Six Questions For Derek Thompson

Derek Thompson is one of my favorite writers. His columns at The Atlantic explore everything from movies to why people are quitting their jobs to Covid stats. He does it in a way that I think is the highest form of good writing and thinking: with insights that are both obvious and that I often hadn’t considered.

I recently asked him six questions.

What aren’t people talking about enough?

For the world, carbon removal technology. It’s the most obviously important nascent technology on the planet, given the fact that even if we shift immediately to 100% renewable energy, that still leaves all the carbon dioxide we’ve already spewed into the atmosphere, which will stay there for decades. We have to find a way to vacuum the skies to avoid the worst effects of global warming.

What have you changed your mind about in the last decade?

So many things. But nothing more important than this: In politics, there’s a vague assumption that high-income, high-education people think about voting like an economist—obsessing about details in taxes, spending, growth, unemployment—while less educated people are just into culture wars. I think it might be the other way around. Low-income people think like an economist: How will this politician or program help me? Rich colleged types think more like a sociologist: What does supporting this politician or program say about me? If the future of politics in a country of rising education and wealth is all culture war, that means politicians need to get better at telling cultural stories when they argue for economic policies.

What do you want to know about the economy that we can’t know?

What is the right level and distribution of income to maximize total national happiness, both now and in the future? The time element of the question is important. If you waved a magic wand and made it so that everybody had equalish income today, that would clearly eliminate a lot of misery. But if you enforced equal incomes permanently, you’d create a lot of new problems. Where are the rewards for effort? Where are the incentives for hard work, or invention, or problem-solving? How do you fix the issue of free-loading, or resentment between workers and loafers in the utopia of pure and permanent equality? Mandating perfect and permanent equality doesn’t work. But it’s really, really hard to determine what level of inequality is “right.”

What’s a piece of commonly accepted writing advice you think is wrong?

In high school and college, there is an emphasis on learning and using big words. I think a lot of my college papers got As because I successfully complexified simple arguments. But in the “real world” after school, you realize how useless that part of education is. Knowing big words is neat. Occasionally using fancy latinate words can, ceteris paribus, optimize reader utility in a bounded informational environment. But basically smart people just want complex ideas made simple. And they respect people who can make the complicated simple while preserving nuance.

Optimism as the default long-term forecast: Smart or oblivious?

I imagine a 2x2 grid in my head, with optimism vs pessimism along the X axis and evidence vs ideology along the Y axis. Some people are ideological and pessimistic. They’re doomers. Some people are ideologically optimistic. They’re boosters. Some people are evidence-based and pessimistic. They’re skeptics. But some people are both optimistic and evidence-based. That’s the sweet spot. Call it educated optimism, or the progress mindset, or the abundance mindset, or the improving mentality. Whatever it is, it’s where I want to be—and where I want my writing to push people.

What is Covid’s most enduring social impact that will still be with us 50+ years from now?

When most people think of the tech investments during World War II, they think of the atom bomb, or maybe advancements in radar and sonar. But the war also accelerated penicillin development, which probably saved millions of lives through the end of the 20th century. I think mRNA technology could have the same legacy in 50 years.