Monday, November 19, 2018

TALENT SEARCH: Tyler Cowen on the value of sole proprietor pop-up philanthropic shops [plus a widely shared blind spot in his thinking and a plug for a NASA administrator]

A week or so ago Tyler Cowen ran up a post on his philanthropic method, The philosophy and practicality of Emergent Ventures. He notes that traditional philanthropies have large staffs “which means relatively conservative, consensus-oriented proposals emerge at the end of the process.” Moreover “the high fixed costs of processing any request discriminate against very small proposals” and such foundations tend to become “captured by their staffs”, who tend to be treated as valued proxies for the foundation’s audience and thus further increase the conservative insularity of the decision process.

A sole proprietor pop-up philanthropic shop

All of which makes sense to me. In contrast, his approach in Emergent Ventures is quite different. He has no staff. Though he may seek advice from others, he makes all the decisions. The process is quick and cheap and the “arrangement also can promise donors 100% transmission of their money to recipients, or close to that.”

And so:
The solo evaluator — if he or she has the right skills of temperament and judgment — can take risks with the proposals, unencumbered by the need to cover fixed costs and keep “the foundation” up and running. Think of it as a “pop-up foundation,” akin to a pop-up restaurant, and you know who is the chef in the kitchen. It is analogous to a Singaporean food stall, namely with low fixed costs, small staff, and the chef’s ability to impose his or her own vision on the food.
Once a fixed sum of money is given away, and the mission of the project (beneficial social change) has been furthered, “the foundation” goes away. No one is laid off. Rather than crying over a vanquished institutional empire and laid off friends/co-workers, the solo evaluator in fact has a chance to get back to personally profitable work. It was “lean and mean” all along, except it wasn’t mean.
What’s not to like?

He goes on to suggest: “In my view, at least two percent of philanthropy should be run this way, and right now in the foundation world it is about zero percent.” He goes on to suggest: “The ideal scaling is that other, competing ‘chefs’ set up their own pop-up foundations.” YES to all of this.

In particular, what I like about this last suggestion is that it speaks to a blind spot in Cowen’s perception of what he’s up to, a perception that seems almost universally shared by people in the philanthropy business. What is that blind spot? Simple, that what they’re looking for is an attribute of individuals.

Talent, whatever that is, may well be an attribute of individuals. But, to the extent that Cowen is trying to increase innovation by identifying individuals whose work will be widely valued and used, he is in fact looking for a GOOD FIT between individual talent and social need and capacity. Let me repeat that in slightly different terms. Cowen is looking for individuals with a talent that has the capacity to fill a socio-cultural need. What’s missing from his formulation is explicit recognition of that fit, of the importance of socio-cultural context in determining whether or not individual talent will flourish.

Many sowers, many seeds

I’ll say a bit more about that later, but first I want to explain why his suggestion of limited-term sole-proprietor pop-up philanthropic shops speaks to that blindness. It’s simple, really. We are in an era of tremendous social cultural change. It’s pretty clear, at least to many of us, that the future cannot be extrapolated from the past. Something new and different is required. But just what that is, just what will work, no one really knows, though many have opinions. In particular, we don’t know what potentials are latent in the world today.

In that situation it makes sense to sow many seeds widely and quickly. Who should do the sowing? Talented people who are in touch with other talented people. Each of these people will have their own sense of the needs and potentials of the current cultural moment, each will have their own vision about the proper fit between talent and cultural opportunity. But don’t give any one of them too much philanthropic capacity. By endowing many talented people with limited philanthropic capacity you guarantee the placement of many bets over a wide range of future possibilities and potentialities.

The importance of fit

Now, why do I emphasize the importance of fit? Consider this passage about Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein from my study of the MacArthur Fellows Program:
We remember him for his work in physics (optics, mechanics, and gravity) and mathematics. No one cares about his work in theology and alchemy except historians, yet it meant a great deal to Newton himself. As Jonathan Rée put it in a review of a recent biography:
The life of Isaac Newton falls into two halves, and the main problem for Newton studies is how to fit them together. In the first half he was a sulky Cambridge mathematician who, at the age of 44, astonished the world with a work of natural science that was soon recognized as one of the greatest books ever written. In the second he was a sleek London gentleman wallowing in power, wealth and prestige and devoting his intellectual energy to esoteric studies of the Bible.
Newton’s final piece of scholarship, a chronology synchronizing Greek and Roman history with the Bible, “had won acceptance as a worthy sequel to the Principia and the Opticks” while, with the exception of a few intellectual historians, we have forgotten it.

Consider a more recent, and not so extreme example, Albert Einstein. Early in the previous century he was quickly recognized as a genius, mostly for his work on relativity and photons. He spent the last part of his career looking for a unified field theory. For a long time that work was considered to be a waste of time. Now that unified theory has made a comeback in physics I don’t know whether that work has been re-evaluated or not.

Were these guys working on half a brain when they did that misbegotten work? Were they drunk? I mean, what had happened to the supernal abilities that allowed them to make profound and permanent contributions to science that they could also produce work that is somewhere between dubious and nonsense?

Nothing happened to those abilities. There’s no reason to think that they weren’t firing on all cylinders when they did that work. The work just doesn’t fit very well with other knowledge of the world. Think of ideas as keys. What do we use keys for? To unlock doors. Some of the keys these geniuses crafted unlocked real doors. Other keys don’t unlock real doors. Whether or not a key unlocks a door is not a matter of how well the key is crafted. The most exquisitely crafted square peg is not going to fit into a round hole.

Well, it turns out that some of the locks these guys had in mind when crafting keys weren’t real. They were figments of their imagination. Just because the lock was imagined by a genius doesn’t mean it is real. [1]
Consider a slightly different example, Herman Melville [2]. Between 1845 and 1850 he was a successful writer, with five books to his credit, Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Redburn, and White-Jacket. Then in 1851 he published his masterwork, Moby-Dick. It is now recognized as one of the great works, not only of American literature, but of world literature. But it received a mixed reception in Britain and a rather poorer one in America [3]. His next book, Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, was a disaster. Though Melville did not stop writing, his career as a popular money-making author was over.

What happened? Did Melville’s talent desert him after White-Jacket? Of course not. But it moved beyond the range of the reading public. It no longer fit current needs.

Fit, alas, is fickle.

Why moonshot?

But a good fit is required for a successful “moonshot” venture, a metaphor that Cowen's Mercator Center has used in presenting the Emergent Ventures program. That is as misleading as it is suggestive. After all, the people of the Apollo program had almost complete control over the technology and its fit with the niche in which it had to succeed. There was little chanciness in that effort of the sort that surrounds searches for “moonshot” talent–a chanciness that the MacArthur Foundation, for example, has minimized by betting most of their “genius” money on people with secure jobs at elite universities, people whose talent is certified safe for cultural consumption.

Moreover, the most visible figures associated with the Apollo program are the astronauts themselves, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in particular. While they certainly deserve credit and honor for their bravery and daring, they had little to do with the technical, organizational, and political work necessary to the program’s success. If I had to nominate one “genius” behind the Apollo Program it would be George Low, a NASA engineer and administrator. He became manager of the program in 1967 after the Apollo 1 fire and got the program back on track for the successful landing of Apollo 11 in July of 1969. He remained in charge for the successful Apollo 12 in November. He became NASA Deputy Administrator in December 1969.

Who ever picks administrators for “genius” awards?


[1] The Genius Chronicles: Going Boldly Where None Have Gone Before? Version 7, Working Paper, October 2018, pp 18-19,

[2] Herman Melville, Wikipedia, accessed 19 November 2018,

[3] Moby-Dick, Wikipedia, accessed 19 November 2018,

[4] George Low, Wikipedia, accessed 19 November 2018,

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