Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 139: King Daniel Ek; Elections and the structure of democracy; Polarisation in science; and more...

Welcome new readers! Forwarded this email? Subscribe here. Enjoy this email? Forward it to a friend.

What would US/UK multiparty democracy look like?

Voting - though not counting - in America’s elections ends today. Several readers disagree, but I don’t think it will be close... Here’s a good piece on why you shouldn’t expect a 2016-like upset - or try this short thread. If you’re looking for some early indications, the NYT has a good list of bellwether counties to watch.

Elections, especially in first-past-the-post (FPTP) systems like the US and the UK, typically generate a lot of commentary on the inadequacy of the choices on offer. The op-ed column demanding a third party is a classic on both sides of the Atlantic - but these calls misdiagnose the problem: what’s missing is not a lack of agency from moderate centrists, but a structural change in the electoral system. Duverger’s Law explains how FPTP almost always leads to two-party duopoly.

It’s fun to speculate, though, what parties a proportional representation system might yield. Echelon Insights has looked at this in the US (summary graphic here) and Britain’s Choice has done the same thing in the UK (summary graphic here). In both cases you see the challenge the left has in building an electoral coalition within the current system. There’s a much most cohesive policy platform that can unite the factions of the right than the left (and “cross-pressured” voters tend to lean right anyway). Biden is the favourite today largely because “not being Donald Trump” looks like it binds together a winning electoral coalition. Governing will be harder.

Polarisation when everyone seeks the truth

One of the dangers of polarisation is that it erodes the idea of a common fact base - or even reality - that’s shared across society. When we think about issues where opposing groups have different beliefs about facts (“epistemic polarisation”), we usually trace that to disagreement about values. For example, on topics like climate change, abortion or Brexit, we tend to assume that groups with different values and goals are led to seek out fact bases that support their views.

But this paper suggests it’s more complicated: epistemic polarisation can emerge even when people share the same goals and even when their primary goal is seeking the truth. The authors, Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall, build a model in which this phenomenon emerges and also points to real-world examples (Did you know, for example, that there is profound polarisation in the study and treatment of Lyme disease?)

The model starts with agents who share the same goals and values and are motivated to discover the truth. The agents update their beliefs as evidence emerges. All that’s required for epistemic polarisation to emerge is for agents to treat evidence from those who don’t share their current beliefs as less reliable. That’s arguably a not unreasonable heuristic at the individual level, but societally it leads to bad outcomes. It’s obviously a highly stylised model, but it does suggest that, if we care about the truth, we need to be willing to take seriously those with whom we disagree.

Related: If you want to make better predictions, you should pretend to be someone you disagree with and give some weight to their (imagined) views! 

Would Daniel Ek have been a good 17th century king?

Spotify founder Daniel Ek is inarguably the most important Europe-based entrepreneur of his generation. And, if his pledge to deploy €1bn of his own capital against European “moonshots” comes off, he may become the continent's most important investor too. There have been two great pieces on Ek and Spotify recently (both, coincidentally, by TiB readers). Sriram Krishnan has an amazingly deep interview with Ek, while Lingumi CEO Toby Mather asks the question that’s been on everyone’s lips: “How similar is Daniel Ek to King Gustavus Adolphus?

Toby uses the comparison with Sweden’s great 17th century warrior king to illuminate Spotify’s strategic playbook. The core idea is that “manoeuvre warfare” explains how Spotify has managed to build such a successful company in such a tough market. As well as a nice analogy between Spotify’s famous squad system and Adolphus’s cross-functional military units, Toby draws out some interesting observations on how, if European startups are to compete and win globally, they must offset relative resource scarcity with greater strategic agility.

Sriram’s piece goes deep into the "Daniel Ek productivity function", to borrow a phrase from Tyler Cowen (Sriram did a similarly in-depth piece with Marc Andreessen, which is also well worth a read). One of the most interesting points is Ek’s musing on whether great founders start that way or whether the experience of building a successful company makes them great (I’m reminded of this thread on Jeff Bezos). It’s both, of course - and the ability to compound an initial advantage is perhaps the most important skill of a startup CEO, and something Ek did in spades. 

Quick links

  1. Is it worth voting? A rationalist look at the (surprisingly high) value of voting.
  2. Time on our hands. Which books saw sales spike in the pandemic?
  3. "Slowed social metabolism". Interesting Google search trends show the impact of lockdowns ("breathalyzer" is perhaps the most interesting)
  4. For Xi's a jolly good fellow? Striking chart on trends in global public opinion on Xi Jingping
  5. The Son Also Rises*. New paper suggests family wealth in 15th century Florence predicts family wealth today (*Apologies to Greg Clark for stealing, but you can't improve on the greatest ever social science book title)

How you can help

Thoughts in Between is free, but if you'd like to help out, by far the most effective way is to share the link on social media - or just forward this email to someone who might like it.

I'm always happy to hear from you. Simply reply to this email or message me on Twitter.

Until next week,

Matt Clifford

PS: Lots of newsletters get stuck in Gmail’s Promotions tab. If you find it in there, please help train the algorithm by dragging it to Primary. It makes a big difference.