Discover more from NeoNarrative
American Dynamism: An Interview With Katherine Boyle
Stories of grit and growth, why optimism is the only right perspective for the future, defining the national interest and setting the groundwork for American dynamism, the contrarian myth, and more!
Katherine Boyle is a general partner at Silicon Valley cornerstone Andreessen Horowitz, the place where the Future goes seeking advice to avoid being left behind, and where the Past goes to confer all its greatest wisdom. Katherine’s work at Andreessen Horowitz centers on investment in American Dynamism, building the brightest of all possible futures for generations to come and bolstering the U.S.‘s preeminence globally. Katherine holds a BA from Georgetown, an MBA from Stanford, and a Masters degree from the National University of Ireland, Galway. I’ve been wanting to interview Katherine for a long time because of her forthrightness and obvious strength of character. There are few people I look up to in my life but Katherine is a big one, and after you guys read this interview you’ll understand why. To find more of Katherine, follow her on Twitter and subscribe to her Substack today.
What past period of American history is your ideal framework for America’s future? I’m reading Albion’s Seed now and learning about the four groups dominant at America’s founding: the cowboys, the aristocrats, the egalitarians, and the insular, highly literate priest class. As of now the cowboys inform my ideal for America’s future. What snippet of history does this for you?
I’ve always believed that much of American life and history is experienced through the rise and falls of families. The classic political sentiment question: “Will your children be better off than you?” is how we measure public optimism or pessimism. My family’s story really starts at two turning points in history with my grandfathers, and I’ve always been partial to those times in the American story because it feels like the turning point for my own familial history: the turn of the 20th century with my Irish grandfather’s arrival to America and 1945, the end of WWII when my maternal grandfather came back from the War, refused to return to his coal mining town in Pennsylvania, decamping instead to the swamps of Florida. Both stories begin with extreme poverty and military service. My Irish grandfather left the northern-most tip of Donegal alone in his teens, landed in the coal mines and fought in WWI for his adopted country. (As a millennial, the math doesn’t make sense without confessing I come from a long line of older dads.)
My maternal grandfather had an 8th grade education and drove a semi-truck his entire life, but still managed to build a family off one income and send his daughters to college. In both cases, they moved from poverty to working to middle class over decades, in a way that was very natural for many Americans of that era. Nothing about my family is exceptional. In fact, the ordinariness of their stories is what’s inspiring. You can view the post-War years from 1946 to the mid 80s as a boom in education and middle-class growth where normal, hardworking people leapfrogged into a different socioeconomic class because of pro-growth investment and a culture that truly believed the country was exceptional. Where my family’s story runs counter to the current narrative is the arrival of my generation post-Cold War, where the upward trajectory of my family looks different from the vast majority of the American middle class: the middle class squeeze downward is my generation’s story, and my miraculous escape from that trajectory is as much luck as it was hard work.
What I take from these stories is that my grandfathers both benefitted from hypergrowth in this country: industrialization, population growth, mass public and private investment in technology, housing and building physical things that benefitted the commons. Trucking in Florida in the 1950s was a fine job because so many people were moving to the Sun Belt to build. Disney World was orange groves. But my grandfathers also believed in the dominant myth of their times: the myth of the American ascent that leads poor immigrants with no skills to believe they can make their mark in this country through hard work. And as much as ascent requires pro-growth policy and investment, it also requires very ordinary people to believe in their own capacity to build a life for their families—with families being the primary organizational until that ensures success.
I read a piece recently by your a16z partner Ryan McEntush where he describes the fertility crisis facing the first world. Out of all advanced nations, only Israel has above replacement level fertility. Ryan explains this by proposing that Israel has a unified belief in itself and its future, and this is something I don’t see in the US. Some of our best people seem to believe climate change, covid, politics, economics, etc., are reasons not to be optimistic. Is this something you’ve seen in SV or elsewhere? How common is it to find people who have catastrophe as a centerpiece in their model of the future, and what do you think to yourself when you see it?
I’d encourage everyone to read Ryan’s piece, because it’s about much more than the fertility crisis. One of the questions it posed for me is how Israel can represent a technological and pro-family society simultaneously. Israel has one of the most research-intensive tech and business sectors for any developed country, with about 5 percent of its GDP invested in R&D annually. This is noteworthy and overlooked, because many of the current ideological debates among the right and the left are about how the family is at odds with technology. Indeed, much of our catastrophizing is anti-tech and anti-growth. In the minds of the pessimists, industrialization and growth is the enemy of the planet and the source of our political disagreement. And yet, Israel—a technological powerhouse— is the only developed country that has managed to increase its birthrate above replacement levels (now at 3.1 children per woman) while also making intense technological investments for its future. It’s possible this is coincidence and there are clearly many other factors at play, but my view is that if all of history is a war between the family (tribes) and the state (central authority), technology is likely more aligned with strengthening the family—it’s impossible to a have a family and not be future-oriented and anti-status quo in the same way it’s impossible to build a company or a new technology and not be looking to the next year or the next decade.
So what does this mean for doom? Silicon Valley may talk about these things—and weirdly a lot of former founders take on the mantle of catastrophizing after they’ve built something important—but the hungriest people in technology are not distracted by doom. Frankly, doom isn’t a natural part of the tech culture and business model, whereas doom is very useful for politicians, academics and journalists. It’s a shame to believe that none of the major issues of our time can be improved through building new things, and thus, there’s no future for any of us: no procreation, no purpose, no reason to produce new things. And building companies and building families is an argument against this flawed logic.
To answer your question in a long-winded way: yes, I see catastrophizing in modern society, and it reflects false narratives that go against what it means to be a self-actualizing human. This isn’t new—all of history is laced with false prophets who spread gospels that harm personal and societal progression. But I also see the counter: young builders are extremely hopeful about the future and excited to build solutions for the problems they’ve lived through. I’m hopeful we’re entering a golden era of building societal solutions, driven by young people who are fed up with these false narratives.
What does American Dynamism mean to you?
I get asked this question often, because the term means different things to various groups. At its literal core, dynamism is growth and movement. But many people ask about the philosophical underpinnings of the argument, which is that we need and should be building for the national interest. And while the founders championing this message hold many different political beliefs, they all agree that building is an inherent good.
“Building is an inherent good,” is not something that everyone believes. In fact, a lot of people believe the opposite: that growth led us to many of the catastrophes we have today. Additionally, the common belief is that technology is neutral, and that therefore building— the action related to creating technology—must indeed be neutral, too. But the most human thing we do is build: we build habits, personas, families, companies, cities and countries. This is the arc of human progress.
The problem with much of managerial class is that there is no production—there is no thing being produced. And many of the elite jobs we prize today are abstractions of the core thing. Abstraction is not an inherent good. It removes us from reality and obscures the things most within our control. So American Dynamism is often a manifestation of physical movement; it’s why so many of the companies that exemplify the thesis are physical in nature.
The other question we get a lot is “What is the national interest?” We define it in very broad terms: categories that sell to government such as aerospace, defense, public safety and national security; the core domestic industries of manufacturing, transportation, logistics, energy and critical infrastructure. But we also include housing and education, the two domains that affect all Americans the most and cause the most anxiety for families. What many don’t realize about these companies is that they are fundamentally different than pure enterprise or pure consumer companies, because government is a customer, a regulator or a competitor. Their go-to-market motion differs, and the shape and scale at which they grow differs too. It’s why we very much believe that the category of American Dynamism companies is different than the last generation of tech companies. And we’re immensely excited to support them.
I have an easy time being a contrarian these days because mainstream opinion makers have ideological priorities instead of empirical ones. But the contrarian’s trap is overlooking that the mainstream can sometimes be right! What are some mainstream opinions you agree with?
I love this question, but I think we first have to define contrarianism, and why we’re likely not as contrarian as we think we are. The original Thielian contrarian test in Silicon Valley is in some ways becoming less relevant: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” This test of contrarianism relates to belief, and we’re now in a place where demonstrated contrarianism of belief is good for clicks, likes and clout, so there’s nothing inherently dangerous or brave about it. If I say something contrarian and wild as my (hypothetical) alt on Twitter, I’m going to grow a followership and likely suffer few consequences. Many are building successful brands from contrarianism, much more so than five or ten years ago. So, I agree with you that contrarianism of belief is relatively easy—and people often get rewarded for it.
But where I disagree is contrarian actions are extremely difficult to take these days, and if we examine our actions rather than our beliefs, most people will see that they’re not that different than their cohorts. And I’d have to say, by this definition, I’m about as normie as they come. I followed every popular narrative in the book despite questioning them: I went to the best possible college I could get into, competed for the elite awards and jobs in zero-sum games against my peers, stayed on the credential ladder through much of my 20s, married in my thirties to a nearly identical professional profile whom I met at graduate school and had my first child at the exact age that most mothers in San Francisco give birth for the first time. My beliefs and my persona would make me seem very contrarian; and yet, the first true contrarian decision I made in my adult life was to move with my family to Florida during Covid and raise my children in a multigenerational household. I’ve written about how this was the moment that I broke from mimetic rivalry, and I’ve found myself much happier by taking a contrarian action with my life and career. But it’s rare.
Going back to your question though, true contrarianism can only be measured in small silos. In a truly divided country, half the people will always agree with your values and decisions, so you’ll never truly be alone in your choices. David Brooks wrote a piece a while back about what he calls the amphibians, or the young people who live between the elite world and the non-elite world, who opt into the professional managerial class but retain the values of their working- or middle-class upbringings. I consider myself an amphibian, so in that respect, I’ve always felt like I don’t fit in completely with any cohort, and this can lead one to believe they’re more contrarian than they truly are.
But when I really examine the patterns of my life now, I’m about as mainstream as they come when compared to Middle American moms. I drive a mommy mobile that can tote multiple strollers. The Cheesecake Factory is my favorite dining establishment and I spend an inordinate amount of my free time consuming children’s mass media, from Paw Patrol to Baby Shark. In this sense, I’m indistinguishable from pretty much every other Big Box-shopping American mother. And I’m very, very happy to reside in that persona.
I read a short bio on you not too long ago where you said that you love to hear about obscure books that are hard to put down. Who are some less well-known authors who’ve colored your worldview, or who just fascinate you because of the way their lives developed? For example, my favorite author is Proust, and while I couldn’t be tasked with remembering everything from his first novel, my memory will never let go of him saying that reason and experience hardly ever engender or inform most of our closely held beliefs. He said something like, “An avalanche of woes and maladies can enter into the bosom of a family without it ever losing faith in the mercy of its god or the competence of its physician,” and I will never forget this because I don’t ever want to be this way! Who are some authors that have done this for you?
Book lists are often dangerous because people try to extrapolate who you are from them, and if you read widely, you read a lot of things you disagree with. I go through phases where I read a ton on a specific topic— all of an author’s works—and it helps me understand whatever present questions I have. An example of this is earlier this year I was eager to learn the origins of modern mental health and psychiatry. I worked as a nanny in Vienna about 15 years ago and hadn’t really explored why late 19th century Vienna became the ecosystem for competing philosophies on the mind, mental health and psychiatry. The city was very extreme at this period in history, yet these experimental doctors founded much of the mental health movement that is widely accepted across the Western world today. Some would say, “What a weird thing! Why would late imperial Vienna just before the dark chaos of WWI be relevant toour modern mental health movement?” and that’s the question I wanted to answer. So I dove into books like Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture and A Nervous Splendor among others that showed up on google searches of the time period, until I had some mental framework for understanding the modern mental health movement. And these types of questions often lead to books that aren’t very well-known.
But to your point on Proust, the books I’ve reread throughout my adult life were directed to me. Specifically, I’ve been lucky to have one truly great teacher and mentor, the Jesuit professor of political philosophy Fr. James Schall, who became my long-time spiritual advisor until his death a few years ago. He has a great book called Another Sort of Learning which is a book about important books, and the first time I had ever heard the suggestion that college might not be the best place to go to learn things. Another delightful short book he recommended to me is A Guide for the Perplexed by E.F. Schumacher. I don’t know how to describe it except that it’s probably one of the only self-help books you need to learn to build a virtuous life.
Time Well Spent is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.