Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 105: What Bloomberg and Softbank have in common; why politicians got so old; how the decline of Rome made us rich; and more...

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The surprising failure of "capital as a weapon"

Michael Bloomberg dropped out of the Democratic primary after spending $500m to win just 61 delegates. People worry about the role of money in American politics (though the evidence is mixed), but even such a vast allocation of capital had limited impact. It’s tempting to draw an analogy in the startup domain: Softbank’s $100bn Vision Fund's “capital as a weapon” strategy is also struggling.

Why is this strategy so hard to pull off across domains? One hypothesis is that very large amounts of capital disguise fundamental problems. Arguably the most important idea in startups is “product market fit” (“PMF”) - being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market. Spending very heavily before PMF is generally wasteful - which is what Bloomberg did, before the product quality (for the Democratic primary market) was laid bare.

The other canonical Vision Fund problem was poor unit economics: it’s easy to have great growth if you’re selling a dollar bill for 90 cents. The same applies to politics, perhaps: the vote supply curve is just very steep after a while (particularly because you’re actually competing with a lot of earned media), which makes "buying" the presidency unaffordable even for a billionaire. That’s not to say democracy can’t be bought - or startups funded to success - but it looks very hard to do at the largest scale. 

Why are politicians so old now?

The other striking result of the 2020 Presidential race so far is the advanced age of the surviving candidates. Derek Thompson has an excellent piece on this (in which he points out that if Bill Clinton - elected 28 years ago - were to enter the race today, he’d be the youngest candidate remaining). Thompson asks why this has happened and notes that it applies to domains outside politics, from CEOs to Nobel prize winners.

One particularly interesting observation is that at the same time that candidates are getting older, successful presidential candidates are becoming less experienced: since 1992, each winner has had less political experience than the previous incumbent. Thompson suggests that Americans have come to favour “experienced novices” like Trump.

But why? Bill Wasik argues that it’s harder and harder for new politicians to develop compelling brands: they’re seen as “too boring or too phony” in an age of “ambient anti-authoritarianism”, internet transparency and “authenticity fetishism”. Kurt Anderson says it’s even simpler: like a 19th century redux, name recognition - or celebrity - is what matters now. If that’s true, perhaps 2024 will be even weirder... 

How the fall of Rome made Europe rich

An occasional TiB theme is macro history, particularly why the industrial revolution happened where and when it did. Mark Koyama has an excellent new review essay of Walter Scheidel’s Escape from Rome (see also a great podcast summary here), which provides a fascinating take on the question. It’s an extraordinarily insight-rich piece and worth your time if you’re interested in the topic.

Scheidel’s core argument is that political fragmentation was key to Europe's early modern success - and therefore the failure of any power to build a Europe-wide empire after the fall of Rome is key (China, by contrast, was dominated by empires throughout its history). “Cultural unity with political fragmentation” allowed ideas and commerce to spread and created the incentives for competitive exploration of the New World.

So why was there no European empire after Rome? Scheidel says the process was self-reinforcing: weakened European monarchs had to bargain with their aristocracies, which led to the creation of representative institutions and alternative sources of power (above all the Catholic Church, whose long term impact we've discussed before), which both made states more stable and kings less able to become regionally dominant. The enduring effects of the very long run never cease to surprise.

Quick links

  1. Deceptively spacious. Extraordinary mashup of every apartment listing in New York City (Don't miss the 3D virtual tour on the right).
  2. Proteins, proteins, everywhere... Preprint paper on the first protein to be found in a meteorite.
  3. Good effort, must try harder. Excellent thread on the UK's decarbonisation efforts.
  4. Deaths of despair. Incredible, horrifying chart of the age and class differential in American suicides and drug deaths.
  5. The power of taking theories seriously. Short but great Michael Nielsen thread on Stephen Weinberg and Freeman Dyson.

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford