A Conversation With Felix Salmon

This is the edited transcript of an open Zoom conversation conducted on Sunday 3rd January.

Topics include: Cities, Covid, work, television, Trump, media, China, philanthropy.

I've known Felix for such a long time that we were chatting away before the Zoom session opened, and then segued into the planned Q&A without breaking for a formal introduction, for which error of protocol I apologise.

Felix is columnist and chief financial correspondent for Axios; author of that piece in Wired about algorithms and distributions which explained the 2008 financial crisis; a patron of the arts (in partnership with Michelle Vaughan, @black_von); an effective altruist; a bicycle rider; and an Englishman in New York.

The label "Question" in this transcript indicates a question from the Zoom room; if you were the asker of the question, and you would like to be identified, please email me. Likewise, if you spot an error, please point it out.

Robert Cottrell  [robert@thebrowser.com]  


FELIX: ... a bicycle is something comprehensible. The diamond frame bicycle is one of the greatest pieces of design that has ever been created, up there with the suspension bridge. I have started using electric bikes now. I moved from having my own bike to navigating New York on a Citi Bike because Citi Bikes are much better for one-way journeys, and now Citi Bikes have an electric option. I love it. Lazy people can stop worrying about how hard it will be to get over this or that bridge. We'll just zoom around on beautiful bikes. Electric bikes have the potential to really transform cities.

There's quite a literature on how cities get to be the size that they are, and that has a lot to do with ease of getting around – the radius that you can travel from a given point in a given time. So we are measuring in minutes, not in miles, and the key number for an acceptable commute is something like 40 minutes. You want to be able to get from where you live to where you work within 40 minutes, whether you are walking or taking high-speed rail. Bicycles work so well because you can have lots of them on the street without causing traffic jams, and with an electric bike you can get pretty much anywhere in New York City in 40 minutes.

ROBERT: The clock strikes 17, we're into Zoom time and I feel that I should be asking you a first structured question about the year ahead. So I'm going to ask you the biggest one first: Do you think like this year is going to be better than last year?

FELIX: 2020 was garbage. A shit show. Terrible. So the bar is incredibly low. In terms of public debate, the low point of 2020 was in March and April when we were seeing exponential growth in Covid cases, everyone was shifting to log-scale charts, no-one knew when the exponential growth would stop or how it would stop. Every kind of extrapolation seemed reasonable, there was this great unknown in front of us, and it was terrifying. There is no way that we are going to find ourselves in that kind of situation in 2021, just because we know so much more now than we did then.

We know how the disease works. We know how it doesn't work. We even have a vaccine that can prevent it from killing people. Obviously some other terrible exogenous event may come along and make this year worse than last year in a different way, but in the absence of any such event we are not going to revisit those terrible weeks in March and April.

ROBERT: What do you think you've learned from 2020? In my case — it's something that came up when I was talking to Anatole Kaletsky last week — I've learned that Keynes was right when he said that in the future we could live very well while working very little. That's pretty much what we've been doing for the past year, except that we've been doing it involuntarily.

FELIX: I don't quite agree. One of the things that has been interesting and slightly counterintuitive about 2020 is that so many people did not lose their jobs entirely. They went on working. Lots of jobs disappeared in tourism, bars, live entertainment, the sections of the economy that were being vapourised outright, but most people don't work in those sections of the economy, and most people did not lose their jobs. They kept on doing their jobs and they found themselves working at least as much in 2020 as in a normal year. They were at home, but they were not leaning back in the La-Z-Boy living a life of Keynesian leisure. More typically they were taking the hours they saved by not commuting to the office, and adding those on to their working day.

So we can certainly go back to Keynes to refresh our ideas about fiscal policy, but I don't think his prophesy of a new leisured society has come any closer. Bear in mind, too, that many people had a lot more childcare to factor into their day, which had previously been outsourced to schools. You might push back here and say that spending time with your kids ought to be a pleasure, and a lot of parents, when they look back on their lives, will wish that they had done more of it, but even so, it can feel like work at the time.

ROBERT: In terms of what we might call billable hours of work, did you put in more hours last year than you would have done in an ordinary year?

FELIX: Because of the lockdowns? Yes, definitely. Because the way people stop working, the way I stop working in normal times, is that I physically remove myself from my computer and I go off to bars and restaurants and theaters and movies and beaches and mountains. I go places and meet people and do things that are physically somewhere else. And when you are stuck at home within a very small radius of your computer, you naturally just wind up spending more time on your computer, and spending time on the computer is basically what I do for work.

ROBERT: I think of your passions in life as being finance, fine art, and philanthropy. Let me ask you now about the arts, culture. Culture is supposed to thrive in adversity — starving artists cutting their ears off in garrets, dissident poets producing works of genius in the gulag. I appreciate that the Trump administration was more offensive to liberals than it was truly oppressive, but it seemed to produce a lot of outrage in a lot of artists, and I wonder if that led to better art.

FELIX: One of the things I used to do quite a lot when I wasn't working, or in order to not work, was go to the theatre. And I remember telling everyone who would listen in 2018 and 2019 that we were in a golden age of theatre, the productions on Broadway were astonishingly good. Things you might be lucky to see once in a decade were coming round twice a year. Theatre is a collaborative enterprise, it just ground to a halt in 2020, but yes, whatever the reasons, in the years immediately before 2020 it was spectacularly good.

It's become something of a cliché to talk about the golden age of television, at least since The Sopranos, but it's still true. The entry of Amazon Prime and Netflix and Disney Plus and Apple TV and streaming in general has created a a whole new universe of great TV shows. One of the highlights for me was Watchmen. I thought that was just an incredibly great show, and there have been many, many others.

TV, like theatre, is an incredibly complex, expensive, collaborative form of art, which for obvious reasons had to hit pause for much of 2020. But the time-frame of your question was the Trump Administration, and the answer is that it has indeed been an exceptional time for the big collaborative art-forms — theatre, TV, film. Sorry To Bother You, for example, was an amazing feat of creativity. I have every hope and expectation that we'll get back there post-Covid.

As for 2020 and Covid, well, by definition, it's much harder to do great collaborative things during a pandemic. So we're going to have to wait and see if that was a year for individual genius. If someone wrote a great novel in 2020 it will get published in 2022 and we will discover it in 2023. As to whether it will be a novel about Covid or foregrounding Covid is another question. King Lear was written in a plague year, 1606, but it doesn't have much to do with plague, explicitly at least. On the other hand, the last great plague in New York was AIDS, and that led to the creation of great art-works about AIDS and around AIDS: Angels In America, for example.

It also led to a fallow period for the performing arts in general because AIDS wiped out an entire generation of creative geniuses. It took a long time, decades, to recover from that. We have recovered, and the new generation of baby geniuses is here, and that's awesome. One of the few good things you can say for Covid is that it did not wipe out an entire generation of creatives in the way that AIDS did, or the double-header of the First World War and the 1918 flu pandemic did.

QUESTION: You have been talking almost entirely in terms of Manhattan, the City. What about the suburbs, and the wave of migration there?

FELIX: Really good question. Absolutely. During the panic months of Spring there was a very visible movement of people out of the city and into the suburbs and beyond — doubtless including people who were going to move anyway, and just did it faster, plus people who decided that Covid had changed the perceived utility of cities, it was nowhere near as much fun being in a city during a pandemic as during normal times. Inevitably you're going to see a mean reversion there. People are going to siphon back, out of the suburbs and into the city again, once Covid is suppressed on a long-term basis, and probably that's a good thing on an environmental level; the model of having cars and driving everywhere and low density planning is a bad mixture for the planet. It's also worth remembering that the suburbs are not always an escape to safety. The opioid epidemic was largely based in suburbs.

I still think I am long cities and short suburbs and maybe long exurbs. We talk now about a permanent shift towards more remote working, but the remote work trend will actually help cities and exurbs more than it will suburbs. If you want to maximise distancing, or you are indifferent to distancing, you can move to the middle of nowhere. The point of the suburb is to put you within that 40 minute radius for being able to commute to work. But if you don't need to live within 40 minutes, if you don't need to live in the centre of town, you also don't need to live in the suburbs of the town.

QUESTION: If 2020 was the year of Covid, 2021 will be the year of the vaccine. What do you expect there?

FELIX: If developing countries get the vaccine much later, or otherwise find it difficult to adjust and emerge from the Covid crisis, then inequalities of wealth between richer and poorer countries are going to increase. We've got liberalism pushing one way and altruism the other way and we need both.

The area of the world that I'm most concerned about right now, Sub-Saharan Africa, has been managing really quite well through Covid. The Covid hit was milder in virtually all of Africa — with the exception of South Africa — than it was in most of the rest of the world, partly because the population is so much younger. But if there is a long period of reduced growth to follow, say five slow years, then the compounding effects of that that are going to be incredibly bad in terms of persistent poverty.

As for access to the vaccine, it is a real problem but a fixable problem. Even under this US administration we saw an extra $4 billion going to GAVI, the global vaccination alliance. We do have supply constraints in terms of how quickly we can produce vaccines, but we also have more and more vaccines being approved in more and more countries. What we don't seem to have is any real IP constraints on the vaccines. If there is a way to produce these vaccines in Brazil, say, people will do that and no one will really object. Certainly China will be doing that, India will be doing that.

Right now we have two main vaccines being produced in large numbers and going into people's arms. Those are definitely going into rich people's arms, maybe into some poor people's arms too. That's going to give the rich world a head start of maybe nine months to a year in terms of vaccines. Even so, I'm hopeful — taking into account the number of vaccines that will ultimately be proven effective, the number of countries that are technologically capable of producing them, and the general global consensus that, in order for the world to get back on track, we need everyone to be vaccinated, not just the rich.

We are not going to vaccinate the entire world. We haven't been able to eradicate polio after all these years. There are still pockets of polio in Nigeria and Pakistan. By this time next year Covid will doubtless still be with us in some parts of the world, but we will have a clear picture of who has been vaccinated, who will be getting vaccinated soon, and who for whatever reason is not getting vaccinated, and we can act on that.

ROBERT: Change of topic. Do you think that the media has emerged stronger or weaker from the Trump presidency?

FELIX: When you say the media, you mean the news media, right? That's natural enough. When journalists think about the media, they think of journalism. Whereas, of course, journalism is a pimple on the face of most media organizations. Netflix is a media organization that has no journalism. Amazon Prime and Disney too. Technically, Disney does run a news organization, it's called ABC news, but ABC news is just an annoyance really to Disney and probably if they could get rid of it, they would because it's unhelpful to relations with China.

The media in general has done well out of COVID. People have been stuck at home streaming stuff on television. The news media has done well out of Trump: People have been reading more news than they normally do, not only because they are stuck at home but also because they've been feeling outraged about Trump or Trump's critics or outraged about police behaviour or outraged about protesters. In short, an uptick in disposable income, thanks to Covid-driven fiscal policy, has gone partly into subscriptions to news organisations, which have found themselves able to build up a bigger paying subscriber base.

So that's been good. In a subscription economy the lifetime value of a subscription can be enormous. Once you start subscribing to something, you generally stay subscribing to it. There will be a drop-off, but I doubt that the size of the drop-off will be smaller than the size of the uptick.

More subscribers means that news organizations have been able to beef up their coverage. We have learned how to do journalism remotely. We have great journalists doing great work and now they can get paid properly for it.

QUESTION: How did you position yourself vis-a-vis the Trump administration? Did you feel that you were an opponent, professionally, or a neutral commentator?

FELIX: Depends which hat I'm wearing. When I do my podcast, Slate Money, I am more open about — like, Trump just makes no sense and it's bad for the world and for the country. When I have my Axios hats on, I play it slightly straighter, more impartially. Both are fine.

ROBERT: What frustrated me early on about Trump was that we soon found we had nothing of value to learn from him. We just watched him bumping into things, and sometimes they broke.

FELIX: Even so, I have learned a lot about America and Americans in the past four years, especially in the past year. If you look at the 70 million Americans who voted for Trump with great enthusiasm in 2020, after it was abundantly clear to everyone exactly what he was about and what he stood for — that in itself has been an education, and not only for me.

Imagine the effect on the Biden administration, with John Kerry leading on climate change and Tony Blinken as secretary of state. How can these people hope to engage the world, and say, in effect: "We represent a trustworthy country that really cares about the world". The world is going to turn back to them and say, "You are not a one-party state. There will be another Republican administration eventually and we have seen what the Republican base believes in. We believe that you will be able to make promises that you can keep for the next four years, but what comes after that? You have just had four years of chaos in the White House, and a large part of your population seems to want another four years of chaos".

This is a really profound change for America's international relations. It is going to be very, very hard to undo the damage that Trump has done to international confidence in America, and all the more so while so much support for Trumpism is on show at the polls and in the Senate.

ROBERT: So Trump may have broken things in a way that can't be repaired?

FELIX: Let's say it will be really hard to repair the damage that has been done to American democracy, especially in this current post-election period; American democracy now looks intrinsically fragile. It was never perfect: The electoral college makes no sense, there's a huge amount of gerrymandering, Republicans and whites have much more power than they should do in proportion to their numbers, especially in state legislatures. Democracy was already weak in those ways, but now it is much weaker. Its mechanics still depend on 18th-century ideas of how long it takes for vote tallies to get across the country, that kind of thing. It needs to be made more robust.

ROBERT: What will be the job of the media during the Biden presidency? Does the media have a duty to help Biden rebuild confidence in the government of America?

FELIX: It took a while for the media to understand and accept just how much about Trump and his behaviour was objectively crazy.

ROBERT: At first they tried to dignify him, or at least to maintain the dignity of his office.

FELIX: And then they came to see that they had to report the news in an objective way, and the objective facts with Trump were that he and his people were doing crazy things. So if the media maintains the same objectivity with respect to Biden, they will find themselves reporting on a normal presidency which is dignified and not crazy. The news cycle will simply move away from the White House.

It's hard to remember anything before 2020, I understand this, but before Trump the news didn't used to all about the president all the time, you could go weeks without the president being on the front page. Biden will be off the front page for weeks at a time and that's going to be normal and that's going to be fine. We will be able to concentrate on everything else that has been going on in the world.

Biden has a lot of rebuilding to do inside government. The institutional capabilities of the permanent civil service have suffered badly under Trump. Many good people have left, and they have not been replaced. It will take years to get things back to where they were. When Obama took over from Bush, there was lots of goodwill on both sides, and even then it took the best part of a year to get the Obama team into place and working effectively. This transition is so full of bad will that it is scarcely a transition at all. So it could be that President Biden's ability to get much done will be constrained by Trump's legacy. There's lots of ways things might go horribly wrong. But I'm getting more hopeful.

QUESTION: What has Covid taught us about the relative effectiveness of democratic and authoritarian government?

FELIX: Interesting. When Covid hit China, the executive powers were initially too slow to act. But when did act, they acted with decisiveness, and they really got Covid under control very quickly in a country of a billion people. I think this experience made a big impression on the Chinese leaders themselves. They saw just how much power they had, and they saw the value of acting quickly and decisively. They are now applying those lessons in other areas — notably in reining in some business tycoons. They're basically saying: "Hey, if we can use this power in public health effectively, we can use this power in other places too".

It's possible that some effect of that kind will play out even in liberal democracies. New Zealand is a liberal democracy, but they've had an election which seemed to show that the population accepted and applauded the expanded form of executive power that the prime minister took upon herself when Covid hit. They were like, "thank you for doing that". Is that a mandate for acting similarly in areas beyond public health? You could see it that way.

ROBERT: It's been painful to watch America's handling of Covid, but if we see this as a trade-off between personal liberty and public health, is it possible that history might judge America more kindly?

FELIX: Tensions between American individualism and public health go back a long way. I've been saying for years that if an American government today tried to put fluoride in water or iodine in salt there would be an absolute uproar, they would never be able to do it, yet these are clearly effective and good public health interventions. The appetite of the American public for any kind of public health intervention has decreased enormously. That is a problem. We have seen with Covid how big a problem. We are seeing more of it in Britain too. And it's not a problem in which I see any silver lining.

ROBERT: Felix, a last question. I know you think a lot about effective altruism. We've all had a rotten year in 2020. So if we all want to do something good, if we all want to make our world better, what do we do?

FELIX: It depends who you are. High-end philanthropy is very strategic. It is Bono lobbying George W. Bush and world finance ministers; it is building institutions that change the world. I'm at the charity end of the spectrum. I like to find people who need help, and help them. There is no wrong answer here. The main thing is to do something rather than nothing. If you are thinking about giving your time or money to a good cause some time in the future, then do it sooner, do it now, front-load your effort. Give right now and give as much as you can afford to give. Think about it, but don't overthink it. If you need a starting point, go to givewell.org.


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