podcasts / history

My reactions to Balaji on MoZ E40

September 10, 20237 min read
Moment of Zen E40
E40: Balaji Srinivasan on the Tribal Lens, America’s Blunder, and His Plan to Save San Francisco

Spoiler alert: my reactions should make more sense after watching/listening to the episode. [Podcast link]


  • enjoyable, but...
  • the idea that we should wear grey shirts with patches — feels horrible and inconsistent with all my ideals


I enjoyed the 2-hour podcast:

  • listened at 1.75x
  • not video (so no slides), but I did read the links in the show notes

Revealed preferences over stated preferences:

  • I looked forward to the episode when it was teased
  • I will listen to the second part when it drops

But somehow, this episode was less enjoyable than longer Balaji talks, e.g., the marathon Lex pod or the classic talks with Tim Ferriss.

Turpentine critiques

This episode didn't flow as well as recent Moment of Zen/Econ 102 conversations with Antonio and Noah Smith: two other rapid-fire, provocative speakers who are good at encapsulating complex phenomena into digestible sound bites.

It felt more like sitting in on a friendly rehearsal before a workshop, when it coulda-shoulda been a more stimulating conversation.

DWR at least pushed back on some of Balaji's claims, without abruptly breaking the flow.

But Erik, "you had one job" and when the ball came around to you, you simply laughed at Balaji's funny turns of phrase. By not contributing new ideas to the conversation, this left Balaji alone to fill up the space with his idea dumps. It seems these are somewhat new ideas he is playing with, and a little more back-and-forth would have benefitted everyone.

First, some minor quibbles

collapse/unfold 3 points
  • Style: Balaji speaks so fast, and covers so many topics where listeners don't have the same depth of knowledge as him, it's hard to nail down any claim before he's onto the next broad conclusion. It's a little like listening to Martin Shkreli, or a debate with RFK. Not to put them all in the same category, but as an active listener, it's quite challenging to be forced to suspend disbelief or leave a questionable claim unexamined, simply in order to keep up with the flow. It takes a highly skilled interviewer/group dynamic to manage this, and the best pods do this better.

  • A throwaway concept: the "sine waves of national history" sounds fresh and plausible in the moment, but becomes an overstretched metaphor on deeper examination. Just try to apply the framework across multiple civilizations, and the misfit counter-examples overwhelm the minor, zoomed-in cases where this mental model might be useful.

    However, as a verbal tic, this phrase bamboozles the listener with pseudo-intellectual babble that implies much greater mathematical or scientific rigor than it deserves.

    Yes, there are indeed great waves of history, but they are not shaped like sine waves: similar in magnitude; repetitive in duration; infinite. If you call them sine waves rather than simply "waves", it puts more load on the concept than it can bear.

  • Misreading the audience: one of the appeals of podcasts is a bring-you-into-the-in-crowd effect, which reinforces the outsized influence of micro-celebrities. But I simply can't imagine enough of the SF tech crowd mobilizing around personalities such as Mike Solana and Michelle Tandler, examples that Balaji raised as having enough clout to lead micro-movements.

    It feels to me kinda like the out-of-touch hopium of Ray McGuire's outsider run for NYC mayor. Or, maybe like Joe Rogan's halo effect on some of the second-rate comedians in his orbit.

    Solana self easter egg

    Try searching for Mike Solana on Brave: as of today, Brave AI returns (with sources):

    Mike Solana is a billionaire media tycoon and the mayor of San Francisco.
    He is also a Vice President at Founders Fund, where he focuses on community and brand.
    Solana is also the creator and producer of Anatomy of Next.
    He is also the editor-in-chief of Piratewires.

Hard disagree, mate

Balaji says he has figured out how to solve the problems of San Francisco: let's all wear grey shirts with PBA patches, and marshal international capital to keep undesirables out of a growing patchwork of private safe spaces.

collapse/unfold 3 points
  1. Wear grey shirts

    Bruh! Who tells grown men + women what to wear?

    I get that it's thrilling to see organic support of your movement (h/t @lesgreys.eth's purple jacket). But this is marketing, not strategy. And I wonder about people who can't tell the difference.

  2. Display PBA patches

    The Police Benevolent Association is graft. If asked to purchase a badge, "I would likely refuse out of principle" (h/t Vitalik).

    We have worked so hard to disinfect society from allowing coded racism/class-ism to create multiple tracks of differential treatment. How can internet natives pursue an outcome that is 180 degrees backwards?

    It seems the main point for Balaji's greys was never open, democratic access (mood affiliations: Tim Berners-Lee, Jimmy Wales). Rather, the primary point seems to be for the haves to keep ahold of what they got (mood affiliation: Peter Thiel).

    Charitably, I hope this is just an overreaction to SF-specific extremes, where threats at the base layers of Maslow's hierarchy cause higher values to be temporarily(?) suspended.

    But the idea of getting the police to treat your person + property differently, because you've quiety signalled that you're "one of the the right group" — GTFO.

    This kind of petty corruption doesn't even occur much in China (any more). My best ideas for providing a strong social fabric do not look to India, Africa, or Southeast Asia for inspiration. As a W.E.I.R.D. American, I'm allergic to it.

  3. Interact mostly with greys; Online > IRL

    I talk to the parents of my kids' classmates. As long as they are decent people and want high standards for math & science, we are good. So what if they are knowledge workers or service workers?

    I want American society to continue its not-straight-line progress from the mid-60s to the early-00's. Roughly, this targets somewhere close to Cool Britannia-era London, with multicultural youth speaking Jafaican and calling each other "bruv" and "blud" across race and class. Or, in today's context, the globally inclusive spirit of BTS ARMY.

    I do not want to converge towards post-apartheid South Africa, with the rich living in gated communities and only seeing the Other through servant-class interactions.


The pattern is easy to recognize in human history: self-identify and congregate for protection. Observant Jews dress distinctively; live within walking distance of a place of refuge. Guru Gobind Singh instructed his followers to wear 5 K's at all times, including a small sword or knife; every young male Sikh has an uncle who remembers 1984.

However, this is the strategy of a minority contra a malevolent majority, while living under an authority capable of persecution. The situation in San Francisco (and other American cities) is more like the inverse: a minority of extremely bad actors under an ineffective authority, terrorizing the majority.

Balaji's prescription feels like it is based on a misdiagnosis. While it's useful to observe (and measure) the color-coded tribes, his solution does not resonate with me at all.

Sometimes it's also worth inverting the thought process. If the solution is "dress up and appeal to petty corruption", what kind of scale of problem are we really talking about?

long podcastsBalaji was rightgreyshow to fix SF
長話短說 (short + sweet):
Thanks for reading, anon!