Ben’s Perspective Part 1: An Interview Series With Ben Horowitz
Important figures from history, stepping up to the plate, influence of AI on labor, justifications for belief in American excellence, leaving California and the value of combat sports, and more.
Ben Horowitz is the cofounder and CEO of Andreessen Horowitz, the only venture capital firm that matters to me, and the only one with real belief in the future of American preeminence. Kanye West, the musical genius and esteemed political activist, recently leveled a critique at VCs on his instagram page which saw Andreessen Horowitz as its only exception, which I agreed with. Ben and his cofounder Marc have created something whose relevance perforates every sphere of high human activity, because they’re simply the best. They work harder, they work smarter, and they’re also some of the most generous people I’ve ever encountered.
This interview series is the emergent outcome of all of these discrete qualities. Ben was generous enough to take time out of his insane work schedule to lend his perspective to untangle the personal, political, and economic knots I lobbed his way, and also to just answer questions about things that have recently piqued my interest. Conversations are the best tools for thought, which is something we in our increasingly atomized age are slowly forgetting. But Ben is here to help us remember this vital truth once again and broaden our horizons for the better.
I remember reading a piece of yours a while ago about the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture being an inspiring figure in your thinking for your book What You Do Is Who You Are, and I thought it was a perfect illustration of why stories like Louverture’s are indispensable—the problems detailed and their solutions show not all waters are uncharted, at least not exactly. I’ve been obsessed with this idea lately that the great men of history can help reframe novel problems. Like for example, when political or social or aesthetic trends flow in a bad direction and seem irremediable to me, as if the course of things are no less stubborn than the laws of nature, Napoleon’s story tells me I’m wrong. One person can make continent-spanning differences if he’s relentless enough, says the life of Bonaparte. I love learning about figures from history. Who are some other figures like Toussaint whose stories shape your thinking, or who you just find cool?
Jon Von Neumann — He was a child prodigy (at 6 he could divide 8 digit numbers in his head), he was one of the top mathematicians, physicists, and game theorists of the last century. He has a crazy resume, he figured out a way around the Russell Paradox when he was 17, he worked on the Manhattan project, he was a great historical scholar, etc, etc. He hung out with contemporaries like Albert Einstein and the great logician Kurt Godel and by all accounts was the smartest of the three. He was also hilarious. One of my favorite Von Neumann quotes: “There's no sense in being precise when you don't even know what you're talking about.” But the reason that I know about him is that in order to solve the big physics problem of the Manhattan project, he made some inventions. One was a computer architecture known as the "Von Neumann Architecture," which is the architecture in your iPhone today. There's a new and excellent book by Ananyo Bhattacharya called The Man From the Future that just came out on him, which is why he is on my mind :-).
Thomas Clarkson — It's so weird to me that most people in this country think of the period of 1619 to 1865 as the only period in which slavery occurred and only in the United States. Slavery, of course, was an institution that started with the advent of agriculture, became deeply part of human culture (endorsed by the Bible and the Koran) and was pervasive throughout recorded history. By 1619, more than half the world's population was enslaved. Every major construction from the pyramids to the canals to the cathedrals were built by slaves. And on and on. So the really remarkable thing isn't that slavery existed, but that it ended and we should ask more about how it ended. The answer is fascinating — tldr, a small group of abolitionists convinced the British Empire to stop slavery worldwide in a move counter to the empire's economic and political interests. This campaign occurred before airplanes or electronic communication or anything that we would consider necessary to start a "movement" today. Perhaps the most interesting and dedicated of these abolitionists was a fellow by the name of Thomas Clarkson. He would do things like sail to the Caribbean, take careful notes about exactly how slaves were treated then sail back to England and lobby Parliament with what he found. He put his entire life into it and amazingly succeeded. People tried to stop him and even assassinate him along the way. He worked closely with the Quakers who were the architects of the movement, but let people like Clarkson be the face. At Clarkson's funeral, the Quakers attending for the first and only time ever recorded, tipped their hats to him (Quakers never removed their hats in public otherwise).
Harry Pace — Harry Pace founded the first ever black record label, Black Swan Records, in 1921. Prior to that, he was in the sheet music business and, among many other things, co-wrote St. Louis Blues, one of the most popular songs of all time. After the white labels realized how important black music was and started buying all his acts, Pace went to law school and became the leading advocate of integrating housing. He won a Supreme Court case that allowed the Hansberry family to live in a white neighborhood, which later became the subject of a play written by the daughter Lorraine called, “A Raisin in the Sun.” We do not know much about him, because his family erased his memory, so that they could become white (not joking)! There's a great podcast called, “The Vanishing of Harry Pace,” on Radiolab.
Thomas Clarkson and Harry Pace are both interesting cases because they’re examples of extraordinary levels of altruism. This impulse demonstrated by both men is uncommon and little discussed. You’re another example of the same drive, and this is something I’d actually like more people to know. You donated all the proceeds of both your books to great causes, you also have a charitable foundation with your wife Felicia—there’s a 1:1 comparison in my mind to Clarkson and Pace. I don’t think we value this kind of behavior enough, maybe because we don’t hear about how important it is to actually give, whether that means our time or money. So I’d like you to share some moments where someone you know (could be yourself) gave either or both of those things to sort of illustrate the absolute greatness of giving more of ourselves—some moments that made you go, “Damn, we should all do more of this kind of thing.”
That's a great question, because it's almost impossible to answer without sounding amazingly arrogant or super smug, but let me give it a shot :-).
Many things in life are like that. If Thomas Clarkson hadn't dedicated his life to abolishing slavery, how long would it have taken? How many more lives would have been wrecked? Thankfully, we'll never know.
One of the tragedies of modern culture is that there are all these people who say things like: "You didn't build that. All the people working at the company did." The intent is fine — spread the credit, but the result is that many young people don't feel like it will make a difference if they step up. Saying that Elon Musk didn't build Tesla by himself is literally true, but misses the point: He was most responsible for the critical step of nothing to something. We need more people to build something from nothing. Musk didn't build Tesla himself, but without him stepping up to the challenge, we'd be 10 to 20 years later with electric cars.
In general, the people who step up are the ones who accelerate or change history. If you don't step up, someone else may, but in the meantime, how many people will have suffered or died or have miserable lives? More importantly, will the road split and will humanity travel down a much worse path due to the delay? Stepping up doesn't have to happen on the scale of Elon Musk or Thomas Clarkson to be meaningful. If you change one person's life, that's an amazing thing — a gift from God. Don't waste it.
I’m gonna shift gears here because I read a Thiel quote just now that got my mind moving. Around 2012 Thiel said AI was promising territory on the tech frontier, but that no one knows how far it’ll go. At the time his optimism was pretty contrarian, machine learning experts were saying that even computer vision was impossible. In 2022, I think AI might still be a big blind spot and that any bold prediction is still not bold enough. I imagine in 40-50 years we’ll see a transformation akin to the rise of the post-industrial knowledge economy that followed in the wake of offshoring our manufacturing in the early 2000s. Some of the most valuable companies in the world became ones with intangible assets, including companies that provide highly skilled services, like in medicine. Content creation, expertise, these became the centers of life, and I imagine these centers being outsourced to AI in a way that would revolutionize everything from our general epistemology to long-established frameworks around status to our work week, to form a sort of post-knowledge economy. An example of what I mean would be the current slew of “AI lawyers” which offer automated suit-filing, ticket fighting, and the like. Law now is a high status expert institution funneled from another high status expert institution, academia. I’m going to say that the current trend of legal automation and its future iterations will make law school and lawyers obsolete, I think the same is going to happen with med school and healthcare, and even with academia as a center for research. A free AI lawyer with access to every piece of legal theory ever written will probably perform better than a human one, the same is probably true for an AI doctor with access to all diagnostic material and treatment meta-analyses published the world over, or an AI researcher. What are some bold predictions you have here that no one else does, and how do these views influence your investing decisions now?
When we look at AI in the context of history, we find that we've been automating human tasks for about 250 years now and these automations have a real impact. I think that in 1750, well over 90% of the jobs in America were in farming. Today, I believe that's closer to 1.5%. So, on the one hand, automation eliminated 90% of American jobs. On the other hand, unemployment is lower now than it was then. What's going on? It turns out that every time we eliminate old jobs, new jobs emerge. Anyone could have easily predicted that the desktop computer would kill all the typesetting jobs, but nobody predicted that it would create millions of graphic design jobs. My first prediction is that AI will eliminate a lot of jobs, but will not cause a long-term employment problem.
Technology has impacted long running professions for many years. For example, being a professional musician today is very different than it was even 40 years ago. Today many musicians cannot even play a traditional instrument as those have been replaced by computers. Despite the fact that we've automated away musical instruments, we have more musicians now than we had then.
I agree that medical diagnosis will be done and done much better by AI in the future, but people still need a lot of coaching (both psychological and otherwise) when they receive a diagnosis. In addition, they need a lot of coaching on which diagnostics to do and how often so that the AI can do its thing. So, I predict that doctors won't be eliminated, but their jobs will change and they will be much more effective.
We’re sort of in a weird moment now where the fields and spheres of influence are being taken over by a revolutionary kind of political idealism, and it’s dispiriting for a person who’s interested in domain-specific excellence and who doesn’t want to play any moral crusading games or involve them in his work. Society as a whole is being reorganized around political activism, maybe as a Fukuyaman attempt to restart the war-engine of history, but this has meant that merit as a requisite for holding normal social roles has gone out the window. Examples would be Twilio recently breaking civil rights law and structuring company layoffs on the basis of race instead of ability, and the Minneapolis School District doing the same. Both acquiring and remaining in an occupation are becoming less about merit. This trend against merit as principal selection criterion has raised the question of whether the US is poised to lose its place as global hegemon to China. But personally I don’t believe that, I believe that the US will always be the greatest nation on earth. What are some justifications for belief in American exceptionalism?
The whole idea of dividing people by race continues to puzzle me. In my reading of history, dividing people by race doesn't always end in genocide, but it never ends in anything good. Given I have multiple races in my own family, if this continues, it certainly won't end well for me :-).
My best guess is that due to the decline of Christianity, people in the U.S. are walking around with spiritual vacuums and anybody — no matter how stupid their idea — can fill that vacuum. They generally fill it with garbage, such as "All things in society can be explained by oppression theory. To fix any problem, we simply create two groups: the oppressors and oppressed. We then assign people to each group — not based on actual acts of oppression --- by race. We can then fix all the world's ills by punishing the oppressor group and rewarding the oppressed group." No intelligent person would ever buy such a weird theory, which is trivial to prove false. However, if your sense of belonging to a larger group and your spirituality depended on believing it, then evidently you will adopt it.
Nevertheless, because the new spirituality is so logically absurd (who ranks higher a black woman or trans white man? A hispanic billionaire or a white meth head?), I think it will fade as young people who are not anchored in the B.S. will question and reject it. This will leave America with its great strength intact and less baggage to hold it back. The greatest strength of this country is the fact that anybody can be an American — i.e., anyone can be a first class citizen. We take it for granted, but it's extremely unusual worldwide. Not everyone can become Japanese or Russian or French or Swedish (as we're finding out quite clearly right now). There are many things that go into it — culture, values, history, rule of law, etc — each of these things is difficult for other countries to replicate. I've been reading about Lee Kuan Yew and a key to his success is that he directly copied the American model of making a diverse populace all first class. In doing so, he took Singapore from $400/year per capita income to $50,000/year in very short order. That's the power of the concept. Singapore is a tiny country and no other large country has been able to adapt, so America is uniquely strong among big countries in this respect. Having said that, in order for us to fully benefit, we need to be much smarter about immigration policies. In addition, we need to fix our degenerating and increasingly divisive culture. If anybody can be an American, but nobody wants to be one, then we're also in big trouble.
Historically we've been the ultimate talent magnet and job one is keeping it that way. The immigration and culture issues are real, but I am optimistic. I think most Americans would prefer a unifying culture and a smart immigration policy and we just need some quality leadership to point us in the right direction.
My final question is in two parts, both parts concern your recent move from California to Nevada:
I was born in California, I’ve lived here all my life and have dismissed criticisms of the state for nearly as long. But now the state is being mismanaged. The state has the fourth highest per capita homelessness rate, with five of the top ten cities with the highest per capita homeless population being in the state. CA also has the second highest average home prices in the nation, as well as the third highest average rent for a one bedroom apartment, and the second highest household electricity prices nationwide. The state also has one of the lowest per capita issuance rates of home construction permits in the nation. At the same time, the state is seeing an epidemic of overdoses, with SF having more drug deaths in 2020 than deaths from covid. And waves of violence are shocking both residents and industries alike, with LA alone facing its highest uptick in homicides in over a decade. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz recently said more store closures will likely follow the already six shuttered storefronts in LA due to increasing crime facing employees. And more people left CA than left any other state in the nation in 2020, and it’s really no wonder why. Living here kind of sucks now if I’m being honest—we have the highest taxes in the nation with nothing to show for it. I think Bloomberg said that you left CA because you’re stepping back from investing, but it seems like they may have overlooked more obvious reasons. What are your feelings about California now, both as a place to live and a place for business?
And the second part of the question is: Vegas, I think, is home to some of your biggest interests, like UFC and boxing. “Ben might be a huge modern pugilism fan,” I thought to myself the other day, “Big if true.” Can you talk a bit about living in Vegas and your interest in combat sports?
On the Bloomberg article, I've been working about 75 hours/week and I have taken over 100 flights this year already. I sit on 12 boards and I run the firm which is now over 450 people. If that's stepping back, then I'd hate to know what stepping forward is :-). Amazingly, it turns out that you cannot believe everything you read in the news.
As far as moving out of California, that was primarily my wife Felicia's decision. There were two factors that made her want to leave: 1. She grew up in Compton and then Carson, California, so she knows what crime is and what it does to people who live in crime-infested areas. Many of her friends growing up were victims of serious crimes including murder. So, when California decided to green light crime under $1,000 via prop 47 and reduce the police in S.F. and L.A., she was highly alarmed. There's no way to say, “Stealing is O.K., but robbery plus assault is not," and she could not bear the thought of seeing people (mainly people who grew up like she did) murdered, because it made some voters feel like they were "good people." Sadly, she turned out to be right about that as crime is way up and most of the victims are poor and minorities.
The second reason had to do with the literal politics of her work as well as those of the broader community in California. In her job, she provided services for those most in need in S.F. — the homeless, the transgender community, people living with AIDS, people with serious drug addiction, etc. Beyond that, she has dedicated her whole life to bringing people together regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation or any other way people get put into groups. As you pointed out above, California has become obsessed with dividing people by race and that was devastating to her mission of inclusion and shared community.
My lesser contribution to the decision to move was that I was changing the operating model of the firm to be cloud first and I thought that model stood a much better chance if I didn't live 8 minutes from the Menlo Park office.
As for Las Vegas as the destination, I chose that because it was very easy for me to get to any of our offices from there and it had all the things that I really enjoyed: boxing, UFC, the Raiders, amazing restaurants, and world class entertainment. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that Las Vegas functions like a small town and the community immediately welcomed us in ways that we still do not feel welcome in California.
On combat sports specifically, I grew up a big boxing fan. Starting with Ali, but I was a big fan of George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Azumah Nelson, Danny Little Red Lopez, Marvin Johnson, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Bobby Chacon, and many more. As I became an entrepreneur and then a VC, I learned a lot from observing the psychology of two men or two women locked in combat — nowhere to hide, nobody to blame, and total concentration required despite the obvious distracting fear. It's a kind of a fast metaphor for the psychology of building a company. Now, I'll watch any two people fight anywhere for any reason :-). All of the people in those worlds from Mark Davis who owns the Raiders to Dana White from UFC to Bob Arum and Al Hayman in boxing have been extremely kind to us since we arrived, so moving to Las Vegas has been a huge win for us.
If you enjoyed this conversation, check out my first chat with Ben from a little a while ago, and stay tuned for part two of this series on Time Well Spent.
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