A Conversation with Peter Thiel

Francis Fukuyama talks with the renowned entrepreneur.

Francis Fukuyama: I’d like to begin by asking you about a point you made about there being certain liberal and conservative blind spots about America. What did you mean by that?

Peter Thiel: On the surface, one of the debates we have is that people on the Left, especially the Occupy Wall Street movement, focus on income and wealth inequality issues—the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. It’s evident that both forms of inequality have escalated at a very high rate. Probably from 1973 to today, they have gone up faster than they did in the 19th century. The rapid rise in inequality has been an issue that the Right has not been willing to engage. It tends either to say it’s not true or that it doesn’t matter. That’s a very strange blind spot. Obviously if you extrapolate an exponential function it can go a lot further. We’re now at an extreme comparable to 1913 or 1928; on a worldwide basis we’ve probably surpassed the 1913 highs and are closer to 1789 levels. 

In the history of the modern world, inequality has only been ended through communist revolution, war or deflationary economic collapse. It’s a disturbing question which of these three is going to happen today, or if there’s a fourth way out. On the Right, the Tea Party argument has been about government corruption—not ethical violations necessarily, but inefficiency, that government can’t do anything right and wastes money. I believe that is true, and that this problem has gotten dramatically worse. There are ways that the government is working far less well than it used to. Just outside my office is the Golden Gate Bridge. It was built under FDR’s Administration in the 1930s in about three and a half years. They’re currently building an access highway on one of the tunnels that feeds into the bridge, and it will take at least six years to complete. 

Francis Fukuyama: And it will require countless environmental permits, litigation, and so on.

Peter Thiel: Yes. There’s an overall sense that in many different domains the government is working incredibly inefficiently and poorly. On the foreign policy side you can flag the wars in the Middle East, which have cost a lot more than we thought they should have. You can point to quasi-governmental things like spending on health care and education, where costs are spinning out of control. There’s some degree to which government is doing the same for more, or doing less for the same. There’s a very big blind spot on the Left about government waste and inefficiency.

In some ways these two debates, though they seem very different, ought to be seen as two sides of the same coin. The question is, should rich people keep their money or should the government take it? The anti-rich argument is, “Yes, because they already have too much.” The anti-government argument is, “No, because the government would just waste it.” 

I think if you widen the aperture a bit on the economic level, though I identify with the libertarian Right, I do think it is incumbent on us to rethink the history of the past forty years. In particular, the Reagan history of the 1980s needs to be rethought thoroughly. One perspective is that the libertarian, small-government view is not a timeless truth but was a contingent response to the increasing failure of government, which was manifesting itself in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The response was that resources should be kept in the private sector. Then economic theories, like Laffer’s supply-side economics, provided political support for that response, even if they weren’t entirely accurate. We can say that the economic theories didn’t work as advertised, but for Obama to try to undo Reagan-era policies, he would have to deal with the political realities those theories were confronting. We cannot simply say things went wrong with credit creation in the 1980s; we also have to deal with government malfunction in the 1970s. 

So you have these two different blind spots on the Left and Right, but I’ve been more interested in their common blind spot, which we’re less likely to discuss as a society: technological deceleration and the question of whether we’re still living in a technologically advancing society at all. I believe that the late 1960s was not only a time when government stopped working well and various aspects of our social contract began to fray, but also when scientific and technological progress began to advance much more slowly. Of course, the computer age, with the internet and web 2.0 developments of the past 15 years, is an exception. Perhaps so is finance, which has seen a lot of innovation over the same period (too much innovation, some would argue). 

There has been a tremendous slowdown everywhere else, however. Look at transportation, for example: Literally, we haven’t been moving any faster. The energy shock has broadened to a commodity crisis. In many other areas the present has not lived up to the lofty expectations we had. I think the advanced economies of the world fundamentally grow through technological progress, and as their rate of progress slows, they will have less growth. This creates incredible pressures on our political systems. I think the political system at its core works when it crafts compromises in which most people benefit most of the time. When there’s no growth, politics becomes a zero-sum game in which there’s a loser for every winner. Most of the losers will come to suspect that the winners are involved in some kind of racket. So I think there’s a close link between technological deceleration and increasing cynicism and pessimism about politics and economics. 

I think, therefore, that our problems are completely misdiagnosed. The debates are all about macroeconomics, about how much money we should print. I think you can print more money and have inflation, or stop printing money and have deflation. Bad inflation involves commodity prices and inputs, and bad deflation involves people’s wages, salaries and house prices. But the middle-way Goldilocks version, where commodity prices and consumer goods go down and wages go up, seems very farfetched. I don’t see how that sort of outcome can be crafted in a world with no growth. 

Francis Fukuyama: I understand you’re part of the inspiration behind Tyler Cowen’s book The Great Stagnation. Apart from being a former colleague of mine, he’s on the editorial board of The American Interest.

Peter Thiel: He did very graciously dedicate the book to me, and it’s an incredibly powerful articulation of this theme on many different levels. I think the question of technological dynamism isn’t often examined, but when you look into it you see many problems, from transportation failures to the space program and the Concorde decommissioning to how the energy failure allows oil price shocks to undo the price improvements of the previous century. Think of the famous 1980 Paul Ehrlich-Julian Simon wager about resource scarcity. Simon may have won the bet a decade later, but since 1993, on a rolling decade basis, Ehrlich has been winning famously. This is something that has not registered with the political class at all. 

Francis Fukuyama: That’s an early sign that we may be moving into a zero-sum world.

You made your fortune initially in Silicon Valley. Your assertions may raise a lot of eyebrows, because skeptics would say, “What about the whole boom of the 1980s?” There’s that famous Robert Solow quote from 1987, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”1 Econometricians finally began detecting that productivity jump in a more significant way in the 1990s. I would think that rather than arguing in general that there has been a technological slowdown, the more socially important argument is that the distributional impact of all the cutting-edge technological changes that have occurred over the past generation go overwhelmingly to the smart and well-educated. If you had great math skills during the agrarian economy of the 19th century, there weren’t many jobs where you could exploit that and get really rich. Now you can go to Wall Street or become a software programmer. So there’s something about the progress we’ve had that has overlain the increasing inequality you’ve pointed to. 

Peter Thiel: I don’t entirely agree with that description. My claim is not that there has been no technological progress, just deceleration. If we look at technological progress during most of the 19th and 20th centuries, it brought significant disruption. If you built horse buggies for a living, you would be out of work when the Ford Motor Company came along. In effect, over time labor was freed up to do more productive things. And on the whole, people got to be better off. I think the larger trend is just that there has been stagnation. There are debates about how to precisely measure these statistics, but the ones I’ve looked at suggest that median wages since 1973 have been mostly flat. Mean wages have gone up maybe 20–25 percent, which is the greater inequality, an anemic 0.6–0.7 per year. And if you confiscated the wealth of all the billionaires in the United States, the amount would pay for the deficits for only six months. There has been this increase in inequality, but it’s a secondary truth. The primary truth is this truth of stagnation. 

As for why inequality has gone up, you could point to the technology, as you just have. You could also point to financialization of the economy, but I would say globalization has played a much greater role because it has been the much greater trend. Even though there have been a lot of bumps in the road, your “End of History” strikes me as very much true today. Globalization has been incredibly powerful, far more so than people could have realistically expected in 1970. The question is, what is there about globalization that creates a winner-take-all world? There certainly has been a labor arbitrage with China that has been bad for the middle class, as well as for white-collar workers, in the past decade or two. 

Consider, too, that in 1960 we spoke of the First World and the Third World; today we speak of the developed world and the developing world, the part that is looking to copy the West. The developed world is where we expect nothing more to happen. The earlier dichotomy was fairly pro-technology and in some ways more agnostic on the prospects for globalization. The present dichotomy is extremely bullish on globalization and implicitly pessimistic about technology. Of course, we can point to the great fortunes that have been made in the tech industry, but of the great fortunes that have been made in the world over the past twenty or thirty years, most have not been made in technology. Look at the Russian oligarchs. Maybe one out of a hundred billionaires has a tech-related fortune. The others are a political thing linked somehow to globalization. So that’s why I think it’s important to quantify these things correctly. We tend to focus a lot on the optimistic tech narrative that notes a lot of progress, but I think the more important question is why it hasn’t been happening. 

There certainly are a lot of areas of technology where, if it were progressing, we would expect a lot of jobs to be created. The classic example would be clean technology, alternate energy technology. If you were to retool the economy toward more efficient forms of energy, one would realistically expect that to create millions of jobs. The problem with that retooling is that the clean technology just doesn’t work—namely, it doesn’t do more for less. It costs much more, so it isn’t working—at least not yet.

Francis Fukuyama: Thinking again about inequality, the problem isn’t that people are lazy. It’s not that working-class people don’t have a work ethic. In a sense they’re victimized by the advances of technology and globalization and so forth. The classic response to that is to urge the state to protect them. Take Karl Polanyi’s view that these forces can’t be defeated or pushed back, but that there must be some form of guided social adjustment, because society on its own adjusts much less quickly than underlying technology and trade patterns change. But then, if you say we’re stuck because the government can’t do anything, there isn’t a solution. Or at least there isn’t the classic solution: more redistribution and active labor market policies like they have in Scandinavia, which arrange for worker retraining. 

In terms of clean tech, I think the classic infant-industry argument might apply here. It’s true that it isn’t competitive with fossil fuel technology right now, but we’re walking very rapidly down a cost curve, especially in solar tech. Governments have provided a certain amount of help in commercializing technologies. Certainly the Chinese have been doing this big time, which is why they’ve undermined our alternative energy industries. Where do you stand on that kind of intervention?

Peter Thiel: We have different kinds of challenges on the government side. One is a little more philosophical in nature: We tend to think the future is indeterminate. But it used to be seen as a much more determinate thing and subject to rational planning. If it’s fundamentally unknowable, it doesn’t make sense to say anything about it. To put it in mathematical terms, we’ve had a shift from thinking of the world in terms of calculus to statistics. So, where we once tracked the motions of the heavenly bodies and could send Voyager to Jupiter over a multiyear trajectory, now we tend to think nature is fundamentally driven by the random movements of atoms or the Black-Scholes mathematical model of financial markets—the random walk down Wall Street. You can’t know where things are going; you only know they’re going to be random. I think some things are true about this statistical view of the future, but it’s extremely toxic for any kind of rational planning. It’s probably linked in part to the failure of state communist central planning, though I would argue that there is something to be said for some planning over no planning. We should debate whether it should be decentralized or centralized, but what the United States has today is an extremely big government, a quasi-socialist government, but without a five-year plan, with no plan whatsoever. 

If you were to telescope this now down to a single issue like clean energy, the unplanned statistical view of the future is that we don’t know what energy technology will work, so we’ll experiment with different things and see what takes off. The planned view says that two are most likely to be dominant, and so the government has a role to play in coordinating resources and making sure they work. So if it’s nuclear power, it has to free up space at Yucca Mountain, deal with zoning rules and get plants built, and it’s a complicated project at the regulatory level. The same is true of solar or wind power. If government wants high-speed rail, it must overcome local zoning rules. My guess is that at best we can push on just a handful of these major things, but that sort of determinate push requires a view of the future that is very specific, and that’s not now the kind of view people have. 

The Solyndra bankruptcy is a detailed example of this. It strikes me that the Obama Administration’s response should have been, “Well, Solyndra failed, but here are two or three companies we awarded loan guarantees that are working great.” They didn’t give that response. There’s a bad explanation and a worse explanation for that. The bad explanation is that none of these companies are working. The worse explanation—the one I believe is true—is that no one at a senior level in the Administration even thinks about the question of technology. It’s assumed to be a statistical, probabilistic thing that’s best figured out by portfolio allocations of capital to different researchers, and not a worthwhile subject to think about. This is a radically different position than, say, that of John F. Kennedy, who could talk about the nuts and bolts of the Apollo space program and all the details of what was needed to make it happen. So it’s a much different way of thinking about the future.

If there is going to be a government role in getting innovation started, people have to believe philosophically that it’s possible to plan. That’s not the world we’re living in. A letter from Einstein to the White House would get lost in the mail room today. Nobody would think that any single person would have that kind of expertise.

Francis Fukuyama: Well, clearly, Silicon Valley was in many ways the product of a government industrial policy, DARPA. So much of the early technology, the creation of the internet itself, the early semiconductor industry, were really spinoffs from investments in military technology that were obviously pushed very strongly by the government. 

Peter Thiel: My libertarian views are qualified because I do think things worked better in the 1950s and 60s, but it’s an interesting question as to what went wrong with DARPA. It’s not like it has been defunded, so why has DARPA been doing so much less for the economy than it did forty or fifty years ago? Parts of it have become politicized. You can’t just write checks to the thirty smartest scientists in the United States. Instead there are bureaucratic processes, and I think the politicization of science—where a lot of scientists have to write grant applications, be subject to peer review, and have to get all these people to buy in—all this has been toxic, because the skills that make a great scientist and the skills that make a great politician are radically different. There are very few people who are both great scientists and great politicians. So a conservative account of what happened with science in the 20th century is that we had a decentralized, non-governmental approach all the way through the 1930s and early 1940s. At that point, the government could accelerate and push things tremendously, but only at the price of politicizing it over a series of decades. Today we have a hundred times more scientists than we did in 1920, but their productivity per capita is less that it used to be.

Francis Fukuyama: You certainly can’t explain the survival of the shuttle program except in political terms. 

Peter Thiel: It was an extraordinary program. It cost more and did less and was probably less safe than the original Apollo program. In 2011, when it finally ended, there was a sense of the space age being over. Not quite, but it’s very far off from what we had decades ago. You could argue that we had more or better-targeted funding in the 1950s and 1960s, but the other place where the regulatory situation is radically different is that technology is much more heavily regulated than it used to be. It’s much harder to get a new drug through the FDA process. It takes a billion dollars. I don’t even know if you could get the polio vaccine approved today. 

One regulatory perspective is that environmentalism has played a much greater role than people think. It induced a deep skepticism about anything involving the manipulation of nature or material objects in the real world. The response to environmentalism was to prohibit scientists from experimenting with stuff and only allow them to do so with bits. So computer science and finance were legal, and what they have in common is that they involve the manipulation of bits rather than stuff. They both did well in those forty years, but all the other engineering disciplines were stymied. Electric engineering, civil engineering, aeronautical, nuclear, petroleum—these were all held back, and attracted fewer talented students at university as the years went on. When people wonder why all the rocket scientists went to work on Wall Street, well, they were no longer able to build rockets. It’s some combination of an ossified, Weberian bureaucracy and the increasingly hostile regulation of technology. That’s very different from the 1950s and 1960s. There’s a powerful libertarian argument that government used to be far less intrusive, but found targeted ways to advance science and technology.

Francis Fukuyama: Let’s talk about the social impact of these changes. Those stagnating median wages basically translate into a guy who had been working in the auto industry or the steel industry at $15 or $20 an hour but is now a very downwardly mobile checker at Walmart. So does the government have a role in protecting that kind of individual? If, as you say, we’re up to 1789 levels of inequality, this could be a socially explosive situation—perhaps not now, but down the road. The classic response of many capitalists is that you have to save capitalism from its own excesses by some form of redistribution or protecting the people hurt by it. 

Peter Thiel: I think most government welfare spending does not actually go to poor people. I don’t have a problem with the amount of money going to poor people, and perhaps we could do somewhat more. There are some very out-of-the-box solutions we could explore, such as a more protectionist trade policy, which would effectively raise taxes through tariffs and protect a range of domestic jobs. Even though that’s an inefficient move from a certain economic perspective, perhaps it’s a better way to raise taxes than a variety of other means. The argument has been that hampering free trade distorts markets, but every tax distorts markets, so you need to make a relative argument, not an absolute one. 

The reality is that most government entitlements are middle-class in nature: social security, Medicare, a lot of the education pieces. One type of reform would be to means-test all entitlement spending, but you then run into these difficult political problems. My larger view is that all these fixes are simply provisional. The overarching challenge is that all the questions about how much the government should insulate people from what’s going on depend on how far we are from equilibrium. Take, for instance, competition with Japan in the 1970s, when people were being paid half as much and it was disruptive to the car industry. Was there something we could have done? Perhaps, but China has four times as many people and wages at one-tenth of the U.S. level. The disequilibrium goes much further. 

On the one hand, we should streamline the welfare state to help those who are actually poor, as opposed to the middle class. But at the same time we need to do more to make people aware of the need to compete globally. One area where government has really failed is that its use of resources have encouraged people not to even think about the worldwide stuff. The U.S. government in 1965 made the American people much more aware of global competition and global trade than they are today. The economy has shifted from manufacturing to non-tradeable services. If you’re a lawyer, yes, there’s some complicated way in which you’re subject to international pressure, but you’ve basically chosen a career path that doesn’t force you to compete globally. The same is true of a nurse, a yoga instructor, a professor or a chef. So this skewing toward non-tradable service-sector jobs has led to a political class that is weirdly immune to globalization and mostly oblivious to it.

Francis Fukuyama: I agree with you that we’ve bought this line from the economists for the past thirty that globalization is inevitably going to be good without thinking through these points you raise.

I’d like to shift now to the question of biotech and biology. I know you’ve been an investor in companies researching issues like longevity, a personal interest of yours. This is one of those areas, I think, where there’s conflict between an individual’s interest in living forever versus the social good of population turnover. Steve Jobs said this in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, that we should welcome death, because without it people wouldn’t see much change. It’s like Max Planck’s old saying, “Science progresses one funeral at a time.” Pick your discipline, and I think that’s largely true. And actually, it seems like a lot of our fiscal woes are due to the fact that people live too long now. We used to have population pyramids; now they look more like Greek vases, with a big mass of older people resting on a decelerating rate of population growth. So isn’t the cumulative impact of advancing biomedical research into longevity going to be to worsen every single one of the social problems you point to?

Peter Thiel: I don’t agree with the Steve Jobs commencement speech. I’m deeply skeptical about any sort of rationalization of death. It’s tricky to make the ethics too consequentialist, because even if it were true that longevity is bankrupting the welfare state or the healthcare system, we can’t unlearn the things we’ve learned. The goal of longevity research is for people to live longer and healthier lives. If it succeeds, the key thing is just to raise the retirement age. Retirement in many cases at age 65 is absurd given present life expectancy, which has been going up two and a half years each decade. In 1840, 46 years was the maximum life expectancy (among Swedish women); today it’s 86 years (among Japanese women). And every day that you survive, your life expectancy goes up something like five or six hours. So the policy calibration should be to have an automatic increase of the retirement age by three months per year. 

The secondary, more scientific question is whether the claims are correct that these technologies are producing longer, healthy lives; perhaps they’re producing longer, unhealthy lives. I think the truth involves some of both. The average seventy-year-old is healthier, but at the margins there are longer periods of suffering, such as with Alzheimer’s. About a third of people age 85 have either Alzheimer’s or some incipient dementia. If we can’t cure some of these late-stage ailments, there’s a prospect of a very long period of debility before death. I think the jury is still out. 

To take a step back, the entire longevity research program is the culmination of the Western scientific project. It was part of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, and has been a recurrent thread through much of the past 400 years of science. I don’t think we can abandon it or carve it out without abandoning technological progress altogether. It’s too closely linked to it. 

Francis Fukuyama: One of the concerns is with innovation. Part of what produces innovation is generational turnover. You see this in academia all the time. The people with the best ideas are younger professors. When you get to be my age, you more or less stopped thinking 25 years ago. If you live another 25 years, you’ll probably have the same dumb ideas you do today. In a sense, there’s a remorseless evolutionary logic to the fact that one generation has to grow up in different circumstances, adjust to that and see the world differently.

Peter Thiel: One of the critical areas of research today is neurobiology. The trickiest organ to deal with is the brain system. We can imagine replacing other organs as they wear out with artificial ones, but you wouldn’t want to have your brain replaced. So the longevity project must look at brain functioning and find ways to improve it over time. I think significant drug advances in neurobiology have happened over the past 15 years, and there’s good reason to believe we’ll see more progress in the next few decades. 

Even if mathematicians peak in their twenties, as you suggest, a writer-philosopher has a long shelf-life, so you’ve picked a good career path for the age of longevity. I still think the correct answer is to figure out ways to acknowledge the fact, to address tenure and other systems that privilege the old over the young. 

Francis Fukuyama: Look at California, for instance, where we spend much more on Medicare and pensions for the old than on K-12 education. 

Peter Thiel: It’s a political problem, I agree, because old people vote and young people do not or cannot. On the other hand, if you look at the venture capital industry, it tends to allocate a lot of capital to younger people who start companies. The university is a strangely problematic case where it’s hard for young researchers to get funding. I think the public sector is more broken than the private sector. 

Francis Fukuyama: As a last topic, let’s turn to your thoughts on education. You’ve made the case that many people overinvest in higher education. So you offered fellowships to allow people to drop out and start companies. Beyond that, what’s the agenda in terms of reforming the system? More privatization? There was a recent piece about people connected to the Obama Administration lobbying for less regulation of for-profit education. It seems like that’s become a pretty politicized area. What’s the next step in fixing this overinvestment problem?

Peter Thiel: Again, I look at this through my overarching view of forty years of technological stagnation, and an attendant unawareness of it because a series of bubbles have distracted us. There’s an education bubble, which is, like the others, psychosocial. There’s a wide public buy-in that leads to a product being overvalued because it’s linked to future expectations that are unrealistic. Education is similar to the tech bubble of the late 1990s, which assumed crazy growth in businesses that didn’t pan out. The education bubble is predicated on the idea that the education provided is incredibly valuable. In many cases that’s just not true. Here and elsewhere people have avoided facing the fact of stagnation by telling themselves stories about familiar things leading to progress. One fake vector of progress is credentialing—first the undergraduate degree, then more advanced degrees. Like the others, it’s an avoidance mechanism. 

The bias I had five years ago was that my foundation should start a new university and just do everything better. I looked into it in great detail, examining all the new universities that have been started throughout the world in the past ten years, and found that very little has worked. It has been a huge misallocation of capital, and donor intent got lost on all sorts of levels. I started out wondering how you could allocate money for the improvement of education and concluded that there was no way to do it. 

This relates to the problem I mentioned earlier with taking a statistical, unplanned approach to the future: A student doesn’t know what to do, so he learns stuff. When I taught at Stanford Law School last year, I asked students what they planned to do with their lives. Most were headed to big law firms but didn’t expect to become partners and didn’t know the next step after that. They didn’t have long-term plans about what they wanted to achieve in their lives. I think the educational system has become a major factor stopping people from thinking about the future. It’s far from equilibrium. There is something like $1 trillion in student debt. A cynical view is that that represents $1 trillion worth of lies told about the value of higher education. There are incredible incentives to exaggerate its value, and the counter-narrative has been shaky but is coming to the fore. Bubbles end when people stop believing the false narrative and start thinking for themselves. So many students are not getting the jobs they need to repay their debts, are moving back in with their parents, and the contract both parties signed up for is being revealed as false. 

I don’t know exactly what will replace it. I suspect the for-profit schools are like the subprime brokers. I’m not in favor of them and wouldn’t even describe them as private-sector entities, since they’re so enmeshed in the system of state educational subsidies. If you had a strong government that worked, it would be fighting to break these bubbles. One of the reasons I’m a libertarian is that our government does not act in a counter-cyclical way. When bubbles are at their peak, it actually reinforces them—makes them worse. Today, the courageous thing for the government to do would be to aggressively tilt against the prevailing psychology, to encourage the pursuit of non-college vocational careers rather than adding fuel to the fire, as it has been doing. 

Francis Fukuyama: One last question. The New Yorker profile of you mentioned that you’ve been reading Leo Strauss. Why?

Peter Thiel: I’ve been interested in Strauss for a long time. I think Strauss was a very important and profound thinker. His essay “Persecution and the Art of Writing” shows how in all societies certain ideas are not allowed to be discussed. Properly understood, political correctness is our greatest political problem. We always have this question of how to build a society in which important problems can be thought through and tackled. It’s a mistake to simply fixate on the problem of political correctness in its narrow incarnation of campus speech codes; it’s a much more pervasive problem. For instance, part of what fuels the education bubble is that we’re not allowed to articulate certain truths about the inequality of abilities. Many of our destructive bubbles are linked to political correctness, and that’s why Strauss is so important today.

Francis Fukuyama: Excellent. Thank you very much. 

1Solow, “We’d Better Watch Out”, New York Times Book Review, July 12, 1987.

Appeared in: Volume 07, Number 4 | Published on: February 1, 2012
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