Political Violence and Distraction Theories
This is the 4th post of 5 containing the transcript of a podcast hosted by Eric Weinstein interviewing Peter Thiel.
Eric Weinstein: So, this is why I try to sell you sometimes on a more progressive view of the world, which is I want deregulated capitalism. I want the people who have the rare skillsets to be able to integrate across many different areas, and to be honest, this is the thing that I wish more people understood about what you bring, which is that you’re able to think in, I don’t know, 15 different idioms that most people only have one or two of. So, whatever it is that you’re doing to integrate these things as an investor and to direct research and direct work is really something that I’ve watched firsthand for six years. The problem that I have is, we are going to have to take care of the median individual. And I less think that the median individual is going to be reachable by the market over time, as some of these things that are working in Silicon in terms of machine learning-
Peter Thiel: Yeah, but then you’re being more optimistic on progress in tech than is… Because look, I think, yes, if we have runaway automation, and if we’re building robots that are smarter than humans and can do everything humans can do, then we probably have to have a serious conversation about a universal basic income or something like that, and you’re going to end up with a very, very weird society. I don’t see the automation happening at all, and I think the question of automation in my mind is identical to this question of productivity growth. We’ve been automating for 200, 250 years, since Industrial Revolution, agriculture and manufacturing, and the sort of society we have in the early 21st century is one in which most jobs are non-tradable service sector jobs that are not easily automatable.
Peter Thiel: So, it’s like a waiter in a restaurant. It’s a yoga instructor. It’s a nurse. It’s a kindergarten teacher. That’s what most jobs in our society are, and because they’ve been so resistant to automation, that this may be one of the reasons why the productivity numbers are slowing down, even if we’re still innovating as fast in manufacturing, and even if we’re still agriculture, they’re a smaller and smaller part of the economy. So, even 5% a year productivity growth in manufacturing, that means a lot more if manufacturing is 60% of the economy, than it does when it’s, say, 20% of the economy. So, that’s roughly what I think would happen, and if you just look at the current dynamic in the US as we have unemployment, like 3.6%, 3.7%. It’s super low, and still, there doesn’t seem to be that much wage pressure. There doesn’t seem to be that much growth. The productivity numbers still aren’t great. You’d think there’d be enormous incentives to increase productivity.
Eric Weinstein: It’s quite confusing to me. Yeah.
Peter Thiel: But I think, again, my read on it is just the automation story has been oversold.
Eric Weinstein: I agree that the automation story has been oversold.
Peter Thiel: It’s possible it’s going to happen. It’s possible it’s just around the corner, and it’s about to happen. That’s what we’ve been told in a lot of these areas over the last 40, 50 years.
Eric Weinstein: So, I have a couple questions about this. One is sort of, if I think about how common retail occupations are, is there something about retail that is resistant to Amazonification, if you will, where people actually want to go shop in a physical place and are willing to pay a premium that we have just to have human contact? Maybe there’s some information exchange. Maybe there’s a recreational aspect that’s bundled. That’s one of my two questions, and the other one surrounds the idea that we’ve always focused on when is AGI coming, and the robots that will do everything? Part of the lesson for me about machine learning is how many things humans were doing that don’t require anything like artificial general intelligence. Just some specialized neural net seems to be good enough to do the job. So, those would be two questions in my mind as to how-
Peter Thiel: Yes, but I think all these things you have to concretize, and yes, I think retail is a sector that’s under quite a bit of pressure, and is going to stay under quite a bit of pressure. That’s the top one I would come up with is-
Eric Weinstein: Well, it’s looks vulnerable to me.
Peter Thiel: Amazon is the most threatening of the big tech companies in that it’s threatening a lot of other companies elsewhere in the industry and disrupting them and making things more efficient, but probably with a lot of sheer forces at work in that process. So, I agree that that’s a candidate for automation or productivity improvements or things like that. I’m still not convinced that it’s in the aggregate shifting things that much, and then you can go through all sorts of individual job descriptions where people used to have secretaries because typing was a skill, and with a word processor you don’t quite need this. You can do short emails. You don’t quite need a secretary. People still have executive assistants that sort of somehow do slightly different set of responsibilities, but it’s not clear we have fewer executive assistants than we used to have secretaries.
Peter Thiel: So, when one actually concretizes it, it’s not quite clear how disruptive the automation that’s happening really is. Again, it’s a version of the tech stagnation thing. It’s always the last 40, 50 years, things have been slow. We’re always told it’s about to accelerate like crazy. That may be true. In some ways, I hope that’s true, but if one was simply extrapolating from the last 40 to 50 years, perhaps the default is that we should be more worried about the lack of automation than excess automation.
Eric Weinstein: Oh, that’s really interesting.
Peter Thiel: Yeah. Again, I think if we had this sort of runaway automation, you could get to 3%, 4% GDP growth, and at 3% to 4% GDP growth, we can solve these problems socially.
Eric Weinstein: You would be willing to have… This thing that I’ve been talking to Andrew Yang about has been the idea of hyper-capitalism, which is a deregulated hyper-capitalism where you can do more experimenting, more playing, coupled to some kind of hyper-socialism where you recognize that the median individual might not be able in the future to easily defend a position needed for family formation.
Peter Thiel: Well, let me rephrase this a little bit. You’re not going to get a conversion experience on your first podcast here, Eric.
Eric Weinstein: You’re going to make me wait for the next?
Peter Thiel: Maybe, or maybe even a little longer than that too. But I would say if we can get the GDP growth back to 3% a year on a sustainable basis-
Eric Weinstein: Without fudging.
Peter Thiel: … without fudging, without lying about productivity numbers, et cetera, then there will be a lot more room for various social programs. I wouldn’t want them to be misdirected in all sorts of ways, but there would be a lot of things that we could do. And I would be very uncomfortable starting with the social programs without the growth. That’s the sort of conversation that I often see happening in Silicon Valley, where we start with UBI, because we’re lying about automation. If automation’s happening, then we’ll see in the productivity numbers, and then eventually, maybe we need something like UBI. If automation is not happening and you do UBI, then you just blow up the economy.
Eric Weinstein: Right. I should say, and you’ve come somewhat towards-
Peter Thiel: Doing them in parallel, I’m okay with that. I’m not not okay with starting with the socialism. Even a Marxist wouldn’t believe this. Even a Marxist thinks you have to first get the capitalists to do things before you can redistribute stuff.
Eric Weinstein: Right. I know.
Peter Thiel: You can’t start with the redistribution before we’ve done the automation.
Eric Weinstein: I’m not even a Marxist, Peter, but the thing that I was going to say is that as you talk about the fact that we can solve some of these problems socially, I want to talk about from the progressive side, I’m not interested in using social programs where markets continue to function. I mean, the idea of making people personally accountable for their own happiness and their own success and path through the world is incredibly liberating, and I view markets as providing most of the progress that we now enjoy. So, there is something that’s very weird and punitive about the desire for redistribution. I mean, there’s almost a desire to tag the wealthy that has nothing to do with taking care of the unfortunate, and what I really am talking about here is how do we get a conversation between left and right, which isn’t cryptic, which isn’t-
Peter Thiel: Yeah. Of course, I have a much more cynical view of this where I think the redistribution rhetoric, it’s mainly not even targeted at the wealthy.
Eric Weinstein: Oh, it’s targeted at the sub-wealthy.
Peter Thiel: It’s targeted at the lower-middle class, at the deplorables, or whatever you want to call them, and it’s a way to tell them that they will never get ahead, nothing will happen in their life and, and that’s actually why a lot of people who are lower-middle class or middle class are viscerally quite strongly opposed to welfare, because it’s always an insult to them. It’s always heard as an insult. I’m not sure they’re wrong to feel that.
Eric Weinstein: Well, and I feel that a lot of the talk about redistribution is actually families of high eight through eleven figures trying to figure out how to target families of six-figure through low eight-figure wealth as the targets of the redistribution, that the very wealthy will be able to shelter assets and protect themselves or maybe even switch nations, whereas people who are dentists and orthodontists and accountants are going to be the ones viewed as the rich, who are going to be incapable of getting themselves out of the way.
Eric Weinstein: So, I think that partially, what good faith conversation between left and right opens up is that we have a shared interest in uncovering all of the schemes of the people who enjoy pushing around pieces of paper and giving speeches in order to engineer society for their own reasons.
Peter Thiel: Yeah. So, one way I would restate what you just said would be that redistribution from the powerful to the powerless, from the rich to the poor, is like from the powerful to the powerless, and so using power to go after those with power, and that’s almost oxymoronic.
Eric Weinstein: It’s almost oxymoronic.
Peter Thiel: It’s almost self-contradictory. So, there may be some way to do that. I think most of the time you end up with with some fake redistribution, some sort of complicated shell game of one sort or another. I know the causation of the stuff is much, much trickier, but if we look at societies that are somehow further to the left on some scale, the inequality, you have to go really far to the left, and maybe just destroy the whole society, before you really start solving the inequality problem.
Peter Thiel: California, when I first moved here as a kid in 1977, would have been sort of a centrist state in the US politically, and was broadly middle class. Today, California’s the second most democratic state. It’s a D plus 30 state. It’s a super unequal, and at least on a correlated basis, not causation, but at least on a correlated basis, the further to the left it’s gone, the more unequal it’s become, and there is something pretty weird about that.
Eric Weinstein: There is.
Eric Weinstein: Something that sort of fits in here is that, in part I’ve learned from you, and you can tell me whether you recognize this formulation or not, is start with any appealing social idea. That’s step one. Step two, ask what is the absolute minimal level of violence and coercion that would be necessary to accomplish that idea. Now add that to the original idea. Do you still find your original idea attractive? This flips many of these propositions into territory where I suddenly realized that something that people see as being very attractive actually can only be accomplished with so much misery, even if it’s done maximally efficiently, that it’s no longer a good idea. This has been very influential in my thinking, and what I’ve-
Peter Thiel: Yeah, look. The visceral problem with communism is not its redistributed tendencies. It’s the extreme violence. It’s that you have to kill tons of people. One of the professors I studied under at Stanford, René Girard, was a sort of of great philosophical, sociological, anthropological thinker, and he had this observation that he thought communism among Western intellectuals became unfashionable. You could date it to the year 1953, the year Stalin died, and the reason was they were not communist in spite of the millions of people being killed. They were communist because of the millions of people who were being killed. As long as you were willing to kill millions of people, that was a tell, a sign that you were building the utopia, you were building a great new society, and when you stopped, it was just going to be like the lethargy of the Brezhnev era or something like that, and that that was not inspiring. I mean, people shifted from Stalin to Mao or Castro, but the violence was charismatic, very charismatic, but then also, if you think about it, it’s very undesirable.
Eric Weinstein: It’s so fascinating that we actually finally get to something like this. I think that that is a correct description of part of the communist movement, but not all of the communist movement. There were a lot of people, I think, and just my own family was certainly involved in far-left politics, and some of it probably dipped into communism. What my sense of it was is that there was a period in the ’30s where people realized that there had to be coordinated social action, and that there were people who were too vulnerable, and that that somehow got wrapped up in all of the things that Stalin was talking about that sounded positive if you didn’t know the reality.
Eric Weinstein: So, for example, Paul Robeson, a hero of the left, was extolling Stalin’s virtues openly. My guess is that he didn’t fully understand what had happened, that he had gotten involved in an earlier era, and that as things became known and progressed, there was a point at which many people suddenly opened their eyes and said, “I’ve been making excuses for the Soviet Union,” because at least it had the hope… I mean, there were American blacks, for example, who moved to Moscow because of the hope that it was going to be a racially more equal society. My own family, I would say, was talking about interracial marriage and open support of homosexuality, female access to birth control. Those things were associated with the communist party, and a lot of those ideas are now commonplace, but we forget that once upon a time only the communists were willing to dance with these things.
Peter Thiel: Yes. I don’t want to make this too ad hominem, but I want to say that people like your family, were likely very intelligent people, were somehow still always the useful idiots, and there was no country where the communists actually came to power where people like those your family actually got to make the decisions.
Peter Thiel: Somehow, maybe there were indirect ways that it was helpful or beneficial in countries that did not become communist, but in countries that actually became communist, it didn’t actually ever seem to work out for those people.
Eric Weinstein: I definitely think that there was some sense that they were fooled and duped in this situation, but by the same token, not wanting to make this too ad hominem, as a gay man, I think that a lot of your rights would have been seen much earlier by the communists who were earlier to that party. I think that to an extent, some of the things that we just take for granted as part of living in a tolerant society were really not found outside, and so if you were trying to dine in a la carte, maybe you could take something from the commie buffet, you could take something from the anticommunist buffet, and you could steal a little from regular party politics. Of course, the Dixiecrats were not exactly the most racially progressive group in the world. Things were very different, and there was no clear place to turn.
Peter Thiel: Yeah, it’s always easy for us to judge people in the past too harshly, so I think that’s a good generalization. I would say that there’s something about the extreme revolutionary movements that always seem to be… From my point of view, the violence was always too much, and it’s a package. It’s a package deal, but I don’t like the violence part of the package, and that’s the part that, at the end of the day, makes me think the package would not have been worth it.
Eric Weinstein: So, what I would like to do is to take a quick break, and I would like to come back on exactly this point, because it’s the point where I feel that perhaps you are least understood by the outside world in terms of what we’ve been talking about, both growth and progress on the one hand, and violence on the other. So, when we come back, we’ll pick it up with Peter Thiel. Thank you.
Peter Thiel: Thanks.
Growth vs Violence
Eric Weinstein: Welcome back to The Portal. I’m here with my friend and employer, Peter Thiel, for this, our inaugural interview episode, and we’ve just gotten to a point which I hope people who’ve been tracking your career, your books, your thought process are going to find interesting, because I think it’s the thing that if I had to guess, would be the thing that people least understand about you, or maybe they have wrong the most. Ever since I’ve known you, your focus has weirdly been reduction of violence across a great number of different topics at a level that I don’t think has leaked out into the public’s understanding of you and what causes you to make the choices you make. How do you see growth as attached to reduction of violence?
Peter Thiel: Well, I think that it’s very hard to see how anything like the kinds of societies we have in Western Europe, the United States, could function without growth. I think the way sort of a parliamentary republican democracy works is you have a group of people sitting around the table, they craft complicated legislation, and there’s a lot of horse trading, and as long as the pie’s growing, you can give something to everybody. When the pie stops growing, it becomes a zero sum dynamic, and the legislative process does not work. So, the sort of democratic types of parliamentary systems we’ve had for the last 200, 250 years have mapped on to this period of rapid growth. We had sort of a very bad experiment in the 1930s where the growth stopped, at least from the economic sense, and the systems became fascist or communist. It doesn’t actually work.
Peter Thiel: So, I suspect that if we’re in for a period of long growth [Ben: I think Peter here means “a period where growth is a long way away”], I don’t think our kind of government can work. I think there is a prospect of all sorts of forms of violence, more violence by the state against its citizens. There may be more zero sum wars globally, or there may be other ways things are super deformed to pacify people. So, maybe everyone just smokes marijuana all day, but that’s also kind of deformed. But I think a world without growth is either going to be a much more violent or a much more deformed world. And again, it’s not the case that growth simply solves all problems. So, you can have very rapid growth, and you can still have the problem of violence. You can still have bad things that can happen, but that’s our only chance. Without growth, I think it’s very hard to see how you have a good future.
Eric Weinstein: You have to know that there is a version of you that exists in the minds of pundits and the commentariat that just loves to paint you as if you were a cartoon villain, and I always think that for those people who are actually confused about you, as opposed to those who wish to be confused about you, it says, if you’re looking through a window and they’re looking at the reflection in the window, not understanding what it is that you’re focused on, why do you think it is that almost nobody sees your preoccupation with violence reduction?
Peter Thiel: It’s hard for me to come up with a good answer to these sort of sociological questions. I think people generally don’t think of the problem of violence as quite as central as I think it is. I think it’s a very deep problem on a human level. If you think of sort of this mimetic element to human nature where we copy one another, we want the things other people want, and there’s a lot of room for conflict, and that if it’s not channeled very carefully, a violent conflict in human relationships, in human societies, between human societies, and this is sort of, I think, a very deep problem. It’s sort of Christian anthropology, but you also have the same in Machiavelli or… There are sort of a lot of different traditions where human beings are, if not evil, they’re at least dangerous. I think the sort of soft or anthropological biases that a lot of people have in sort of late modernity or in the enlightenment world are that humans are by nature good, they’re by nature peaceful, but that’s not the norm. So, that might be sort of a general bias people have, is that people can’t be this violent. It’s not this deep a problem. It’s a problem other people have. There’s some bad people who are violent, but it’s not a general problem.
Jewish Culture in Germany
Eric Weinstein: I didn’t know you when I was young, and this feels like a lifelong friendship that got started way late in my life. One of the things that that kind of was surprising to me is that my coming from a Jewish background, your coming from a German background, I think both of us were sensitized by the horrors of World War II, which obviously, the problem for the Jews is very clear, but the fact that Germany never really recovered its proud intellectual traditions that had gotten bound up in a level of mechanized and planned violence is a decimation of a great intellectual tradition.
Eric Weinstein: One of the things we’ve talked about in the past is whether the twilight of living memory of the Holocaust should be used for some more profound German/Jewish reconciliation, that these are two communities that have held somewhat similar thought processes from the perspective of mimetic competition. Maybe there was a problem, that they were doomed to run into each other, but that in some sense, there are two wounds that need to be healed now that all of the original participants are either quite elderly or gone. Do you think that that is informing our conversation?
Peter Thiel: Well, I think there’s certainly an element of that between the two of us. I think that there’s probably a degree to which the history was so traumatic that that people still understate this aspect. There was something about late 19th century, early 20th century Germany where the Judaism was better integrated into the society than in many other places, and there was something very synergistic, very generative about that, and then getting at all these ways that it was lost are very, very hard to do.
Peter Thiel: It’s the sort of social democratic response to the Hitler era and the Holocaust was sort of radically egalitarian. It’s everybody’s equal, you shouldn’t kill people, everybody’s equally valuable, and yet, in some ways, Hitler killed the best people. So, there’s a way in which the social democratic response to what happened doesn’t even come up to the terrible thing that happened. So, in an egalitarian society, well, we don’t have quite as many people. We’re all equal. Nothing’s really changed, but, well, maybe you have no Jewish people left in Germany, and there’s a lot less dynamism in the society as a result, and that’s something that people still can’t say in Germany because that’s-
Eric Weinstein: Is that right? You feel like it’s...
Peter Thiel: You know, if I say it, people won’t contradict it or anything, but it’s sort of profoundly uncomfortable. So, I think there is a sense that there’s sort of all these strange ways that Germany is still under the shadow of Hitler. Even the ways that people are trying to exercise Hitler, in some ways, have deformed the society where you can’t go back to the things that worked incredibly well in pre-World War I Germany. There was probably a lot that was unhealthy and wrong with it, too, but yeah, there’s a sense that something very big has been lost, and there probably are a Jewish version of this that one could articulate as well, but yeah, I think there’s something about the synergy that’s very powerful and that’s quite missing.
Eric Weinstein: So, from my side of the fence, I was just listening on NPR to a description of Fiddler on the Roof being put on by Joel Grey in Yiddish, and the sound of Jewish Middle High German, there’s something about it that is shocking in today’s era. So, there’s been a Jewish loss. I felt this a couple of times. I avoided, to be honest, going to Germany because I didn’t want to run into old people and wonder where they had been, but eventually, at Soros’ invitation, found myself at a conference in Berlin, and when I checked in to the hotel, I heard my last name pronounced in impeccable German, and it was both a horrible feeling and a wonderful feeling, like somehow, weirdly, something was home. I went to a restaurant near Checkpoint Charlie with my wife, and I was missing a fork, and the person spoke no English, and I remembered from some old story of my father, and I asked for a gopl, which I guess is the Yiddish for fork, and it was close enough, and somebody brought me a fork. By uttering a word that I-
Peter Thiel: Gabel.
Eric Weinstein: Gabel? Okay.
Peter Thiel: Yes.
Eric Weinstein: By going through that exercise, I found that when this fork was brought to me, I realized that there was some part of my experience, in fact, that was missing, that this uncomfortable relationship, which my grandfather, when we went through Israel, driving north to south, was singing Leider. I mean, German was the language of the culture. It was the language of the intellectual, and that never left him. So, I think that weirdly, this is the first time, because I think it’ll be too late if we wait for 20 more years, because there will be no one to remember, but that there is some opportunity to recognize a dual wound.
Peter Thiel: Yeah. No. Yeah. I think the challenge on the Germany side is that it’s sort of… I had somewhat of a idiosyncratic background here where I was born in Germany, but we emigrated when I was about a year old, and we spoke German at home and lived in Africa, in Namibia were I went to a German-speaking school, but it was very different, I think, from the general post-World War II German experience, and so there are all these things that I can see from the outside looking into Germany that I think are… I still have a connection to it in sort of all of these ways, visited it as a child many times, and it’s something that I connect with, and then it’s obviously super different, and the contrast of Germany and California I always like to give is that California is optimistic, but desperate, and Germany is pessimistic, but comfortable. But from a Californian perspective, the incredibly deep pessimism is really, really striking, and even on that one dimension, I think Jewish culture is super different.
Eric Weinstein: And I feel like Jewish culture is, in part, starting to attenuate that we don’t feel… I mean, this is crazy talk, but we never thought that there was anything positive about antisemitism, and obviously it’s not a positive thing, but there were positive externalities in that it allowed us to push ourselves very, very hard because we always knew that we weren’t going to get a fair shake and that at any moment you might need to flee to someplace that was less dangerous, and I feel that as we’ve become comfortable, we’ve lost some of the dynamism, which is a hard thing to admit, but I do think that that is in part true, and I see this in Germany. Germany’s intellectual contribution was so profound that nothing post-World War II seems to suggest the same nation. I think that that loss is a profound loss, not to Germany, but to the entire world.
Peter Thiel: Yes, and of course, one of the challenges is we can sort of describe these things, we can speculate on some of the causal things. I think it’s somehow, we don’t want to go back. We can’t go back-
Eric Weinstein: Can’t, and don’t want to. I agree.
Peter Thiel: So, yeah, there is a history, and I think something’s been lost in both Germany and in Jewish culture, and how one reconstitutes this is… Even if we can convince people of the causes and the losses, what you actually do about it is, is super hard to say and that’s, that’s sort of always the strange dynamic of this.
Eric Weinstein: Something I’d be open to us working on at some future point if we can find the time, but let me switch gears slightly and come back a little bit to the violence point.
Eric Weinstein: But one of the things that I think has become kind of interesting in our relationship is that a certain class of theories that are not popular in the general population are traded back and forth between us, partially around the idea of how do we restart growth, how do we avoid violence?
Eric Weinstein: And I wanted to sort of alert people who are interested in the portal concept to this idea of orphaned or unpopular theories that are traded among a few but maybe not are among the many. So if we could go through a few of these, one of them has to do with how you and I both, we’re much more, I think we believe that Trump was much more likely to get elected, than the general population did.
Eric Weinstein: And this has to do with the theory of preference falsification, that people will broadly lie about what their true preferences are, so they’ll keep one set of public preferences, but a hidden set of private preferences. And then in our culture it gets revealed every four years where you kind of have a Schrodinger’s cat experiment, you find out where the country actually is.
Peter Thiel: Yes, I felt this was a dynamic that was going on in all these strange ways in 2016 there was a dinner I had in San Francisco about a week before the election with a group of center right people. One of them was a very prominent angel investor in Silicon Valley, and he said, you know, I’m voting for Trump in a week, but because I’m in Silicon Valley, I have to lie. And so he was unusually honest about lying. And the way I lie is that I tell people I’m voting for Gary Johnson.
Peter Thiel: So he couldn’t say that he was going to vote for Hillary Clinton. Like the facial muscles wouldn’t work or something would go wrong. But Gary Johnson was sort of the lie that you could tell. And then if you actually look at what happened in the month before the election, the Gary Johnson support, you know, collapsed from I don’t know something like six to two percent or whatever.
Peter Thiel: And as far as I can tell, all of that went to Trump. And the question one has to ask is were these people, you know, lying all along? Were they lying to themselves? Did they sincerely change their mind in the last month? Or some combination of that. But yeah, one sort of vehicle for this preference falsification was that you had a third party candidate who was sort of a gateway to the transition, this is what happened with Ross Perot, where the people went, you know, eventually went to Clinton in ’92 or John Anderson in 1980. So that’s been a sort of repeated and that’s, I think that was one element of what was going on.
Peter Thiel: But then I think there were also all these aspects of, of the Trump candidacy, that people were super uncomfortable about polite society. And so one would, you know, that the preference falsification was somehow perhaps much greater than in many other past contexts. And so, you know, even the day of the election, the exit polls suggested that Trump was going to lose. And so there were still a two to three percent effect like this, literally the day of the voting.
Eric Weinstein: I voted for Bernie in the primaries and I felt that both you and I had realized that the Clinton neoliberal story was a slow-motion, one-way ticket to disaster if it kept going on election after election. So that both of us recognized that we had to get off the trigger.
Peter Thiel: Of course, one of the complicated questions in all this is, you know, did people actually already sense this? And were they lying about this? So, like everybody was saying all the way throughout 2016, most of the people were saying, well, there’s no chance that you know, Trump’s going to win. This is absolutely impossible.
Peter Thiel: And I didn’t really connect this before the election, but with 2020 hindsight, I wonder was the fact that everyone was clicking on the Nate Silver 538 statistical polling model site a few times a day, to reassure themselves that Hillary Clinton was still ahead, was going to win. Was that some sort of acknowledgement that on some, maybe subconscious or barely conscious level, people sensed that it wasn’t really as done a deal as they were constantly saying.
Peter Thiel: So, there’s even a version of that question that I wonder about. You know, because there was something about the polling that took on this unusually iconic role in 2016, it was so important and there was no truth outside the polls. I remember there’s, you know, one of the Democrat talking heads saying something like, you know, Republicans don’t believe in climate change. They also don’t believe in polls. That’s why they’re going to lose. And generally polls are right, but there was something about how all-important they were in 2016 that might’ve, been a tell that something was a little bit amiss.
Eric Weinstein: Well, I think people knew, to my way of thinking. I think people knew that there was something very bizarre about this election. I think that the Bernie scare, that if the Democratic party hadn’t … been so skillful, in sidelining Bernie and where the party regulars were, you know, clearly backing Clinton, my sense is that it could well have been Bernie versus Trump and that would have been enough to say the neoliberal story is over.
Eric Weinstein: So I think there was that fear that this was coming to an end. My sense of it was that the major reaction to Trump was sort of a class reaction. That it was you’re rejecting the entire concept of an educated group that knows the right things to say. And you know, you’re clearly sort of not the kind of person who should be in the Oval Office, much more than the issue of whether or not Trump was going to be a warmonger or turn the U S into a police state, which of course doesn’t seem to have happened as of this moment in 2019.
Eric Weinstein: But I guess what my sense of it was is that people really were shocked. I was, because I live in a left-of-center universe, the day after-
Peter Thiel: They certainly pretended to be shocked.
Eric Weinstein: No, there’s no-
Peter Thiel: Look, I’ll concede your point. They were pretty shocked.
Eric Weinstein: They were pretty shocked.
Peter Thiel: But you know, if, but I still have my question, why were they clicking on the Nate Silver site just a few times a day?
Eric Weinstein: One version of it was, let’s say even if Hillary trounced Trump, but it wasn’t enough. That would be a scary thing, given what Trump had been built up to, which is a, you know, orange Hitler. You know, if you imagine that your country is supporting somebody who thinks all Mexicans are rapists and is going to take the country back to, you know, to the Middle Ages, it would be very disconcerting if such a person could get 20 percent of the vote.
Eric Weinstein: So I think that the poll had its own significance. However, you know, I think that one of the things about preference falsification is that when you start to believe that this is a robust phenomenon, that all of the economic models that assume that your private preferences and public preferences are the same, you start to see the world very differently. And so this is one of the portals into an alternate way of seeing the universe so as not to get surprised by revolutions.
Peter Thiel: Well, it’s always this question, in my mind, this question of preference falsification, the Timur Kuran theory is tightly coupled to this question of, you know, how intense is the problem of political correctness, where, you know, how much pressure is there on people to say things they don’t actually believe?
Peter Thiel: And I always come back to thinking that the problem of political correctness in some sense is our biggest political problem. That, you know, we live in a world where people are super uncomfortable saying what they think, that it’s sort of dangerous. And to use the Silicon Valley context, it’s a problem that Silicon Valley has become a one party state. But there are two different senses in which you can be a one party state. One sense is that everybody just happens to believe this one thing, which you know … is one thing.
Peter Thiel: And then the other one is in which 85 percent of people believe one thing and the other 15 percent pretend to. And you know, sort of like, it’s a dynamic with super majorities where you know, in a democracy, we think 51 percent of people believe something, they’re probably right if 70 to 80 percent believe something, it’s almost more certainly right. But if you have 99.99 percent of the people believe something, at some point you shifted from a democratic truth to North Korean insanity.
Peter Thiel: And so there is, you know, there’s a subtle tipping point where the wisdom of crowds shifts into something that’s sort of softly totalitarian or something like that. So in my mind, it maps very much onto this question of, you know, the problem of political correctness. It’s always hard to measure how big it is, you know, in a politically correct society. Of course, you know, we’re just saying what we think. We all love Stalin, we all love Chairman Mao and, and maybe, you know, we’re just singing these songs because we’re all enthusiastic about it.
Peter Thiel: And I think, my read on it is that problem has gotten more acute in a lot of parts of our society over the last few decades.
Eric Weinstein: Yeah. I think that’s gotten, well, as you know, I started this whole intellectual dark web concept in part to create kind of a broad based and bipartisan coalition of people who are willing to speak out in public and take some risk. Speaking for a large number of people, I would never have understood how many people feel terrified to speak out if I hadn’t done that. Because people come up to me all the time and say thank you for saying what I can’t say at work. And then when I asked them, well, what is it that you can’t say at work? It’s absolutely shocking. Completely commonplace things, things that are not at all dangerous, not scary or frightening.
Eric Weinstein: One of the things I believe, and I don’t know whether you’re going to agree with this, is that, you start to understand that a lot of the people who are enforcing the political correctness suspect that they are covering up dangerous truths. So for example, if you believe that IQ equals intelligence, which I do not, I mean, let’s just be honest about it. You’re going to fear anything that shows variation in IQ between groups. If you don’t believe IQ equals intelligence, if you believe that intelligence is a much richer story and that no group is that far out of the running, you’re not terribly frightened of the data because you have lots of different ways of understanding what’s happening. And also you generally find that the truth is the best way of lifting people out of their situation.
Eric Weinstein: So I secretly suspect to be blunt about it, and this is kind of horrible, that a lot of Silicon Valley is extremely bigoted and misogynistic and it can’t actually make eye contact with the fact that it’s secretly thinks women aren’t as good programmers. Where I happen to think, you know, fisherian equivalence suggests that males and females one protein apart, SRY protein, are not likely to be. I mean they might have different forms of intelligence and different forms of cognitive strengths, but if you don’t actually worry too much about an intellectual difference, you’d be willing to have an intellectual conversation that was quite open about it. So maybe I can turn that around.
Peter Thiel: Yeah, let me see. There’s sort of a lot of different things I want to react to there. Yeah, I suspect that it’s a distraction of sorts. You know, I think, I mean on this very superficial layer, we want to have debates, want to have debates on a lot of areas, a lot of, you know, hard questions and questions in science and technology and philosophy and religion, there’re all these questions that I think it would be healthy to debate.
Peter Thiel: And there’s a way in which political debates are sort of a low form of these questions. And there’s one sense in which I think of these political questions as less important or less elevated than some of these others, but there’s also a sense in which these questions about politics are ones that everyone can have access to. And so if you can’t even have a debate about politics, you can’t say you know, I like the man with the strange orange hairdo or I like the mean grandmother. If you can’t even say that, then we’ve sort of frozen out discussion on a lot of other areas. And that’s always one of the reasons I think that political correctness starts with correctness about politics. That when you aren’t allowed to talk about that area, you’ve implicitly frozen out a lot of others that are maybe more important and you know, and where we’re certainly not going to have a debate about string theory if we can’t even have a common sense debate about politics or something like that.
Peter Thiel: I’m very sympathetic to this sort of distraction theory that, you know, that what’s going on our society is like a psychosocial, magic, hypnotic magic trick where, you know, we’re being distracted from something very important and political correctness, identity politics and maybe American exceptionalism, these various ideological systems, are distracting us from things. The thing I keep thinking of, the main thing it’s distracting us from, is the stagnation and it’s that there are these problems that we don’t want to talk about in our society. It’s possible it’s also a way to distract us from bad thoughts that we have about people with the sort, you said.
Peter Thiel: But the one I would, I would go back to first is just that it’s distracting us from dealing with problems. You know, the reason we have a newspeak, this sort of Orwellian newspeak in politics with these zombie politicians, you know Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush or whoever it might be, is that we’re not supposed to talk about the real issues and maybe they have a bad conscience and they think they’re bad people, but it’s just, I think the primary thing is just too dangerous to talk about what’s actually going on. They don’t know what to do about it and better not talk about that.
Eric Weinstein: Yeah. I think there’s another take on it, which you know, if I’m honest about it probably originates from my side of the aisle, which is that I have a sense that if you believe that productivity and growth is over, you don’t want to emphasize issues of merit because you don’t really think that the merit is going to translate.
Eric Weinstein: And so therefore all you can focus on, like you know, a board of a company, is just a bunch of slots at a trough. And so you have to make sure that every group has its slots at the trough, because it doesn’t actually matter. The board isn’t doing anything to begin with. And so it’s only a question of receiving the wealth that is already there. And so I worry that that is, you know, I guess where I break with a lot of progressives is that I believe that most progress comes from progress, which is technologically led and informationally led, that the more we know and the more we can do, the more we can take care of people.
Peter Thiel: Yeah. So, I mean, again, this is always maybe naive hope on my part or something like this. But I always think that when we can’t talk about things, we can’t solve them-
Eric Weinstein: Exactly.
Peter Thiel: … and that this is so, you know, maybe these are the calculations you make and this is, you know, this is the way we pat people on the head, even though they’re never going to get ahead or something like that. But you know, it’s never going to work. It’s-
Eric Weinstein: Well at least let’s go down swinging.
Peter Thiel: … and eventually, and people aren’t that stupid and they will eventually figure it out. And so that’s sort of why I’m undermotivated to play that game.
Eric Weinstein: Yeah, and I have to say that one of the things that I’ve learned from you is that it’s one thing to have a contrarian position. It’s another thing to hold it when the whole world starts hating on you.
Eric Weinstein: For example, I watched the world go from viewing removing Gawker as removing a nuisance, or worse that was threatening people selectively, to a concern, you know, about like First Amendment rights and silencing, you know, free speech. And you know, I do have the strong sense that people are willfully misinterpreting these actions that are necessary to sort of self correct in our society and are not being terribly honest. There’s a lot of bad faith acting in our system at the moment.
Peter Thiel: But, I’m always like this, where I’m always quite hopeful that people realize there’s a lot of bad faith acting and they discount this accordingly.
Eric Weinstein: They grow out of it.
Peter Thiel: I don’t know how many of the people disagree with me on the support for Trump will be more open to it in five years or 10 years, and we’ll see. On the Gawker matter, you know, I’m going to win that one. I think people understand that, when it gets criticized by people in the media who themselves are up against super challenged business models where they have to act in sociopathic ways to get clicks by their readers, that this is just the game they have to play. There’s more of an understanding of this than you think, and therefore, you know, it’s not quite what it looks.
Peter Thiel: I was extremely disturbed by Gawker a decade, decade and a half ago because I think it was a really powerful thing at the time where it worked because people didn’t understand how it worked. It was this hate factory, the scapegoating machine, but people didn’t see it as such. And because of that it was super powerful. Once you see how it works, once you understand it, it is less powerful. So, you know, even had I not succeeded in the litigation against Gawker, I think it would be a weaker version of that today. There are of course equally nasty things on the internet, but they’re not as powerful because-
Eric Weinstein: Or as well organized.
Peter Thiel: …there’s more transparency into the bad motives and people get it, and the hate factory only works when it’s not perceived as such.
Eric Weinstein: Well, I think that there is a way in which some of this stuff is slowing down because people are getting tired of the constant state of beheading, figuratively, of people via their reputation, that we’ve moved from honest physical violence into reputational and economic violence against people that are considered undesirable.
Eric Weinstein: But I think that like there’s a story with both Gawker and Trump, which the rest of the world will never see. And I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t been working with you. In the case of Gawker, I don’t think anybody even knows the story about how much you sweated the ethics internally of: How do I do this right? How do I make sure that I don’t hurt anybody that I shouldn’t be hurting? How do I make sure that this represents something narrow and not something broad? Which is a story so far as I know that hasn’t been told.
Eric Weinstein: And then there’s the story with Trump where, I don’t know if you remember this, when Trump won, you had a gathering at your house and you did not invite me, and I was so pissed at you that even though I was tooth and nail against Trump, and I remain really pretty close to a never Trumper. I knew why you did what you did. I knew that you felt that it was a reduction in violence and I think that you had theories that nobody believed at the time.
Eric Weinstein: If I look out at this world, out through these windows, Trump has not changed mostly day to day life except for the phenomena of Trump, but it’s not, there isn’t you know a policeman on every street corner with an automatic rifle. We’re not in some sort of siege from the White House. And you said, I think much less is going to happen than people imagined and I think we’re going to be in a much less interventionist mode than we were previously. And whether or not you were right or you’re wrong. So far, I think you’ve been borne out to be right on both of those points. I knew that you had an idea that we had to shake things up or we were going to be in some very dangerous situation.
Peter Thiel: I had two speeches in 2016, one was at the Republican convention, one was at the Washington Press Club about a month before the election. And in both speeches, I underscored the ways in which I think Trump would represent a break from the interventionist, neoconservative, neoliberal foreign policies, that Bush 43, that Obama still continued and that Hillary was likely to, would have been likely to continue. And I still think that that’s roughly what’s happened. It’s not been, you know, it’s not been … as far away from interventionism as I would like. But it’s directionally, directionally that’s happened.
Peter Thiel: And I think that, you know, I do think we’re not going to go back to that on the Republican side, which is like a very important thing. We’re not going to go back to the Bush foreign policy ever. That was an important thing. In the primaries, when, the republican primaries, when Trump spoke out against the Iraq war. That was, you know, that was a very important moment from my point of view. And I think, you know, we always think of the, I think one way to think of the President of the United States is that you’re sort of the mayor of this country, but you’re the dictator of the world because in the US your power is very limited. Outside the US you can do, you know, a great number of things. And that’s why I think these foreign policy questions are actually, are very important ones in assessing the president.
Eric Weinstein: Well I guess my take on the great danger of Trump was that there were certain sorts of standards and agreed upon cultural aspects, which I’ve likened to the Oral Torah of the United States where the Constitution is our Written Torah. And my concern is that Trump has had an effect on degrading certain expectations where it does matter how one comports oneself as a president, maybe not as much as some of my friends would like to think.
Eric Weinstein: And I do think that we needed some dynamism, but my concern is that it’s going to be very difficult to recover from the kind of damage to our sense of what can and cannot be said and done. I did think that we needed to break out of our Overton window, if you will, on many topics. I would just, the way that Trump touched those was not comfortable for me.
Peter Thiel: Yeah, I agree. There are certain ways in which president Trump does not act presidential in the way in which the previous presidents-
Eric Weinstein: I agree that he’s breached things that needed to be said.
Peter Thiel: … but then maybe there’s some point where it was too much acting and the acting was counterproductive. I think there is something extraordinary about how it was possible for someone like Donald Trump to get elected. And probably a useful question for people on both the left and the right would be to try to think about, you know, what the underlying problems were, what some of the solutions to that are. And you know, it’s, I think the left or the Democrats, you know, they could, they can win. They can win in 2020 but they have to have more of an agenda than just telling the Republicans to hurry up and die, it has to be more than that, you know?
Eric Weinstein: This is the thing that convinced me that I didn’t get the Trump thing, which was, I was convinced that Trump was going to be such a wake up call that the Democratic party was going to, you know, go behind a closed door and say we cannot let this happen again. We have to look honestly at how he got beat, what this represents, what it means and what we’re going to do next time.
Eric Weinstein: And the idea that we were going to double or triple down on some of the stuff that didn’t work never even occurred to me. I had no idea that that party was so far gone that it couldn’t actually, you know, if you imagine that he’s orange Hitler, you would think orange Hitler would be the occasion to think deeply and question hypotheses. And I really have been shocked at the extent to which that didn’t happen. So maybe I got my own party wrong on that front. I didn’t know that we were this far gone, but.
Peter Thiel: I think there’s still a lot of time to do that. And I keep thinking that, you know, we are at some point where the distractions aren’t going to work as well. You know, I think the big distraction on the left over the last 40, 50 years have been forms of identity politics where, you know, we don’t look at the country as a whole. We look at parts of it and it’s sort of been a way of, you know, I think obscuring these questions of stagnation.
Eric Weinstein: Fair enough. And on the right?
Peter Thiel: I would say the right, the right wing distraction technique has been, I would say something like American exceptionalism-
Eric Weinstein: That’s interesting.
Peter Thiel: -which is this doctrine that the US is this singular exceptional country. It’s so, so terrific, so wonderful. It does everything so incredibly well that you shouldn’t ask any difficult questions, any questions at all. I think it, in theological or epistemological terms, you can compare it to the radical monotheism of the God of the Old Testament where it means that God is so radically unique that you can’t know anything about him. You can’t talk about God’s attributes, you can’t say anything about him whatsoever.
Peter Thiel: And if the United States is radically exceptional, then in a similar way you can say nothing about it whatsoever. And there may be all these things on the ground that seem crazy, where, you know, we have people who are exceptionally overweight. We have subway systems that are exceptionally expensive to build. We have universities that are exceptionally sociopathic. I mean, you don’t have the student debt problem in any other country. You know, we have trade regime that’s exceptionally bad for our country, like no other country-
Eric Weinstein: Firearms.
Peter Thiel: … is as self destructive as this. There are all these things that we somehow don’t ask. So I think exceptionalism somehow led to this country that was exceptionally un-self aware. And-
Eric Weinstein: That’s very interesting.
Peter Thiel: … that’s and so, you know, there’s greatness is adjacent to exceptionalism, but it’s actually still quite different because many countries can be great and great is more, it’s more a scale. And there’s something you measure it against-
Eric Weinstein: It’s multi-variate.
Peter Thiel: … whereas exceptional, it’s just completely incommensurate with anything else. And I think that’s gotten us into a very, very bad cul de sac.
Peter Thiel: And I think that there’s a way in which that sort of exceptionalism has ended on the right. And there’s been, we’ve moved beyond that. And I’m hopeful that in a similar way, the left will move beyond identity politics even though, right now it feels like the monster is flopping about more violently than ever, even though I think it might be its death throes, but maybe not.
Eric Weinstein: Yeah. And it could be that it’s gotten very strong or it could be on its last legs and it might as well go for broke.
Next and final post on Sunday will be Stories of Progress.