As an entrepreneur, much like a first responder, I’m trained to run towards the sounds of gun shots. So, when disaster strikes, the natural instinct is to snap into problem-solving mode. This year is bound to go down in history as an inflection point. Whether it will be a good one or not, is still to be determined. Let me explain…
In mid-March when California went into lockdown mode, I got the same eerie feeling as I did twice before in my adult life and career. Decades later, people report remembering exactly what they were doing when they learned Kennedy was shot, where they watched the moon landing, or the second-by-second details of a life altering accident. Shocking events have a way of imprinting on us.
There are two days firmly imprinted in my memory in a similar way. The first was September 11th, 2001. I was finishing college in the midst of building one of my first companies. I got laid off a few months before that. The second was September 29th, 2008, the biggest single day market crash up to that point. I happened to be in New York for investor meetings that never happened. On both days, it felt like the world was a monster knocking at your door and the last thing you wanted to do was go outside and get eaten by it.
With time, that feeling subsides. For some, it is replaced with a sense of sobering purpose. Much like a trained athlete has a faster return to their resting heart rate, battle-scared entrepreneurs–who have been through a downturn or two–snap in to action instantly.
The ability to cooperate is the single most important characteristic of Homo Sapiens that allowed us to become the dominant species in Planet Earth’s genetic lottery. This even permitted Sapiens, despite our smaller brains, to dominate our closest rivals, the Neanderthals. We transitioned from hunter-gatherers to settled societies faster and built a superior ability to wage war. So, began our ever-accelerating race towards the current state of affairs.
Most people today take for granted the incredible progress we’ve made in just the last century. These people also tend to presume that the world order they have come up in, is a constant. This is especially true for the privileged born and raised after WWII in developed countries. However, if we zoom out, it is clear that the only thing that is inevitable, is change.
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”(1 Corinthians 13:11)
While we are still very much in the midst of it, the COVID-19 crisis has forced instant changes completely unthinkable just a month before. Society is in shut-down, economies are in upheaval, governments are pushing policies overnight that politicians built decades-long careers opposing.
During the last financial crisis, Rahm Emanuel (Obama’s first Chief of Staff) famously said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
Living through the biggest crisis in a century–this very moment–I can’t think of a better time for society to drop its childish ways and force changes that will put us on a trajectory to not only survive but truly thrive. My hope is that people have finally learned the definition of the word “crisis” and will think of it when we all leave our houses and start returning to normal.
The most important take-away, is that this temporary crisis is but a trailer. The double-feature blockbuster it is giving us a preview of, is the AI-driven automation of entire industries and substantial, permanent changes in global climate due to carbon emissions. If nothing else, this crisis just put our future into fast forward. Everything once distant and fuzzy on the horizon, just snapped into focus. This decade will be wild. As a society, we MUST get our act together. The alternative is simply proving the Fermi Paradox.
A lot of thinking goes into projecting the future in the corporate world. Though the reality of 2020 has accelerated many of these projections, few are true surprises. Despite all of this forethought and thought leadership, as a society, we were obviously ill-prepared. Now we are forced to make unthinkable adjustments, instantly.
Politicians campaign on emotions and shallow, diluted appeals to the same part of the brain that makes you crave junk food and reality TV. In the next 20 years, the world economy is projected to double. We need real visionary leaders and to replace the collection of panders and carve-outs with better business plans for the reality and opportunity staring us in the face.
In a world where the biggest determinants of success are the wealth of your parents and the geolocation of your birth; rugged individualism and unadulterated capitalism, are immature models that obviously won’t cut it anymore. Society is becoming too complex; we need to cooperate as a species to reach the next paradigm.
My vision for the near future of the next decade is grounded in reality, and looks something like this:
It is projected that the US military will spend $934 billion October 2020 to September 2021. The advertised reason is to “protect the people of the US.” (In reality, it is a massive jobs program, but that is a discussion for a different day.) The CDC estimates 100,000–200,000 US fatalities from COVID-19. That is far more than US military combat deaths in ALL conflicts since WWII combined or 30–60X September 11s. Let alone the well-documented health effects of depressed economies.
On the other hand, according to the National Institute of Health, chronic diseases are responsible for 7 out of 10 deaths (more than 1.7 million Americans each year) and 75% of the cost to the health care system ($3.5T).
With current knowledge and technology, much of this is preventable. Though there is a growing group of health-conscious, Americans are still notoriously obese and sedentary. This can and has to be changed with economic nudges towards healthier habits. Only the government has tools to accomplish this: tax policy, disclosures, and regulations. It worked with cigarettes; it can work with junk food.
Of course, the biggest change needed here is to redirect some of that obscene military budget to what really protects Americans: access to health care. This would be done by decoupling health insurance from employment, going to a single payer system, and removing the profit motive that is keeping Americans sick and in constant treatment. The money is already there, how we spend it says a lot about our priorities.
Without a doubt, the biggest long-term challenge humanity currently faces is the change to the environmental conditions we’ve based our lives on. I’ll remind you that we’ve been on a path to warm the planet far faster than the scariest models of just a few years ago. This is leading directly to a catastrophic raise in sea levels, drowning of coastal cities along with their economies, turning large regions of the planet uninhabitable, let alone unfarmable and displacing massive portions of our population. In comparison, the drastic effects of the pandemic are a mere inconvenience.
The facts are undeniable. Every day we are seeing before and afters of major industrial cities — once polluted from transport emissions and industry just weeks ago, now crystal clear. If you were a sceptic that these were man-made effects before, the data we are seeing now is undeniable.
Energy, Transport, Livestock
The biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses are industries we already have alternatives to. Instead of propping-up incumbents in return for their campaign donations/bribes, politicians need to hit the gas on economic incentives to accelerate transition in the productive direction.
Not only is clean energy true to its name but it is also a major job creator. Not only are the various forms of electric vehicles zero emission but they are faster, simpler to build, and coming down in price with the advent of new battery and fuel cell technologies. Not only are products like beyond meat much healthier for us, but they have a chance to eliminate massive amount of carbon emissions, as well as, water and land waste.
Here too, we need to drop our childish ways and accelerate the solutions for the greater good.
In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus,” a sonnet to raise money for the construction of the Statue of Liberty pedestal. Twenty years later, it was cast on a bronze plaque and mounted. The last verse is:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
For a country that was built on the backs of immigrants and supposedly stands for freedom, we sure have strayed from our roots.
According to the Farm Bureau, labor accounts for 48% of the variable production cost of fruits and 35% of vegetables. The US Agricultural industry needs to hire 1.5 to 2 million laborers, 50–70% of whom are currently classified as illegal immigrants. These are jobs Americans don’t want all while feeding their statistical mortal obesity. An invariable Shrödinger’s “Lazy” Immigrant dilemma — at once, highly in-demand and not wanted.
On the opposite side of the jobs market, the US awards 55,000 PhDs per year. Over 60% of those go to foreign nationals. When their studies are complete, they are met with an insurmountable challenge of attaining a work visa. Many get on a plane and go right back home. We push away the best and brightest. Does that make any sense?
As of 2017, it was measured that 56% of the most highly valued tech companies were founded by 1st or 2nd generation Americans and employed over 1.7 million people. Having immigrated to San Francisco with my family as a child, we are squarely part of this statistic.
It is one of the oldest tricks in the book to blame the “others” for a country’s economic woes. It is time we drop our childish ways, get over superficial lines on maps, and reaffirm America’s mission statement. Immigration during the 2ndIndustrial Revolution put America on the trajectory that made it a powerhouse. We should be delighted to welcome people of all stripes and education levels to populate our great cities, build solutions, and grow the economy through the AI Revolution. In the 21st century, immigration is a fundamental human right.
The current state of the manufacturing industry is related and misaligned. America is hooked on cheap goods manufactured overseas to the extent that domestic manufacturing has been all but eliminated in many important categories. It is projected that US will become the leader in manufacturing once again. It will however not be credited to patriotism winning over greed but rather because automation will be the cheapest labor option of the near future. Those manufacturing jobs are really never coming back.
At the turn of the 20th century, US high school exams restricted entrance to fewer than 5% of the population. By 1940, high school enrolment grew to 73%. The education system at the time responded to the needs of modern society. The masses were provided with practical knowledge needed to join a more specialized post-industrial revolution workforce. While some were being prepared to go on to university to then join rapidly expanding knowledge professions.
According to Forrester, over 70% of all office clerical tasks will be automated eliminating 20 million jobs by 2030. Also eliminated this decade: 38% of location-based jobs (like retail clerks) or another 30 million. In total, it is estimated that AI will eliminate approximately 29% of US jobs while only creating 13%. To say it will be a rough decade for millennials would be the understatement of the decade.
It is clear as day that the minimum level of education required to function in the modern society has surpassed the old standards. Four-year degrees are a must for future generations to have the statistical chance of being able to make a living. It is likely that universal basic income will have to fill in the gap for many people who are not able to make the transition or skill-up in an increasingly more competitive job marketplace.
Obviously, we don’t have the ability or the infrastructure to double four-year degree graduations from just a third of the population today. But we can reduce the level of pain in the transition period by reversing the trend of falling graduation rates and skyrocketing prices. The solution is two-fold: eliminate the cost and increase technology utilization.
Once again, we telegraph our priorities by where we spend our budgets. Perhaps instead of wasting $20 billion annually on corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice subsidies we can invest that money into public institutions of higher learning. In part, to provide modern distance learning infrastructure at least as good as the Zoom classes our kids have gotten used to. This way, a star professor from an Ivy League university can educate 40,000 students instead of 40.
The most popular YouTuber has over 100 million channel subscribers. He broadcasts himself playing video games and reviewing memes. Again, this really says a lot about our society and much of it isn’t good. I’m for one hoping we can finally give superstar educators the praise they deserve instead.
I agree with Mark Andreessen, it is time to build. In eras of the past, Americans were motivated by aspirational leaders and built the roads and bridges and impressive monuments and strong institutions we take for granted today. These were generations that knew strife and they were hungry for a better world. Like an old prize fighter that let his muscles atrophy, got fat on cheeseburgers and addicted to watching four hours of reality TV; that America is unrecognizable today.
It is high time we drop our childish ways and, like Neo, take the red pill. Like it or not, reality is unpleasant. We have a lot of work to do before we can allow ourselves to take a break again.