Mark Zuckerberg Interviews Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen on the Nature and Causes of Progress – Conversations with Tyler

Check out the Conversations with Tyler Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • The rate of progress in the U.S. has slowed
    • Between 1920-1970, productivity growth in the U.S. hovered between 1.7-1.9%/year. Nowadays, most economists think it’s much lower (~0.4%).
    • “If you have a growth rate that’s 1% lower, over the course of a bit more than a century, you could have been 3x richer with the higher growth rate. That’s a difference between the U.S. today and Mexico.” Tyler Cowen
  • Overall, the U.S. is spending more for the same (or worse) results:
    • The average life expectancy has increased by ~a quarter of a year every year over the past century
      • But, we use to spend a few percentage points of our GDP on healthcare. Now, we spend 18%!
    • Despite directing more money towards funding science in the second half of the 20th century, doing so only resulted in similar returns (compared to the first half of the 20th century)
  • “The notion that people have lost the ability to imagine a future much different and much better than what they know, to me, is one of the most worrying aspects of where we are now” Tyler Cowen
  • On the increasing costs of rent, healthcare, and education:
    • “If these problems continue at the rate they’re going at, it’s quite hard for me to imagine how we could do enough good to overcome the increases in costs… It’s hard for me to imagine more important problems over the next decade.” Mark Zuckerberg

Intro

The Slowing Rate of Progress

  • Patrick and Tyler recently wrote an op-ed together in the Atlantic – We Need a New Science of Progress
  • “One of the most important facts in the world.. is that the rate of progress hasn’t been constant” – Patrick Collison
    • Between 0 and 1700/1800, the rate of progress was relatively constant/slowly improving (measure by metrics like reduced infant mortality, increased life expectancy, and average income)
    • Around 1750, something happened:
      • The advent of the Industrial Revolution and modern science brought significant change (incomes improved, life expediencies increased, and many technologies were developed)
  • But, as we examine the world today, we’re left with the question – Is this the best we can do?
    • “There’s a lot of suggested evidence that maybe we aren’t as effective at generating progress as we had been in the past” – Patrick Collison
      • Between 1920-1970, productivity growth in the U.S. hovered between 1.7-1.9%/year. Nowadays, most economists think it’s much lower (~0.4%).
        • “If you have a growth rate that’s 1% lower, over the course of a bit more than a century, you could have been 3x richer with the higher growth rate. That’s a difference between the U.S. today and Mexico.”Tyler Cowen

Is economic progress always positive?

  • “I don’t think economic growth is always positive, but America has serious problems. I’d rather address those problems with more resources, rather than fewer, whether paying off our debts, addressing climate change, or fixing global poverty.” – Tyler Cowen

Digging Into the Numbers

  • Since Patrick’s birth, the number of people in extreme poverty has declined, global life expectancy has increased by 6 years, and infant mortality has fallen by more than 50%
    • We can’t deny the importance of this
      • “There’s a moral imperative to this kind of progress, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that fact” – Patrick Collison
    • But, we need to realize, most of the benefit of people coming out of poverty is happening in China, and in many places around the world, poverty has actually increased

How should we measure progress?

  • GDP per capita is probably the best measure

How can we enhance growth and progress?

  • By making it easier to build homes and move to big cities (enhancing opportunity/geographic mobility)
    • It’s extremely difficult to pack up and head somewhere like the Bay Area and just hope to get a job (something like this was much easier ~50 ago)
    • Related: In 1980, 40% of people moved somewhere when starting a new career; last year, only 1 in 10 people moved after accepting a new job offer
      • One reason for this: costs of movement + housing costs have increased, especially in our most productive regions
  • There’s evidence that certain management practices/training leads to firms employing more people, paying more wages, and overall, being more successful
    • Something like this is a super low-hanging fruit and needs to be explored in more depth
  • Funding science is incredibly important, but there’s little research into how exactly we should be doing so 
    • For example, in 1980, the NIH spent 12x more dollars on researchers under 40 than researchers over 50. Today, this has inverted – they spend 5x more dollars on people over 50 than people over 40.
      • “Maybe that’s good, maybe that’s bad. I don’t know. But it seems like a critical question to answer.” – Patrick Collison
    • Another example: HHMI-funded scientists (their grants are more long-term) are 2x as likely to produce a top 1% paper by citation count

We’re Spending More for the Same Results

  • Over the past 100 years, there’s been tremendous progress in medical research 
    • The average life expectancy has increased by ~a quarter of a year every year, and relatively linearly 
      • But, Tyler brings up a good point: We use to spend a few percentage points of our GDP on healthcare, now we spend 18%!
        • “We’re spending more and more and more for exactly the same returns… There’s this invisible crisis, and people are distracted by the headlines about CRISPR, or whatever, but what you actually get for the money, performance is so-so.” Tyler Cowen
  • All of the following have grown linearly over the last 100 years: Number of PhDs, totals dollars spent on funded science, and number of published papers 
    • Therefore, there was an order of magnitude more input in the second half of the 20th century, but we achieved similar returns in terms of scientific progress compared to the first half of the 20th century
  • When NY decided to build a subway in 1900, 5 years later they opened 23 subway stations (in 2019 dollars, spent just over $1 billion doing so)
    • When NY decided to build a 2nd Avenue subway in 2000, 17 years later, they opened 3 stations and spent $4.5 billion doing so (productivity in regards to subway construction decreased by a factor of 40!!)
  • France built its high-speed rail system in just 5 years
    • California, at the start of their high-speed rail project, projected a 25-year timeline
  • (There are more examples like the above on Tyler’s website)

A Loss Sense of Optimism

  • “The notion that people have lost the ability to imagine a future much different and much better than what they know, to me, is one of the most worrying aspects of where we are now” Tyler Cowen
  • The percentage of Americans who think their kid’s lives will be better than their’s has been declining since World War II
    • “Americans are getting less hopeful about their’s and their kid’s futures, and that’s a really bad thing” – Patrick Collison
      • This lost sense of optimism about the future results in people investing less and not working as hard

A Loss of Experimentation at the University Level

  • “It’s striking to me, if you look at a list of American universities, the list of the top places in the 1920s and the top places today is completely the same, except we’ve added on California. Otherwise, there’s been no change.” – Tyler Cowen
    • (This is much different with companies – the list of the top 10 companies by market cap changes every decade)
  • Another metric: Procedures for tenure in the top 50 research universities hasn’t changed much at all
    • “There’s not enough experimentation with how you reward people. More schools should experiment with different kinds of tenure or reward people more on the basis of practical impact… The extent to which experimentation has died at the institutional level is striking.” – Tyler Cowen

Funding Progress

  • Tyler created a fund, Emergent Ventures, which he plans to use to support academics studying the field of progress
    • “Not enough philanthropy is long-term oriented… And also in philanthropy, there’s too many choke points that can say no.” – Tyler Cowen
      • With Emergent Ventures, Tyler plans to fight this
  •  Tyler likes to fund people who:
    • Are curious (this is very important for intellectual progress)
    • Have big ambitions
    • Have stamina
    • Are working in small, productive groups

The Cost Disease Question

  • Things like rent, healthcare, education, etc. have skyrocketed in the U.S.
    • But in other areas, like tech, where competition drives down prices, there’s been improvements
  • More examples:
    • The cost of living in cities has skyrocketed
    • ~Total student debt is nearly $2 trillion
  • A few reasons for the above: 
    • Restrictions on entry
    • Highly bureaucratized institutions
    • High entry costs
      • For example, it’s almost impossible to create a successful new university today
  • That said, there’s certainly room for improvement (and we need to study this more!)
    • In Singapore, healthcare spending is only 4% of their GDP, and they have a slightly higher life expectancy than the U.S.
    • In Japan, the Nimby problem (the cost of living/getting an apartment) is mostly solved
  • Mark adds:
    • “If these problems continue at the rate they’re going at, it’s quite hard for me to imagine how we could do enough good to overcome the increases in costs people are incurring in areas that are so fundamental”Mark Zuckerberg

How can we bring the costs down?

  • Healthcare is complicated because it’s so political
  • In terms of housing costs:
    • It’s much easier to move bits around than atoms – advancements in technologies like AR and VR will enable people to be where they want to be without having to move there physically
    • Things like the Hyperloop will expand the “radius” of cities, allowing people to live much further away
  • In summary: “It’s hard for me to imagine more important problems over the next decade… The exploding costs in these areas are such a profound issue.” – Mark Zuckerberg

Additional Notes

  • “I’ve often suggested that for graduate school, instead of taking a class, everyone should be sent to a not-so-high income village for two weeks. They can do whatever they want. Just go for two weeks and think about things.” – Tyler Cowen
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