Matt's Thoughts In Between

By Matt’s Thoughts in Between

TiB 188: The Great Resignation; Popularism; Biotech startups; and more...

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October 26 · Issue #188 · View online
Matt's Thoughts In Between
This week: Does the pandemic explain why so many people are quitting their jobs; why it’s so hard for political parties to say popular things; the future of biotech startups; and more…

Welcome new readers! Thoughts in Between is a newsletter (mainly) about how technology is changing politics, culture and society and how we might do it better.
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Why are so many people quitting their jobs?
People (in the US, at least) are quitting work in extraordinary numbers. In August almost three percent of workers left a job, the highest ever, in a phenomenon being dubbed The Great Resignation. Unsurprisingly this has become a political Rorschach test (“It’s a revolt against labour exploitation!” “No, it’s the consequence of over-generous unemployment benefits!”). There’s lots of hobby-horse analysis out there, but this piece by Greg Rosalsky is excellent and touches on some more interesting hypotheses.
Rosalsky looks at the literature on the ways that exposure to macro events shapes worldviews for a long time, even generations. For example, there’s evidence that Weimar hyperinflation still shapes elite German attitudes to inflation. Or see this 2011 paper suggests that “Depression babies’” lifetime investment behaviour was shaped by early exposure to stock market disaster. The obvious question, then, is what exposure to a global pandemic and a mass, enforced experiment in remote working does to people’s attitudes to employment.
Rosalsky cites this new paper by Ulrike Malmendier which argues that exposure to these sorts of macro experiences almost literally rewires our brains and changes our preferences, attitudes to risk and more. We saw some evidence for this at Entrepreneur First during the pandemic; applications soared (see this piece in the FT for more). Is this a glimpse, as Sam Altman suggests, of our post-employment AI future? There are certainly more prosaic explanations. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if COVID produced a generation of people with very different - and perhaps unpredictable - attitudes to work.
Should political parties try to be popular?
We talked last year about David Shor, the US progressive data scientist who was fired during the BLM demonstrations for a tweet that cited research showing that historically violent protests have tended to damage Democrats electorally. Despite that, Shor’s career has since boomed; he’s now one of the most in-demand political analysts in the US and he has a simple but (surprisingly?) controversial message for Democrats: talk about popular things and shut up about unpopular things! Without that, he thinks, the party is electorally doomed. Ezra Klein has an excellent long profile here.
Why’s this controversial? Primarily because the policy positions about which (some) party activists are most passionate are precisely those that are most unpopular with the electorate. “Defund the police” is Shor’s favourite example. What’s complicated is that even popular policies can backfire if voters infer from them something they dislike about who you are. Here’s Shor on climate change:
“Very liberal white people care way more about climate change than anyone else… So when you talk about climate change, you sound like a weird, very liberal white person.”
This doesn’t play well in West Virginia (see Adam Tooze for more on this)
This matters even if you care nothing for the fortunes of the US Democratic Party, because it’s at the heart of an important question about how to make change happen. Should activists try to take over a political party (at risk of being in thrall to its electoral needs) or attempt to influence from the outside (at risk of never obtaining the levers of power needed to effect the change they seek)? On this, I highly recommend this interview with David Schlozman, a political scientist who studies party takeovers. Whatever you think of “popularism” it strikes me that if you want to change the world, you need a grounded theory of how change happens; few do.
The future of biotech startups
On the TiB podcast this week is Tony Kulesa, one of the founders of Petri, a new approach to supporting academics to build companies at the intersection of biology and engineering (It’s worth listening to in conjunction with the episode with Ilan Gur, as there’s a lot of thematic overlap). I recommend Tony’s piece, “The Future of Biotech is Founder-Led” for a good introduction to what he’s trying to achieve. Readers may also remember Tony from his essay on Tyler Cowen and talent curation, which we discussed a few weeks ago in TiB 181.
We spend most of this conversation talking about what it takes to build innovative biology-based companies. Tony does a great job of articulating why biotech is so exciting today and how the landscape has changed in the last decade.
Among other things we discuss:
  • How bio- and computer science-based tech ended up with such different company creation models - and why that’s changing
  • The infrastructure that makes building biology-based companies easier today, and what’s still missing
  • The big themes he’s most excited to see bio founders explore right now
  • Why Tyler Cowen is so good at talent curation
I loved this conversation; enjoy!
Quick links
  1. Who, exactly, is remote working? Fascinating chart of remote work intensity by sector, over time.
  2. Truths not self-evident. Interesting / amusing list of failed amendments to the US constitution.
  3. Bottlenecks, bottlenecks everywhere. We will soon be talking about magnesium geopolitics? (Semi-related: did Flexport’s CEO fix a major global supply chain bottleneck? See first here, then here, plus this interesting contrarian take)
  4. Ancient lights. Who was the first person born of whom we have video footage?
  5. All it took was a global pandemic? US income inequality appears to be falling, slightly.
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Until next week,
Matt Clifford
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