FOR FREE PEOPLE
The Case for American Seriousness
We don't need aging institutions to pave the way for 21st-century dynamism. What we need is will. And audacity.
April 18, 2022
You can’t be a successful investor if you look at the world with ironic detachment. If you are a naysayer. Or a cynic. Skeptical, yes, of course. But fundamentally you have to believe that individuals with tremendous willpower can do things. Great, shocking, inconceivable things. Like find your husband on your phone. Or build a spaceship to go to another planet. Or create a new currency.
In many ways this attitude—adventurous, optimistic and forward-thinking—is deeply at odds with our current moment. From one corner, people insist that the individual stands no chance against structural and systemic maladies. From the other, people say that we are in inexorable decline as a civilization and that decadence is everywhere we turn. Both wind up arguing against risk-taking, against the possibility of creating new things and new worlds.
Today, the venture capitalist Katherine Boyle makes the powerful case that the spirit of building is very much alive in America—just not in the places that we once assumed we’d find it. "When the projects that we believed were Teflon strong are fraying like the history they toppled, the only thing to do is to make something new again." In the essay below she explains the qualities of mind and character that making such new things requires.
There are a lot of tech reporters who try to get into the investment game. But there aren’t many who succeed. Katherine Boyle is a unicorn among the unicorn-hunters. Once a reporter at the Washington Post, Boyle is currently a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, where she runs the American Dynamism project. I’m thrilled to publish her.
There’s a common question in Silicon Valley about what makes an extraordinary entrepreneur. Experienced investors point to various traits. Perseverance. Grit. Overcoming adversity. Hustle. Innate genius. A good childhood. A bad childhood. Luck.
But the trait that is most meaningful is the hardest to describe. It is the fire in the eyes, the ferocity of speech and action that is the physical manifestation of seriousness. It is the belief that God or the universe has bestowed upon you an immense task that no one else can accomplish but you. It is a holy war waged against the laws of physics. It is the burden of having to upend sometimes hundreds of years of entrenched interests to accomplish a noble goal.
When you see that kind of seriousness in a founder, the common response is to laugh or mock it. Who is he to believe he can colonize Mars? Who are they to think people will hop in cars with strangers? But investors like myself run toward such serious people because this rare quality—a potent combination of capability and will—inspires others to reach beyond what seems conceivable.
Gen. H.R. McMaster, the former National Security Advisor, recently described the equation "capability times will" as something else: deterrence. That when nation-states see a dominant country’s technological prowess coupled with the will to defend its way of life, they will not act in a way that hurts the country’s interests.
For 80 years, beginning with the end of World War II, this was mostly the case. American deterrence and seriousness were in some ways synonymous—an undeniable force for growth and prosperity in business, in technology and in culture, making this country’s achievements the envy of the world. But as the century began, the loss of American seriousness accelerated just as our adversaries, Russia and China, became more serious about their own alternative projects.
We can debate the causes of this decline. Some say economic stagnation. Decadence. An unmooring from our founding principles or the natural rise and fall of nation states. But whatever the reason, we all know what unseriousness looks like.
It is unserious to pour six trillion dollars into failed nation-building—more than three times what has gone into American venture-backed technology companies in the same two decades—only to let a nation collapse in a jumbled weekend withdrawal. The U.S. military is still the most trusted institution in America, but has experienced a precipitous decline in trust with only 45 percent of Americans claiming to have "a great deal of confidence in the military," down 25 points in three years. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have allowed this trust to decay, going so far as to claim "Mission Accomplished" 18 years too early—or to pretend there was never really a war happening at all.
It is unserious to prioritize the old over the young, to shut down public schools for two years in the name of safety, sacrificing the needs of children for the neuroses of adults. Twenty years of educational gains and investment in schooling were "wiped out" by Covid policies, according to the United Nations. This is the real, lasting effect of long Covid.
It is unserious to have the business district of our most innovative city lay empty, swallowed by an open-air drug market that thrives in the name of "compassion." San Francisco has the country’s worst office reoccupancy rate and slowest job recovery, but it hasn’t lost its accommodating spirit: Fly into San Francisco airport and you’ll notice the dirty needle deposit box right across from the baby changing table in the women’s bathroom. (Though perhaps there’s some logic to this in a city where there are more dogs than children.)
It is unserious to be led by a gerontocracy, where our elected officials had kids in college when the internet was invented. It is unserious when young people retreat from public service. We now have the oldest Congress of any Congress in the past two decades, with half of American senators over the age of 65.
It is unserious to beg dictators in failed states to send America oil when we invented fracking. It is unserious to talk about renewables and not nuclear. It is unserious to attack the companies leading our electrification revolution because you don’t like their memes on Twitter.
It is unserious when the most trusted men in news are stand-up comedians.
It is unserious to LARP the culture war on cable television while our adversaries bomb maternity wards.
It is unserious to attack American tech companies while turning a blind eye to China’s theft of it.
It is unserious to watch the most educated generation in American history not be able to afford a starter home.
The encouraging news, though, is that the loss of American seriousness is the deterioration of institutional will, but not our capability or desire to build new things. America is still the country that immigrants traverse the world to get to because of their unwavering belief that this land is far better than the nations they’re leaving. And they are right. It is why more than 50 percent of unicorn co-founders in Silicon Valley are foreign-born, because it’s the last and truest place in the world where you can still build something new.
What many have missed when lamenting the decline of aging institutions is that building is still happening in America. The top six companies by market capitalization in the U.S. are technology companies, two of which were founded less than 20 years ago. Twenty-five years ago, none of the top six companies were tech companies. The prevailing trend of this century is not that we’re destined for decline. It’s that technology is and will continue to improve civic functions in this country, especially in areas where the government is failing.
It is our technological prowess that still makes us the envy of the world. Every country asks itself "How can we build Silicon Valley here?" And thankfully, Silicon Valley is no longer a place in Northern California. It is an idea, one that every city and community must embrace in this country if we truly believe in building American Dynamism. Insurmountable problems in our society—from national security and public safety to housing and education—demand solutions that aren’t just incremental changes that perpetuate the status quo. And these solutions will come from serious founders, those who are willing to build something new from nothing.
Building is a political philosophy. It is neither red nor blue, progressive nor conservative. It is averse to the political short-termism and zero-sum thinking that permeates our aging institutions that won’t protect us in this era. There is no fixed pie when it comes to building. Building is an action, a choice, a decision to create and move. It is shovels in the dirt with a motley crew of doers who get the job done because no one else will. Building is the only certainty. The only thing we can control. When the projects we believed were Teflon strong are fraying like the history they toppled, the only thing to do is to make something new again.
Build housing for the middle class. Build schools for the kids who want to learn math. Build next-generation defense capabilities with young people who grew up coding. Build PCR tests so that a nasal swab stops the nation from closing businesses at the mere sight of Covid case increases. Build trade schools. Encourage men and women to work with their hands again. Cut the red tape that stops us from building infrastructure fast. Build factories in America. Build resiliency in the supply chain. Build work cultures that support mothers and fathers so they can have more children.
We do not need aging institutions to pave the way for American dynamism. But we need American will. And this will comes from ordinary, extraordinary people—the builder class—who’ve chosen to stop whining on Twitter. Who’ve chosen to turn off the news and to believe that this country is not only capable, but unquestionably and undeniably serious.