Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #46

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How much of your money should you keep?

The very social media-savvy left wing of the new Democratic majority in the House took office - and immediately started a debate about tax and inequality. One idea being floated is for a 70% marginal tax rate on income above $10m. Proponents argue that it's worth it even if it reduces overall government revenue because of the positive social impact of reducing inequality (though there's a decent argument that inequality is actually already falling in the US - see here and here).

What's most interesting to me is how quickly this argument gets to the question of what the nation state is and what it's for. Is a nation state a political community mutually deciding the rules by which it wants to live together? If so, no need to maximise revenue; just built the community you want to live in. This view has advocates on both left and right (see, e.g., previous discussion of Yoram Hazony's ideas on nationalism). Or is a nation state a provider of services that needs to compete for the "custom" of the global elite to ensure it has a tax base?

This question seems to be at the heart of so many culture war dilemmas - and it's one that tech, globalisation and migration only exacerbates. It's not going away.

How should we value the far future?

One of the most interesting books of the last year was economist and mega-blogger Tyler Cowen's account of his personal political philosophy, Stubborn Attachments (I reviewed it briefly in my 2017 reading list; the 2018 list is here). One of Cowen's core ideas that is that we should put great weight on the far future. That is, we should use a low discount rate when putting value on the lives of people not yet born and therefore prioritise actions - above all boosting economic growth - that will improve their lives (This excellent podcast I shared last year argues the same conclusion from different premises).

This week Cowen published a fascinating email from a reader who reflects on this idea and suggests that option theory is a better metaphor than the discount rate for thinking about the far future. This leads to lots of interesting thoughts about volatility, the value of the present and where we are in the cycle of history.

I don't endorse this as the right framework for thinking about the far future (and, indeed, the Marginal Revolution comments section has some good questions and critiques), but I think it does illustrate the productivity of a good metaphor, whether in evaluating policy or even generating startup ideas.

How to do Twitter right

Twitter comes under a lot of criticism for the quality of its discourse and its tendency to generate vitriol and worse. But it remains by far my favourite information source and I'm always interested in patterns of usage that lead to particularly high quality information flow.

One high quality pattern I've noticed over the last few weeks is when medium-level follower count accounts (say >10K but <100K) ask open-ended but quite specific questions. This seems to encourage diverse, rich and thoughtful responses. Some examples where the applies are excellent (do click through):

If you had to gauge a random stranger's intelligence + creativity with a single question, what would it be?If you could teach a semester or year long course on any topic, no matter how niche, what would it be?What are the most useful checklists you use in your life?

I could have picked lots more and intend to start collecting these. Do send me any examples that come to mind...

Quick Links

  1. Let Me Yahoo That For You. Why the markets got Yahoo vs Google wrong.
  2. There and back again. Are these the world's best 100 stories?
  3. The grass is always more bigoted. Superb post on why racism and sexism never seem to diminish.
  4. Go East? The changing destinations of top Chinese talent (see also, a suggested US national security strategy)
  5. The UK in decline, again. The most mentioned countries in NYT headlines; surprisingly fascinating.

Your feedback

Thanks for all your replies and feedback following the end of year issue - it was great to hear so many generous things! If you do have feedback, always feel free to hit reply. And do forward TiB to a friend who might enjoy it.

Until next week,