Category Archives: Current Affairs

Five Links for May

Every month I try to share the most mind-expanding links to read/watch/listen. If you find these interesting, please do share with your friends.

Here are five links worth reading…

Did Making the Rules of War Better Make the World Worse?
The rules of war have changed dramatically over the last half a century. Improvements in military technology have given us fewer civilian casualties… but prolonged wars. 

Listen: David Perell: Building a Personal Monopoly
It’s more important than ever to play your own game in a society where everyone is imitating one another. The secret may lie in biblical and philosophical texts. 

Heresy
Heresy, while medieval in origin, manifests in modern western society in inconspicuous ways. Paul Graham provides heuristics on how to navigate conflicts of heresy in today’s world. 

Like America, The Sunshine State Also Rises
Florida (and in particular, Miami) has been dubbed as the new home of ambition. But Florida has a long history of ambitious endeavors. The state will only become more important over time.

Listen: Sebastian Mallaby: The Greatest Storyteller in Venture Capital
Venture Capital is evolving as we speak. New players are playing very different games from traditional VCs. Mallaby paints the picture of how we got to where we are today. 

Bonus: Demystifying the SafeGraph Facts
SafeGraph sells facts about places and our mission is to democratize access to data. Part of this mission means making it available in a self-serve way. But of course, making data accessible also has drawbacks.

Bonus (Listen): It’s Our Moral Obligation to Make Data More Accessible
In case you didn’t get to read my essay last month, here’s an audio version. Most of the world’s data is sitting on a shelf. This data, if properly used, could solve the world’s biggest problems.

Graph of the Month:

Books:

The True Believer by Eric Hoffer (must read)
HT: Garrett Johnson, Jack Franson, Francisco Dao

The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh
HT: Keith Rabois, Jason Cook

How Rights Went Wrong by Jamal Greene

Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne
HT: Russ Thau

Tweet of the Month:

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Five Links for March

Every month I try to share the most mind-expanding links to read/watch/listen. If you find these interesting, please do share with your friends.

Here are five links worth reading…

The Economics of Data Businesses
A deep dive into what makes data businesses special.  A must read if you enjoyed my DaaS Bible.  HT Abraham Thomas.

Listen: Tyler Cowen: Identifying Talent and Measuring Organizational Capital
Tyler needs no introduction.  He breaks down how to spot promising talent and why our allocation of our time (our most valuable resource) would be one of the most powerful datasets. 

Theses on Sleep
A controversial perspective on sleep. The author suggests that it is healthy to sleep less.

Listen: Niall Ferguson: Writing History with Data
Technology drives many societal transformations.  Yet, very few people working in technology spend time studying the past.

Slow-Motion Suicide in San Francisco
Over the past two years, 2x more people have died from drug overdose in San Francisco than from COVID. 

Bonus (Serious): I Thought I Was Prepared for Grief. Then I Lost My Dad
Grief is more complicated than anyone ever imagines.  And nobody is ever fully prepared for it. 

Bonus (Inspirational): ‘Manhattan Phoenix’ Review: From Grit to Greatness
The story behind the catalyst for the explosive development of Manhattan in the 19th century.

Graph of the Month:

Books:

The Power Law by Sebastian Mallaby (must read)
The best history of venture capital

The World for Sale by Javier Bias & Jack Farchy (must read)

Comrade J by Pete Earley (must read)
HT Josh Steinman
Fantastic story about the art of spying for the KGB/FSB

The King of Content by Keach Hagey
Story of Sumner Redstone

Fall by John Preston
Story of Robert Maxwell

Tweet of the Month:

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Is it ethical for tech start-ups to take a CARES PPP loan?

There is a lot of debate about whether it is ethical for technology companies to take a CARES PPP loan. There are a lot of good arguments on both sides.

There are a lot of venture-backed start-ups that have over 12-months cash in the bank. The question is whether is it ethical for them to take this government money. The argument is that there is a limited pool of cash and that many local businesses are struggling and need the cash more than venture-backed start-ups.

This is a very complex ethical dilemma.

Before we get into that exactly … let’s dive first into the question of whether it is ethical to take government money at all if there is someone more needy than you.

One example is QSBS tax credit. That is a significant tax rebate that is given to investors who invest in a qualified small business (including most venture-backed businesses). It is an extremely generous credit and most of the people who take advantage of it are very rich people. Is it ethical for these people to take advantage of the QSBS tax credit?

Continue reading

Financially Drowning on $300k a Year

Exorbitant Salaries don’t make for Exorbitant Lifestyles

Here is an interesting paradox: the world is experiencing the largest bull market in history, but fewer than one out of five Americans feel like they’re living the American Dream. Many of these people have incomes ranging well above six figures, in the vicinity of $200-400k, and still worry about making ends meet. 

In 2018, the Department of Housing found that a salary of $117,000 is considered low income in San Francisco. Effectively, making six figures puts one into poverty in SF (if you are taking care of a family). Sadly, this is not a trend isolated to the Bay Area. There is a financial disparity amongst people who are in the top 2% of earners in the U.S. who live in expensive areas, and not because they can’t afford a yacht.

All-together, these families are earning a tremendous salary by any standard (often more than $300k per year), attending the most prestigious graduate schools and coming from upper-middle-class backgrounds. The scariest part is that these are not people you’d expect to be struggling. In fact, if you took and average U.S. family of four and told them that a family who made $300k/yr – the top 2% of income in the U.S. – was struggling, they would laugh hysterically.  They would never believe you because the median US salary is $62k. It would be called fake news.

Unfortunately, this story is playing out across the country. Of course, it is not happening everywhere nor is it happening to everyone.  It is primarily happening to secular people that have kids and live in ultra-expensive places like New York City, DC suburbs, Bay Area, etc.  The inflation rate in those cities for core goods (housing, healthcare, and education) have been growing at a rate of more than 10% a year for the last 10 years. How do these elites manage to keep afloat? The short answer is that they’re not able to and the consequences could have a drastic impact on the future of our nation’s democracy.

Sisyphus’ Hedonic Treadmill

The Elite With No Savings (TEWNS)

A necessary piece of the puzzle requires imagining what these people look like; how fanciful are their lives that they feel like they are working class on $300k a year? People have a tough time believing this because on the surface, The Elite With No Savings (or TEWNS) are doing well. To paint the picture, these are families with two college educated parents, perhaps they met at an Ivy League school, with young kids.  They live in expensive cities, far from their parents, while paying off a mortgage. Daycare and expensive schools are a must for these families, eating into their bottom-line and leaving almost nothing for savings. 

For the top 2%, life should be different; they played the game well by delaying gratification and they went to a top school while knocking their academic careers out of the park. They passed the Marshmallow Test. Still, many are financially underwater after learning that there’s more to life than just academics.

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Greenland should sell itself to the U.S. … and the U.S. should buy Greenland

Greenland is very strategic territory and becoming more strategic by the day (due to global warming). It is one of most important locations for a military presence. And it would be extremely undesirable (to the U.S.) if a rival country had a significant military presence on Greenland.

But Greenland needs a lot of development. Its 56,000 inhabitants need better resources. While the average Greenlander has an income of $35,000 (more than half of what an average American makes), it takes a lot of resources to live in a place that has such extreme weather.

So here is a modest proposal: Greenland sells itself to the United States.

Yes, the first reaction might be that I’m a jingoistic crazy. But this could be good for every Greenlander.

Imagine selling Greenland to the U.S. for $120 billion (assuming the Danish allow the Greenlanders to make that self-determination). That means that each Greenlander will be worth $2 million — including every adult and child. They could even set up a trust for kids (so the kids, not their parents, have access to the money.

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Over-Rating Intelligence, Insulting Stupidity, Intellectual Bigotry, and Why the Ivory Tower Insults Successful People

There is a caricature of certain successful people as being stupid. I never understood this but it is something that has prevailed in our culture.

It is an odd insult often thrown by the less successful at the more successful. If these successful people were really so stupid, why did they accomplish so much?

We have a tradition of calling our President ‘stupid.’

It goes back a long way. Many of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s enemies (including many in his own party) called him stupid and a lightweight. Of course, we do not think of FDR today as a lightweight … but that was a criticism of him for many years.

In my lifetime, almost every Republican President has been caricatured as being stupid. Gerald Ford was the clumsy bumbler portrayed. Anyone of that era remembers Chevy Chase’s hilarious skits on Saturday Night Live. 

But Ford wasn’t a clumsy bumbler. He was actually the opposite — Ford was a world-class athlete. He was voted the most valuable player on the University of Michigan Football team.

Then came Reagan. How could an actor be smart? The zeitgeist was that Reagan was stupid and he was being taken advantage of by other members of his party. It was so assumed that he was a dummy that there is a classic SNL Phil Hartman skit that is a parody of the parody. The skit was so hilarious because no one could actually believe Reagan could take control of anything.

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Davosman for Dummies (for 2019 season)

Thought conferences (like Davos) are super expensive and take a lot of time. To save you the price of going, below is the content for 100% of all thought conferences.

All you need to do is read this and you can skip all the conferences for the last decade.

If you do go, feel free to use this handy guide to play BINGO.

UNIVERSAL THOUGHT-CONFERENCE AGENDA:

Universal Basic Income (UBI)

another agenda item on UBI

Trump

Self driving cars

Income inequality

UBI again. did we mention how much we love UBI?

M-Pesa

USMCA

Tarriffs

Artificial Intelligence

Marsh Mellow test

UBI for those who failed the Marsh Mellow test

Bitcoin

UBI for those who failed to buy crypto before 2017

UBI for those who bought crypto in December 2017

Who will be the Democratic Party nominee in 2020?

UBI for those who fail to be the Democratic nominee

“Modafinil is much more effective than Adderall”

Solar energy

Putin

Metformin

yet another one on AI

UBI because AI will take all the jobs

“The Turkish Air lounge in Ataturk Airport is THE BEST!”

MBS

Meditation

Self driving ELECTRIC cars

Self driving ELECTRIC drones

“Where do you summer: The Hamptons, Saint-Tropez, Aspen, or Martha’s Vineyard?”

China

China and self-driving cars

Singapore and self-driving cars

“I pay my three nannies under-the-table to avoid taxes”

Turkish Lira

Brexit

Opioid crisis

GDPR

Micro-dosing

“I’ll have the gluten-free wine”

Synthetic meat

Crypto

Growth mindset

“We are living in a simulation”

Two and twenty

Grit

Charter schools

“See you in Dubai”

Trump

note: this was originally published in Medium in 2018

Five Links for reading (Dec 2018 edition) – subscribe now

About ten times a year, I send an email to 35k+ people on five things to read. Below is the email from December 2018 (the Jan 2019 will come shortly). If you like these, subscribe to Five Links.

here are five links worth reading/viewing (this month we are focused on health care) … 

A Billionaire Pledges to Fight High Drug Prices, and the Industry Is Rattled by Peter Loftus
Five Links reader John Arnold has put $100 million behind efforts to curb drug prices.

Health care prices do not play the role most people believe by Random Critical Analysis
Interesting paper that suggests the problem in U.S. healthcare is the demand for services, not the expensive prices. (HT Alex Danco)

Melatonin: Much More than You Wanted to Know by Scott Alexander
As you know, an article from Slate Star Codex is almost mandatory in Five Links. 

Why Doctors Hate Their Computers by Atul Gawande
Like all Atul Gawande writings, this is incredibly insightful.  But like all Atul Gawande writings, this is also 3 times as long as it needs to be (so caution). 

Decline of cancer and heart disease (tweetstorm) by Aaron Mitchell
More and more, the most interesting “articles” are being published as tweetstorms. This is one of them.  (HT Matt Clifford)

Note: after reading 50+ articles (+1 book) on healthcare In November… my take-aways:
+ there is no 80/20 rule to fix U.S. healthcare.
+ there are a series of fixes that each improve the healthcare system by 2-5%.
+ so fixing U.S. healthcare is going to be really hard because no one thing will have a big effect.

In addition — Some books I read since the last Five Links:

Health Care Handbook by Elisabeth Askin and Nathan Moore
(HT Travis May)

How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims  
(HT Brian Davis)

God is in the Crowd by Tal Keinan
(Tal is a Five Links reader)

Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan
(HT Lauren Spiegel)

the U.S. Healthcare system: it is complicated, nothing is as it seems, and there are no silver bullets

I spent the moth of November (2018) diving into the U.S. healthcare system. I read over 50 long-form articles, played with a bunch of Medicare datasets, and read one book. Below are a few random thoughts from my learnings.

There is no 80/20 rule
We all know U.S. healthcare is messed up. Compared to other countries … the outcomes are not superior and the costs are higher. And no one thinks the experience is a lot of fun.

Going into my deep dive, I thought I would come away with one big thing we could do to fix healthcare. To my surprise and disappointment, I did not see any silver bullets (even ones that could never pass Congress).

Instead healthcare needs hundreds of very small improvements
There are hundreds of important things we can do to improve U.S. healthcare … but no one thing will likely have more than 5% improvement. Which means this is going to be a really hard problem to solve. Really hard.

Does the U.S. spend too much money?
On the one hand, of course it does. We spend roughly double per capita on healthcare than the next leading country (without better outcomes). On the other hand, we spend more per capita on almost everything. We live in way bigger houses, we have bigger yards, we drive bigger cars. We also spend WAY more than 2x per capita on higher education.

So if you look at the ration of healthcare/higher-education (I know this is a weird ratio, but stay with me), we are the lower spending G20 country (by a wide margin).

So do we spend too much on healthcare? The answer is still yes but it is not nearly as bad as people think.

U.S. consumers significantly subsidize European consumers
One of the most interesting things I learned about is the wealth transfer from the U.S. to other very wealthy countries. Many countries pay dramatically lower for the same drugs than the average U.S. price. That’s because these countries negotiate as one market … but also because the marginal price of a drug is essentially zero so the drug companies have a prisoner’s dilemma game to play with the countries and often make the calculation that some money is better than no money.

A simple solution to this (from the U.S. perspective) would be to create a law that drug prices to U.S. government buyers (like Medicare, Medicare, Veterans, Military, etc.) must not be higher than any price to any first world country (it would still be ok to sell drugs for low prices to poor countries in Africa … but not to rich countries in Western Europe). That means that the U.S. government would never pay a higher price for a drug than the market price. It would also mean that prices for drugs would be standardized since all other first world countries would follow suit and create the same rule. That shift would result in U.S. drug prices falling and European drug prices rising — ended the billions of dollars that the U.S. is currently transferring to Europe.

Summation: a month of deep dive, I know less than I did when I started the journey. Healthcare is complicated. Nothing is as it seems. People in it are really smart but also generally really conflicted.

Note: I had dozens of tutors but I want to especially thank Travis May (CEO of Datavant) and Joel Quadracci (CEO of Quad Graphics) for their guidance.

Entrepreneurs guide to getting a health insurance plan

With all this talk about health care reform, here is one entrepreneur’s thoughts on how to choose a health care plan that fits the needs of your employees.

Understand your employees
The type of health care plan you’re looking for depends on who your employees are. If they are generally healthy, you might need a different plan than if they are more prone to illness and health needs.  If your employees have higher salaries, (like at an Internet company) you can offer a more flexible health care plan than if your employees are lower-salaried or paid hourly.

Group policies are usually more expensive than individual policies
There is a huge myth that employers pay less than individuals for health care.  That’s only true for people with chronic illnesses or people who are very large consumers of health care.  For a relatively healthy person, a group policy plan costs roughly twice as much as an individual policy plan. (If you hire an employee who is used to paying for health insurance herself, she might be bewildered what the company pays for her.)

The reason why employers pay more for group plans is to offset the insurance company’s risk for future hires. Because insurance companies guarantee their premiums no matter who a company hires, they will charge more to cover the future employee with high health-care needs and in doing so, raises the premiums for everyone.  This is especially true for small companies who do not have tons of employees to lower the average cost from one potential high-cost employee.

HSAs are awesome
Health Savings Accounts (or HSAs) are essentially flex-spend IRAs that helps individuals save approximately $3000 per year tax-free on anything medical spending (including contact lenses, eye doctor and dentist visits, etc.). And unlike their ugly cousin, the Medical Savings Account (or MSA), you don’t have to spend the money you put into an HSA in that calendar year — anything you don’t spend rolls over to the next year.  The main issue with HSAs is that they are only legal with certain (usually high-deductible) health care plans. However, their benefits more than warrant the effort in finding a plan that makes HSAs a reality.

Tip: sometimes it is hard to know which expenditures are health related and which ones are not.  For instance, is an aspirin purchase health related?  Sites like drugstore.com make the decision is made for you – you enter in credit card info for both your HSA and normal credit card and they will automatically deduct them accordingly. 

“Health care” or “health insurance”

Do you want to get a plan that covers all the little health related issues, or do you want insurance that covers just high-cost things?  I personally think insurance is much better for people at a high-tech company where salaries may be higher, especially since little of the insurance costs are covered by employees themselves.  These plans are generally called “high deductible plans” since the employee has to cover the first $3000 – $5000 of expenses in the year.  While that may be a lot to cover, insurance plans come with massive flexibility – you can go to almost any doctor or specialist you want without having to go through referrals or waiting.  And if anything bad happens, the insurance covers ALL costs over the deductible.  So if your employees are well-paid, this is a good plan because it has maximum flexibility, is much lower cost, and can be paired with HSAs. 

Companies with more hourly workers will have to make a different calculation.  In their case, health “care” might be more appropriate because the hourly worker might not be able to afford a $300 doctor test.

Summation: look closely at your employees and make a health plan accordingly. 

(Special thanks to Michael Hsu and Jenny Oh for helping edit and research this blog on health care)

Military questions we should be asking

One of the hardest things to do in management is not strategy, actions, or implementations … it is asking the right questions.

Recently many people have been asking tough and thoughtful questions about our role in Afghanistan.  These are important questions that need to be asked.

But we should also be asking other questions about our military like:

– Are the South Koreans capable of defending themselves?  If not, why not?  (South Korea is a massive economic power). 

– Does it make sense to have tens of thousands of American troops stationed in South Korea (which is arguably the most dangerous place in the world)?

– Could the military be modernized faster?

– Could we have smarter financial controls over military spending?

– Is it possible to win in Afghanistan before the American people tire of it?

As we ask smarter questions, we will get a much better

who cheats more: Democrats or Republicans? — econometric solution to determine the answer

The thing I hear often from Republicans is that "Democrats don't play fair.  They cheat."  And the thing I hear often from Democrats is that "Republicans don't play fair.  They cheat."

Who's right? 
(I have no idea)

However, we can devise a simple research project to see which side cheats more.  Just look at recounts of federal and state races.  

Recounts are conducted when the race is too close to call.  In the midst of a recount, many votes can be tampered with, found, manufactured, and challenged.  I propose that some researcher look at the last 500 federal and state recounts of races between Democrats and Republicans.  If Democrats and Republicans cheat equally, then you'd expect them to win recounts 50/50.  If one party wins over 60% of the recounts, they are more likely to be the greater cheater.  If one party wins over two-thirds of the recounts, they are most surely the cheating party.

There have been many famous recounts in recent memory.  Minnesota just had a grueling recount of its U.S. Senate seat.  And who could forget the famous 2000 Presidential recount in Florida.

Unfortunately I don’t have time myself to do this exhaustive study, but it might be really interesting if a researcher took it on — I guarantee whoever did the study would get their 15 minutes of fame.