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Tyler talks to Thiel

Tuesday, 7 April, 2015

“Conversations with Tyler” is an event series hosted by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in which the economist Tyler Cowen talks to thought leaders about their ideas. He kicks off with Peter Thiel and the subjects range from stagnation to company names to chess to the “Straussian Christ.”

TYLER COWEN: You were born in Germany. You are fluent in German. That’s part of your background. How do you think that’s influenced your worldview, what I would call your implicit theology, how the different pieces of Peter Thiel’s ideas fit together? What’s the role there, and do you still sometimes dream in German?

PETER THIEL: I think of Germany as always incredibly pessimistic, but very comfortable. It is this very big contrast. I’m not sure pessimism is generally that helpful an attitude to have, but the German pessimism is probably a helpful corrective, in the midst of the hyper-optimism that permeates Silicon Valley.

If you are a mildly pessimistic person, you might do well in a place where people are insanely optimistic. If you are a mildly optimistic person, you would do well in a place where people are insanely pessimistic, like, say, Germany.

TYLER COWEN: In the back room, we were talking about Japan, and a recent trip of yours to Japan. Maybe you would like to relate some of what you were saying?

PETER THIEL: They always want you to say things that are sort of contrarian and surprising, and so they asked me at this discussion I was giving in Japan. And the answer that I came up with, which was both flattering to the audience, but somewhat disturbing from our perspective, was I think we always think of Japan as this hyper-imitative, noncreative culture of extreme conformity.

But then it’s an indictment of the West, where I think Japan is no longer the Japan of the Meiji Restoration of the 1870s, or the Japan of the cheap plastic imitation toys of the 1950s. It’s a country that no longer thinks it can get that much by copying the West. There’s probably still some narrow interest in IT and software. Outside of that, I think they are copying the US and Western Europe less and less.

People aren’t even learning English that much anymore. They’re speaking less English than they were 15, 20 years ago. The golf courses are all getting shut down and converted to solar farms or something; people don’t even want to play golf anymore. I think we need to take this as a real critique of our society, very seriously, that they’re finding less that’s desirable to imitate in the US or Western Europe.

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