Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 146: Brain drain and top talent; the end of the US corporate elite; the TiB podcast; and more...

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Brain drain and “default paths” for (Indian) talent

Just before Christmas, Indian Express published a fascinating investigation into what has happened to the individuals who came top in India’s national school board exams between 1995 and 2015 (see also a good summary thread here and here). The basic statistics are an interesting lens on recent (elite) Indian history: a plurality of the individuals work in tech (Google employs more than any other organisation); and none come from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds; and, most interestingly to me, more than half have moved abroad.

If the latter trend reverses, there could be a big impact. Indian tech talent has been one of the groups most affected by the Trump Administration’s crackdown on immigration. While that likely had a negative effect on the United States and probably on the individuals themselves, what I’ve seen in my day job makes me think it had a positive impact on the domestic Indian startup ecosystem (though as we discussed in TiB 133 “brain drain” can have positive impacts). It’s unclear whether the Biden Administration will be able to fully reverse this, particularly in a world of more and more remote work.

Another big idea that comes through in the piece is the notion of ambitious individuals being drawn into a small set of “default paths”, which long time readers will know is an obsession of mine. Of course, academic achievement is only one kind of talent, though - as we discussed in TiB 125 - extreme academic performance is associated with extreme outcomes, so it matters what these people choose to do with their lives. I continue to think that “editing” these default paths in favour of positive sum games (like starting companies...) is one of the most underrated sources of leverage in the world. 

Donald Trump and the end of the “old boys’ club”

A big theme in TiB over the last year has been the risks of intra-elite competition. We looked at this through the lens of Peter Turchin’s work back in TiB 121 and in the context of the US elections in TiB 126 and 137. In some ways, though, this seems an odd concern: don’t we want elites to compete? Cosy and complacent elites are, presumably, a source of stagnation - another of this newsletter’s preoccupations.

It’s possible we have the worst of both worlds: elites who have lost the capacity to lead, locked in zero sum competition. Over the holidays I stumbled across this research from 2016 - nicely summarised by the authors here - that claims to demonstrate the “death of the inner circle”. The core thesis is that 50 years ago there was a coherent corporate elite who knew each other and collectively “ran the country”. Concretely, in 1974 there were >90 people who served on five or more public company boards; today there are none. Corporations have never been so socially “distant”(!)

There are big benefits of more diverse boards, so this is something to celebrate - but the authors point out an unexpected consequence: elite consensus promotes moderation; its demise enables and amplifies the extremes. This doesn’t mean that powerful individuals lose influence, only that they are less constrained by their peers. Trump’s election is the example the authors use and, though I don’t quite buy the causal effect, it’s another example of the great fragmentation of authority noted by Martin Gurri and others. It’s going to be a bumpy decade. 

Introducing the TiB podcast

One of the virtues (I’m told) of Thoughts in Between is that it’s relatively short. That does mean there’s seldom space to explore the most interesting ideas in the detail I’d like to. I have therefore bowed to the inevitable and am launching the Thoughts in Between podcast next week. The format is very simple: roughly hour-long conversations with some of the people behind the topics we discuss in the newsletter - and very much following what I think of as Cowen’s Law of Interesting Content.

I’ve recorded the first four and am really excited about the conversations. They are:

I’ll discuss each conversation in the newsletter as they’re released. I hope you enjoy them and I offer a big thank you to my wife for her forbearance in this new extension of my weekend project… If you have recommendations for guests, please send them my way (even better if you can make an introduction). 

Quick links

  1. Mappa Mundi. Excellent thread of interesting maps from Reddit
  2. Sketching it out. Wonderful set of hand-drawn book outlines by famous authors
  3. It rhymes? Great thread of lessons from the 1999/2000 tech bubble
  4. The cupboard was (not) bare. Fascinating Q&A thread on what resources the world has run out of
  5. Decline and fall? Striking chart of the UK's (and US's) share of global knowledge intensive industry

BONUS: my favourite books of 2020 - a slow reading year for me but one with some gems...

You know the drill...

Happy New Year - and thanks for reading! It’s great to have so many new readers to kick off 2021...

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You can always email me or find me on Twitter if you have any feedback or questions.

Until next week,

Matt Clifford

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