Last century, since the end of the Cold War, economic criteria have come to rule our day-to-day lives, and humanity, ruled by these criteria, has reached great heights. Now we have ended wars and poverty, and we have restored our planet’s ecology. The Earth has truly become a paradise. This has led us to put ever more trust in the efficiency of the economic principle. It has become paramount, permeating our very DNA. In every aspect and element, human society has become an economic society. Nothing that yields less than what is invested in it will ever even be considered. Developing the Moon makes no economic sense, and large-scale manned exploration of space would be considered an economic crime. And as for interstellar flight, that would be seen as outright psychotic. Now humanity knows only investment, production and reaping the fruits!

– Liu Cixin, Sun of China

The macro-history of Silicon Valley is that it used to be run by the military, then by hackers (nerds), then briefly by MBAs (or nerds who had read books by MBAs). And now it’s run not quite by financiers, but by these weird hybrid Finance Techies who both write code and read Matt Levine on weekends, then go into their day jobs as angel investors and crypto founders.

It’s easier to explain the shift through a Chapman-esque chart:

Hackers Econ Finance
How do you explain the relationship between R&D and long-run outcomes? Amortization Fixed Cost / Variable Cost CAPEX / OPEX
How do companies make money? New technology Better unit economics at scale Kingmaking, burining VC money until competitors die
But really, how do you actually make money? Cutting out intermediaries Bundling and unbundling Serve as the intermediary
What does your company really do? Every startup is a search engine Every startup is an API for cheap human labor Every startup is really a fintech startup, and every fintech startup is really a bank (2)

It’s easy to feel repulsed by this shift, but more important to understand it as a reflection of broader trends.[1] As Byrne Hobart’s one sentence horror story once put it: “your life is more financialized than you think”.

Financialization refers to a bunch of related, but essentially different phenomena:

  1. A broad multi-century shift towards wealth as an indicator of success and driver of happiness, rather than God, or virtue or other forgotten values.

  2. The sense of longing caused by the elimination of the gold standard, resulting simultaneously in A) Yearning for grounding, truth and reason (it’s not a coincidence that “post-modernism” really only took off after 1970) and B) The sense of limitless opportunity unhampered by physical reality.

  3. Your weird cousin buying peak GME.

  4. The many decade old American and now Chinese norm of coupling your choice of shelter to the largest financial decision you’ll ever make. (Byrne Hobart once wrote "Most consumers don’t think to themselves ‘I expect rates vol to rise in the future, so I’d better be long gamma right now.’ " He was right at the time, but he won’t be in 20 years.)

  5. Growing inequality resulting in A) Wealth feeling more fake (“What does $200 billion even mean?”), B) Many Americans increasingly forced to think about money as a matter of survival, and C) The disconnect between the two mediated somewhat successfully by leftist politics, but still resulting in angst vacillating between “the economy is made up so it doesn’t matter” and “the economy is made up, so maybe I can meme myself into wealth” and subsequent rise of “scam culture” (see f.e.x. calling out Belle Delphine for selling bathwater while also celebrating her for securing the bag)

  6. Crypto gains occurring nearly overnight, alienating the nouveau riche from their own wealth, while simultaneously generating FOMO of unprecedented scale.

  7. All of this happening on the backdrop of several non-financial crises (climate change, covid, poverty) forcing A) The question of why financial growth feels decoupled from important measures of progress and wellbeing, B) Why we can’t just print our way out of these crises if money is fake anyway, and C) The perverse dynamic in which the perceived illegitimacy of finance-as-practice serves to draw more attention to finance-as-concept, bolstering it’s memetic strength (i.e. in an ironic twist, shouting “money is only real because everyone believes it’s real” feels less like the Wizard of Oz ending where the curtain is drawn back, and more like the end of Elf where Will Ferell explains that we need to believe in Santa’s magic in order to bootstrap the self-fulfilling prophecy of making him magic.)

It’s easy to feel repulsed by all of this. Meanwhile, the scant havens of non-financialized life are now seen as the glorious low hanging fruit of the “last unoptimized asset class”, with an increasingly fine line between democratizing something and financializing it (see Lambda School for education, Substack for writing, NFTs for art). [2]

But the optimistic version is that the financialization has been there for centuries, it just hasn’t been evident. And if so, “financialization” refers not to the actual encroachment of finance onto everyday lives, but only to our growing awareness of it. Is that good?

In other domains, Alvaro laments publicizing the replication crisis, and Eigenrobot claims “popular knowledge of quantitative argumentation was a mistake.”

But I say screw it: let the masses know what’s happening to them. Let them see the inner machinations of this strange and beautiful world. And if they choose to abuse their newfound knowledge then that’s fine too. We are no worse nor less powerful than Gods.

[1] If anything, tech has resisted financialization due to the nature of the industry:

  • There are no calls or puts, no leverage, no complex financial instruments: all you can do is invest or not invest, you’re either in or out.
  • Portfolio returns come almost entirely from one or two assets, diversification is an absurd anachronism.
  • Outcomes are highly binary, it’s useless to talk about a particular year’s growth rate.
  • There’s basically no debt, which some see as the foundation or at least origin of all trade.

[2] Ultimately, none of this is coincidental. It’s that democracy and finance really are intimately linked. Although it’s sometimes important to distinguish between the three meanings of “democratization” (1. Everyone has governance abilities over X, 2. Everyone can produce X, 3. Everyone can consume X) we have to recognize that in this case it doesn’t really matter. As mediated by markets, the ability to consume is identical to both governance and production. “You vote with your dollar”, and so too do you build.

Is Time Working for or Against You?

You are standing at the foot of the mountain. We are all always at the foot. The speed of light is the foot of a mountain; the three dimensions of space are a foot of a mountain. You are imprisoned in the deep gorge of light-speed and three-dimensional space. Does it not feel… cramped?

– Liu Cixin, Mountain

If you have a deadline a week from now, there is always some impending sense of dread.

Were you to sleep through an alarm, or stay out late with friends, those are hours wasted. Time is working against you, and every hour you don’t make progress is an hour you’ll never retrieve. In fact, even if you do make progress, if it’s not at the pace required to achieve your goals within the allotted time, you are still falling behind.

For many of us, this is the norm, and has been our entire lives. Not even our adult lives, but since infancy. I was taking timed tests in elementary school, trying to finish homework before my bedtime in middle school, writing essays up until the last minute in high school… It’s not that I’m a chronic procrastinator, it’s that time is chronically catching up with me.

This is the norm, but it doesn’t have to be. Consider putting your money in a high-yield savings account. As you sleep, you are earning money. Were you to sleep in an extra hour, that would not be an hour wasted, but an hour to accrue more compound interest. Were you, like Fry from Futurama, to fall into a coma for 1,000 years, you could wake up a billionaire. Time is working for you.

Finance is the most obvious example, but it’s not an isolated case. Lots of things grow and compound, far beyond the effort you put into them. If you plant an apple tree today, you’ll be greeted years from now with a bountiful harvest. If you have children today, you’ll be greeted decades from now with beautiful grandkids. And as it turns out, if you start a blog, you can stop writing posts for months at a time and subscribers will still trickle in on the legacy of past writing.

Time is on your side.

This isn’t just a convenient growth hack, it’s the only way to tolerate this otherwise miserable human condition. If you are not investing, which is to say, if you do not have plants growing, kombucha brewing, relationships maturing, and so forth, what are you doing other than dying?

Without time working for you, all that awaits is slow decay. If not through your own personal demise, then through thermodynamic entropy. Making time work for you is a kind of dark magic, a way to resist death even as it threatens to swallow you whole.

And as with all dark magic, it imposes serious costs.

Say you’re on an airplane, 9 hours left on a trans-pacific flight, ravioli in its tin tray, blockbuster on the seat-back screen. There’s nothing to do but wait. And why not? After all, time is on your side. Each passing hour brings you closer to your destination, closer to home, closer to the moment when you can get off this plane and really start living again.

But what happens next? Now you land, and you’re standing in the aisle, waiting to deplane, then you’re at the App Pickup Zone waiting for your Uber, and then in the Uber once again in some state of sleep-deprived half-death waiting. But it’s okay, right? Time is working for you. You’re getting closer to where you want to go.

The problem is it never really ends. Now you’re commuting to work, now you’re at a job, and it’s not one you really like, but you have to be there anyway because it’s the path to something else. And it’s fine, because every day you spend in this job is another day you get closer to having Four Years Experience, and meanwhile your investments are accruing compound interest, and your relationships are maturing, and all of this is part of the plan.

How should we properly deal with the paralyzing oppression of our temporal overlords? There are typically three answers:

  1. Beg Death for more time: Eat more vegetables, do more cardio, do more longevity research, become multiplanetary, align AGI, advocate degrowth, build solar panels.
  2. Embrace Death in all its forms: Delist your website from Internet Archive, go skydiving, eat a five-pound gummy bear, marry Courtney Love.
  3. Become immortal but only metaphorically: Have a lot of descendants, build a giant clock inside a mountain, send big prime numbers into space, invent fundamental physics, endow a fellowship, put your name on a building.

These stances all have their uses, but they’re still just one side of the axis. You can also choose to simply live atemporally. To understand that you have already died, will always have died, and all that’s happening here is your experience through the temporal axis of your own life.

Is time working for you? Against you? It’s a bit of both, but you can also choose to sever the employment contract.

Make COVID Predictions, Take My Money: On Zvi, Bets and Taking Ideas Seriously

[Thanks to Charles Dillon (2.5x) and Daniel Frank (2.5x) for taking this bet. My capacity is now full, but if you email me with an offer on either side I’ll try to find you a match. So far, I’ve set up an additional two bets each at 2.5x.]

Zvi and Holden are betting on when Covid ends.

I am taking Zvi’s side and offering the same bet, except 10x larger. Stephen Malina has graciously accepted to take me up on half of this, so there’s another $300 on the table for anyone who wants it.

There are two issues to discuss:

  • Why am I doing this, and why for so much money?
  • Why did Holden and Zvi do this, and why for so little money?

Zvi has been writing weekly updates on Covid pretty much since last April, but didn’t catch my eye until his post exactly one year ago simply titled “We’re F***ed, It’s Over”.

Of course it’s melodramatic and alarmist in the way we should typically ignore, but Zvi is smart. Really smart. Or as Scott Alexander once described him, “[an] ​​illegibly smart [person] writing on the pandemic.” That sounds superfluous, but it’s just the warm up. In another post (about scoring Covid predictions), Scott continues:

[Zvi is] a former professional trader and sports gambler, and he does coronavirus modeling in his spare time with his family of expert biologists. Obviously he would win this one. I will never bet against Zvi on anything. Last year he bet against me on what restaurant I would have dinner at, without knowing anything about my situation or food preferences, and won anyway.

Or in another post:

When Zvi asserts an opinion, he has only one thing he’s optimizing for - being right - and he does it well.


If you’re planning the coronavirus response, maybe the best thing you can do is lock Zvi in a cave completely incommunicado and make him write one for you.


Here’s a story which is very flattering and which I hope is true: Zvi gives better advice than the Director of the CDC.

Best of all:

Maybe Joe Biden is an idiot for not appointing Zvi the Secretary of Health.

(That last one is taken out of context, but it’s too good not to include.)

I will be extremely pleased if I can ever do anything as well as Zvi does Covid modeling. Actually, I will just be pleased if anyone ever looks at me the way Scott Alexander looks at Zvi Mowshowitz.

Which is why I was disappointed and actually kind of miffed to see his recent update. With typical melodrama, he writes:

If these numbers are accurate, it’s game over, man, game over. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done, but it does mean you lose, good day sir, let’s try to do it with dignity and save as many people as we can.

Or as he opens the post:

In a better world, I could focus on this full time and also maybe even hire a research assistant, and be better able to scour for information.

It’s kind of a throwaway line about civilizational inadequacy, but if you’re familiar with the whole Zvi ecosystem/melodrama/social scene it should stick out to you as extremely odd.

If you think about it for more than a second, you would ask: What on earth could possibly prevent Zvi from working on this full time? What could possibly prevent him from hiring a research assistant? He is a widely lauded public figure who regularly receives humorously high praise from Scott Alexander, who is, in turn, wealthy and well connected enough to run a grant program which includes in its description the line “I know a lot of nonprofits and rich people looking for interesting projects to fund.” So seriously, what could possibly be stopping Zvi?

As it turns out, the reasons are mostly his own opportunity cost and neuroses. As Zvi explains in the comments, he can’t work on Covid modeling full time because he’s busy making a trading card game on the blockchain. And he can’t apply for funding (which he would almost certainly receive) because “applying for large amounts of funding when you’re already well off doesn’t feel great. And I worry about the social dynamics and incentives”. And he can’t hire a research assistant not because he lacks funding or legitimacy, but because “I am confident that I am lacking key social technology to hire well and to direct such people well.”

That’s bad right?

To be clear, I’m not claiming that Zvi is acting poorly, and certainly not that he’s acting unethically. I don’t subscribe to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics, under which Zvi would be prosecuted for doing far, far more than anyone else I know, just because he’s not exerting maximum possible effort on this particular issue. My view is that we should be grateful for the work he is doing.

And if you really want to nitpick, then it depends on the tractability of the issue and how much value we’d really get, collectively, from another hour of Zvi’s time. I suspect that there’s a decent chance his blockchain game will do very well, and if so, a decent chance that he’ll donate a large percentage of the earnings to very important causes. So it’s debatable, but not immediately clear that spending more time on the Covid updates would even be desirable.

But it is bad, not in the sense of blameworthiness or even ethical harm, but bad in the sense that as I complain about incessantly, we are, as a civilization, squandering our potential, and in particular our human capital. Making a blockchain game might genuinely be the best use of Zvi’s time, and he might be acting both rationality and ethically in choosing to pursue it. And so this situation is Good, but only in a very limited and local sense. The tragedy isn’t Zvi’s decision, it’s that a scenario even exists where this is the decision he has to make.

Which brings us to the question of betting. Holden’s payout if he loses is just $40. As a reminder, he’s the co-CEO of a foundation that disburses around $300 million annually, which makes the bet just hilariously small, especially given that he recently called a related Omicron question his “Candidate for ‘highest-stakes question of the next several months’”.

So what’s going on? As Holden explains:

The bet is not for a life-changing amount of money. There’s simply no way that this sort of activity is an optimal way for either of us to work toward personal financial goals. That’s not why we’re betting; we’re doing it more as a sort of “holding ourselves accountable for our beliefs” sort of thing.

That’s admirable, and the fact the money is inconsequential is fine. The point is just to state your beliefs publicly, have clear resolution criteria, and then be forced to publicly and formally say “I was wrong”.

But this is only half the game. Using bets to hold yourself accountable is like using a hammer to crush graham crackers for your pie crust. It’s an acceptable use, but far from the tool’s potential.

If Holden and Zvi really want more people working seriously on high-stakes questions, they shouldn’t hold a trivial bet with each other, they should place really big bets publicly and allow anyone to gamble against them. As a specific example, if Holden thinks that there’s a 50% chance the pandemic will end soon, and if he thinks knowing the answer to this question is important, he should allow anyone to bet against him. And he should make this bet public for up to 100,000x the size of his current bet.

There are some logistical challenges here, like holding money in escrow and whether he should use his own funds or appropriate funds from Open Phil or convince a third party to fund the bet, but they’re entirely solvable. There may also be some legal issues.

At this point, you’re probably wondering: isn’t this just a prediction market?

And yes, taken to the extreme, it more or less is. There’s a variety of mundane reasons prediction markets don’t currently work that well (1, 2, 3), but they’re not that bad either. Kalshi has some good omicron questions, as does Metaculus.

What I’m really saying is that prediction markets are public goods, and so they should be subsidized. Zvi is actually the one who wrote the post on Subsidizing Prediction Markets, and doesn’t have to be convinced on this point.

But from Holden’s grantmaking perspective, what I’m really arguing is: If you think these questions are critical, and you think there’s a high moral value of information at this particular moment, then this is the time to enact those proposed subsidies.

Finally, prediction markets (or bets) are an easy way to resolve Zvi’s social inability to manage research assistants. Instead of managing people directly, Zvi could just say “here are the important questions we need answers to”, and use subsidized prediction markets to get answers.

So what’s my role in all this? Will my 10x bet change anything? I’m not sure. Stephen took the bet almost immediately, so I don’t think it incentivized any research on his end. But there’s still 5x left, and if you want it, presumably you’ll look into Zvi’s thesis at least enough to see if there are any glaring mistakes.

You might ask if that’s worth $300 to me, but in expected value terms I’m paying far less. If I just naively think that Zvi and Holden are both reasonably smart people, then the EV of this bet for me is close to $0. So just by providing the opportunity to bet against me, I’m potentially incentivizing some non-trivial amount of work on a very important question at very low cost.

If you’re interested, just get in touch:

Or if you want to make a similar offer with another 10x, 100x or far more, email me the details and I’ll add your proposal to the top of this post.

Thanks again to Stephen for taking me up on this, providing the opportunity to demonstrate that I’m at least serious enough to put my own money on the line.