Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #57

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Did Big Finance kill Europe's Google?

It seems intuitive that what the most talented and ambitious people chose to do with their lives has a profound impact on society. I wrote an essay on this topic which is, I think, the most read thing I’ve written. And my day job is built on the thesis that technology - and especially technology entrepreneurship - will increasingly become the default career choice for these people. 

I've long argued - but lacked data to prove it - that in Europe finance has been an enormous talent suction machine that has deprived the startup sector of some of its best founders. So I was fascinated this week to find this excellent new academic paper on the subject. The authors find that (a) an exogenous boost in the size of the finance sector pulls exceptional engineers out of tech; (b) those engineers usually then don't use their tech skills in finance; and (c) an early career decision to enter finance reduces the likelihood of future entrepreneurial activity. Do read the whole thing.

Governments often claim to want to build the "next Silicon Valley" (with limited success), but they rarely talk about this. Where is the Google of Europe? Its Larry Page is probably working in a quant fund. And tweaking the tax incentives for early stage investment or R&D isn't going to change that.

Heroes for an unheroic age?

Tanner Greer has an interesting new essay on the "Tolkienic Hero". Although Greer starts from the premise that hundreds of years from now JRR Tolkien will be judged the defining author of the 20th century, it's a fascinating read even if you don't know your Nazgul from your Numenoreans.

The basic argument is that in the 20th century culture turned its back on the traditional heroism exemplified by characters like Achilles or King Arthur. To seek power or greatness became highly suspect, even villainous. For Greer, Tolkien managed to rescue heroism by creating heroes who embraced greatness and power as "burdens to be carried", often simply because there was no one else who could.

It's an interesting piece of cultural criticism, but I think this idea has also influenced the narratives that we build around tech and political leaders. VCs speak of their preference for founders who are "missionaries not mercenaries". And this trope perhaps explains Jeremy Corbyn's appeal in some quarters: a career eschewing power is reassuring to some. I wonder, though, if we'll see the pendulum swing back in the coming years (arguably Trump is Exhibit A). In times of crisis, does humility seem less valuable? In real life, after all, would we really send a hobbit to dispose of the Ring?

The far right's strange love affair with China

I read in media reports on the horrific shootings in Christchurch that the far-right killer identifies most closely with China's political and social values. That seems odd on the face of it (and has prompted much debate in China), but he's not the first far-right figure to see China as a model. Nick Land, one of the intellectual godfathers of the alt right, moved to China. And this long, critical essay discusses the influence of what the author calls "sinofuturism" on neoreactionary thought.

Partly, I think, this comes from the idea - both on the far and the mainstream right (e.g. Hazony, Deneen) - that the West has become decadent and faces civilisational collapse. China seems, at a glance, to have escaped: it looks well ordered, strictly governed and culturally homogeneous. Dig deeper, though, and the opposite argument is more convincing. Tanner Greer (yes, him again; I happened to stumble on both pieces this week) has a post that strongly argues that in fact from a conservative perspective, "everything is worse in China".

Greer (who lives in China) is a conservative and I am not, but his core argument is compelling. But then why the enduring appeal of China for the far right? I suspect the simple answer is simply admiration for authoritarianism at scale. It's puzzling, though, why one would look at an autocratic system and assume it would ruthlessly enforce ones own values, not those of ones enemies. Not having to make that calculation remains, surely, one of the most fundamental arguments for democracy.

Quick Links

  1. Nothing new under the sun. 14th century sponsored content.
  2. Previously, in British constitutional crises... The parallels between Brexit and Bretton Woods
  3. Unpopular topics. Which college majors are people most likely to switch out of?
  4. Build it and they will come. Search queries before Google.
  5. Unintended consequences. Horror stories from 19th century public health interventions.

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Until next week,