Peter Thiel reviews Ross Douthat

The word “self-recommending” now takes on a stronger meaning yet, here is the review.  Here are the closing two paragraphs:

It is a paradox of our time that the path to radical progress begins with moderation. Extreme optimism and fatalistic pessimism may seem to be stark opposites, but they both end in apathy. If things were sure to improve or bound to collapse, then our actions would not matter one way or the other.

Not only do our actions matter, I believe they matter eternally. If we do not find a way to take the narrow and moderate path, then we may find out that stagnation and decadence were all that kept immoderate men from stumbling into the apocalypse.

Self-recommending!  Here is my own short and very positive review of Ross’s book.

Comments

Not only stronger, but double stronger!

Progress is not achieved only through moderation, but secretly funding lawsuits to wipe out media sources that have earned the wrath of Thiel.

It's pretty hard to sympathize with Gawker, though. It always came off as malicious, petty, and vindictive.

It has nothing to do with sympathy. A billionaire set out to destroy a media company he did not approve of, and did - by secretly funding a lawsuit against it.

At least MBS had the actual authority to kill and dismember a journalist, and then try to blackmail Bezos. At least Thiel has enough self-awareness to realize that complaining about the Saudis would sound like hypocrisy. Or else he too received a video clip from MBS, and has a bit less backbone than Bezos when it comes to standing up to blackmail.

Oh this is bullshit.

Journalists keep reporting this nonsense over how awful it was that news agencies are held accountable for what they say because they are self interested. I don't expect anyone to be unbiased when their jobs are on the line, this is no different.

Consider how quick reporters were to defend the newspapers actions when the Clint Eastwood movie "Richard Jewell" came out. Not an ounce of sympathy for how viciously the media destroyed his life over false claims.

Which is why the NY Times will defend the Westboro baptist church protest preventing a father from grieving over his son's wartime death (Supreme Court Ruling) because "free speech," and that is the only time you will ever see them stand up for free speech.

Gawker was hardly a "media company." It is at best a harassment organization, and at worst a publisher of libel. We are not talking about the NY Times publishing secret documents someone handed to it, that was always legal. There are court cases defending that, even if the documents are classified. We aren't even talking about Julian Assange doing that!

We are discussing an organization that existed for the sole purpose of destroying peoples lives. What Gawker did was illegal. People have an expectation of privacy. Public/private figure privacy first amendment law was developed by the courts in 1970. People have a right not to be libeled. The courts have, since the beginning of the US, recognized this. If it took Thiel to fund a lawsuit showing that Gawker has done illegal stuff, then that is what it took.

It wasn't anti-media, it was anti-people doing shitty, illegal, and unethical things. To out Thiel, especially in the environment of the time, was extremely unethical. It wasn't illegal through. But violating Hogan's privacy is, which is why the case stemmed from there. Mainstream media will defend Gawker and attack Thiel because they want to keep themselves in the clear. Thiel didn't take down the NY Times, which he probably disagrees with on most things but tries to be somewhat ethical. He took down Gawker, which at best was acting unethically. Give it a rest.

What exactly was the libel? They published a tape. Public figures don't have the same libel protections as private figures, and that is separate law from invasion of privacy.

I thought it was unethical ... I certainly wouldn't have published it. But it wasn't illegal. Thiel found the right court to use for his attack, and succeeded.

The Jewell lawsuits are more interesting because Jewell was unwillingly made a public figure by the FBI's leak. The one unsettled lawsuit was decided in favor of the defendant newspaper.

This is high-school-level journalism law.

Well, in the Hulk Hogan case, it wasn't libel (I was just pointing out that most of what Gawker did was libel) but I believe the court held that Hogan was not a public figure to the extent to justify posting his sex life.

Public figure law depends upon what expectation of privacy a person is allowed, and even a figure like Hulk Hogan is afforded some privacy in certain scenarios. What Gawker did was the most serious abridgment of privacy imaginable, so it had to establish that Hogan was a public enough figure to merit that and that there is value to publishing it.

And specifically, publishing "Hulk Hogan had sex with ..." and posting a video are two different things. The latter has another set of standards to meet.

Publishing that Thiel was gay is also a huge abridgment of privacy, but Thiel cannot win that case so he didn't sue over that. He sued over something where he could win.

Neither of which Hogan did. But yeah, your largely correct in that first amendment law is extremely strong in the US, and this case is not as clear cut as the ruling made it seem. But what Thiel did or what Hogan did was totally appropriate, and not some grievous miscarriage of justice.

I'm not so sure. I'd rather live in a country that errs a little on the side of too much protection of the media than the reverse.

Then you have only to move to America, which does so more than basically any other country in the world.

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I'd rather live in a country that errs a little on the side of too much protection of the individual.

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Horrible cover on that book but never judge a book by its cover

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Wow, Thiel is a shockingly good writer. Even better than his already excellent speeches/interviews.

I was thinking the same thing. It’s very strong, nuanced, yet at the same time clear. Very well written. Makes me want to seek out his other writings.

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What happened to flying cars? In this second American gilded age, the wealthy have no interest in the radical path to shared prosperity. Their interest is moderate: lower taxes on the wealthy and rising asset prices to add to their wealth. The trifecta? Trump. Who can dazzle the poorly educated with his lies while bankrupting the welfare state on which the poorly educated survive. It's not that jump-starting the American economy and with it the the American spirit is a secret, it's that it won't reduce the taxes of the wealthy or add anything to rising asset prices. Years ago my church had a young priest my wife and I called Ernest. That wasn't his name. He was just so darn earnest. Douthat is if nothing else earnest. Thiel reviewing Douthat's new book is like Beelzebub celebrating the Eucharist.

Aren't flying cars (ie. passenger drones) already in existence, on the way for the larger market, and with autonomous capabilities too?

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"What happened to flying cars? "

You're getting your brain uploaded into me, and you whine about no flying cars?

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The flying car reference is to Thiel's famous dictum: "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters". Duh.

No wonder Thiel wants to hand out large sums of money to promote the study of progress, and throw the twitterati into the dustbin of history.

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It is ironic to consider that a devout Catholic would completely agree with Thiel writing not only do our actions matter, I believe they matter eternally.

Who? What?

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"If you don't do what I say....apocalypse."

Could be what some people need to be told to move into action, but not libertarian at all.

State capacity statism with a libertarian face has no problem counting Thiel among its supporters.

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Apres nous, le deluge.

I've never heard "Douthat" said aloud, but in my mind it's pronounced as if French: do-tot.

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"Extreme optimism and fatalistic pessimism may seem to be stark opposites, but they both end in apathy. If things were sure to improve or bound to collapse, then our actions would not matter one way or the other."

Hmm. Moderates. Appropriate response to current events.

"Democratic voters turning out for Tuesday's New Hampshire primary say they are looking for a candidate who can beat President Donald Trump over one who agrees with them on the issues by a roughly 2-to-1 margin, according to early exit polls conducted for CNN."

Is this what economists call a collective action problem?

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When Boeing introduced its flagship 707 jet airliner in 1958, the power to cruise at 977 kilometers per hour did more than enable routine transcontinental commercial flights. It fed the optimistic self-understanding of a society proud to have entered the Jet Age. More than sixty years later, we are not moving any faster.

We did, but supersonic flight creates loud noises that scare dogs, cats and children. Residents of areas near airports have been indemnified for even relatively quiet aircraft drowning out the patter of Seinfeld re-runs. The much celebrated SST Concorde carried passengers for only seven years, being retired in 2003.

Um a bit more than 7 years - it first went into passenger service in 1976

"On the morning of January 21, 1976, two Concordes — one each from British Airways and Air France — took off simultaneously on what would be the aircraft's first commercial supersonic flights with fare-paying passengers."

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Also, you know, touch bases with what recent jets were actually optimized for:

"If the first successful jets are taken as the reference – i.e. the Boeing 707 family –
the decline in energy consumption per available seat-kilometre decreases from the 70% reported by IPCC to 55%."

That is the same passenger is transported the same distance on 55% less fuel. A pretty good improvement in my opinion.

More at NLR-CR-2005-669
Fuel efficiency of commercial aircraft Fuel efficiency of commercial aircraft
An overview of historical and future trends
Peeters P.M.1, Middel J., Hoolhorst A.

Plus safety is vastly better as well. Of course the trend in speed of aircraft has plateaued, but then so has the speed of just about any other form of transportation not long after the initial invention. There are practical and economic limitations for these things. Perhaps new out of atmosphere rockets can set a new speed set point, but you can be sure that after a decade or so of operations the speed of that travel will plateau.

The stagnation thesis is that there has been a pause in these new technologies all round, but computers and smart phones pass the test to me of radical new technologies, just as much as jet passenger planes.

Good point on safety.

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"The path to radical progress begins with moderation".

I honestly don't understand. Thiel was advocating Chaos in 2016. Now he wants moderation? Is this one of those Straussian things?

"For statesmen, that means deconstructing the ­corrupt institutions that have falsely claimed to pursue those goals on our behalf."

The Straussian meaning might be that he still likes unruly statesman, as long as they are deconstructing things.

Too bad that might include the rule of law, eh?

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I was thinking about this too. If you leave aside Trump's style (I know, it's difficult) you actually get a President that is a mix between 2008 Democrats and Republicans. He's definitely not a hawk (regardless of recent one-off exceptions), he's definitely not in the austerity camp, he's started a trade war, but also nominated conservative judges, cut taxes, and it's funding (or at least trying to) big projects like going to Mars. So yeah, that is a way to see Trump as a moderate, especially when you consider the alternatives...

The axis under discussion is between decadence and its opposite ("progress" maybe? Does Douthat have a word for it?).
We could add a second axis, which is "straightforward" v. "duplicitous"("Straussian" fits in here somewhere too).
I think the 2x2 has Douthat in the progressive/straightforward corner and Trump in the opposite decadent/duplicitous corner. Thiel is maybe in the progressive/duplicitous area which could explain his spectacular turn as Devil's Advocate in 2016 - or perhaps he learned from that experience and is genuinely closer to Douthat now?

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Strange that Thiel ends with a call to moderation, that is something new from him. The focus on the apocalypse in nothing new, but In the past he has said we need a little more Prometheus. This is good, but out of line for Mr. "Lets defeat death"

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Thiel's claim that the legal obstacles to flying cars likely exceed the engineering obstacles is laughable.

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I haven't yet read the book - but from the Times opinion piece and the various reviews I think I have a starting point on the basic thesis.

It appears at least in part to reflect the politically conservative narrative that a previously vibrant society had been degraded over time by sustained straining for shiny objects that proved to be either one-offs or substantively hollow over time. Fine - but this has always seemed a major over simplification.

Comparative theses of this nature often struggle to articulate a realistic picture of the "camelot" left behind. In many periods of history, US institutions have seen unfit for purpose and the economy has experienced long periods of deflation, stagnation or depression. So when precisely was the "pre-decadent" era?

It would appear that Douthart, as often, is aiming for a restoration of sorts, that sweeps away modern hollow institutions and culture, while increasing religious participation and fertility. Again fine - but this is a highly political perspective, that has all manner of downstream implications worth considering.

It is at least arguable that the retrenchment into grandious political narratives, have narrowed the space for more appropriate and bespoke social, political and economic activity more suitable for the now. The simplification and over-reliance on political camps and narratives reduces the potential for empirical and bottom-up programs that charactersied both private and public sector innovation in the 50s and 60s. In that sense, by focusing on big interrelated narratives, Douthart's thesis is part of the problem not a solution.

Not to mention that much of the cultural commentary is more than a little silly. Having middle-aged dudes eulogize Brando movies and decrying lack of rebellion in modern culture are probably spending too much time in the suburbs. Another indication of the will to oversimplify - in order to rationalize some complex and only vaguely interrelated elements into a pre-defined framework

I will nonetheless definitely read the book - as the accounts of both political and institutional entropy are worth taking seriously

This is good.

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I suppose I'll have to read the book, but I doubt the book will be anything clear and direct about the topic of decadence. He writes for the New York Times, and the NYT is now a cultural publication, far more than it is a newspaper, written by and for ne plus ultra decadents. If he writes pejoratively about decadence, as someone who isn't a decadent would, and he isn't very esoteric or straussian about it, he'll get fired. He's got kids.

From the reviews so far, it seems that maybe that is what he did, or at least attempted, in that if his discussion as described in reviews seems quite roundabout and indirect. Whether he gets decadence right, I guess is an different question.

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"stagnation is not a fate imposed by the universe. "

I would love interstellar space travel like Star Trek, but I'm not sure there aren't limits imposed by physics on what we can do. Yes, we should continue to try to advance, but there's a reason why animals only get so big or microscopic organisms aren't very complex -- there are physical limits on many levels that may also apply to technology. But I'm not saying we shouldn't try.

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I’m sure this has come up before but can someone explain to me Tyler’s habit of using the phrase “self-recommending”? Who is the self, Tyler or Thiel and what is being recommended, the booker the post? I gather he thinks it’s ironical and cute but it seems just like an irritating verbal tick to me.

“The book or the post” it should read. I suppose there are actually 3 options now that I think about it: the book, the review or the post

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As for the 747 jumbo jets that we are still flying today fifty years after their 1969 debut, they are a sign of what Ross Douthat calls decadence. By “decadence” he does not mean delicious sensuality or over-the-top indulgence (think Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate dancing mid-flight in the upper-deck cocktail bar of a 747 in last year’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood) but stagnation and complacency, a dissipation of creative energy, a jaded will merely to muddle through.

I've seen this argument before, and it's maddening.

The speeds of those planes are determined by the *sound barrier*. Go much faster than that, and you burn lots more energy for a marginal decrease in transit time.

Boeing *offered* airlines higher speeds when it was speccing out the Dreamliner. Almost to an airline, they voted for taking those same technological improvements and devoting them to increasing fuel economy instead. They were looking at something like a 45 minute shorter transatlantic flight, and didn't see that as a major selling point to people who were probably making connections on both sides of the Atlantic.

The words cost, benefit, expense, selling point, and customer survey are not signs of decadence. They're signs of a mature technology that is figuring out what customers actually want.

This might be a better way to look at things:

The 707 was in production from 1958-79, say 21 years and 865 were produced that could carry a max capacity of 219 passenger. Let's say all 865 plane were flying in 1979. A whopping 189,435 people per day could fly (assuming one flight per day per plane....double or triple if you want).

The 737 started production in 1968 and has been going since. By December of 2019 10,571 had been delivered. Assuming all were flying on Dec 31st, that's 2,272,765 people per day (215 per plane).

Cutting edge is something to consider but so is penetration. It's nice that JP Morgan had his office wired with electricity by hand back in the day.....but it's also probably more important everyone has electric now. It's nice that Gordon Gekko could direct trades from the beach on his giant cell phone. It's probably more important today a 20-something slacker can score gigs using his phone to give people rides.

I'd rather not fly in a 51-year-old plane, and I don't think they're actually used, but otherwise your point is well taken.

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There are so many more worthy thinkers and writers out there than Thiel. Even those paragraphs are pablum. I'm finding Tyler's recommendations becoming more and more a mixture. Used to be better.

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There are very fine people on both sides? At least that's a first for Thiel to admit.

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"How far have we come since then? Few men in the street would be able to ­evaluate the ­progress of, say, physics as ­instantiated in string theory. But everyone should be able to tell whether or not the streets around us, and the expectations of life, have been transformed for the better." Would love to have Ross Douthat on Econtalk to discuss this point. According to Russ Roberts we're far better off than we ever have been (I agree pretty much!).

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Does Thiel not recognize that he is part of the decadence in Silicon Valley (Facebook) and DC (Trump)? His new role as public scold is not off to a good start.

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LOL the geniuses defending Gawker here.

Peter Thiel was able to destroy Gawker because they egregiously violated a man's rights and did so to a level of severity that warranted a penalty that knocked them out.

It was Gawker's litigation strategy to spend Hulk Hogan into the ground. The only reason they were not able to do so was because Peter Thiel gave Hogan the financial resources to go toe-to-toe with them.

Peter Thiel allowed a man to get justice, rendered to him by a jury of his peers on the merits of the case.

Peter Thiel is a fucking hero.

And he is so modest that no one knew he was financing a lawsuit designed to destroy a media company he despised.

The mark of a true hero, that is.

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Ross' essay is thought-provoking, but as Thiel points out (before dismissing the notion), at least some of what Ross mentions in economics and tech is attributable to "decreasing marginal returns", i.e. once supply chains are optimized and the most obvious (at least to geniuses) discoveries made, it's almost a law of nature that progress *will* slow down and become more specialized. Indeed, no serious argument is made by Thiel to counter this point.

indeed, if we have decadence, then it is more of a political / moral nature. And this, importantly, is to some extent attributable to aforementioned decreasing marginal utility effect: once everyone is housed and fed, what will your goals be? in other words, it's great that Uber makes it faster and easier to get to where you want to go, but the key question remains unanswered: *where* do you want to go in this world, once all your needs are met? Even the works of the pop philosophers of our day, like Jordan Petersen, focus on the low hanging fruit of cleaning up your room. But once your room is clean, you have a multi-bedroom house, supportive spouse, kids, and enough in the bank for retirement... and you're happy, and not overly interested in amassing even more material things... are you decadent?

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Thiel (or maybe Douthat) complains that today's cars are "ugly". OK, maybe, that's an aesthetic judgment. But today's cars are safer contributing to lower traffic deaths than we had 50 years ago, they get better mileage, and they last longer instead of turning into clunkers and rust buckets- it's now no big deal to hit 100k on the odometer. If that isn't progress of at least an incremental sort what is?

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Peter Thiel is a bad man with bad motivations. He's also brilliant, but that mostly makes him dangerous. So this makes anything he writes the opposite of self-recommending. There are only 3 possibilities:
1) Something I already know and/or agree with
2) Something I know is wrong
3) Some fact or argument I haven't encountered before, but since I rely on Thiel having bad motives I'm going to ignore it.

This is getting old at this point, but the Ad Hominen is a really weak logical fallacy. A much better idea is to avoid getting information from known bad actors. That doesn't mean avoiding alternative viewpoints - just make sure the source has integrity. Thiel can only be trusted to push his agenda through any means available. That's not integrity.

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