Daily Balajisms – Stupid vs Evil
Lose-lose vs win-lose. Negative-sum vs zero-sum.
Balaji Srinivasan uses a neat mental model:
Good is helping others, without regard for oneself.
Evil is hurting others for the benefit of oneself.
Smart is helping others, while helping oneself.
Stupid is hurting others, while hurting oneself.
Downstream media failed quite miserably during the onset of Covid-19 pandemic. First, they downplayed the severity of the thread and labeled everyone who worried about the “China virus” as paranoid and anti-Chinese jingoist.
Then they completely flipped the script, once Trump started to downplay the risk of the virus. They repeated the same flip-flopping with the “Trump vaccine” – first being concerned with the speed how it was developed, only to later demonize everyone who was hesitant or had questions about efficacy as an antivaxxer.
The same dynamics played out with reporting about the lab-leak hypothesis. First it was described as a conspiracy theory, and over the years it was gradually accepted as a possibility, because it became useful for the old establishment of Blue America as a tool against China.
Balaji Srinivasan asks if journalists in the downstream media were stupid or evil, during their Covid-19 misreporting. And he concluded that they were stupid, because they also hurt themselves. At the beginning of the pandemic, it wasn’t known how severe the virus will be, it could have killed 10x more people and be closer to the Spanish flu from over 100 years ago.
Only empirically we found out that it killed around 7 million people, and not 70 million. So it was grossly irresponsible to downplay the risk of the virus on the basis of pure tribal logic – to say the opposite what Trump is saying – and then do it again, whenever he changes his mind on any subject. With misreporting, journalists put also themselves and their loved ones in risk.
We can see how smart is positive-sum, stupid is negative-sum and both good and evil are zero-sum. This is one way how to look at Nietzsche’s “beyond good and evil.” Smart solutions are scalable, bankable and thus way more sustainable than just operating from the vantage point of charity and philanthropy.
This is connected to Balaji’s idea of “true charity is investment” and a way how to go beyond equality. Very few people would be willing to achieve true equality in practice, by donating half of their net worth to a random person. Balaji says, that venture capital angel investing, for all its flaws, is achieving exactly that. He mentions the famous example of Peter Thiel being the first investor in Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook. Peter Thiel got richer as a result, but Mark Zuckerberg got far richer than Peter Thiel.
Something that is evil in the short-term, may end up stupid in the long-term. Various zero-sum ways how to forcibly redistribute capital (the old Left) or status (the woke Left) across company, can lead to the net loss for all parties in the long-term. We just saw something like this play out in the OpenAI board drama where almost ~$100B of equity value was set on fire by effectives altruists, were they ultimately successful in ousting Sam Altman.
We can also use Balaji’s tribal lens (Red, Blue, Grey tribes) and three types of power – hard power, soft power and smart power to illustrate the difference between good, evil, smart and stupid.
Red tribe is strong in military, tradition and self-sacrifice and thus they are close to hard power (police, military, construction). They can be described as good in this zero-sum technical sense of serving others without regard for themselves.
Blue tribe are strong in soft power of persuasion and propaganda, they are strong in arts, politics and finance, but very competitive and with a zero-sum mentality. There is only a limited number of grants and state funding available – so everyone tries to get ahead at the expense of their fellow tribe members and other tribes. The whole woke virtue signaling and status games can be seen in this context – often it is just mating competition in disguise.
Balaji in his book The Network State uses moral power, martial power and money power to describe soft power, hard power and smart power respectively. The Grey tribe of technological progressives is positive-sum in the sense of what Balaji calls “win and help win” ideology.
Of course, engineers, startup founders and venture capitalists are also very competitive – but they have seen the proverbial pie grow and trillion-dollar companies created from a garage – because they have the internet values of permissionless creativity and decentralization of agency on the internet.