 30 years. Authoritarian government cuts through red tape in building infrastructure. Developing AI is much easier when you can collect vast troves of data with impunity. Tellingly, recent cutting-edge human genome editing research took place in China.

Broadly, ethics slow technological progress. How can we develop technology in an ethical way without falling behind in a winner-take-all arms race?

There are many relevant, thought-provoking links in this Twitter thread.

Why are companies all internally structured in the same way?

We make fun of management inefficiencies and Dilbert-esque layers of bureaucracy. However, if companies exist to maximize profit, why have they converged on this structural Schelling Point? Is this truly the most efficient form of management?

Potential answer here.

Why are there so many bullshit jobs?

I think a lot about the phenomenon of bullshit jobs. (Slate Star Codex post here. Hacker News discussion here.)

The majority of people’s economic prosperity is tied directly to a job. Does this need to be the case? It seems that jobs today are largely an implicit wealth redistribution mechanism for society. Are there better alternatives? (Universal Basic Income experiments come to mind.)

Largely, wealth is created through ownership, not wages. Yet entrepreneurship in the U.S. is declining, while technology and automation concentrate wealth. There is a lack of real wage growth, while upper middle class essentials like college tuition have drastically increased in price. This economic stagnation directly coincides with the rise of bullshit jobs.

What can be done about this? Many people feel like their work doesn’t matter and that they are simply paper-pushers in society today. Can we create meaningful jobs in society or should we be pursuing a different paradigm altogether?

What are the effects of environment on an individual?

So many life decisions are made by default. Most people choose the city they live in, their careers, their friendships, and perhaps even their partners not by consciously examining the decision, but rather by simply not deviating from the status quo.

Cultivating a routine and the right environment can increase your day-to-day happiness and satisfaction exponentially. How can we:

  1. Measure these effects?
  2. Use those learnings to optimize decision-making?

How can people choose the right cities to live in, careers, and relationships? How do we turn the unknown unknowns in these life decisions into known unknowns?

How do we redefine masculinity?

Historically, women have had the primary child-rearing role in the family unit, while it was the man’s role to be the breadwinner. In the past ~100 years, women have entered the workforce en masse and no longer need to rely on men financially.

To be clear, this is a good thing. However, it also has lead to an existential crisis for men.

Many men feel superfluous in modern society. They used to have an absolute advantage in the labor market that has now been lost. Women are now both financial providers as well as the creators of life that men can never be (due to biology).

Meanwhile, in the mainstream media femininity and women are actively celebrated while men are lampooned. Traditional masculine traits such as physical strength and stoicism are viewed as outdated. Even using the word “masculinity” calls to mind the modifier “toxic”.

How do men fit into this new world? How can we get men the support they need to be productive members of society?

Why are some countries so rich?

What is the set of circumstances that leads to wealth in a country? How can we recreate the past 50 years of economic growth in Singapore in other countries?

Conversely, how can we help countries avoid the economic fate of Argentina (a country I love)? Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world 100 years ago and has since stagnated. How can the natural wealth of countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo be translated into economic prosperity for its residents?

What information is hiding in plain sight?

The warning signs of the 2008 Financial Crisis were in publicly available documents, but few people capitalized on the opportunity. What other important information is in the world that people are (consciously or subconsciously) choosing to ignore?