Peter Thiel and thinking for yourself

Peter Thiel is asked the formula for starting great businesses at every talk he gives. His answer is every time the same: “There is no formula. You have to figure it out for yourself.”

In his interview, Tyler offers a summary of Thiel’s thought. (Search for the paragraph that mentions Tocqueville.) I haven’t read enough Girard to follow the part about original sin, but Tyler describes Thiel as someone who is trying to get us to break free of socially-derived opinions and to see the world without distortions.

I was still in Europe when I read this, and it prompted me to think about the social environment there. It’s not at all hard to find people beating up on Europe as a bad place to start a tech company; you’ll find no lack of grievances about its regulatory attitude, its taxes, its anti-trust initiatives, its punitive bankruptcy codes, and so on. Still, I think that it’s underrated in one significant way. I submit that from a Thielian perspective we might expect great entrepreneurs to be better developed in Europe, especially in Germany, because it’s easier to be independent there.

My favorite review of Zero to One argues that despite appearances the book is not about how to found startups, but that instead it’s a book of ethics. Thiel thinks that we live in a society of deep conformism and constrained imagination. For him, the key to doing something great (of which starting a company is just one example) is to uncover insights hidden from popular opinion, or in other words to think for yourself.

Tyler has written that there’s an enormous sense of freedom in Sweden: “Autonomy reigns… Sweden is the land of the true individualist, sometimes verging on atomism.” I think it’s easier to be individualistic in Germany too. When I lived there I felt a freedom that’s unavailable in America, a social one not related to regulations or government expenditures. First you’re more free from pursuing status markers; second there are fewer pressures to conform. I’ll make this case focusing mostly on education.

Moving from Canada to go to an American suburban high school and then an American college was distressing in one particular way: It was hard to meet the need to keep up. In college especially you feel these irresistible pressures to seek and display prestige, most of which were earned by going through ever more grueling tournaments. When you enter college you’re with this big pool of students more or less like you, all trying to distinguish themselves in four years or so. That creates an environment that breeds the most intense mimetic pressures. The more that people wanted something (anything), the more it became desirable. This would work its way through until those with only marginal interests get sucked in too.

I think that’s how you’re led to situations where something like 45% of the graduating Harvard and Princeton classes in 2007 entered finance. (That figure is 31% for the Harvard class of 2014.) Toss in consulting, tech, and medicine and you’ll probably claim over a majority of the career aspirations of graduates from elite colleges. Now step back; isn’t that odd? For all of the talk about training people to think critically, somehow you find everybody trying to enter one of very few career paths.

Thiel has asked: “Is this a reason that we ended up sometimes underperforming because we are insecure about things, we want to get validated by winning various competitions?” Now I’m skeptical of the claim that all of us secretly dream of ditching finance to become marine biologists. But I think that these paths are so common because they offer not only prestige, but also assurance that others want this highly-desirable thing too.

Everybody in the world feels these pressures to some extent. I think though that in Germany this is less pronounced; there are fewer markers of social prestige, and it’s more normal to go on different career paths.

Start with schools. There’s no designation of an elite stratum of universities; no “Ivy League,” no “Oxbridge,” no “Grandes écoles,” no “zhongdian daxue.” While certainly some schools are better regarded, choosing a university better resembles a lifestyle choice. If you want to be in a big city, maybe you’ll go to the University of Munich or Humboldt in Berlin. If you want to be in a sunny area and be surrounded by hippies, maybe you’ll go to Freiburg or Heidelberg. Each of these have specialties of course, but they’re all about ranked the same, and they cost the same too (free except for a small administrative fee).

It’s not just postsecondary. Germany is often praised for its system of apprenticeships. From fifth grade on, students are separated into grammar schools (Gymnasiums and Realschulen) and vocational schools (Hauptschulen). Grammar school students are prepared for college work, while Hauptschule students are taught more work-related skills. After school they move on to apprenticeships in fields like construction and IT. It may be most desirable to enter a grammar school, but early on kids are aware that different paths are possible.

When I say that growing up in Germany helps bestow independent thinking skills, I’m not saying that it’s because they’re all taught Straussian art of close reading. Instead I’m arguing that society has suppressed the value of certain status indicators, and that encourages people to think for themselves. To put it another way, there are fewer tournaments for kids to go through, and the value of winning them is not so high. Germans I’ve met are incredibly humble. Nobody feels the need to perpetrate an international hoax about how desirable they are. In addition, people aren’t all drawn to the same fields like finance and consulting. They take up professions like baking or manufacturing, and work with the earnestness that comes from knowing that their work is dignified; it’s easier for them to do the equivalent of moving to Dayton to study widget machines.

Let me end with one last speculation. Germans are taught about the crimes of the Nazi state since elementary school. The Holocaust is mentioned in no fewer than three subjects: biology, history, and German language. People are taught that crowds can be wrong, and that it’s a duty to stand apart if you disagree. Maybe these frequent exhortations to avoid groupthink increases independent thinking on the margins.

Time to summarize. Thiel thinks that great businesses are built by people who discover secrets hidden by conventional opinions. I submit that you can become that sort of person more easily if you grow up in Europe, particularly in Germany. Put aside the question of taxes and regulations, and consider the social environment. America holds dear a lot of status symbols. Germans have fewer elite reference points and makes it common for people to pursue non-prestigious work; those in the services aren’t all trying to earn their masters’. Therefore we should expect more independent thinking to come from Germans.

Thiel himself thinks that Germany is too pessimistic and too comfortable. The best argument against everything I’ve said is to point out that, in fact, Germany has not produced any Facebooks or Airbnbs. Actually, the best-known German tech entrepreneurs may be the Samwer brothers, who are notorious for copying successful ideas from Silicon Valley to try to scale them in other markets. So much for originality.

So maybe taxes and regulations matter more after all; I also don’t want to pass over cultural norms that stigmatize failure. But if the limiting factors to great entrepreneurship is independent thinking combined with courage (as Thiel has said, courage is in shorter supply than capital or genius), then maybe it’s better to be away from America. After all, policies are easier to fix than the social environment, and original minds may grow up over there and start companies over here.

P.S. This column appeared in the Times just yesterday on why so few tech companies have emerged from Europe. At the end there’s this quote: “In Europe, stability is prized,” Professor Moser said. “Inequality is much less tolerated. There’s a culture of sharing. People aren’t so cutthroat.” I think that everything except the part about “stability” would be positives for Thiel.

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Data on police officers killed since 1961

In 2012 I put together some data for Radley Balko on the purported rise of police killings. Last week I saw that Dara Lind prepared something similar at Vox. My data goes back a little bit further than Dara’s (her’s goes to 1996, mine to 1961), and I thought to put up what I have here.

The FBI keeps track of two types of police deaths: Accidental deaths and felonious killings, which involves the deliberate killing of law enforcement officers in the line of duty. I’ve collected three statistics related to the latter. First, number of officers feloniously killed since 1961; second, the rate of felonious deaths per 100,000 officers since 1989; and finally, average felonious deaths per five-year period since 1961. I present these statistics in chart form here, and at the end of the post I share my data file and talk about the process of obtaining these figures.

Everything is collected from the Uniform Crime Reports compiled by the FBI. One comment from the 1990 UCR report I found very interesting: “The 1990 total was the lowest since the FBI started collecting such data in the 1960s.” I was able to find online older UCR report up until 1961, and that has made me somewhat confident that my data goes back to the first years that the FBI started to keep track of this number. I’d like to keep updating this as new data comes in so that it can be a complete and easily-searchable source of for these numbers. Your help and feedback is appreciated.

Here’s the summary: In general, the job of policing has become much safer since 1961. Here are a few interesting points.

  • More officers were feloniously killed in the 11 years between 1970 and 1980 (1228 deaths) than in the 21 years between 1993 and 2013 (1182 deaths).
  • The rate of felonious killings per 100,000 officers has declined from about 18 in 1989 to about 5 in 2013. It was over 3 times safer to be a police officer in 2013 than 26 years ago.
  • In the five years between 1971 and 1975, an average of 125 officers were feloniously killed per year. Most recently, between 2006 and 2010, the equivalent number is 50. That’s more remarkable given that the number of officers employed has increased considerably since the ‘70s.

Now the data. Click on these pictures to zoom.

Number of officers feloniously killed since 1961


I’ve put in a trendline to better illustrate the decline. The peak year for deaths was 132 killings in 1972. The safest year recorded was the most recent: 27 deaths in 2013. That’s nearly an 80% drop. The number of deaths has steadily decreased since the ‘70s, with two spikes in 2001 and 2011.

Next, felonious killings per 100,000 officers since 1989


You’ll see from the data source in the next section that the number of officers has grown from about 400,000 officers in 1990 to about 530,000 officers in 2000. Still, this decline in the rate of killings isn’t just driven by an expanding denominator (number of officers), but also a declining numerator (number of killings). The number of killings has decreased even when the number of officers grew by over 25%.

The data on the number of officers serving is really difficult to find, which is why my cutoff has been 1989, the last year for which I can get reliable data. I’ll talk more about this in the next section.

Finally, five-year averages of felonious killings


This is just an aggregation of the first chart, useful for seeing the decline of felonious killings in half-decade chunks.


Every time a police killing makes it to national headlines, voices pipe up warning of an ominous trend in the rise of police officer killings. (See Radley’s recent compilation of some of these articles.) This data indicates that policing is much safer than in the past.

2013 was the safest year recorded for felonious killings of police. It’s hard to go down from 27 deaths. Consider that an increase of 9 felonious killings of police in 2014 would be a 33% rise from the year before; meanwhile, 9 felonious deaths over the 1972 peak would be only a 5% increase.

The data

I’ve compiled everything I’ve found into a Google Doc that you can find here. The first sheet holds the data I’ve collected, along with the source of every year’s UCR report. The next three sheets hold each of the three charts above. You’re very welcome to use it as you like, but please link to this original post or mention @danwwang.

Now some remarks about how I got the data. It was a big challenge to find some of these data points because collections are so haphazard, so I especially welcome feedback and corrections if you catch any errors.

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