Sam Altman and the fear of political correctness

Many are abuzz over Sam Altman’s short and politically incorrect blog post:

Earlier this year, I noticed something in China that really surprised me.  I realized I felt more comfortable discussing controversial ideas in Beijing than in San Francisco.  I didn’t feel completely comfortable—this was China, after all—just more comfortable than at home.

That showed me just how bad things have become, and how much things have changed since I first got started here in 2005.

It seems easier to accidentally speak heresies in San Francisco every year.  Debating a controversial idea, even if you 95% agree with the consensus side, seems ill-advised.

Nerd that I am, I am immediately reminded of the theory of price indices.  If you go to a new country with the same goods and prices as your home town, you won’t buy very much.  Alternatively, if your port of call has radically remixed relative prices, you will do lots of shopping and go home pretty happy.

And so it runs with shadow prices for speech, including rights to say things and to ask questions.  Whatever you are free to say in America, you have said many times already, and the marginal value of exercising that freedom yet again doesn’t seem so high.  But you show up in China, and wow, your pent-up urges are not forbidden topics any more.  Just do be careful with your mentions of Uncle Xi, Taiwan, Tibet, Uighur terrorists, and disappearing generals.  That said, in downtown Berkeley you can speculate rather freely on whether China will someday end up as a Christian nation, and hardly anybody will be offended.

For this reason, where we live typically seems especially unfree when it comes to speech.  And when I am in China, I usually have so, so many new dishes I want to sample, including chestnuts and pumpkin.

All of this will seem all the more true, the longer you have lived in your home base.  You will note also that price variability increases consumer surplus, so it is no wonder that Sam enjoys China so much.


"you can speculate rather freely on whether China will someday end up as a Christian nation"

I guess the secret wish of most western conservatives is to see the whole world turn Christian. But it would be good if they were to focus on ensuring atleast 50% of their own populations practice Christianity.

In the United States, arguably the most religious country in the western world, I see 50% of marriages ending in divorce, illegitimacy rates among new births at close to 50%, rampant drug abuse bordering on epidemic proportions.

Christianity has been powerless in shaping lives. What use is a nominal adherence to Christianity if it cannot help sustain even an institution as basic and ancient as marriage?

If China indeed needs a religion, it can do better to draw on its ancient buddhist tradition, which is still very much the No 1 religion in China. Sure, Buddhism too is nowhere close to being as robust in influencing daily life, unlike say Hinduism or even Islam. But definitely a stronger religion than Christianity.

Those statistics are not correct, and are better among Christians

Evangelicals Have Higher-than-average Divorce Rates, According to a Report Compiled by Baylor for the Council on Contemporary Families
Feb. 5, 2014

Admittedly a subset of Christians.

For context, Baylor University is a private Baptist university in Waco, Texas. While the individual author of that piece might have a liberal bias, Waco is a very conservative and pro-evangelical place.

Why on earth would anyone claim that North America is more actively Christian than Latin America? (paging Thiago Ribeiro's new alias, perhaps you can have a "crazy off" with Shrik?)

I don't like to view Latin America as part of the Western world. Somehow the idea doesn't appeal to me :)

It seems like as a region it has a pretty big bearing on what "Christianity" has the power to do, in your terms.

In the United States, arguably the most religious country in the western world, I see 50% of marriages ending in divorce, illegitimacy rates among new births at close to 50%, rampant drug abuse bordering on epidemic proportions.

No, you don't, because the correct figure is 40% (and more like 35% for new marriages). Both social metrics have also hit a plateau.

While you may be correct? You are nitpicking and trying to defame the argument. Bad form.

wtf is it with MR commentors just dropping numbers all over the place and not even showing where they came from?

Hate speech

I was not aware that the divorce rate was the main way in which one determines the level of Christian belief.

I would have thought that things like caring for the poor and sick, welcoming the stranger, avoiding arrogance and ostentatious displays of piety were a bigger part of the picture. On those grounds it does not seem to me that American conservatives are really such wonderful Christians.

Of course, I'm not a Christian myself, so perhaps my understanding of the religion is inaccurate.

You would have thought that "true" Christianity was really just progressivism, and that, voila!&emdash;the people you're already accustomed to contemning are shown to have fallen short of their "own" ideals. It's a nice trick: even works on yourself.

The central tenets of Christianity, other than a belief in the one, true God, are forgiveness and redemption. In the supposedly intensely religious US these two things hardly exist under the draconian thumb of the state religion. The state, a descendant of the Puritan world view, as a tangible entity demands submission from all others, whom it regards as followers of the supernatural. The central Puritan belief in predestination, however, survives in the state's rejection of redemption and forgiveness in favor of continuing temporal punishment.

As I said, I may have it wrong - I haven't studied the Gospels carefully, and am just going by what little I have read.

It's possible that not welcoming the stranger, or giving drink to the thirsty, or food to the hungry, or clothing to the naked are just fine, and that it is better to just make the rich richer. Is that the road to redemption?

Nothing hateful about it.

Though I am a hindu, I think I know more about Christianity than most Christians.

Modesty is an important Christian virtue. I don't see much of that in US. Sacrifice, self-transformation, the inviolability of marriage - are important Christian ideas. Hefnerian US doesn't even attempt to meet these ideals.

"Though I am a hindu, I think I know more about Christianity than most Christians.

Modesty is an important Christian virtue."

Let's hope it's not an important hindu virtue, as well.

On the contrary, confusing a religion with its scriptures shows that you don't know a whole lot about it. Most religions don't even *have* scriptures!

(Technically, Protestantism does claim to be its scriptures, but this is unique within Christianity.)

"If China indeed needs a religion, it can do better to draw on its ancient buddhist tradition, which is still very much the No 1 religion in China."

Who cares about truth? A local lie suffices! Why not any of the thousandsmofmlocalmfolk demon--worshipping cults instead of Buddhism?

"Sure, Buddhism too is nowhere close to being as robust in influencing daily life, unlike say Hinduism or even Islam."

India is pure Hinduism (i.e. demon-worshipping and cow-worshipping cults), I grant you that. Maybe the Chinese shoud not imitate that! Funny how failure goes to some people's heads.

The US is far from (even arguably) being more religious than Poland, Greece, or Mexico.

The Chinese Christian evangelical population has had much faster growth of much larger magnitude than that of the U.S.A.

> I guess the secret wish of most western conservatives is to see the whole world turn Christian.

Of course there is a smallish subset that will claim exactly that, and it's not a secret at all. So I will assume you're not talking about those.

Regarding the rest of Christians, for which it is *not* an explicit wish that the whole world share their beliefs, I have only one thing to say about this premise:

In my experience, when someone speculates about someone's intentions, motivations, or otherwise internal experience visible to only that person, the speculator is saying more about their own intentions, motivations, or otherwise internal experiences than those of others. Psychological projection.

There are only two major first-order ways to determine the motivations of other people: asking them, which is very effective, and predicting them based on behavior, which is extremely, extremely ineffective (think of how many times your critics have successfully intuited your motivations, especially when they refer to you as part of a group). Knowing this, there is a second-order method: when someone predicts the motives of others based on intuition, you can be very confident they're projecting, and you can predict their motives with high accuracy - better than asking them directly, I suspect.

All that being said, I think your musings on Christianity are worthless save for they tell us that YOU secretly wish the world shared your beliefs.

- an atheist

If the United States billed itself as the "Land of the Cheese", but was severely lacking in Swiss and Cheddar, it would make no sense to mention how it's still pretty adept at making Gouda and Mozzarella.

Now don't go around comparing and contrasting the speech restrictions in China and our very own "Land of the Free", unless it's to say that any of it in the latter is unacceptable.

Nice cover for the left. Well done.

You may continue to contribute to Bloomberg.

I see it as half-signalling, half red-pilling. In a literal sense, yes, there's probably more free speech in San Francisco than China, which isn't saying much. But Tyler never disputes that there are a lot of things that can't be said in San Francisco.

There are a lot of things you can't say in the Main Dining Room of a cruise ship packed with elderly pensioners either.

Tyler explicitly notes issues that may be difficult to talk about in China but doesn’t talk about one issue that may be difficult to talk about in the US. It’s comical.

This is pure cover for the left. Tyler is terrified of them. He wants to keep his Bloomberg gig, he wants to keep conversations with Tyler and he know that the Khmer Rouge will come for him if he deviates from the talking points.

Such is life in America.

"doesn’t talk about one issue that may be difficult to talk about in the US"

Sure, but you have to read between the lines:

"And so it runs with shadow prices for speech, including rights to say things and to ask questions.... you show up in China, and wow, your pent-up urges are not forbidden topics any more....

For this reason, where we live typically seems especially unfree when it comes to speech. And when I am in China, I usually have so, so many new dishes I want to sample, including chestnuts and pumpkin.....

I think chestnuts and pumpkin is not meant to be interpreted literally.

Weird. Why not say things explicitly ... there must be a reason ...

Comparing the American Left to the Khmer Rouge seems kind of ridiculous, especially since the Republican party controls all three branches of government.

Tell that to Eich and Mercer.

Did they strip Mercer of his billions and force him into the countryside? I didn't hear about that!

Way to miss the point dude.

agreed. Altman's post really wasn't about China.

But that was the point. The post claimed that San Franciso was hostile to free speech, arguably worse than Beijing, and that hostility was hurting innovation.

Tyler is arguing that the post is based on a false premise, that while in China he focusing on all the things he couldn't say in 2017 San Francisco, but not the things he couldn't say in China.

In fact, San Francisco is far more open to to free speech than China and it might even be more open to free speech than 2005 San Francisco (though I don't know if Tyler Cowen would agree with that).

This is a critical point that San Franciso is not unusually hostile to free speech. While the current set of taboos might be hurting some kinds of innovation, but the heightened tolerance for other forms of expression might be why San Francisco is so successful with other kinds of innovation.

I think Altman would say that China has low "shadow prices" for speech on most topics, but high ones for a particular topic, whereas the US has moderate prices on a long or at least longer list of topics. Yeah, you won't get thrown in jail for making fun of Jerry Brown, but expressing the wrong opinion on A,B,C,D can cost you your job, probably get your house vandalized, etc.

Is this better or worse than the PRC?

SF is better - after being arrested in the PRC, you also lose your job along with your freedom.

You're living proof of just how painful an involuntary separation can be, prior.

You mean I was involuntarily banished from the paradise that is the U.S to the socialist hell hole that is Germany? Not that anyone here cared about the glowing recommendation from my former GMU boss. Admittedly, that recommendation was written on stationery from a venture encompassed within the GMU Foundation, though also considered a part of GMU. As someone like Prof. Cowen undoubtedly is aware of, the line between being employed by the Commonwealth of Virginia while also being paid through money that is not provided by the Commonwealth's taxpayer is not uncommon for a certain number of those working at GMU. Call it an older version of the way that an anonymous donor can hide their identity while having the state rename a public law school.

I'd still disagree with Altman. Even disregarding and topic involving politics or police China has lower tolerance for LGBTQ, lower tolerance for a lot of alternative lifestyles, lower tolerance for alternative religions, etc, etc.

I think there's another aspect to what Altman is experiencing. People from San Francisco really care about XYZ and so have strong opinions about XYZ, therefore people have to be careful about expressing opinions on XYZ while in San Francisco so they stick to safe topic like ABC instead.

In China no one cares about XYZ because it doesn't really affect them, so you can talk about XYZ all you want without consequence. But talk about ABC and you need to be really careful.

So SF is on equal footing as China, according to your second and third paragraphs. Good for them. A good question is how does SF compare to most US cities.

TMC, are you being deliberately obtuse? ABC and XYZ are abstract labels so deliberately useless for relative comparisons, and my both comments displayed a clear opinion that SF has more free speech than China.

Or, to keep things simple, *relative to expectations* China seems surprisingly free. And, relative to expectations, San Francisco seems pretty damned oppressive. But San Francisco is much freer than China.

Deliberately ? No. All you have proved is that SF is intolerant of some views to the point of violence, as is China. All I wanted to add is that normal US cities do not suffer from this. I'll strive to do better connecting the dots if I see your name in the comments again.

@Aaron- thanks for the summary of the debate, now I can skip the rest of these comments.

My two cents: in the Philippines, foreigners are forbidden by law on pain of deportation in talking about politics or participating in any political rally, due to a 2015 law passed.

“This is a critical point that San Franciso is not unusually hostile to free speech. ”

Define unusual. Firing the Google engineer for pedestrian thoughts on gender is unusual. Forcing Apple’s diversity czar to apologize because she said skin color doesn’t define diversity is unusual.

And Tim Ferris - who makes his living getting people to talk - just left SF after 17 years with one of his reasons being the stifling of speech.

This is just off the top of my head. And it’s not usual.

One more point. Barriers to speech in China come from the government. My experience in Asia and North America is that people in Asia talk more freely despite the local government’s laws.

But here, and especially in SV, these wars on speech are self-imposed. And this strikes me as far more disturbing. A law is easier to change than a norm.

SF is pursuing a model of positive tolerance of speech, this generally makes you more free to pursue unusual identities or forms of self-expression, but less free to inhibit other people's attempts to do the same.

So something potentially perceived as sexist or racist is treated with much lower tolerance (since sexism and racism makes it harder for women and minorities to safely express themselves).

But someone who is a sexual minority is going to be a lot more comfortable in embracing their identity. Someone pursuing a crazy art project is going to find a lot more support.

By default I'd say it evens out compared to the rest of the US. I suspect it's more free than the rural deep south that's very culturally conservative and a gay person may need to stay deep in the closet.

I'd say it's less free than New York where there's a huge mixture of cultures and politics so you're bound to run into someone saying anything.

As for individual restrictions on speech I don't know your background, but I think it would be really hard to detect self-imposed restrictions on speech in Chinese. Again consider the things you'd be tempted to self-restrict (ABC) aren't the things they'll self-restrict (XYZ).

“SF is pursuing a model of positive tolerance of speech, this generally makes you more free to pursue unusual identities or forms of self-expression, but less free to inhibit other people’s attempts to do the same.”

Somehow you’ve managed to perceive this upside down.

The examples I used weren’t people inhibiting the self-expression of others. They were people whose very mild forms of expression were being crushed.

As Tim Ferris said in explaining his move to Texas, he’s extremely socially liberal but even for him SF was becoming intellectually and culturally suffocating.

Your confusion here seems to be that you think disagreeing on an issue is synonymous with inhibiting, hating and even threatening one’s safety.

It’s not. Banning disagreement is.

I think the Google Engineer thing could have been handled better, but I think the concept of micro-aggressions is real and has significant effects. When people constantly and persistently re-enforce a narrative like "women aren't good at/interested in programming" it has a real effect. There's obviously people who overcome it, but I think there's a lot more people whom are harmed by micro-aggressions and require positive re-enforcement. And those people when discouraged tend to stop contributing.

That's part of the concept of safe spaces, when people feel safe to express themselves you'll get more out of them. I think that's the side of my argument you're overlooking. I think there's a lot of people in SF who feel a lot more free to express themselves, and do so, because other people don't feel as free to say things that are perceived as politically incorrect. This obviously has costs but I think the liberated expression is correctly classified as speech.

Is there any tyranny that wouldn't fit your model of "ban speech -> some other speech therefore acquires a safe space -> speech is liberated"? Your argument proves too much, even Stalinist Russia "liberated the expression" of praising the glorious leader.

Anonymous, I was referring to private restrictions of speech enforced by local culture, so your "clever" Stalinist Russia example is completely inapplicable (not to mention kinda nonsensical since I don't know what "Dear leader" speech has to do with anything).

As for the limits it's a measure of common sense as I've clearly stated that there are costs. Too much tolerance and you're in kindergarden, too little and you have the 1950s where anyone who isn't a straight white male is extremely limited in what they can say.

Censorship is not tolerance, it is censorship. What is the difference between banning speech in a city so expressions that are considered idiotic on by the broader nation can be liberated, and banning speech in a country so expressions that are considered idiotic by the world can be liberated? Both are equally censorious and only different in the scale of damage.

Since you find what I was getting at with "dear leader" nonsensical, I will try to restate. You say that banning certain speech frees other speech, thus we have positive tolerance of speech. I think this line of reasoning is faulty because you can apply it to even the most censorious regimes we can think of. If we can show that North Korea has positive tolerance of speech, either that collection of words is meaningless or the argumentation is wrong. Suppose Kim wakes up and decides chocolate is a form of meat in one particular NK town. In the broader country and world, saying that chocolate is meat is a repressed statement, a ridiculous one. But that NK city gives the expression "chocolate is meat" liberty. Thus, that NK city is tolerant. Now either you say that the NK city is indeed tolerant, or you show me why your ban speech->free other speech->tolerance doesn't apply here, or you agree that ban speech->free other speech->tolerance argument is rubbish.

You're conflating government censorship with private condemnation. No one is advocating for additional government censorship in SF or the banning of speech anywhere.

And I found your "Dear Leader" comment nonsensical because I actually went out of my way to explain what I meant by a positive tolerance of speech. Your whole argument seems to rely on redefining "positive tolerance of speech" into something bizarre, then claiming my argument doesn't hold because you can give it a bizarre input and give it a bizarre output.

It's just as ingenuous as me claiming that government censorship of speech is necessary because it would allow muggers to go around saying "give me your money or I'll kill you". If you want people to take you seriously then take them seriously and give their positions the benefit of assuming common-sense.

I'm not redefining your "positive tolerance of speech". I'm not doing anything with it actually, except pointing out that your described chain of logic outputs it regardless of what you input, because it is faulty.

Regarding the private vs government distinction: Why does it matter who is enforcing it? If restricting speech frees other speech thereby giving rise to tolerance because speech has been freed, why does it matter who does the freeing? It is different yes, there are negative externalities from the monopoly on force thing, but we're only arguing if censorship is tolerance or not.

Yeah, the apparent 'freedom' of discussing controversial ideas in China is because the things that are controversial there aren't controversial here and vice versa.

Reminds me of a joke from my parents' generation. An American and Russian are talking. American says "here in the US, we have freedom of speech! I can go in front of the white house and yell that the President of the US is an idiot!" The Russian says - "so what? I can also go in front of the Kremlin and yell that the President of the US is an idiot!"

That's hilarious. I wish I lived in the golden of age of non-political-correctness, as your parents did HA2.

Ronald Reagan claimed to have enjoyed to telling that one to Gorbachev.

"But you show up in China, and wow, your pent-up urges are not forbidden topics any more. Just do be careful with your mentions of Uncle Xi, Taiwan, Tibet, Uighur terrorists, and disappearing generals. That said, in downtown Berkeley you can speculate rather freely on whether China will someday end up as a Christian nation, and hardly anybody will be offended."

That framing is a bit loaded. Let's reverse things, just to see how that works:

"But you show up in the USA, and wow, your pent-up urges are not forbidden topics any more. Just be careful in Berkeley with your non-critical mentions of Donald Trump, your critical mentions of the existing Berkeley policy on illegal immigrants or the "me too" movement's tendency to use social media to usurp due process and the role of the legal system, or ask whether it is worthwhile to try to stop "global warming, much less, "where's the men's bathroom"?. That said, in Beijing, you can speculate rather freely on whether the US will become a nation of oppressive minorities and hardly anyone will be offended."

Actually, although I'm sure Altman discusses a lot of other stuff in China, this is the type of conversation he had in mind (as well as other "wacky" ideas):

"More recently, I’ve seen credible people working on ideas like pharmaceuticals for intelligence augmentation, genetic engineering, and radical life extension leave San Francisco because they found the reaction to their work to be so toxic. “If people live a lot longer it will be disastrous for the environment, so people working on this must be really unethical” was a memorable quote I heard this year."

I think I'll book a flight to Beijing and release my pent-up urge to discuss radical life extension.

You might be right :-) In many SF novels the Chinese are ruthlessly pragmatic. Vonnegut writes how they reduce their physical size to use less resources. Gibson writes how you can buy any kind of DNA or body modification from Chinese labs. Any bioengineering that we find unethical might be pragmatically applied in China.

Singapore also pretty good for this.

I've talked about Tibet, Taiwan and Uighur terrorists in China without any apparent difficulty.

I've been hearing from American friends and colleagues since about 2010 that everyone at home has gone insane and it is no longer possible to talk to anyone.

A Bernie supporting friend of mine at the US embassy in Ukraine let drop to a coworker over lunch that he was planning to vote for Trump and was immediately physically hustled into a side room and told he must never mention it again to anyone or there could be serious consequences. I worked in Russia for over 10 years and never heard a similar story. The impression there was that everybody agreed they were going to act as if they thought Putin was the greatest ever, but everybody knew no-one actually thought that and it was all just a big joke.

'I’ve talked about Tibet, Taiwan and Uighur terrorists in China without any apparent difficulty.'

Were you a resident of the sort of housing facility where Deutsche Bank employees, for example, lived? Because broadly speaking, since they rarely have any contact with anyone Chinese that is not clearly being monitored, the Chinese government does not much care what a German says to a Mexican behind the security entrance to their apartment complex.

The same was equally true a generation ago in KSA for both American military trainers and oil industry workers.

Police states tend to focus on internal threats, not foreigners who rarely come into contact with the people that the police state is diligently keeping under its thumb. (Of course, KSA was a bit like the Soviet Union in the sense that a religious framework was also involved - the CCP is seemingly much more pragmatic these days, being mainly interested in maintaining absolute control of society, for the good of all (party members, at least)..

And yet, the typical state employee teaching at Berkeley would most surely not accept speculation about inherent differences between men and women from a Chinese national working or studying at Berkeley. The U.S. government would come down hard on an expat executive working at a Chinese bank who did the same. So it seems like China is freer.

'And yet, the typical state employee teaching at Berkeley would most surely not accept speculation about inherent differences between men and women from a Chinese national working or studying at Berkeley. '

Why do I doubt that a Chinese national working or studying at Berkeley would have a problem talking about the factual differences between men and women - whether one has a uterus or not, for example. Saying that a woman's brian is half the size of a man's would be rejected when presented as 'speculationÄ - because it is incorrect, of course. Speculating that a woman is only capable of housework and raising children is also provably false, at least in terms in pointing out all the cases where that is clearly incorrect.

But maybe you have an example of speculation about men and women that is not easily demonstrated to be based on a perspective which can be supported or dismissed based on facts - please do share.

Women are less interested in being programmers

Tell that to Rear Admiral Hopper -

Or Ada Lovelace, the first person in history to actually realize what programming's potential -

Try again - but please, don't use science, that is just like shooting fish in a barrel too, and would lead to a discussion about institutional barriers, as compared to speculating about the differences between men and women.

2 data points is not science, nor is programming. Pls think clearly.

"Hopper had attempted to enlist in the Navy during World War II". What an SJW Antifa.

"Why do I doubt that a Chinese national working or studying at Berkeley would have a problem talking about the factual differences between men and women – whether one has a uterus or not, for example."

Are you really unaware that you could get yourself in hot water on a college campus by asserting that all women have a uterus? Transgender rights activists find this offensive.

What hypocrites leftists like Tyler and clockwork_prior are. They say, "Please do share," and when anyone does share, like James Damore or Charles Murray, they fire him or beat him up. Then they prance around triumphantly, shouting, "No one has the intellectual chops to argue with me! I've refuted everyone!"

China is not as stifled as you imagine.

Doesn't anybody here understand statistics? There is no inconsistency between "women are less interested in becoming programmers on average" and "the finest programmer in the world is a woman."

When I was living in Russia I saw a fair amount of support for Putin. Some had an open minded attitude to my criticism, saying, not unreasonably, that he was a lot better than the alternatives, the communists or the "liberals" who reminded me a lot of Western SJWs. Others though were true believers who couldn't bear to hear Dear Leader criticized. I didn't meet any of the latter group until I spent a few weeks in the Russian countryside. When I lived in my expat bubble, everyone was either anti-Putin or pragmatically pro-Putin.

I think there is a world of difference between a place where the restrictions to speech are implemented by the goons of the State with the threat of jail, and a place where they are implemented by a sorry bunch of SJWs with the threat of shunning you. The members of the second group are just exercising their right of choosing who associate with. Besides, IMHO, if you got shunned from those idiots, good for you.

Mostly correct. They can't get you thrown in jail here, but they can get you fired. I don't see a lot to defend here.

Oh, and at a rally, they can beat the hell out of you with impunity.

Except that the Google c-suite aren't a bunch of sorry SJWs.

I think the price index metaphor/model works not just for baskets of goods and restrictions on speech, but across the board for other cultural experiences, be it food, conversation, etiquette rules, or whatever: the traveller is out of their homeland and facing new and different prices (and quantities). They can react by as Tyler says trying to keep consuming the same bundle of goods, or they can react by re-optimizing according to the new prices. The ones who try to do the former practice will be homesick and miserable and complain how much better things are back home. The ones who are willing to change their consumption patterns will find themselves living a different lifestyle even if only temporarily and quite possibly will learn that they like things that they didn't even know about before.

Good analogy.

It's an ok analogy, along the lines of "foreign tourist goggles."

People in a new place for a short time tend to focus too much on certain parts of their own experience, and they don't learn to achieve a balanced view of what the whole experience of life in those places is like. Yeah yeah, every society has it's own framework on constraints and structure of taboos.

However, that's missing Sam's main point, which was about whether the social implementation of those taboos extends far beyond narrow domains, tends to infect and swallow anything and everything, and works to add significant costs and risks to any efforts to innovate, as a kind of "taboos tax," or "moral certification fee." And that tax on innovation is much, much higher in San Francisco than it is in Shanghai. You might even say it makes Americans increasingly Complacent™, because these kinds of potential hassles just aren't worth the trouble.

There is not always a way to quibble with every new Chinese business as to what it means for the future of Christianity or whatever. There is always a way to critique anything in the US along the typical moralized dimensions, but more to the point, there is an incentive for most private actors to try to discover and propagate those critiques to signal their own sanctimony. So instead of commercial innovators, we get ideological entrepreneurs, which is a very bad allocation of our energy and talent. In that way, it's always better for the state to administer official taboos, because it has an incentive to keep the taboos stable, predictable, and under control.

So a better analogy is the FDA. Imagine if Alex Tabarrok heads over to Europe and says, "Wow, Germany approved a drug in a third of the time and cost it took the FDA to do so, but Germany's record is just as good as America's!" And then Cowen could respond, "Tabarrok is just happy because of the drugs that get approved faster and cheaper, but he's not thinking about all the drugs that Germany takes more time and imposes more costs on." And he could say, "Yeah, yeah, every developed country has a system of regulations about what drugs get approved."

But then Tabarrok could say, "No, the FDA seems to be systematically worse and much more broken. Not just on average by a few percent, but across the board and by huge margins and Americans suffer a lot as a result." San Francisco is America's FDA of taboos: not just different, but a lot worse too.

'I didn’t feel completely comfortable—this was China, after all—just more comfortable than at home.'

Because the chances of being arrested in SF for expressing an incorrect opinion are so much higher than in China. But then, the odds of most the things he were saying would be punishable in China are pretty low.

The ability to overlook the reality of a police state has nothing to do with one's political orientation. Outsiders looking at or visiting a police state, whether they consider themselves left and right, are more than capable of ignoring the facts that they are generally aware of enough to avoid getting arrested. For example, trying expressing the opinion that Hong Kong citizens should have the right to determine their own fate without direct interference from the CCP, and see how more comfortable it would be to express that opinion in China than SF.

Social discomfort at expressing opinions that others consider wrong is a reality of all societies. It is just that in free societies, the ability to have opinions be expressed that change society are a lot less likely to lead to jail. Though it is true that even in free societies, expressing a politically incorrect opinion can lead to jail, as Gandhi demonstrated. Or Rosa Parks, for a slightly more modern example in a country that considers itself a considerably more free society than most..

Unemployability is not much better than jail. That is why "blacklists" were once considered bad, in the times of the McCarthy scare.

On the other hand, some people jailed for their ideas later became presidents, like Václav Havel or Nelson Mandela.

Sure, things can change - but being in jail and being unemployed afterwards are generally worse than simply being unemployed. Lech Walesa may have done OK, but a number of his fellow Solidarity members were not so lucky.

And blacklists tend to only work in one industry - Americans like to consider themselves flexible enough to overcome such a handicap. For example, Trump is not precisely blacklisted when it comes to the gaming industry though it is unlikely that he could find anyone credible to work with him in the future or help acquire the necessary licensing, but that does not affect his opportunities to open world class golfing facilities.

'Trump Entertainment Resorts, Inc. was a gaming and hospitality company that owned and operated the now shuttered Trump Taj Mahal hotel and casino, as well as the now shuttered Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino and the Trump Marina located in Atlantic City, New Jersey, United States. Formerly known as Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, it was founded in 1995 by Donald Trump, now 45th President of the United States, who has not had any formal role in the company since 2011, if not earlier. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2004, 2009 and 2014. It has been a subsidiary of Icahn Enterprises since 2016.'

Irwin Allen Schiff (February 23, 1928 – October 16, 2015) was an American tax protester[1] known for writing and promoting literature in which he claimed the income tax in the United States is illegal and unconstitutional. Judges in several civil and criminal cases ruled in favor of the federal government and against Schiff. As a result of these judicial rulings, Schiff was serving a sentence of at least 13 years for tax crimes at the time of his death. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reported that Schiff died on October 16, 2015.[2] Schiff was the father of businessman and former United States Senate candidate Peter Schiff. He died in prison at age 87.

You think maybe he also didn't pay his taxes? If writing anti-tax literature were, by itself, a crime, I might be in jail too.

I reside in a small town in the South, where the locals believe unions and political correctness are ruining the country. Of course, there is no political correctness in the place nor do the locals know any union members. That's the point: people demonize what and who they don't know. As for Sam Altman, his latest objection to political correctness is this: people should be allowed to say bad things about gay people (Altman is gay) (Altman's example: "gay people are evil") so they can say nice things about gay people ("gay people are ok"). I suppose that antisemites should be allowed to say "Jews are evil" so they can also say "some of my best friends are Jews". In Altman's world, people must be afraid to say nice things about gays and Jews. I wouldn't recommend that he move to the South, where people are free to say gays and Jews are evil but that doesn't seem to induce anybody in these parts to say gays and Jews are ok.

No doubt such friendships won't please you for some reason, but Southern women and gays have traditionally tended to get along famously.

Your small town must be an interesting libertarian Utopia if there are no members of public employees unions there. No local government workers whatsoever. Because that would be the only way for no townsfolk to know any union members.

It is common in u.s. southeastern states for any activity natural to a union (mandatory dues, strikes, collective bargaining) to be forbidden by state law to state and local government employees. Do it and get fired.

One more point for the confederacy!

Yes, it's quite the libertarian utopia, if you ignore the federal spending:

My wife's family in small town Alabama wasn't particularly sympathetic when I pointed out their rather obvious racism. In fact, I was rather pointedly invited to keep my views to myself.

That damn political correctness raising it's ugly head once again...

Not saying this is Sam, but there is a certain sort of person who having left the US thinks (probably not "thinks" but subconsciously feels) he is free of all law.

I've seen it with people who I thought were normal, but end up ripping out road signs, and throwing beer bottles at traffic, in Mexico.

If you are travelers, you've probably seen it too.

Then they place hysterical calls to the nearest US Consulate demanding/begging/pleading for a Department of State employee to get them released from custody.

Tyler: For this reason, where we live typically seems especially unfree when it comes to speech.

Though, to be contrarian to this, if Western restricted topics tend to be restricted where they are could be in opposition to a global, pan-human world order, rather than a specific, local order, then maybe they actually are less free in a real sense.

That is, perhaps there's an argument that you're probably less free in a Communist state where you can't talk in general ways about economics and human nature and spirituality in the general sense, than if you are in Northern Ireland where you just have to watch what you say about the Catholics and the Protestants. Communist restrictions and crimestop cut deeper on the fundamentals of human life, and more fundamentally on the human destiny. It's not all relative.

Maybe people at some level think other countries are not real.

You’ve jumped from your previous sensible speculation above, to this. Don’t.

Most people likely just feel slightly liberated when traveling because their social circle, bosses and regular authorities aren’t present. And, because they are merely travellers/tourists, the myriad of little restrictions that they feel at home don’t apply to them on the road. I’ve seen this many times in many places, and no doubt it’s part of what underpins Las Vegas’s marketing campaign.

Remember, I am trying to sort throwing beer bottles from the back of a pickup at other cars on the toll road.

I'm sure that seems like quite an insight to someone who is stoned.

Another excuse for refusing to discuss the ruined condition of campus climates. Well played.

At a college near you, Art?

Or with 4,726 colleges in the US, there are a few to complaint about each year?

Entire disciplines like sociology are gutting themselves:

Do you alternate between trying to answer questions or concern and offering snark in person too?

That was directed at symbol face, who apparently doesn’t believe something serious is happening on campuses.

Thanks think it is happening at a much lower level than people repeating the outrage of the week believe.

Together now, everyone .. "Evergreen!"

That one college was good for six months of outrage, and for many, a really false median.

Serious question: how would you gauge the median deflection from free academic inquiry across colleges and across departments?

I did see a really weird "engineering standards and practices are male dominance" thing in the last week, but I think that is just another flier, something that happened at one of the 4,726 colleges once. And probably not at a good engineering school.

It's great analysis: There are more bonus factors though, like how what Mr ycombinator says is pretty much unimportant in China, barring those poison topics, because his opinions do not matter, when here in the US, and in the Bay specifically , he is a well known powerful person, who has major influence on a large percentage of the people around him, so his bad opinions matter a whole lot. He is a daddy's boy that has been going to exclusive institutions all his life. I would have expected that someone along the line would have taught him that in a place like the US, you are less free the more powerful you are, unlike in an autocracy. The president of the US, whoever it is at ant give time ,also faces more pressure regarding his opinions.

Tyler, you helped someone with some slides for a company presentation a few weeks ago. Can you imagine him stating controversial opinions in public, or complaining about this stuff that Altman does? I know I couldn't. Leadership has a price if you do not want to rule by fear.

If he wants to discuss his more unpopular opinions without consequences,he can either give away all his money, or do what others of his status do, and make false online identities. The worse the opinion, the more likely one should hide.

No foreigner is going to be imprisoned for criticising Western values in Beijing. For a frisson of naughtiness, why not instead try asking them how much money Xi has, or if any of their friends ever disappeared?

The corruption of officials is openly talked about, there is even a word to describe the local functionary that roughly translates to 'crooked bastard'.

If I wanted a frisson of naughtiness in Beijing, I'd express the opinion that neither the CCP nor any other single party should rule China. But I'm not crazy. I'd rather discuss the fine points of Milton Friedman's theories, which seem to be a completely acceptable topic.

Doesn't Peter Thiel have lots of money and cred despiite being opposed to democracy?

Imagine a Chinese billionaire saying "I no longer believe Chinese national values and the Communist Party are compatible."

I wonder if state led restriction of political speech or group enforced limitations on social speach have more deleterious effects on innovation. I would lean towards the latter but it's just conjecture.

I'm guessing alot of the left will have a hard time seeing just why restrictions on what you can say about gay people has any impact on packing more functions into smartphone etc.

The leftist argument for diversity is that it leads to more innovation because you're removing barriers to entering the industry, right? Thereby letting in more capable people who can produce innovations, right?

Insisting on disagreement with about half of the country is one hell of a barrier to entry.

Even if he speaks on those forbidden topics, odds are he'll simply be arrested and deported, barred from returning.

If it's any consolation for him, it's not like previous advances of technology didn't have criticisms that seem rather hare-brained in hindsight. I'm reminded of how a bunch of people apparently thought air conditioning was somehow immoral.

a bunch of people apparently thought air conditioning was somehow immoral.

I'm sure there are quite a number of them to this very day in SF

> I am less worried that letting some people on the internet say things like “gay people are evil” is going to convince reasonable people that such a statement is true than I fear losing the opposite—we needed people to be free to say "gay people are ok" to make the progress we've made, even though it was not a generally acceptable thought several decades ago.

In fact, the only ideas I’m afraid of letting people say are the ones that I think may be true and that I don’t like. But I accept that censorship is not going to make the world be the way I wish it were.

End quote.

So what is it that he knows is true, but doesn't like?

I agree with what he is saying. It takes someone courageous enough to throw a rock through a window to come up with a new insight, a different idea. Advances in science usually are made through death, where the entrenched and powerful die and different ideas can be advanced.

I had a discussion with a long time leftist who was watching the free speech arguments in Canada with some dismay. I said to him that the union rhetoric was personal, violent and attacked people as a group. If you can say 'eat the rich', then someone else can say 'islamic immigration should be curtailed'. Or 'I am gay, I want to marry who I like'. Or 'I was born with the wrong genitals'. Or 'I don't like high crime, I'm moving'. Etc.

The guy who invented Javascript was fired because he contributed to a political campaign. What that means is that someone might not invent the next javascript because he or she has wrong thoughts.

Fear of speaking is mostly fear of looking like an idiot which is often the case if sensed. Freedom to speak is often just a desire to force a different form of political correctness on others.

Nope. Freedom to speak is to argue a point. You are then free to disagree and argue your point.

Political Correctness is an attempt to impose through some lever of power a viewpoint. The power is used to prevent an opposing viewpoint.

An interesting idea, but he may be overstating his conclusion.

First, I'm reminded of Haruki Murakami's discussion of giving a speech in English vs. Japanese. When he uses Japanese, every word is carefully deliberated over. When he uses English, he can write relatively easily.

Second, I'm reminded that many, many people have travelled to other countries and discovered a sense of freedom that they did not feel or appreciate in their home country.

He's talking about San Francisco specifically. The rest of the US is much freer.

Not the university campuses. Imagine how hard Tyler would come down on someone who claimed that women have uteruses. He would say, "Deirdre McCloskey doesn't have a uterus, you cis-normative, transphobic bigot."

This is true across both space and time.

Go back to, say, the 1970s, and you can probably spout off like Archie Bunker to your heart's content.

Gay liberation, birth control, even Communism (pro- or anti- depending on where you wind up)...not so much.

You make an interesting point, but even if you're right, there is a major difference. Unless you were Edith, Meathead, Gloria, or a few others, you wouldn't have a clue what Archie was thinking. Today, anyone with an internet connection (i.e.everyone) may be able to find out.

It depends what you're focusing on.

I'm referring to what I assume is Professor Cowen's point: Another country can be more free on some things and also less free on other things than your own country.

Same goes for generations.

That is some pretty sick spin there, chief.

It's not that the most liberal city in the USA is in fact a totalitarian hellhole of speech code enforcement and crimethink.

It's just that OF COURSE your hometown seems awkward and unfree! Also, chestnuts and pumpkin, yum!

The grass may be greener on the other side, but any comparison to free speech in China is made to illustrate just how bad things are in the West.

However, the Western ruling class insistence on treating race, ethnicity, and now even gender as "social constructs" could very well stifle innovation. It's very possible that China will leapfrog the West in science, especially genetics.

Of course China won't leapfrog the West in genetics, but it is catching up, and it can't happen soon enough.

The point is that this man did not try to exercise free speech in China. It's not clear what he did, but he may be comparing opposition to Western values in Western countries versus China, which is a skewed exercise like comparing critiques of the Chinese Communist Party in Western countries versus China.

As Tyler notes, China has strict censorship on a number of topics and even monitors conferences for "badspeak." This is not counting its attacks or bans on various websites which require VPNs that are constantly being shut down.

In contrast, Russians do not ban most speech at all except from high visibility people with real influence. Journalists, politicos, well-known academics and high profile figures may be targeted more frequently as well. But it's easier to criticize the government and spout off on various things on Vkontakte (Russian FB) or Facebook itself than on Chinese websites in China if you're an average person. And of course, they allow all politically incorrect speech and attitudes to be openly discussed.

I thought the comparison was silly.

Try talking about the Tianamen Square masacre in China. You’ll have a lot more trouble than just some Antifa nuts yelling at you.

All cultures have their issues with free speech. The US is more free than most but has been declining in the level of free speech allowed. I think that now in Brazil the degree of free speech might be higher than in the US although political correctness has been infecting our country as well. PC is just a form of censorship.

In terms of what the state allows, the U.S. still has the strongest level of free speech in the world as the Supreme Court recently affirmed this past summer, 9-0, against the notion of "hate speech" in Matal v. Tam.

The biggest difference I have seen is that in most countries it is easy to know what "should" be censored. The censors are very powerful, well known interests that are not exactly hard to placate. Do not question the authorities, do not make the authorities look bad, do no ask about things that have been political minefields for decades. Censorship is centralized and you can very easily placate the authorities.

In contrast, censorship in the US is decentralized. Advocating the stated political position of the US president circa 2011 is socially suicidal. Being misidentified by a social media vigilante can lead to employment troubles. Not realizing that "colored people" is offensive while "people of color" is preferred can get you into all manner of trouble (as happened to a coworker of mine who emigrated from Poland); and God help you if you use "negro" for anything other than United Negro College Fund. Gender was a complete social construct and performance right up until we decided that denying transgender individuals their intrinsic differences was offensive - just be sure that suggest that all statistical observations with sex/gender differences in the mean cannot explain anything in the world. Somehow the word "niggardly" randomly stirs people up into conniptions. And of course there is the whole question of what is musical/literary/etc. appropriation vs what is musical/literary exclusion.

Put it another way, my Asperger's patients can relatively quickly grasp what sorts of statements get you in trouble in most of the heavy handed censorship places in the world. Here, "Walk on the Wild Side" goes from being cutting edge queer positive to deadnaming (a concern which most people are utterly unfamiliar in most of America).

Ultimately the censorship in China is very predictable and you can steer clear of it without too much trouble; I have done it. The Chinese immigrants I know have had a devil of a time figuring out American censorship, it changes frequently and requires that you express the right opinion in all the right ways.

Welll, Western censorship is in favour of elite competition after education saturation (per Turchin) and a general culture of relational mobility. It makes sense for our censorship to be unstable, because it's not a technique to hold the status quo in power (I mean, could it even be much less beneficial for many of the current holders of power?). It's a means for the socially mobile and ambitious (yet not median talented) to create new niches of opportunity. (Particularly to create new opportunities where they don't naturally exist - at the extreme what young talented, but not outstanding, female person of colour really wants that competition from dead white male artists?). The Four Olds must fall such that new (wo)men can rise.

Hark to the Red Guard, not the 2010s Party.

this is a good point.

Cowen completely missed the point of Altman's post, or is intentionally dense. Altman's post is only tangentially about China. Cowen's crimestop response is another exhibit in the case for burning down American academia and starting fresh.

Well, I am from Norway. I live in San Francisco.

So, if your model is correct, I should feel freer to discuss things in San Francisco. But I don't. I relish returning to Norway to speak sanely.

I share Sam Altman's analysis 100 %. In fact I would say he is understating the case. And it has become a lot worse the last year or so.

So, how would you explain that?

(Btw. I think Altman's core point is worth commenting on. Does not tolerating wacky ideas lead to less creative thought, and therefore less innovation? It's essentially the hypothesis from Karl Poppers Conjectures and refutations)

If you, Cowan, live anywhere near San Francisco and cannot see this is the reality around you, you are a prolapsed braindead insect of no character whatsoever, and invested deeply in the lie of y our times.

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