The Biden Presidency, The Future of Life, Humankind

July 23 2020

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement … Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

- Abraham Heschel

“Life is to be taken at the tilt, you do not have forever, and therefore why wait ? Why wait become a faithful and intimate companion to that initially formidable stranger you called your self?”

- David Whyte

“When most people think about the future, they dream up ways they might live happier lives. But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the crucial events that formed them, they don't usually talk about happiness. It is usually the ordeals that seem most significant. Most people shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering”

- David Brooks

Welcome to A Few Things….an email I share with a few friends on what I’m thinking about across great books, mental models and financial markets.

If you like it, the best way to show your appreciation is to spread the word. Thanks.

A. The Biden Presidency

Sometime in Sept / Oct the market is going to wake up to what not just a Biden presidency but a Democratic sweep of both the Senate & the House might look like.

Democrats think it is the time to pass their agenda given their control of the chamber. These elections will be as consequential as 1932 and new deal or Reagan Election from a liberal point of view.

The two most important areas are business and climate:

Business: Biden has made clear that he’s going after corporate America to fund huge government spending. Trump’s tax cuts will be reversed, with corporation tax hiked from 21% to 28% and the top personal tax band moving back to 39.6%. Taxes will be used to “address extreme inequality” and the federal minimum wage will jump to $15.

In an effort to “reshore” factory jobs, he has pledged to double taxes on foreign profits and roll out a “Buy American” policy on most government procurement. With all this money, he plans to create five million jobs and undertake what his advisors call “the largest mobilisation of public investments in procurement, infrastructure and R&D since World War II”.

I’d watch for Elizabeth Warren to be part of the Cabinet.

Climate: This is where Biden has given most ground to the left. His team’s ambition would make the US look much more like the EU: net zero emissions by 2050; 100% clean energy by 2035; and a staggering $2trn invested in clean energy over four years. The administration will aim to install 500 million solar panels, 60,000 made-in-America wind turbines and 500,000 EV charging stations within five years. All government vehicles including school buses will be zero emission within five years and all new buildings zero emission in ten.

What are you expecting from a Biden Presidency?

B. The Future Of Life

What Is Life? In 1943, physicist Erwin Schrödinger delivered a series of lectures that was turned in to the famous book - What Is Life?

One of the quotes from this book: matter, while not eluding the "laws of physics" as established up to date, is likely to involve "other laws of physics" hitherto unknown, which however, once they have been revealed, will form just as integral a part of science as the former.

What do you think causes something to be alive? and is life the same as consciousness and intelligence.

These are no longer philosophical questions. Using today’s technology, we can create both artificial biological life and also “upgrade” humans to what Tegmark would call Life 3.0.

Two recent books that attacked this problem from different ends:

Max Tegmark in Life 3.0 would argue that we have had:

Life 1.0 - bacteria, virus. Most animals. Only changes through biological evolution

Life 2.0 - hardware changes by biological evolution, software can be upgraded using language, books, learning skills and develop tools - at extreme computers. Humans until now.

Life 3.0 - can create things smarter than us, that can evolve faster using both software and hardware upgrades.

Tegmark defines life much more broadly. He says you are alive if you can change state and process and output info. He would say that we all just simple machines, where consciousness arises from having enough cells & complexity and consciousness is just being self-aware. 

And therefore can we build on Life 2.0 to evolve not just our software, but our hardware too. This would mean treating our bodies in a modular fashion - upgrade memory, upgrade processor, upgrade screen. This after all is why computing has improved so much in twenty years.

In Tegmark’s future we could foreseeably live in the Matrix, though he would say it looks more like the Amazon show “Upload”. Highly recommended by the way.

This is where Jamie Metzl’s Hacking Darwin comes in. The book is a discussion of the genetic tools available for us today and about the potential futures this might lead to.

We have been hacking the hardware in other animals for years. We call this selective breeding. We are can now doing this in very precise ways in human too.

Using CRISPR we can cure single gene mutation diseases like cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia (there are 10,000 of them). Soon we will go from curing diseases to choosing the ‘right’ characteristics for our children.

What traits would you choose for your children?

This sounds like a strange question, and you may say: “I’ll make them smarter, or I’ll make them taller or faster”. But then in machine learning parlance we could be falling for the “local maximisation” problem just like our ancestors living in trees would have picked better tree climbing or farming skills?

Now that we have these amazing tools at are disposal what shall we try to become?

And will that tinkering and optimisation simply lead to less diversity across our species and increase our survival risk?

C. A Few Things Worth Checking Out

1. Thanks to Mark Evans, I’ve started reading “Humankind” by Rutger Bregman. It’s a life changing book, about a simple idea - Humans are inherently good & generous.

You might say that’s obvious, but if you listen to the news, to any politician or even how our society is structured, it’s built on the Hobbesian view of the world, that people are selfish and a “Leviathan” is needed to keep order. If a 496pg book isn’t you then you can start with Economist review or this great podcast.

2. Eric Vishria, partner at Benchmark was on the Invest Like The Best podcast discussing the Past, Present & Future of SaaS Software.

I liked the discussion on the evolution of SaaS.

Old School: $ORCL

SaaS 1.0: $CRM the original gangster, sales led, but cloud native and great UX

SaaS 2.0: $DOCU, $WDAY, 1.0 but now marketing led with viral network growth

SaaS 3.0: API businesses like $TWLO (& Stripe) that automate processes and B2B interactions

3. More and more clients are talking about inflation, Gold and Silver. Russell Napier outlines it well when he says Central Banks are no longer relevant. I discussed Stephanie Kelton’s book - Deficit Myth a few weeks back.

D. Fact Of The Week

The Original FinTech ‘Platform’: Banking “Benches”

Have you ever wondered where we got the term bankruptcy from? The word ‘bankruptcy’ is derived from the 14th century Italian phrase “banca rupta” -> “broken bench.” 

During the 14th century, Italian bankers conducted their business and public transactions on benches like the one depicted above. If a banker became insolvent and was no longer able to continue lending or meet their payment obligations, however, their bench was smashed in half as a sign of failure and public shaming.

Thus, “banca rupta” -> “broken bench” -> “bankruptcy”. 

E. Life's Story is Short

We have only a moment to scramble together a few words to describe it.

What will be the story of your life ?