Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 138: What's next in synthetic bio; New Zealand and sovereign wealth; when the US had a culture of building; and more...

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Cultures that build, revisited

Back in TiB 120 we talked about Tanner Greer’s essay, “On Cultures that Build”, which was itself riffing on Marc Andreessen’s "It’s Time to Build” call to arms. Greer’s core argument is that the US - and the West more broadly - has lost the culture and practice of bottom-up problem solving and institution building. This week Greer posted an excellent follow-up - “We Were Builders Once, and Strong” - that uses James McPherson’s Civil War history Battle Cry of Freedom as a lens on a time when, Greer says, such a culture was core to the US experience. Do have a read.

Greer notes that contemporary observers were impressed by the northern United States’ level of literacy, culture of tinkering and, above all, grassroots-led institution building, which yielded important new organisations like the Women’s Central Association for Relief and the United States Sanitary Commission. McPherson (and Greer) argue that this culture gave the Union a decisive advantage over the South, which was "a culture preoccupied with preservation”.

It’s interesting to ask what such a culture might look like today and where we would look for examples. I’m reminded of the work of Dan Wang, whose work on the economic benefits of an “improving mentality”, discussed in TiB 28, is one reason for countries to be wary of outsourcing or virtualising manufacturing, even when the first-order analysis suggests it’s beneficial. What about institution building? Is it crazy to say that the closest thing we have in the UK today may be Marcus Rashford’s extraordinary efforts? I’m interested in other examples; if any come to mind, let me know. 

What's next in synthetic biology?

Nature has a good, concise overview of the major achievements of the last decade in synthetic biology. There’s a decent chance this will be the most important frontier of technology in the next ten years, so it’s worth a read. It’s reasonably accessible without a lot of specialist knowledge, especially if you’re willing to do a bit of Google/Wikipedia-ing.

The most encouraging aspect is that so much of the progress highlighted relates to building blocks and tooling that will be reused and re-combined for future breakthroughs. The most famous example is CRISPR / Cas9 (for a quite old - 2016 - but good introduction, start here), the discovery of which won this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but there are many others: modular cloning toolkits, much cheaper gene and DNA synthesis, synthetic genomes for yeast and E. Coli, and more.

Combinatorial innovation is a big deal. It’s the one of the core reasons we’ve seen much faster progress in the world of bits than the world of atoms in recent decades: software innovation is fast and cheap at least in part because standardised (and often open source) tooling and infrastructure means that innovators can isolate their efforts to the problem of interest. The optimistic take on the Nature piece is that the next decade of synthetic biology will look more like that. What does NoCode for biology look like? It’s an exciting - if disconcerting - question, and one worth pondering. 

What's the deal with New Zealand?

The centre left has not had much to cheer about anywhere in recent years, which is one reason that New Zealand under Jacinda Ardern has become a global poster child for social democracy, as this excellent (pre-NZ election) profile shows. Between her sensitive handling of the Christchurch attacks, NZ’s impressive suppression of COVID and now a sweeping electoral victory, Ardern has become a sort of anti-Trump / anti-populist totem for liberals the world over.

And yet… the political economy of New Zealand is a peculiar thing. As some commentators have pointed out, NZ’s tax code is extraordinarily flat by Anglo-American standards. Most UK Conservatives - and even US Republicans - would blush to propose a 33% top rate of income tax, no capital gains tax and no inheritance tax. But, as this data from the OECD shows, NZ government expenditure is not wildly off the average of other rich nations - so what gives?

The answer, it seems, is a large (in relative terms) sovereign wealth fund (SWF) and state-owned enterprises that throw off cash and contribute to a (pre-COVID) modest budget deficit. Ardern has been borrowing to fund the SuperFund since 2017, which she says is smart when the markets are happy to lend to sovereigns on such generous terms. Of course, we don’t all have SWFs to plug budget deficits - but maybe we could. I stumbled across this interesting - and controversial - idea to replace corporation tax with a SWF. With Ardern in the ascendant, perhaps it will catch on. 

Quick links

  1. Till death do us part. Which populations are most likely to say they'd willingly fight for their country? Interesting graphic.
  2. Iron men. Video of the Royal Navy testing jet pack assault teams (I think there is some way to go, but...)
  3. Spooky action on a neural net. New work from DeepMind on using deep learning to understand quantum mechanics.
  4. Urbi et Orbi. Great thread on how Rome became the unlikely capital of Italy.
  5. A close run thing. Interesting paper on how likely your vote is to determine a US election (and how likely a court is to overturn the result)

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford