Noah Smith Interviews Marc Andreessen

Every now and then (and I wish it was more often), I like reading something so much that I don’t just take notes, I put them down here rather than in Roam. It forces me take more careful, structured notes, and the act of writing it all down allows for more thoughts to bubble up – which is the whole point, no?

Noah Smith’s interview of Marc Andreessen definitely qualifies. It was interesting throughout, and I related with some of the points/concepts more than I would have wanted to1.

Before we begin, a quick aside: most of my thoughts and reactions to the interview are because of what I do, and where I’m located. I am in charge of one course at my University, and am also in charge of placements. This University is located in India. So my excerpts, and my reaction to those excerpts are contingent on these two things.

We’ll follow the usual format: excerpts, and then my thoughts.


Consider the three primary markers of the American Dream, or more generally middle class success — housing, education, and health care. You have written at length on how all three of these success markers seem further and further out of reach for many regular people. I think — and you would agree? — that these three deficits are not only causing problems for how people live and how the economy functions, but are fouling our politics quite dramatically.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

Education, in India at any rate, can either scale, or it can maintain quality. It has never been able to do both. How to increase scale without losing quality, and how to maintain affordable quality without gaining scale – both of these are really, really difficult questions to answer. The impossible trilemma of higher education in India, as it were. The BSc programme at the Gokhale Institute is (in my opinion, and it is of course a biased one) affordable quality. Far from perfect, I’ll be the first one to admit, and could always be a whole lot better, but I genuinely do think we’re doing good work. But scaling is impossible. And we all know of educational institutes that have managed to scale really well, but don’t do so well when it comes to quality.

And when I say quality, it is very much a “you know it when you see it” definition I am going with. Not NAAC reports or percentage of students placed.


Housing, education, and health care are each ferociously complex, but what they have in common is skyrocketing prices in a world where technology is driving down prices of most other products and services.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

Before you begin to read the rest of this post, please do learn more about the Baumol cost disease effect. That is certainly one of the factors at play. This post is the probably the best essay to read about the topic, but be warned: micro, when done right is (also) hard.

This chart from the interview is easier to think about if you’ve studied the Baumol effect well:

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

Software is a lever on the real world.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and (note that the emphasis on “lever” is in the original)

The Archimedes reference is obvious, but that’s not the reason I want to focus so much on just this one sentence. How exactly is software a lever on the entire world? Marc gives the examples of Lyft and Airbnb in the interview, but they’re the outcomes for having deployed software. The inner mechanism (I think) is that software goes a very long way towards reducing transaction costs, search costs and therefore overall friction in economic transactions.

The guy driving the rickshaw, and waiting for a customer at a traffic intersection isn’t aware of the person two blocks away who is outside their apartment building, waiting for a ride. Search costs. These are minimized because of the app.

The whole “bhaiya, xyz jaana hai” – “Itna duur, itna late, double bhada” – “kya bhaiya, itna thodi lagta hai” song and dance is avoided (although not always in a way that is fair to the rickshaw driver). Transaction costs. These are minimized because of the app.

And so more transactions take place than they would have if Uber/Lyft/Ola had not been around. And the same is true for Zomato, or Swiggy, or Airbnb or… you get the picture. This (I think) is the lever at play. More gets done because software is involved.

There are legitimate worries about whether the system is always fair, always perfect – and the short answer is always “no”. A better question to ask is if the world is better for these services being around – and the short answer (I think) is “yes”. The best question to ask is how these services could be made better – and Andreessen has suggestions later on in the interview about this.


Software is alchemy that turns bytes into actions by and on atoms.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

A lovely way to think about what software does, when used well.


Everywhere software touches the real world, the real world gets better, and less expensive, and more efficient, and more adaptable, and better for people. And this is especially true for the real world domains that have been least touched by software until now — such as housing, education, and health care.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

The Baumol effect has some potentially disturbing implications:

When we recognize that all prices are relative prices the following simple yet deep facts follow:
If productivity increases in some industries more than others then, ceteris paribus, some prices must increase.
Over time, all real prices cannot fall.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2019/05/the-baumol-effect.html

As a society it appears that with greater wealth we have wanted to consume more of the goods like education and health care that have relatively slow productivity growth. Thus, preferences have magnified the Baumol effect.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2019/05/the-baumol-effect.html

But I think what Marc Andreessen is (in effect) saying is this: sure, even accounting for the Baumol effect, are there ways to reduce search and transaction costs in education, healthcare and housing? And if yes, can we drive down prices in these sectors while maintaining (or even increasing!) quality? That’s the power and potential of software.

And yes, each one of us will react with differing levels of skepticism to the proposition. That’s fine, and I’d say desirable. But the idea is worth thinking about, no? (And if you say no, it’s not, I’d love to hear why you think so.)


It’s more the importance of communication as the foundation of everything that people do, and how we open up new ways for people to communicate, collaborate, and coordinate. Like software, communication technology is something that people tend to pooh-pooh, or even scorn — but, when you compare what any one of us can do alone, to what we can do when we are part of a group or a community or a company or a nation, there’s no question that communication forms the backbone of virtually all progress in the world. And so improving our ability to communicate is fundamental.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

Remember the “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room” quote2? The potential advantage of Clubhouse, Spaces (or whatever it will be called on all the apps that copy the concept) is that it solves for the geographic constraint when it comes to your menu of rooms to choose from. That’s what makes Twitter so great too – you never have to worry about being the smartest person on Twitter (and I mean that in the nicest way possible!).

It is a great time to be young and angry about the quality of the education system, because the internet can solve some of your problems better than was ever possible in the past.


It’s so striking that in our primarily textual technological world, people are instantly enthusiastic about the opportunity to participate in oral culture online — there is something timeless about talking in groups, whether it’s around a campfire 5,000 years ago or on an app today

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

At the Gokhale Institute, we were lucky enough to listen to a talk by Visvak where he spoke about some of the positive aspects of Clubhouse during the recent elections in Tamil Nadu. The ability to listen to, and possibly chat with, people with skin in the game who are actually Doing The Work, is truly remarkable. And again, what we have isn’t perfect, and it could be better, and there will be problems. The question to ask is if the world is better with Clubhouse (and it’s imitations) or without? And the better question to ask is how to improve upon it. But when I have the opportunity to listen to Krish Ashok talk about food on Twitter Spaces, and I see people just straight up ask Krish Ashok to host a Spaces about chai – well, what a time to be alive. No? (And if you say no, it’s not, I’d love to hear why you think so.)


Substack is causing enormous amounts of new quality writing to come into existence that would never have existed otherwise — raising the level of idea formation and discourse in a world that badly needs it. So much of legacy media, due to the technological limitations of distribution technologies like newspapers and television, makes you stupid. Substack is the profit engine for the stuff that makes you smart.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

I don’t exactly disagree with Marc Andreessen over here; but I have a lot of questions. I’ll list them here:

  • Substack is a substitute for blogs or newsletters, but with the additional ability to charge payments from subscribers for some (or all) of your posts. Is that a good definition of what Substack is?
  • Not all Substack writers will initially get enough paying subscribers. In fact, I think it is safe to say that most will never get (enough) paying subscribers. If the first sentence in the excerpt above is to be agreed with, what other incentive is at play for “enormous amounts of new quality writing” to come through? This is not intended as sarcasm or implied criticism – I really would like to know.
  • Especially in India, I completely agree that legacy media makes you stupid. It is the middle part of that sentence that I am not so sure about: I do not think it is just the technological limitations of distribution technologies that is at play. It’s a much broader question, but what other factors would you think are at play, and how does Substack help mitigate those other problems?
  • Is bundling inevitable on Substack? Shouldn’t it be? How will this play out? Will Revue stand a better chance as a bundle because it can be combined with so many other offerings?

This isn’t a complete list of questions, and I am not sure of the answers. But this is the part of the interview that I understood the least, for sure.


A longish excerpt in a longish post, but a very important one:

M.A.: My “software eats the world” thesis plays out in business in three stages:
1. A product is transformed from non-software to (entirely or mainly) software. Music compact discs become MP3’s and then streams. An alarm clock goes from a physical device on your bedside table to an app on your phone. A car goes from bent metal and glass, to software wrapped in bent metal and glass.
2. The producers of these products are transformed from manufacturing or media or financial services companies to (entirely or mainly) software companies. Their core capability becomes creating and running software. This is, of course, a very different discipline and culture from what they used to do.
3. As software redefines the product, and assuming a competitive market not protected by a monopoly position or regulatory capture, the nature of competition in the industry changes until the best software wins, which means the best software company wins. The best software company may be an incumbent or a startup, whoever makes the best software.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

For a great, and relatively early example of this playing out in practice, please listen to this podcast episode:

One simple viral video drove a pizza company to reinvent itself as a tech company. Walter Isaacson tells the story in this episode of Trailblazers.

https://www.delltechnologies.com/en-us/perspectives/podcasts-trailblazers-s01-e03-fast-food-delivery/

See this, for example, from the transcript:

So this is the part of the Domino’s story that struck me more than anything, when he simply declared for all to hear, we no longer think of ourselves as a pizza company. We think of ourselves as a technology company. I said, excuse me? Well, turns out, they’re headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They’ve got 800 people working in headquarters. Fully 400 of those, half of their headquarters employees, are engaged in software analytics and big data. They really– once they finally got the product right, they really are, from this point going forward, as much a technology company as they are a food company. And many of the initiatives have to do with making it as easy, as convenient, as kind of natural and impulsive almost to order Domino’s, much more so than any other pizza company.

https://www.delltechnologies.com/en-us/perspectives/podcasts-trailblazers-s01-e03-fast-food-delivery/

But, but, but – and this is where the “what I do and where I’m from part” really comes into play – has higher education in India successfully (or even partially) gone through Marc Andreessen’s three stage transformation?

Short answer, no.

Long answer: because “assuming a competitive market not protected by a monopoly position or regulatory capture” doesn’t apply in the case of higher education in India (yet). See this, this, this, and this from earlier on in EFE.

But especially see this! College, as I’ve written in this post, is a bundle. It sells you the learning (Coursera), the signaling (LinkedIn) and the peer network (Starbucks):

If you want to go up against college as a business, you need to sell the same thing that college is selling. And the college sells you a bundle.
A business that seeks to do better than college must do better on all three counts, not just on learning. All of the online learning businesses – Coursera is just one very good example – aren’t able to fill all of the three vertices just yet.
And that’s why education hasn’t been truly shaken down by the internet just yet:
Because college today is more about signaling than it is about learning, and because when you pay money to a college, you are getting a bundle.

https://econforeverybody.com/2020/03/12/signaling-bundling-and-college/

And partially by regulatory capture (UGC approved degree, yay!) and partly by cultural conformity (Sharmaji ka beta went to IIT. Whaddya mean, you will learn from YouTube. Kuch bhi!) we still celebrate getting into a “top” college.

Since “top” colleges know this, there is no incentive for them to change. And since ed-tech firms in India also know this, they design excellent software that is designed simply to get students into these colleges3.

And so we in the education sector in India continue to wait for the revolution.


Phew! That’s enough for today. I’ll be back tomorrow with Part II of my reflections on this interview.

  1. about which more below[]
  2. Was it really by Confucius? I don’t think so.[]
  3. that is a sweeping generalization, yes. I’m more than happy to be corrected on this. Please tell me more about ed-tech firms that are about learning for its own sake, not about entrance examinations[]

Signaling, Bundling And College

What is bundling? It’s selling more than one thing for a single price. When you buy a cup of coffee, you’re buying a cup of coffee.

But when you’re buying a cup of coffee at Starbucks, are you just paying for the coffee, or are you paying also for the air-conditioning, the Wi-Fi, the chairs and the overall ambiance? In fact, for quite a few folks who choose to work out of Starbucks, the coffee might end up being the least important of the things they’re paying for. That’s bundling.

Here’s an MRU video about the topic:

 


 

What’s signaling?

This thought experiment is borrowed from Bryan Caplan, author of the book The Case Against Education:

Take your pick: a world class education while you were/are in college, from the very best in the world in your chosen field. You get to pick your dream educators, your dream college, you get access to absolutely world class faculty, libraries, whatever. The works. But: no degree. You will never be able to show or prove your credentials to anybody. World class learning, but no proof that it took place.

OR

A certificate from whichever college and course you pick in the world. Harvard PhD? Here you go. B.Tech from the IIT of your choice? Check. But: no learning. You will never be able to attend classes and learn in that college. You’ll get the degree, but sans learning.

If you chose the latter option (I would and I do), you know what signaling is.

Here’s Wikipedia:

In contract theory, signalling (or signaling; see spelling differences) is the idea that one party (termed the agent) credibly conveys some information about itself to another party (the principal). Although signalling theory was initially developed by Michael Spence based on observed knowledge gaps between organisations and prospective employees, its intuitive nature led it to be adapted to many other domains, such as Human Resource Management, business, and financial markets.

In Michael Spence’s job-market signaling model, (potential) employees send a signal about their ability level to the employer by acquiring education credentials. The informational value of the credential comes from the fact that the employer believes the credential is positively correlated with having the greater ability and difficulty for low ability employees to obtain. Thus the credential enables the employer to reliably distinguish low ability workers from high ability workers.


 

There’s many variants of the Caplan question that are possible. For example, would you prefer to wear an original Nike T-shirt without the logo, or a fake Nike T-shirt with the logo?

If I may be permitted to veer into slightly dark territory: would you prefer to be in a happy relationship, or show that your relationship is happy?

We are, all of us, signaling all the time. Modern society wouldn’t be possible without signaling, because the cost of communicating in a world without signaling would be too high.

But education? It doth signal too much, methinks.


 

Let’s go back to bundling, and think about education. What are you buying when you enroll in a college?

If you are an optimistic sort of person (more cynical folks would call you naive), you might say you’re buying an education. If Michael Spence has made an impression on you, you might say that you’re buying the credential.

By the way, if you’ve ever asked the following question in a classroom – or even been tempted to – you’re buying the credential, not the education:

“Is this a part of the syllabus?”

And I’ve yet to meet a student (to be clear, myself included) who hasn’t asked that question.

But hey, it’s Econ101. If you’ve asked the question, you are minimizing learning. You are learning, but only to get on the path to maximize marks. Marks, I would argue, are more about credentials than they are about learning.

You’ve chosen, through your actions, signaling over learning.


 


 

The LinkedIn, Starbucks and Coursera Problem

 

  1. What is LinkedIn’s business? It’s a professional network, and as an economist, I’d argue that one of the things that it does is that it reduces the asymmetry of information. When LinkedIn allows you to “endorse” a person for a particular skill, or it allows you to post results of a test it has enabled you to take, it is allowing you to signal that you are good.
    To whom are you sending this signal? To anybody who views your profile on LinkedIn! LinkedIn is like a degree certificate from your college: you’re signaling that you know.
  2. What is Coursera’s business? It is an online service that gives you access to recorded lectures that you can listen/see on your own time. These lectures are recorded by world-class faculty, so the learning is as good as it can get. Coursera is like a classroom (but arguably a much better one) from your college: you’re learning.
  3. What is Starbuck’s business? Selling coffee? Sure, you could argue that, but it’s more than that. Remember, you’re buying a bundle at Starbucks! Starbucks’ business is providing an environment that allows people to work in a social setting. To work, to network, to relax, to converse – but what it sells you is comfortable environs where you can do what you want to. Starbucks is like the setting in the college but outside the classroom: it’s your peer environment where you can get work done.

 

Now, the problem of education: when you buy a degree from college, you’re getting all three things.

College is a bundle: education | credentialing | peer networks

 


 

LinkedIn Starbucks Coursera
All logos belong to the firm in question

 

And the reason colleges haven’t gone away yet – and won’t, anytime soon – is because there is no business that I am aware of that sits at the center of that triangle as comfortably as college does.

 


 

Nowadays, it is almost platitudinous to say that the educational system is broken. Why, Peter Thiel cites it as an example of thinking that is not contrarian in his book, From Zero to One.

But here’s the thing:

College isn’t broken.

A Coursera course isn’t enough to land you a job these days: fact.

Most of us value, and almost always will value, the friends we make in college: fact.

The college still is the best place to go to to get both of these things together at the most reasonable price.

But:

Learning is broken in colleges today: fact.

 


If you want to go up against college as a business, you need to sell the same thing that college is selling. And the college sells you a bundle.

A business that seeks to do better than college must do better on all three counts, not just on learning. All of the online learning businesses – Coursera is just one very good example – aren’t able to fill all of the three vertices just yet.

And that’s why education hasn’t been truly shaken down by the internet just yet:

Because college today is more about signaling than it is about learning, and because when you pay money to a college, you are getting a bundle.

So what to do? How to solve this problem?

In the next post in this series, we’ll see what other folks who’ve chosen to battle this beast are trying to achieve.

 

Links for 13th February, 2019

  1. “The trick in a busy trauma bay is to look at a patient, decide whether he or she is dying in front of you. The way you make that decision is basically trauma poker: You’re looking for the tells that their body, the remarkable machine of the human body, is compensating to keep them alive, or refusing: heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, the color of the skin. The body, if you listen, will tell you what’s going on.”
    A harrowing read on life as a trauma surgeon in Chicago. Lessons on opportunity cost, development, conflict, retaliation, game theory and much more. Great read.
  2. “Bundled pricing is one reason why subscription models like Spotify should ultimately win out over à la carte models like iTunes. Subscription commerce can also be thought of as a form of bundling.”
    Or put another way, in the age of the internet, why does Netflix exist? There are many textbooks that do a better job of explaining this, but for a good primer on bundling, this is a good place to start. Note that this was written in 2012!
  3. “Mature fiscal systems create checks-and-balances which reduce the extent to which debt or off-balance-sheet liabilities can surge. Perhaps less developed countries have weak institutions, and then the political leadership sees a different optimisation. Short bursts of GDP growth can then be achieved in many bad ways, such as a surge in debt, piling up off-balance-sheet liabilities, etc. But this is not sustained growth: We get a spurt of high growth, and then things go wrong.”
    What do I think of this year’s budget? is a question I often get in classes – every year. This blog post is a good way to think about budgets – every year, and irrespective of who is in power.
  4. “The data means that the five warmest years in recorded history have been the last five, and that 18 of the 19 warmest years have occurred since 2001.”
    I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, and I’ll reiterate it repeatedly. We do not worry anywhere near enough about climate change.
  5. “What is more interesting, though, is the story of Windows’ decline in Redmond, culminating with last week’s reorganization that, for the first time since 1980, left the company without a division devoted to personal computer operating systems (Windows was split, with the core engineering group placed under Azure, and the rest of the organization effectively under Office 365; there will still be Windows releases, but it is no longer a standalone business).”
    Ben Thompson on something that I while growing up would have considered absolutely impossible – the end of Windows.