iTunes podcast: Parag Khanna and Jeremy Hildreth in conversation
A year after Parag Khanna became the most hated man in Mongolia for making a disparaging (yet accurate!) remark about their geopolitical prospects, he accepted the president of Mongolia’s invitation to visit the country.
But instead of flying like a normal person, Parag drove 13,000km from London to Ulaanbaatar (as part of the Mongol Rally) in a decommissioned British Army Land Rover field ambulance, which he then donated to Mongolia’s medical services.
This is what I admire most about my friend Parag: if and when he doesn’t have actual skin in the game, he has the next best thing: his feet on the ground.
Parag Khanna, who turns 40 this month, is a scholar and a traveller (not always in that order) and a wise and well-informed man, characterised as a visionary by none other than THE BLACK SWAN’s Nassim Taleb.
In this conversation, which took place backstage at the Moscow Urban Forum a few minutes after I’d interviewed him on-stage for the Forum itself, we get into Parag’s views on:
* What it means to fuse the reality between “what you read” and “what you see”
* The paradox of how the future success of globalisation depends on increased tribalism (and why he supports secessionist movements)
* Why it’s probably your own goddamn government’s fault if you’re unhappy that your job went overseas
* How most people misuse the term globalisation in pathetically self-serving ways
* Why it’s sound judgment to “trust the traveller.”
* Why Berlin, London, Singapore, New York are awesome
* Why Dubai (Dubai??) is REALLY awesome, too
Read it in full below, or, if you prefer, on Medium.
This is Jeremy Hildreth, and my guest today is Parag Khanna, who is kind of a buddy of mine I guess you’d say. We’ve known each other a long time, and we’re about the same age. He’s a couple of years younger, and we don’t see very much of each other. He lives in Singapore. I live in London. We’re both American, but it’s always in some random place like down an alley in Shanghai. I remember once having a drink with him down some hutong. I think we’ve never hung out in the same place twice, actually, so it’s no surprise whatsoever that the last place I saw him was in Moscow, Russia at the Moscow Urban Forum, where I interviewed him up on stage about his new book called Connectography.
The point of my podcast, this podcast, generally speaking, is to have conversations with remarkable people who’ve lived interesting lives so far, and Parag meets that description to a tee. He’s a traveler, a thinker. He’s an integrator, which is something very important to me, something I look for in people, something that’s a very rare talent, skill, knack of combining things, putting things together, seeing the big picture, and how it connects to the details. I love this. I love this about him.
His book Connectography will enlighten you. It will help you use the right maps to see and understand the modern world, and direction, or directions, that we’re moving in. It’s not an easy read, particularly, but it is a nutritious one, and if you like what you hear in the interview, regard that as a kind of a sampler, and go get his book.
I’ll give you a couple of examples from the blurbs. “Connectography is as compelling and richly expressive as the ancient maps from which it draws its inspiration.” I like that one. “Reading Connectography is a real adventure.” I certainly concur. “A provocative remapping of contemporary capitalism based on planetary mega infrastructures, intercontinental corridors of connectivity, and transnational supply chains.” Hahaha. Anyway, you get the idea, and I promise you it’s a hell of a book.
So let’s go now to the audiotape….
For the benefit of the audience, Parag and I are sitting outside of a makeshift patio on a developer’s demo house.
How do you like this AstroTurf?
Yeah, with AstroTurf beneath our feet. There’s a gigantic — how big is that thing?
That’s quite a mural… photo.
There’s a gigantic photographic mural, or very detailed painting, of Moscow. It’s as though we were on the roof of a very expensive apartment.
Yes, this would be a multi-million dollar apartment’s terrace that we would have been on, were we not actually indoors in a giant hangar.
If this view were real —
If this view were real.
— there would be three people in the world who could afford it.
Yes, and all three of them would be Russian billionaires, that is true.
Nassim Taleb, the Black Swan guy, coined this term fairly recently “Intellectual-Yet-Idiot” IYI, which has caught on.
I’ve never heard that, that’s awesome.
You have not heard this?
When did he coin that?
He’s writing his latest book kind of serialized on Medium and somewhere along maybe six months ago.
He blurbed my last book. I’m a big fan of his. We have the same editor, actually.
Yeah, he called you a visionary.
You always got a like a guy who calls you a visionary.
Visionary is better than idiot, so yes, I’ll accept his compliment, thank you.
Yes. So he coined this term Intellectual-Yet-Idiot to describe people who are book-smart, but know nothing. One of the reasons I like talking to you is because you have traveled so much. I said when I introduced you on stage just now that you’re a traveler first and foremost, and then these other things kind of follow on from it.
You and I are travellers… on that road of life… you and me!
Yeah, there’s that meaning of travel. But what do you think separates you from, I mean you’re not an armchair pontificator or an ivory tower academic. You really travel and see things firsthand, and that’s really important. I mean, I learned that the first time, well, it is the only time I’ve been to Burma, retracing the Old Burma Road when that really wasn’t [a done thing]. My passport said, “Land Route Not Permissible,” on the Burmese visa… so we did the land route. And seeing children nine, 10, 11 year’s old building the road with their bare hands. Also [a few years later] in East Timor, seeing child labor, the kids with their moms, little kids, three, four, five year’s old with their moms in the coffee [factory] moving the beans around, and realizing actually, okay, so child labor isn’t something you get rid of just by passing a law. Like, this is the culture. This is where they are right now.
I was just in northeastern India —
It’s not some kind of immoral thing. It’s just how it is with that situation. So seeing things first-hand is so crucial.
I don’t have any difficulty saying that I’m a first and foremost traveler. I mean it’s empirically true, right? Way before I went to college I was traveling. I was just raised that way. It’s purely accidental. Born in India, grew up in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, New York, Germany, so by the time I was 16 I’d been to a lot of places, and accumulated identities, and I’ve always wanted to travel.
Then my first book contract was all about getting a publisher to pay for my travel. Life today is still about who will pay for my travel as much as anything else. Again, acquiring a PhD along the way doesn’t change my identity. I’m not suddenly and foremost an academic. Now it is true that once you are an academic you’re always an academic. You can always go and teach if you want to, so there is something immutable or irreversible about that particular certification, but at your deeper essence you’re still a traveler. All I try to do is to blend those two methodologies.
Do you feel sometimes, going back to Nassim Taleb and the IYI, Intellectual-Yet-Idiot, sometimes, just sitting next to someone at the dinner table at a conference who hasn’t traveled as much, but has opinions around the same topics as you have opinions on, but somehow it’s not been informed by their travels, and it suffers from that?
This is a great question and a great point. I didn’t think that I would have such a definitive answer on this, but I actually am pretty confident that I do. It is far more likely that the academic who hasn’t traveled is going to be the idiot than the traveler who isn’t an academic. I wear both hats. [So if I] I try to be impartial, if I think back to all the dinners, or all the lunches, or all the lectures and events, seminars I’ve sat in on, or been in, and you have as well, look back and reflect on the last 40 years in the next five seconds, and what does your gut tell you?
When someone has said something dumb was it, in all likelihood, the person who’s traveled, or the person whose just the pinhead? 99 out of 100, come on, it’s actually the pinhead. So I would say that my bias, maybe this is why my intuitive bias is still towards the traveler side of me than the academic side of me. The academic side of you can help you, but the traveler is rarely wrong.
Now, again, I’ve got academic heroes, and I’ve got traveler heroes. When push comes to shove, and there’s a very viscous debate going on let’s say in some journal between the traveler and academic usually side with the traveler. That half of me, that brain — I don’t know if it’s the left or the right, or the front or the back — that side of me I think is the one that everyone, quite frankly, should rely on more.
Trust the traveler.
Then traveler will be helped by asking tough questions. I was having lunch yesterday in Moscow —
Your eyes can deceive you when traveling.
Your eyes can deceive you. That’s very well put. And you know you may not be seeing the full picture. We haven’t talked about it quite in this way before, but when I do my books, I first read like everything I possibly can read about where I’m going or the issue. Then I go there, and then I see what the reality is versus what I read. Then I go back, and try and fuse the two together and reconcile them. I want to be complete, or comprehensive, or rigorous. That to me is the best that you can do as a one-man show.
We’re at this conference, the Moscow Urban Forum. We were just up on stage. Your book is out, “Connectography,” and I was asking you questions about it. A couple of the questions were good, I’ll repeat them. I said: “A lot of people today regard themselves as anti-globalists. What do they mean by that? In what ways is it actually correct to be suspicious, angry, or concerned about globalization? In what ways are they just completely out to lunch?”
My response to that is first of all, do you know what globalization is? Do you define it simply as my job was off-shored? I had a steady job making X dollars, or at a Ford automobile plant, and now that job is gone to a worker in Thailand, therefore, I’m anti-globalization? That’s defining globalization rather narrowly, right? As opposed to realizing, oh, wait a minute. Over that same period of time, the cost, what I spent on a pair of jeans, and an iPhone, and my entertainment, and all these other things has gone way, way, way down because of globalization, right? Not to mention it’s not all economic either. There’s all sorts of other auxiliary ways in which we’re globalizing as a civilization. First of all people when it suits their purposes they have a very narrow reading of globalization.
I love hearing or reading — not loving literally, it makes me just crack up — when people say, “Globalization has fallen off a cliff.” I mean how many times in the last one year have I read again these second-hand pseudo intellectuals writing “Globalization has fallen off a cliff.” Because it turns out their evidence is the deceleration of global goods trade over the last say like three years. So in other words deceleration doesn’t mean reversal. Something is still moving forward, but it’s just not moving forward as fast, so it’s still expanding. It hasn’t contracted, but apparently it’s fallen off a cliff.
It’s like budget cuts… cutting the growth rate of something.
Then, of course, you’re measuring only goods. Well, what about services? What about the fact that the services trade in the world is catching up to the goods trade in the world in terms of its value, in terms of global value added to GDP? That’s neglected because these economists are only counting the number of tankers that docked in a pier, and how many containers were off. Well, that’s not what the world is anymore, right? That’s only a partial slice. Everyone seems to want to have their own globalization and their own definition of globalization, which is incredibly narrow, and self-serving. I find that inexcusably pathetic because globalization is much bigger than all of that. It’s bigger than all of that sort of put together in many ways, so you can’t credibly be anti-globalization once you understand what globalization is.
Instead, to be more accurate the people who call themselves anti-globalists are actually protesting domestic failures to manage and adapt and harness globalization. When you throw out your government in the U.K. or U.S., it’s not because you hate China inherently. Because had your government invested in the re-skilling, and your re-skilling towards a better job after you lost your job in an automobile plant to Thailand or China you would not have voted for Trump, not necessarily, right?
Some would. I think it’s a broad-based coalition.
Yeah, okay, fine. Let’s just talk about those that call themselves the anti-globalists and that motivation for their vote, right? That motivation would fall away if you had a better job you’d say, “Oh, thank God I’m not getting my arm broken on an assembly line! Instead I’m actually working on my snazzy MacBook Air designing this high-tech anti-lock braking sensor now, and I’m getting paid three times as much. Thank you globalization, because now I just zapped that design over from my laptop to those poor suckers in Thailand, and they’re going to now 3D print it, and manufacture it, and put it together, and they’re going to make half as much.”
Now guess what? There are places in the world where exactly that’s happening. It’s called Germany. It’s called Switzerland. It’s called Korea. It’s called Singapore. It’s called Finland, right? That have actually moved their workers up the value chain because they paid attention to the dynamics of globalization. They knew that it’s not always win-win, so their workers have adjusted. Did you see Donald Trump sweeping to power in those countries? You don’t, so whose fault is it? is my bottom line. Is it really China’s fault? Is it globalization’s fault? Or is it your own goddamn government’s fault? The answer is: please blame yourself before you blame anyone else.
Any conversation like this inevitably leads to, well, I mean you and I are interesting because we’re both from …
I think you’re very interesting.
Thank you. Because we’re sort of citizens of the world. Someone asked me a few minutes ago what my identities were. She was surprised to find I was American. She thought I was British. My identities have shifted. I mean, they layer, and they interrelate. California is a big one. America is in there. British is much lower down the list. I don’t feel particularly British culturally, or politically. Jewishness is in there somewhere, but it’s down the list as well. Human is a big part. That’s one of my chief identities is an identity with my species. It’s a species level orientation.
Is anyone challenging that identity? :)
On bad days, maybe.
Do you feel like if you don’t declare yourself to be a member of the human race that that will be taken away from you? :)
I’m talking about experientially, moment-to-moment, day-to-day, like that’s how I feel. I feel like… maybe it’s “There but for the grace of God,” or whatever the expression is. You’re also sort of, you got a mongrel background, and a travel background, and you don’t live anywhere near where you were born.
This was one of the most fun parts of the book to do because it’s not my conventional area of research or expertise. I mean, kind of global anthropology in a big sort of sense of the word, and looking at kind of human genetic mingling over millions of years is something I get into in the book.
And I did my own cheek swab with National Geographic. That was kind of funny, and it proved how mongrel I sort of am in that ancient sort of ethnographic sense of being a mishmash, and as has been demonstrated by that experiment or process that they’re taking with people’s genetic ancestries that we’re all much more mongrel than we think, and it leads into this discussion of how identity is not something that other people just get to dictate to you. “You look like a white guy, so you’re just a white American.” You’re not allowed to simultaneously be a millennial, an environmentalist, or whatever the cause.
Apparently you can’t be gay and conservative. That’s not allowed.
Well, apparently, there are some who are quite provocative. But point being that I like to think now that everyone has the right to tell you what their identity is rather than having to conform to this tick the box. Now, of course, there are boxes you have to tick. You want to get a driver’s license somewhere, you got to tick the box, but how do you feel about your identity? I was born in India. I was an Indian citizen. I became an American. I’m an American, but it doesn’t mean I’m not Indian. I’m still ethnically Indian. I still have feelings for India. I lived in Germany. I’ll never be a German citizen, but I speak German, and when I go to Germany I really get treated like pretty much a local. I’ve been living in and out of there for a really long time. Of course, I’ll never be German, but I feel German.
It’s part of your identity.
My wife is always saying, “You’re so German!” when I do certain things. I’m obviously not German. Like, who could be less German than a random Punjabi guy who grew up in the Middle East and in New York, but really I feel as at home in Berlin as in places that I’ve lived even longer. I’ll never be German in your point of view, but I have the right to say to you, “I feel pretty German.” That’s my point is that you the individual [get to say where your identity lies]. Why are we always telling people their identity rather than asking them their identity?
What I wanted to get into with that is: do people need a certain amount of tribal identity, and does some of that come from nations or nationhood, and is some of that what we’re getting with the pushback on immigration? “Better fences make good neighbors,” and those kind of expressions, but obviously, what citizenship means is going to need to change.
Even the way like you’ve framed the question like doesn’t there have to be like some basic level of tribalism? Isn’t the conventional sense of nationhood an essential foundation of good fences, and good neighbors?
I didn’t say it was essential. Currently a lot of people get it from there. They don’t know yet that they don’t need to get it from there.
Most of the world’s population has never left the country that they were born in. Most of the world’s population doesn’t have a passport, right? I’m thinking about that not from this issue, not from the perspective of the Davos Man with the Norwegian passport who gets to go anywhere they want. I’m actually saying as it turns out I cite this BBC survey poll that was done around the world that asked people do you feel like you are a global citizen? The highest percentages came from people in developing countries, people in India, people in Nigeria, people in Brazil. The majority of those people will never leave the country they were born in, and yet they’re giving the highest percentage response to saying “I am not only just an Indian even though I’ll never leave India I also feel like I’m a global citizen.”
What I explain in the book is that’s not. People think that’s ironic. No, it’s precisely people who live in states that are deprived, that are negligent of their populations, that don’t meet even the basic sort of tenets of providing for the security and welfare of their people where their citizens don’t really feel like their identity is all that strong even though it’s the only thing they have geographically and ethnically that’s all they have. They have no choice but to submit to that state, but they know that that state hasn’t done a whole lot for them, so they want something more, so they want to be and feel global.
I used the case of the Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi who together with I think it was the same year as Malala won the Nobel Prize for children’s rights. This is something that he’s been very articulate about. Anyway, none of what I just said is incompatible with the idea of tribal and national identify because as you know a very substantial part of this book if not the longest part of the book is a defense of tribalism. I actually say I celebrate it, I literally celebrate it. I literally was on the board of an NGO [called] Independent Diplomat that supports secessionist movements. It’s so ironic to read reviews of mine where people say this guy is like this cosmopolitan, soulless, post national wannabe.
It’s like I literally and actively have gone to bat for secessionists because the theory or the model is that the more nations you have, the more tribes. I actually say, “Let every tribe win.” “Let the tribes win!” is the title of a chapter of this book with an exclamation point because when you reach that point when every tribe has its own state you will find a flourishing of globalization because you will find that no tribe can survive on its own. I use the Catalans. The Catalans are my favorite example of a global tribe a globalist tribe.
From the outside people hate the idea of Spain. “Spain is the national identity. Spain is this historical civilization. It would be terrible for this Democratic Liberal polity known as Spain if it were to splinter. Those Catalans they’re just ruffians, you know, the secessionist movement. What is wrong with them?” Completely wrong, right? There’s nothing so immutable, inherent, eternal about the Spanish identity. It’s a conglomeration of various nations and tribes that have been subjugated over centuries by the monarchy. The Catalans are the most globally outward people you’ll meet in Spain, so they don’t want to just cut them.
That’s a great book, The Basque History of the World.
The Basques are another great example of this.
Sorry, I switched provinces on you.
That’s okay. They’re analogous situations in some ways, and the Catalans are learning from the Basques, but the point is that from the outside it’s so … Here we go, this connects to our second-hand pseudo intellectual thing because every PhD armchair commentator is like “Terrible thing for the Basques to secede,” and so on. Economically, by the way, it could potentially be, right? We put that aside for a minute, but in the intellectual conversation defaults towards denying Catalans their right to push for an independent polity on the basis that would destroy this better thing known as Spain and that it is inherently tribal, and tribal is bad.
I by contrast celebrate, I mean, if I were Catalan I’d be waving the flag because my point is that I just want to prove that Catalans are among those global people like the Basque History of the World because they don’t just want to secede from Spain in order to lock themselves up in a cage known as Catalan. They want to control their connectivity. They want more connectivity. They just want to be the masters of connectivity. They don’t want Madrid to decide what connections they build, and don’t build. They don’t want Madrid making decisions about what investments they make and don’t make. That’s a beautiful thing.
You sound like Nigel Farage talking about Brexit, though, I mean, superficially. I don’t mean that adversarially. I’m just noticing as you’re saying that it sounds similar to people saying “We just want to control [our own connections to the world].”
Remember, Great Britain already is a sovereign country, and he is appealing to obviously a vicious and narrow sort of chauvinistic nationalism on the one hand, and on the other hand both of his feet are made of clay. I mean the other argument is obviously against the European Union stealing Britain’s sovereignty and decision-making, which is also a total red herring, so he’s nonsense upon stilts, as Jeremy Bentham once said, so that’s rubbish. I suppose I see what you’re saying in terms of it sounds like him to celebrate, but I’m talking about a secessionist movement.
You would need controlled immigration somehow.
The utopian future is one where those micro polities that have that village level and town level say over their fiscal expenditure are able to make decisions at that level. The Swiss have this. In my most recent little eBook, that monograph “Technocracy in America,” I celebrate [it], it’s at the Cantonal level. They control a lot of things, and who gets to live in a certain canton of Switzerland depends on what taxes you’re willing to pay, and what number of days you’re willing to live there. They don’t necessarily have a uniform policy across Switzerland, right? They actually evaluate people almost one by one in a set of bureaucratic manoeuvres. Even though, of course, federal government set immigration policy, but at the Cantonal level they have soft ways of determining what kind of people live in their canton.
I think that’s an example of like undermining, if you will, the federal sovereign prerogative over immigration policy and I think that’s a good thing. Again, devolution is a very operative term in this book, and it’s something that I think is extremely important because locals do very often know best. Now there’s a whole separate question, and series of questions that need to be asked. We’re not going to do it now, but can you afford it? A worthy retort to both Brexit and to Cantonal independence is you just did something economically that could be very stupid, right?
That’s something that much more matter of fact.
I understand the urge for Brexit, but the price, even if you wanted that, do you really want it for that price? That’s the thing.
Which is part of what makes Nigel Farage if he had three legs the third leg of clay is just his economic retardedness because it was stupid by that measure by any stretch.
All right, I’ll finish with a question that I learned from Jim Rogers who’s a fellow Singaporean.
Yeah, he lives around the corner.
He liked to ask and answer this question, and I think it’s a nice one. If there were five of you, Parag, where would you live living out simultaneous lives?
Berlin for sure. Berlin is like the coolest city in the world. That’s why my family and I are picking up and doing a sabbatical there this fall for four months. I lived there 20 years ago as a single guy as an undergrad, and now I’m going back 20 years later with my whole family, kids in tow. Berlin has only gotten cooler over time, so Berlin would be one. London, especially, if you can afford it. It’s a great place to be as you know. Public spaces are glorious. Historical monuments are just grand.
More than 600 parks and squares in London.
London is just beautiful. We moved to Singapore from London. I definitely have a soft spot for London. I used to Boris bike everywhere. Every corner you turn yields some rich sort of historical site to view and to ogle and to appreciate.
So London, Berlin.
Singapore because, obviously, it’s where we live now, and it is sort of verifiably the smartest city and the smartest government, the most experimental when it comes to the relationship between technology and governance. They’re just better at it than everyone. There isn’t even a second place, so to live there is to live [that]. They actually call themselves a living laboratory. When it’s put on a marketing brochure it sounds like a cliché, but I can tell you as someone who lives there you actually live in a laboratory like in a good way.
Give me an example. Like, people I know that live in the Bay Area feel like they live in a laboratory because Google is trying stuff out on them.
It is, but you know the number of people affected —
Give me a lab rat story.
Remember that San Francisco sadly has rising homelessness. That an experiment is taking place doesn’t mean that everyone is affected by the experiment.
No, they’re corporate experiments. It’s Google trialing their new gizmo. [With Singapore] this is the city trialing their policy.
Singapore is a sovereign government. Things that Singapore does are for everyone, so remember it’s not a Western Liberal democracy, but it is a utilitarian sort of country. Now that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have high inequality. Of course, it does because it’s a financial center with billionaires, but their fiber-optic broadband reaches every single home, right? Public housing, very wide transportation network as well, so the things that they do around sensor networks, and gathering data, and citizen feedback through these iPad touchscreen response mechanisms and surveys that’s just way beyond every other place in the world. It’s a very responsive government, so it just kind of brings a smile to your face when you see the smart things that they do and roll out like practically every month, so they’re just light years ahead.
What’s something smart you saw lately?
They’re experimenting literally with a passport that just prints out of a machine whenever you need a new passport. They’re doing these road sensors to sort of modulate traffic rhythms and patterns. There’s a couple of driverless car testbeds that have started now as well. One of the most significant things is what they’re doing in education, so now every kid has an online learning passport, so whether you take like some certificate, or a Boy Scout’s badge, or whether you do one class at a polytechnic, and one class in Coursera, or one class in university, it all goes into your online passport, and it’s something that you keep and build and accrue for life. It’s like your digital CV across institutions, so you own it not any one institution. Remember when you used to have to go to the registrar to get your stamps like here it is all online, and it doesn’t cover just one institution because you used to have to go to every registrar.
It’s portable and digital, so Singapore did that in six months, right? Every citizen has it, so that kind of stuff. They’re doing that kind of stuff all the time.
They trial it, and if it doesn’t work you don’t see it again, it disappears.
All right, so that’s three. There’s Berlin, London, Singapore.
I’m a New Yorker. It’s one of those things about identity it’s like being an academic or a traveller. Like, once you’re a New Yorker you’re always a New Yorker. I’ll always be a New Yorker. My parents live in New York to this day. I just feel like even though, in fact, according to the genuine economic vectors New York is really changing. I mean, it’s a big biotech hub, it’s a tech hub, it’s not just a financial hub. It’s always been a media and publishing communications. It’s actually a very diversified place, and they’re doing a lot with urban planning.
Look at Times Square and pedestrian streets, and even just before we left the whole Sunday Park Avenue being clear had started. So New York is changing, but not as fast as the mega cities, you know. We’re at this conference on mega cities. Something about New York to me — I go back very often — is still a bit too familiar. I would love to see it change more. There is a parochialism. We think of New York as a global city, but quite frankly if you’ve lived in London or Singapore, New York is an American international city.
I agree. Good characterization.
But cosmopolitan is not the word that comes to mind in New York, right? It’s English or Spanish, right? And maybe a bit more Mandarin.
And some Russian in parts of Brooklyn.
There’s a difference between international and cosmopolitan. New York is international. London is cosmopolitan. But that said I’m a New Yorker so put it on the list.
And one more?
No, but I mean for the sake of argument because I like to provoke. No, not because I like to provoke it’s because I spent my childhood there, but Dubai, and I emphasize it. There’s a whole chapter in the book on Dubai, and I go to great lengths to [challenge] the misperception.
Do you think that Dubai is more interesting than most people [think it is]?
Who is most people?
Who do you think doesn’t get it? People don’t get Dubai, and you’re trying to help them see why Dubai is interesting?
Also, like “Who’s people?” It’s like the “Daily Mail.” Is “Daily Mail” people? Are the second-hand pseudo intellectuals we’ve been talking about, are they people? Again, I use data. In the book I point out that in 2008, 2009 when there was a property crash in Dubai there was a lot of this Dubai bashing, and people said, “Bye-bye Dubai. Dubai good riddance.” “Newsweek, “Daily Mail,” again, second-hand garbage, right? So I went and I looked at the exact numbers. What was the British resident population of Dubai in the year 2009, and then what was it in 2013? You would think based on the media accounts, and the Dubai hating and bashing chatterati that it would have fallen from 125,000 British nationals like 50,000 because remember they were supposedly leaving their cars at the airport and getting one-way tickets, and getting the hell out of there, so do you want to make a guess? Fancy a guess?
No, the number of British nationals living in Dubai over a four-year period when it was meant to have declined doubled to 250,000 during that four-year period, doubled! Are you hearing this?! It doubled, right? So that’s just one of many, many startling facts. Again, facts, it’s always nice to talk about facts in this age of fake news about Dubai that people just don’t understand.
It’s a place people love to hate for some reason.
Then, again, who is people?
That’s a great point.
For better or worse we have to have a hierarchy of credibility and the irony — this almost comes full circle, as we’re kind of winding down, like it comes full circle because we started out talking about people who were given and accorded all of this authority even though they deserved to have zero credibility because they don’t know anything about the world.
When you go systematically through the data on Dubai, and how it’s really become a global capital, it’s the fastest growing city in the world. It’s the ultimate melting pot in so many ways, and people love it. On a zero to 10 scale, how much credibility do the people have who hate it, and all of the people who hate it fall off the zero end of the scale, and the people who actually know it love it. Why are they not the people when you say the people love to hate it because actually people love to love Dubai.
Dubai is, empirically speaking, the fastest growing loved city in the world because look how people vote with their feet, and move there! The population doubles every 10 to 15 years, and they’re coming from all over the world. They’re coming from America, they’re coming from Britain, they’re coming from Iran, they’re coming from India, Pakistan, China. The Chinese population has tripled, right? So who is people and I think that’s extremely important that we now have a credibility index for everyone who purports to have authority because when the authority is zero I don’t think that we should just generalize because it means that we’re living in a filter bubble.
You just said the people love to hate it because I know that you know that we’re referring to the people who have the loudest megaphone, which is to say the people who are the editors, or the writers for the “Daily Mail,” or “Newsweek,” but they’re not the people. The people are the nine billion people in the world doing, or saying, and as I claim in the book: for five billion people Dubai is like their North Star. It’s the city that’s motivating entire countries to change their economic models, and to invest in infrastructure and to reform their economies. It’s not because they’re inspired by Theresa May or Donald Trump. It’s Dubai, so that’s “the people.”
I put Dubai on the list because I actually know the place. I’ve known it for 40 years. I know it very well. I’ve seen it change. If you know people in Dubai and you don’t have a good interesting conversation when you’re there, it’s definitely your fault.
Yeah, I can see you’re moved by the place.
I’m not even trying to be argumentative. I control all the facts in the debate about Dubai. It’s almost a one-way conversation, but I’m being argumentative in the sense that you have to make that extra effort to correct the misperception, therefore, you get a little bit more animated than when everyone is speaking the same language.
The last question, and this is a Peter Thiel interview question. I like to steal other people’s good questions. It’s one of the things I collect — other people’s questions.
Peter is very quotable.
He is. He apparently asks people at interviews: what’s something that’s obviously true in your eyes, but which very few people agree with you about?
Like Dubai is a great global city.
You’ve answered it.
Apparently, globalization is in grave decline, and in terminal decline, and World War III is about to break out because 2014 was the new 1914, so apparently, the real truth in conventional wisdom is that the world is falling apart, and that’s obvious to everyone, and I seem to be the outlier in believing the opposite because I see a flourishing of globalization. I see a lot of evidence pointing in that direction.
And people handling it better, bit by bit.
People. Who’s people? Sates, governments.
To be a bit more rigorous about it, my brother and I, he’s a physicist, mathematician, hedge fund manager, we just published our first article together. Decades we never published anything together we never thought about it, then we did, and it was about global volatility. Actually, all of this talk about the coming crash of this, and coming crash of that turns out we actually manage volatility very well, and there’s actual reasons for that, coordinated reasons, and policy reasons that because of our negative short-term bias presentism, whatever one wants to call it, we ignore good news and positive things that we’re doing.
To take the Peter Thiel question: it’s obvious to me that globalization is absolutely fine, and is expanding in many ways — immeasurable, intangible and yet perceivable ways — that are very good for the world. But that doesn’t seem obvious to the people because very often when we talk about the people we mean that very, very narrow filter bubble of voices that supposedly represent the 10% of the world population that is the white, western, lower, middle income working class, which is itself incredibly disingenuous because we know how divorced these editors and writers are from that reality anyway. So the kind of nationalist, populist ideology I have maybe emotional sympathy for because I definitely feel bad for people whose material circumstances have deteriorated or perceived to be, or their identity they feel that it’s under threat. I have every sympathy for that, but I have no sympathy for the logical chain that they use to blame globalization forces for their circumstances because it’s illogical and false at every step of the way.
Good. On that note, I think your driver is here to whisk you off to an airport to go somewhere.
But don’t be jealous. It’s not one of those, like, black armored Mercedes-AMG tinted-window like trucks. It’s like a Škoda.
But you wouldn’t have it any other way. You’re probably talking to them about supply chains.
I’m a man of the people.
What’s your favorite question to ask taxi drivers?
It depends on where I am. I suppose there is this sort of proverbial conversation with a taxi driver. I’ve had a lot more of them than most people, obviously, and I really enjoy those conversations. The “taxi driver” is one sort of like a genre of local that has been very helpful to me, and many other local fixers.
They’ve saved your life many times.
Fixers, waiters, and waitresses, all sorts of types. So this taxi driver when you say taxi driver to me it connotes all of those wonderful locals who you don’t know you’re going to meet until the day you arrive somewhere and every day that you stay somewhere. I’ve got great memories of the Ukrainians, and the Serbians, and the Colombians and the Indonesians that I’ve met over the years randomly. They to me are the so-called “taxi driver” quote-unquote. I interrogate that taxi driver for as long as they’ll talk to me, and it’s amazing how their views contradict the officials and the elites that I will have inevitably just have spoken to four minutes earlier, or I’m about to go talk to four minutes later. So it’s not the question that I ask them. It’s the questions that they give me. And I don’t mean the questions they ask me, but when they give me a critical view of their country I take that into my next conversation.
You’re on the way to meet with the Minister of Economics…
Exactly, and I’ve just gotten a great accusation about the economic circumstance of the country from a taxi driver, or again it could be a waiter, it could be a fixer, and then that gets added immediately to my list of things that I’m going to talk about with the minister. So I benefit a lot from the taxi drivers, and I appreciate the time that they give me.
Here’s to taxi drivers.
There you go.
Parag, thanks man, it’s always great to see you.
Great to see you, too. Cheers.
That was the main conversation. And I wanted to throw in here, because I like doing a little coda to the podcast. I did that last time with Neil French telling a story from his days in Thailand. And I think the one I’ll throw in here with Parag was at the very beginning, when I just started rolling the tape, and we were talking about the technicalities of modern life. I was talking about doing my podcast and he was telling me about how he would do Facebook Live broadcasts. He’s got a lot of followers, and he learned some things from that. I just thought his aside to me about Facebook Live, and how you need at least a million followers in modern life to be worth a damn (maybe a slight exaggeration), I thought that was pretty interesting. So I’ll just throw that in here, the two-minute discussion between Parag and me.
There’s a background din, which the audio engineers call “room tone.” I learned a lot about…. I like to do this stuff myself. It’s my sort of equivalent of pottering around the workshop in the old days.
When I started doing Facebook Live videos I learned how to at least attach a microphone to my thing, and use the Facebook Live app, and I felt like suddenly I joined the 21st century.
How often do you do them?
I used to do more, but that’s because I was under contract with Facebook through this program now called Mentions. It’s a different app actually. It’s a different app than the Facebook app. It’s called Facebook Mentions, and they give you your passwords, and your logins, and then they track your things in a certain way. There’s a little separate like team, and then they promote for you because they want people who do not just like pet photos and stuff, but as a result you’re getting a subsidized advertising of your content, but Facebook is getting to say, “Hey, look, it’s not all pet photos. It’s also like Parag and Jeremy having a serious conversation about the world,” so I did a lot, but I’ve kind of pared back. I just don’t have the time to commit to like a fixed quantity of videos every month, but are they doing a great job.
What kind of viewership did you get?
The way in which they kept on by promoting the page over time I’m now at almost 400,000.
No, likes on the page. So meaning everything I do, even if I post an article, or blow my nose, like technically 400,000 people get the notification. But my rough estimate is that you need a million people before anyone even notices what you’ve done. For example, at any given time if I do a primetime Live video meaning like let’s say East Coast evening, and I’m somewhere else in the world, or I’m on the East Coast, but the point is like EST nine p.m. is like a prime Facebook time. If I do a video at that time, and 400,000 people get the notification, at most I’ll have 25 people watching live. So to really get anywhere with like a real audience you need to have like a million followers, and then there’s like this feedback group where of those million maybe you’ll have 50 watching live, but now 50 is more than 25, and of those 50 there’s a high likelihood that people are going to share from that 50, and then 50 becomes 100, and 200.
Yeah, you start to get the long tail.
My buddy, Jason Silva, he’s got shows on National Geographic and stuff, great guy, he’s got well over a million followers. When he wakes up in the morning and picks up his camera and does like, “What’s up? It’s early. What’s up? I feel like I’m in a trance, and my technology is like really cool,” he gets hundreds of thousands of people Live, like that very instant… instantaneously.
“Instantaneously… hundreds and thousands.” How much fun that must be? All right, that’s it until next time. I’m going to continue the fadeout with this same song, which might be familiar to you, but the original has lyrics and the voice is immediately identifiable, so it seemed like a lot more fun to leave it out, and see if you can identify it from the instrumental version alone. So long.