My Application to Emergent Ventures
I recently applied for an Emergent Ventures grant to develop a course on the theory and history of governance, with an eye on the design of future governance systems. Tyler Cowen, who is leading the program, liked the idea and we hopped on a call. Our conversation quickly focused on revenue self-sufficiency as the main sticking point about my project. I’ve been pursuing this as a passion project without giving much thought to a proper business plan. He asked me to get back to him about a revenue-generating model. This changed my perspective from seeing this project as a one-off “putting something out there in the world” to actually contemplating how to turn it into a sustainable career path. This was valuable feedback and I’m going to think more about this in the next few weeks. If you, dear reader, have some ideas for how to do this, feel free to reach out to me.
I thought I’d share my application for two main reasons: (1) in case people find it interesting and want to reach out to me about the idea; and (2) for people applying for an Emergent Ventures grant/fellowship to have a sense of what that could look like. The application is pretty short and consist in three simple parts: (1) an “about me” relevant to the project (they don’t really care about formal academic or professional background); (2) a consensus view you agree with (this is a contrarian spin on the tired practice of contrarian takes); and (3) a brief description of the idea. Here goes:
Hi, I’m Cedric. Most recently I’ve worked as a senior research scientist at Amazon Alexa AI on natural language understanding. Alongside my career in tech, I’ve always been interested in social reform. I once wrote a tax code from scratch with a friend for our home country of Belgium. We were even interviewed on the Belgian equivalent of NPR about it, after we sent out press releases and made a viral video about our project. More recently, I’ve been leading the Boston chapter of RadicalXChange (RxC), a movement to bring about out-of-the-box ideas for changing society.
As a technologist, I’m keenly aware of how fast fields like machine learning move and how rapidly what seemed impossible yesterday becomes within reach today. At the same time, my involvement in social reform movements made me realize how slowly social institutions change compared to technological developments. This is usually heralded as a good thing, but RxC made me question that. And a careful reading of history shows how much, in fact, technological evolution has shaped social institutions, and that experimenting with both at a similar rate may not be a bad thing.
Consensus view I agree with
I hold two consensus views that are most relevant to my project: (1) investment in education has some of the most positive externalities of any investment; and (2) rule of law is by far the biggest source of wealth in the world. A 2015 UNICEF report claims that each additional year of education for the average citizen increases a country’s GDP by 18%. A 2006 World Bank report argues that 44% of all world wealth comes from the rule of law (incidentally the second largest source of wealth in the report is schooling, making up 28% of all world wealth). In other words, “how we organize ourselves” and “what we know” are the greatest source of wealth, dwarfing “what we own” (raw natural resources) and “what we make” (man-made production), respectively making up 5% and 18% of wealth.
The idea I’m seeking support for is the creation of a “Progress Studies” program, but for governance: “Governance Studies”, an online program in the history and theory of governance, with perspectives for the future of governance. Just like Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen argued that “progress itself is understudied”, I contend that governance itself is understudied. First, I explain how governance studies (GS) differ from development economics and from political science. Second, I give an overview of the combination of fields involved in GS and why this provides a fruitful frame for thinking about institutional innovation. Third, I show how the program emphasizes giving tools to think about the future and fostering the inspiration to experiment. Last, I explain how Emergent Ventures can help.
Development economics (DE) tends to focus on how to bring about modern institutions to developing countries, rather than attempting to establish general principles for the governance of groups of people. DE is primarily focused on promoting catchup economic growth, whereas GS seeks to provide general tools to push the frontier of what’s possible in terms of governance. The main difference between GS and political science is in what they consider to be “in scope”. For example, the recent advent of cryptocurrencies has highlighted a tight link between the monetary system and the governance of a community. While GS considers money an essential tool of governance, political science tends to overlook it. Similarly, political science tends to consider economics a different realm of study, whereas GS avoids such a sharp divide and considers both markets and politics as different points on a spectrum from spontaneous to intentional governance, in the tradition of transaction cost economics.
GS sits at the intersection of political science, economics, law, and sociology. Governance is the set of rules and tools that allow members of a community to transact with each other as well as achieve collective decision-making. The philosophy of the course is to provide both solid theoretical tools alongside a broad historical perspective. The course starts off by introducing a basic toolset to think about governance, including a variety of models of human behavior, the different modes of coordination failures, and the different types of goods, among others. Next we discuss private ordering: we introduce a variety of primitives (such as bonding, signaling, farsighted contracting) that private groups (“clubs”) successfully leverage to police themselves, and we tie all of those to concrete historical examples, from stock exchanges, to schooling, urban planning, the provision of justice, mutual aid societies, and many others. We explain the various ways collective action can be modeled, from naive models such as prisoners’ dilemmas and tragedies of the commons, to more rich and nuanced frameworks such as the Institutional Analysis and Development framework. We then explore what these models can tell us about the challenges of scaling up private ordering. Next, we introduce the relationship between money and community, and walk through a variety of fascinating historical examples from the social credit movements, to community currencies, to commercial coinage, ending with the creation of synthetic commodity money. We then present a variety of theories for state formation, before retracing the evolution of law over time and extracting general design principles for the law, or rules for evaluating rulesets. We discuss the particular characteristics and challenges of open order societies, introducing various models of the democratic order, with a focus on redistribution and federalism. This leads to a discussion of the taxonomy of political units, from territorial to non-territorial units, as well as the different topologies of the former, all the while rooting those concepts into concrete historical examples. The course concludes with some speculations about the future of governance, with some concrete proposals.
Bundling all these disparate fields of study into a singular frame can be hugely inspiring. The goal of the program is to give students a breadth of perspective and a conceptual toolbox to encourage them to think of governance as something they can experiment with rather than revere, and as a result unlock institutional innovation, which is lagging behind technological innovation. While the rising field of crypto is awash with discussions of governance, it too often has a very narrow focus on cryptoeconomics, and a lack of historical perspective, which can lead to some spectacular failures in experimentation. If we can channel this energy in a more productive way, I believe we are on the cusp of a governance revolution similar to how in the early 1800s we were at the outset of an industrial/technological revolution. Just like the pessimistic malthusian diagnosis of the late 1700s immediately preceded the industrial revolution that followed and put those gloomy predictions to rest, the current diagnosis of political deadlock, democracy in crisis, and “bowling alone” epidemic could usher in a governance revolution.
I have been researching the contents of the program for about two years and decided to accelerate my research in February of this year. I am about to start writing up the program based on my accumulation of notes over the past few years (see the tentative syllabus as supporting documentation to this application). An Emergent Ventures (EV) grant would help in a variety of ways. The combination of a vote of confidence from EV and cash would allow me to keep dedicating myself to this project. Next, the network of experts associated with EV would be of huge value to validate and legitimize the content, as well as connect me with other potential contributors. I strongly believe academia shouldn’t have a monopoly on good and legitimate educational content, and I’m hoping this program/course will be a shining example of that, while abiding by the highest standards of academia. Finally, since my vision for the dissemination of the course is similar to what is being done with Progress Studies, EV would be of great help for practical tips for how to achieve that.