Will there be another “2020”?

Probably.

“The fact is we are a more interconnected world. The two main drivers of new pandemics are the two things that are being debated about the origin of this one: animal-human interface and dangerous laboratory work.” – @DrTomFrieden, Wharton Moneyball

But let’s consider the case for why there won’t be another 2020. Tyler Cowen writes as at least three different people: an economist on his blog Marginal Revolution, a contra-Tyler as Tyrone (also on the blog), and from a business perspective on Bloomberg. He aims to understand the same story from different sides.

Cowen’s colleague Caplan (Bryan) coined the ideological Turing test (ITT). Like the Turing test asks: can a person distinguish if an output is from a machine or a human. The ITT asks: can a person distinguish if an argument is from a person who believes X or not-X?

The legs of my argument point in the same direction as the March 2020 argument to ‘flatten the curve’. If everything I note moves 10% away from “2020” then the chances of another pandemic are greatly reduced. Only rather than lots of talk about flattening people will do it anyway.

Why there won’t be another 2020:

Technology. Teenagers are driving less and doing fewer drugs. There’s less movement across state lines. Look at screen times: they’re going up and time is a zero sum game.

Work has become remote, or at least can be. In the 1990s I first heard of “Blizzard Bags”. If there was an anticipated snow storm headed for Ohio, schools made up a day of work for the kids to take home. Now there are 40 million Google Chromebook in education.

I’m not sure the move digital all bad. Audiobooks for instance are a fine addition. YouTube teaches almost anything, maybe everything by the time you read this. “My internet friend” feels less and less weird each time I tell my wife. Some jobs are more productive online.

Salience. Experiencing a thing makes us overrate it (relatively). After a serious car crash I was a very conservative driver. Even now when it rains I slow way down, especially on the drag strips known as ‘Florida highways’.

Most people know someone who passed away due to Covid, who had their lives seriously stressed as a medical professional, or who (might) have long-Covid symptoms. It’s one thing to hear about an experience and another to live it and we all lived “2020”.

Experience. It’s crazy looking back. We did what?!?!? It reminds me of a grandfather-ism: good decisions come from experience and experience comes from bad decisions.

When someone starts they often copy someone. That’s fine. That’s how humans learn basic things. Then as that person figures things out they change their game (sports), pitch (sales), interactions (relationships).

That’s how the 2020 pandemic feels looking back. We had no idea what to do. Taking a page from a long-time Florida family member, we prepared as if a hurricane was coming through. Now though, we know more than we did. It’s hard to imagine personal, local, regional, and national reactions that are worse.

Medicine. March 2020 through March 2021 was not a good stretch for most, but look at the medical field and it’s pretty dang amazing. The virus was sequenced, the vaccine was created, tested, produced (!), and distributed (!!). Treatments improved. There are probably relevant discoveries we don’t even know yet.

Each of these areas: technology, salience, experience, and medicine offers the bare minimum case. Isn’t there even a good chance medical or technological advances leap forward? Even if they don’t, a small reduction in actions (more work from home, more masks, better medicine, more experience, etc.) will flatten the future curve.

Good organizations know there’s value to argue-well. James Mattis says to be “hard on the issues, not on the people”. Ben Horowitz said you want to be friendly but not so friendly you don’t ask the opposition difficult questions.

After writing this I believe this case more. How much more is hard to say. Maybe I’ve moved from from very likely to likely.


Eric Jorgenson has been writing a lot of about leverage and I guess this post is about leverage. My main idea here is that if many people change in a small way then there will be a substantial change. Erik tweets about leverage as people, time, or money. On the blog we’ve addressed this idea too but under the name Large N small p.

Cuban Missile Crisis (58 years)

It’s about halfway through the Cuban Missile Crisis anniversary and if you want to dip in, Dan Carlin did a great podcast about the event.  I enjoy listening this time of year to ‘feel it’. Media transports us through time and space but to listen on anniversaries or read in places adds a something.

Three ideas:

1/ It’s no wonder game theory thinking came from this era. John von Neumann worked on the Manhattan project and later advocated for mutually assured destruction. My prior is more Oppenheimer less Neumann, but as Carlin reminds us, life is complicated:

“What if the US had gone the full force Robert Oppenheimer ban-this-stuff route? What would the Soviets and Joseph Stalin had done? To a man they (the Russian advisors) say it would have been seen as weakness and Stalin would push forward with his weapons program.”

Like the prisoner dilemma, if one player will choose with certainty it reduces the opportunities for the other.

2/ As we covered, Eisenhower liked to argue well. That can be difficult for leaders to model. One technique according to Marc Andreessen, is for those in charge to challenge each other.

Eisenhower gives the Atoms for Peace speech but before playing a clip Carlin confesses, “nothing can be trusted from this era, nothing. The presidents, from Truman to Eisenhower all have two faces to them and I don’t know which one is real.”

Or, it’s hard to have ‘Yes’ men if no one knows what you’re thinking.

3/ That Atoms for Peace speech only comes about because of career capital. Eisenhower succeeds Truman, born in 1884, the year the steam turbine was invented. Carlin suggests we imagine Truman as a grandfather calling his grandchildren asking how to turn the damn devices off.

Eisenhower is elected, gives the speech and coins military industrial complex eight years later. Carlin adds, “I can’t imagine our leaders today giving a speech like (Atoms for Peace). In 1953 he laid the whole situation out.”

If you’ve a long solo fall drive, fall walk, or evening outside take a listen. There’s many more parallel ideas like between humanitarian intervention (related: With the Old Breed) and herd immunity. It’s also a prompt for thinking about hot and cold communication (it took half a day for Kennedy’s letters to make it to Krushchev as well as alternative histories.

Can you rotate your position?

By rotation, I mean taking all the sides. Whenever there are people of differing positions on an emerging topic — it could be Uber, it could be eSports, it could be 5G, self-driving vehicles, you name it. If I find that I cannot argue from any particular viewpoint, I will book a couple of days to spend time with that community on ethnographic — just hanging out until I rotate my worldview and until I can argue from their viewpoint. That’s called taking all the sides.

Audrey Tang, Conversations with Tyler.

Just one part of of a wide and deep conversation. Tang is one of the few guests who ‘match’ Tyler Cowen on his podcast format.

Disagreeing in a Crisis

Recently on Twitter there’s been a trend of “it’s not that bad” tweets gong around. One said that half of Italy’s CoVid19 fatalities were people with three or more existing illness while people with no other illnesses existed in less than one-percent of deaths. Among the ‘maybe it’s not that bad’ list are Elon Musk, Phil Hellmuth, and Bill Gurley.

No one is saying doing nothing, but many are saying to look at the costs. Many are saying to think like economists. 

With hindsight we’ll see that someone had the right model from day one. It likely won’t be you or me. However we get to sharpen our thinking (skill) rather than be right (luck).

So, what might account for these experts in one domain to be right in this one too? 

  • Data. It could be that there’s so little good data that we face an elephant problem. The Italy statistics look like this. The China statistics look like this. One country sees a pandemic, one an outbreak. 
  • Uncertainty. Maybe I’m too confident in my projections of outcome distributions. It could be way better or way worse than I expect right now. 
  • Salience. It could be we’re all caught up against a ‘common enemy’ with nonstop news fanning the flames. 
  • Opportunity costs neglect. People tend to overemphasize the importance of what comes to mind and dismiss what else they could spend money or time on.
  • Stock data. The stock market thinks that immediate future earnings will be significantly less. Could this be a bad proxy? 
  • Outcome severity. Maybe there will be many more with ‘zero effects’ than ‘death/ruin’. If that’s the case then CoVid19 edges more towards “driving across the country” and away from “contracting Ebola.”
  • Existing immunity. The virus has already spread through many people and those that have survived are resistant to antibodies. The influence like illness data that’s coming out might suggest this. 

It could be that Musk, Gurley, and Hellmuth were wrong in their consideration of all the details. However the process of considering why is right. Our Phantom Tyler Cowen suggests we write out why the opposing side is correct. 

There’s a lot here about arguing well and the critics of that idea say that doing is so much more difficult than discussing it. In this crisis is an opportunity.

(I use luck in the Mauboussin sense of anything out of one’s control. For example, if this were a physics problem like ‘where will planet X by at time t we would have the answer for the CoVid19 pandemic). 

Tim Harford’s Arguing Advice

Tim Harford joined Tyler Cowen to speak about his career, production function, and why dice are something he couldn’t live without. Harford said this about debates:

“I still think debating is underrated. People think that it’s a very elite thing, practiced by elite people from very posh schools and very privileged backgrounds and favors a certain kind of education. Those things are all true. At the same time, in a debate you are protected by certain rules, given space and time, and people are not allowed to interupt you except in certain formalized ways.

“Once I became an adult, and entered certain corporate spaces and corporate meetings, I became aware that all the old men were talking all over the young women. They’d interupt and wouldn’t let these younger people get a word in edgewise. I realized that debating protects anyone.”

Tim Harford

A contest has explicit rules. A culture has implicit rules.

For organizations to ‘argue Zell‘, they must have leaders willing to be challenged and leaders who communicate that. Career risk depends on the culture.

Like strategy, marketing, or ethics, culture is something organziations do. “Unless you set it, it’ll just be what it is.” The easiest way to create a specific culture is to hire well. After that, incentives matter.

Argue Zell

One trait of great business leaders (seems to be) a willingness to hear dissenting opinions. It takes a seed of humility that will sprout a culture where ‘arguing well’ can survive.

Michigan Dean, Scott DeRue told Sam Zell: “I’ve met a number of your employees and one of the things that’s universal when they talk about what it’s like to work with, and for, Sam is that it’s not always easy. You will challenge them but they know that you believe in them.” To which Zell replied:

“You don’t kill the messenger. As I say to my people all the time, take me on. I’m not afraid to defend my position and neither should you.”

Sam Zell

This has been important, Zell explained, because he’s been “business agnostic.” Investments in twenty different industries (“it could have been forty”) means that Zell has to think on the fly. As such, “No one is quicker to admit they’re wrong than I am.”

Yet, as people this is hard. It’s difficult to separate I was dumb from That was dumb. In th wrong culture it’s impossible

As Zell put it, “I’m not afraid to defend my position and neither should you.” I think it was Kara Swisher who said that when she hears someone say, ‘I like to be challenged’ they really don’t. To her it’s a red flag. Partly because, good arguments are difficult to do well. Yet in the right place, it’s possible and as Zell proves, profitable, to argue well.

Other quotes from Zell:

  • On Risk, “If my watch has one moving part then it has a very small probability of not working. If my watch has fifty moving parts then there would be another forty-nine potential reasons it didn’t work.
  • Risk, again. “I only want to be right seventy percent of the time. The real key is how wrong are you on the thirty percent.”
  • Leaving money on the table, “I think that a great deal of my financial success is directly related to the fact that we’ve been long-term players.”
  • Being different, “Look at everyone the Forbes 400 who didn’t inheret money. Everybody went left when conventional wisdom said to go right.” & “There are very few examples of high margin businesses that are done by everybody.”
  • Skill and luck, “I think ninety percent of success is accidental. Accidental in terms of the opportunity arising, not accidental in terms of people’s understanding and willingness to take it up.”
  • Action, “My advice to everyone is to become a profesional opportunist.”

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